Who Really Benefits?: Criticisms of AB 551 Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act

When it comes to creating urban farms one of the biggest hurdles for farmers and communities to tackle is access to land and land security. This issue is particularly challenging in larger cities across California where little land is available and where any available land is in high demand. Many farms, most notable being the South Central Farm, have been subjected to the whims of landlords who seek the most profitable opportunities as opposed to what opportunities or uses may be most needed in a community. Land access is most difficult in marginalized communities where people have less power due to political and economic limitations.

Issues with AB 551 The Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone Act

A garden in San Francisco designated as an urban Agriculture Incentive Zone.

In 2014 California lawmakers passed AB 551 the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act which gave tax breaks to property owners who agreed to dedicate their land to urban agriculture uses for a minimum of 5 years. This law was intended to help alleviate the issues surrounding land access to urban farming projects and to provide security to these farms. 

While the intentions for the act may have been positive some have criticized the act as they feel it neglects the issues faced by low-income marginalized communities and their access to land (Havens & Roman-Alcalá, 2016). 

Some of the issues brought up by food justice activists concern…

  • The limitations of the 5-year minimum to provide adequate security.
  • The optional factor of incentive programs which relies on landowners choosing to participate.
  • The inability of the act to address issues of marginalized communities directly (Havens & Roman-Alcalá 2016).

Land Ownership in Marginalized Communities


 Farmers in Detroit participating in the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund. A fund created to support black farmers efforts to own their farm land.

Land access and security is an issue that greatly affects marginalized communities, particularly those that are made up of people of color and are low-income. For example, 98% of private farmland in the U.S. is owned by white people (Horst & Marion, 2019). When it comes to homeownership in California 62.7% of white people own homes compared to only 57.6% of Asians, 41.9% of Hispanic peoples, and only 34.5% of African Americans (Homeownership and Inequality, 2016). These disparities are the result of years of racial injustice in the U.S. in which people of color were legally unable to own land or were restricted or faced larger hurdles to land ownership than white Americans. If you are interested to read more about some of these effects in Los Angeles, historian Ryan Reft wrote a great article for KCET about redlining and its effects on homeownership by people of color

AB 551 does not address who owns this land or help to facilitate ownership of land by people who live in marginalized communities. Many supporters of urban agriculture as a potential solution to food sovereignty feel that the best way to fight for this cause and help a community is for that community to control their own food system, this would entail long-term land security. The 5 year minimum has been criticized as it does not encourage the creation of farms that will be permanent or long term fixtures in a community. Urban farms often take longer to establish do to the constraints of the urban environment, such as soil contamination and needed infrastructure for farming. Because of this, many critics feel that 5 years is not near long enough for a farm project to make a great effect (Havens & Roman-Alcalá, 2016).


Rendering of Omni Community Park and Gardens in Vancouver, Canada. This luxury housing project used their on site community urban farm as a marketing tool to attract renters.

Due to the lack of land ownership by marginalized communities they are more vulnerable to gentrification and displacement. Gentrification is the process in which wealthy people move into a poorer neighborhood, altering the characteristics of that neighborhood. This often results in the raising of rent costs and prices of necessities within a neighborhood. Raising rent and living costs displaces marginalized community members as they are forced to move out of their neighborhoods. 

Those critical of AB 551 fear that it will be used as a tool for Eco-Gentrification. Eco-Gentrification is the use of green spaces, including gardens and urban farms, as tools for gentrification. Gardens and urban farms have been created as marketing ploys to attract residents to new cities in the process of gentrification. The creation of these greenspaces is positive as they are beneficial to the environment and people living there but when they are not designed for and by the existing community, they therefore work to exclude the people who suffer the most from food insecurity and injustice. AB 551 may encourage landowners to create small term farm projects as interim use projects before the creation of new developments. These interim farm projects may be created to “beautify” a neighborhood by developers to attract wealthier residents instead of creating a farm that will benefit those who are food insecure.

Food Justice, Food Insecurity, & Food Sovereignty

Sign posted outside of South Central Farm durings its battle by activists to save the farm from closure.

In the U.S. food insecurity affects 21.2% of African Americans and 16.2% of Hispanic people compared to only 10% of white Americans (Americans Key Statistics & Graphics, 2019). If urban agriculture is to be a solution to food insecurity, food justice, and food sovereignty, communities of color and those that suffer from poverty need to have easier access to land to be farmed. Solutions should have the needs of these communities at the forefront so that their access to urban farming be made easier. As it stands AB 551 may be a first step in the right direction as it acknowledges the issues of land security but if a solution is to be most effective it needs to address long term farm security and the lack of land ownership within marginalized communities who are most affected by food insecurity.

Reference List

Havens, E., & Roman-Alcalá, A. (2016). Land for Food Justice? AB 551 and Structural Change. Retrieved from https://foodfirst.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/UrbanAgS2016_Final.pdf

Homeownership and Inequality. (2016). Retrieved from http://centerforcaliforniarealestate.org/research/academic%20papers/2016.06.28%20-%20Ownership%20and%20Inequality.pdf

Horst, M., & Marion, A. (2019). Racial, ethnic and gender inequities in farmland ownership and farming in the U.S. Agriculture and Human Values. doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-018-9883-3

Key Statistics & Graphics. (2019). Retrieved December 01, 2020, from https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics.aspx

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