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Tear Down That Fence: A Tale of Urban Farms & The Barriers in Their Way

When applied to scenic farms nestled in quiet rural country-sides, the maxim “good fences make good neighbors” might ring true. 

But that’s not always the case when you’re trying to build an urban farm. As essential as they can be, we actually find more than a few barriers in their way.  

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about fences and barriers in my role as Director of the University of the District of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development & Resilience inside the Columbia College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability, and Environmental Sciences. We call it “CAUSES” for short. In that role, I work on introducing urban agriculture to some of Washington, D.C.’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods. 

Given the large amount of vacant properties and unused space in many underserved urban areas (cities like Baltimore and Detroit come to mind), it may sound easy.  But it’s not. Case in point: In 2015, CAUSES leased three acres of vacant property directly across the street from a Metro stop in D.C.’s struggling Ward 7 to construct the East Capitol Urban Farm. A partnership between several agencies and organizations, East Capitol Urban Farm is the District’s largest-scale urban agriculture and aquaponics facility. It’s an ambitious effort to bring healthy produce to an underserved area of the District. 

We began planning the project in early 2015. During the University’s initial site visit, the first order of business was to determine how we would actually walk the vacant parcel — considering the 8-foot high chain link fence surrounding it. Residential properties surround the site on the south and west. The Capitol Heights Metro stop is on the east and a vacant parcel is to the north. 

That parcel, incidentally, was under construction at the time for use by Wal-Mart. That project was shelved at the lot stayed empty. 

What seemed like a straightforward walk through the site became much more complicated since we didn’t have a key to the gate. Searching for a way in, the team eventually climbed over a wall and through a small opening to access the site. But the physical barrier of the fence and our valiant attempts at scaling it led to much deeper questions. What social implications did such a fence have in Ward 7? What was the purpose of erecting it? How was it interpreted or perceived by the community? 

We came to realize that the chain link fence, while probably erected as a safety measure, sent a powerful message of exclusion to people in the neighborhood. It’s a message that echoes the larger story of access and food security in places like Ward 7. For a long time, society has sent a message (intentional or not) to underrepresented populations that fresh, local produce, as well as access to community-oriented landscapes, is out of reach – or, at best, a real challenge to access.  The nature of fencing, in this case, may play a role in how the urban farm is perceived and utilized.

So, in our first major site planning for East Capitol Urban Farm, when someone asked “Where do we start?” I couldn’t help but recall those now-famous words from former President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 speech to West Berliners: “Tear down that wall!” I quickly responded: “Let’s tear down the fence. It sends the message to keep out or stay away. 

“That’s the very opposite of what we intend.” 

Rather than continue limiting community access, we eventually erected a 4-ft. high wrought iron fence to encompass a portion of the farm which set a boundary around the different zones contained within the space. Since then, the gates are always unlocked and the community has access to the farm from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week. 

East Capitol Urban Farm is now embraced, supported, and operated by its community. Removing barriers has afforded Ward 7 residents the opportunity to: plant over 3,600 produce plants; operate 70 garden spaces; engage over 300 D.C. Public School Students in over 2,500 hours of trade learning; launch a Farmers Market; and employ (part-time) three residents and three UDC students. 

As an urban planner and designer, I’ve always had a certain fascination with neighborhoods and communities, and the boundaries that surround and define them. I particularly remember those early years of my undergraduate program in Urban Planning at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC, where we dissected scholarly articles on the pros and cons of “gated communities”— surrounded by fences that act as barriers to the larger world. In the case of East Capitol Urban Farm, the fence merely delineates a boundary, a line that outlines the zones of each portion of the farm. It does not represent limitations on a better quality of life. For the people of Ward 7, this is a very crucial and important distinction that removes one barrier at a time. 

DWANE JONES, PH.D. is the Director of the Center for Sustainable Development and Resilience, a division of the University of the District of Columbia College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability, and Environmental Sciences. Dr. Jones conducts research and teaches courses in Urban Sustainability, Urban Design, Urban Planning and Low Impact Development. He is a member of the Urban Resilience Project. More at http://islandpress.org/urp or by Twitter @IP_URP