Can Urban Agriculture Contribute to Gentrification? Yes, it can. Since the Great Recession, Denver has seen an explosion in urban agriculture. Like in other cities throughout the United States, this economic crisis catalyzed people to come up with strategies to revitalize the economy and build community. One of those strategies was the “People’s Plan,” which was the centerpiece of Michael Hancock’s mayoral bid. After being elected mayor in 2011, he committed to aspects of the plan, including promoting economic and community development and addressing food access problems with urban agriculture. Central to this endeavor is one of the 2020 Sustainability Goals, which stipulates that by 2020 at least 20 percent of the city’s food must be locally sourced, defined as grown or processed in Colorado.
What was less understood at the time of Michael Hancock’s campaign was that a booming economic recovery was around the corner. With it came a wave of gentrification, resulting in both the displacement of longtime residents and urban farms. Even more troubling is that development interests have used urban agriculture to advance unfettered growth that displaces economically and racially marginalized populations. It is through the deployment of “local” as “Colorado” that the local food goal can capture the symbolic and cultural value of the food movement and use the labor of urban agriculture initiatives to attract people to neighborhoods targeted by the city for economic development after the Great Recession. This is what we might call green gentrification, which is where economic and political interests greenwash development through sustainability narratives and initiatives that increase property values. Like gentrification in general, this greenwashing attracts new wealth and displaces working class communities and communities of color.
Unfortunately, urban agriculture can get entangled with the forces of green gentrification. Nowhere is this more obvious than with S*Park, the new condo and townhome project in Curtis Park, a historically Latinx and black working class neighborhood. Between 2010 and 2015, the Urban Farmers Collaborative farmed on Denver Housing Authority (DHA) land, known at the time as Sustainability Park. DHA could not sell the property in 2010, but it knew that if good stewards could improve the property over a few years that they could find a buyer. S*Park has coopted the work of the Urban Farmers Collaborative, claiming that sustainability is the “ethos for the project” and that the development is “celebrating the spirit of urban community and farming” with a “private park area” and “modern greenhouse.” Despite assertions that the development will create affordable housing, this project is furthering gentrification. Out of the 41 units in the first phase of development, only five are under $350,000, and this is for the base model, studios between 500 and 600 square feet. Hoping to attract wealthier millennials and young families to the neighborhood, S*Park’s website advertises green amenities like parks, public transportation, and walkability, as well as proximity to hip restaurants and breweries.
To conclude, the Great Recession increased the stock of vacant property. In turn, property became devalued. To prevent the total collapse of prices due to vacancies and neighborhood flight, some developers offered their land to urban farmers and non-profits to prevent blight, which beautified and “revalued” the property. This stabilized property values until the recession subsided and housing demand increased. At the same time, urban agriculture proliferated in economically marginal neighborhoods because the economic margins of farming are slim, which compelled urban farmers to find ways to reduce typical barriers to entry. Once the economy recovered, developers and investors searched for the next “up and coming” neighborhoods. They looked to those places with the highest post-recession social and ecological investment, which is where there are the largest exploitable rent gaps. Urban agriculture initiatives valorized certain neighborhoods, thus increasing the lure of these neighborhoods to developers. Contradictorily, because urban agriculture faces many profit barriers, especially in Denver where the growing season is five months, urban agriculture is forced to constantly chase underutilized land, which it holds until displaced by a more profitable land use. Without long-term leases, regulatory changes to zoning and land use laws, or access to more public land, urban agriculture will likely remain entangled with green gentrification.
Joshua Sbicca is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Colorado State University. His research focuses on the sociological drivers and outcomes of contentious food politics, focusing on how social inequalities intersect with the food system and how social movements use food to resist and alter power relations.