Every morning when I check my Google Reader, there is a new headline touting the another  grassroots city green initiative.  Urban farming in Detroit and urban orcharding in Philadelphia.  Pocket parks—aka parklets— in San Francisco.  The transformation of railways to greenways in Manhattan and bridges to greenways in DC.   Beekeeping and a  rooftop farm in Brooklyn.

All of these initiatives speak to a growing demand by citizens to make our cities more green for economic, cultural, recreational, and aesthetic reasons, and the innovative strategies that community members and organizations invent and invest in to make it happen. However, as anyone who has tried to implement one of these ideas can attest, creativity cannot get very far if it butts heads with local zoning restrictions.

In fact, zoning was put in place to keep children from playing in the abandoned railways or other industrial spaces that we are now transforming into parks.  It was designed to prevent the nuisance—noises and smells—evoked from chickens that might devalue a $1,600/month studio apartment. It was implemented to separate industrial uses, like commercial farming or beekeeping, from neighborhoods where people lived and children played, for both safety (think pesticides) and economic reasons.

The point is, in many cases, major legislative mountains—or at least tricky special use permits—must be traversed in order for a project like the High Line to come to fruition or even to turn vacant lots into orchards in Philly (not to mention permitting people to sell the harvests from their community or backyard gardens).

Innovative ideas for reknitting our urban fabric necessarily require creative solutions in our zoning ordinances and lots of cooperation among planners, elected officials, community groups, and citizens.

And many cities are committed to making it happen.  Recently, both New York City and San Francisco have passed amendments in their zoning ordinances making it easier for citizens to “green” their properties. In mid-July, San Francisco city supervisors passed a legislation streamlining the process for community groups working to transform vacant lots into urban farms.  This followed legislation last year enabling citizens to operate small farms and sell their harvests.

This spring, New York City Council adopted “Zone Green,” a set of regulations that will “remove zoning impediments to the construction and retrofitting of green buildings.” One noteworthy feature of the legislation allows green roofs “anywhere below the parapet, regardless of building height.” Another states that greenhouses can be used on commercial, industrial, or educational properties for food production.

Both of these examples showcase legislative efforts based on removing restrictions and obstacles—qualities that planners and city councilors aren’t generally known for—and investing in the good will of the community.   Strict, “by use” zooming is no longer necessary in most cities; however, smart planning decisions, and zoning codes that work for the betterment of communities are.  Innovation on the parts of citizens to make their cities better (especially with little or no tax dollars required) should be met with flexibility and cooperation from local leaders.

Harriett Jameson, Biophilic Cities Project Researcher 

Harriett is a masters degree  candidate for the Urban and Environmental Planning and Landscape Architecture disciplines at the University of Virginia.