After satisfying my main concern of eating in Austin, I wondered what the liberal center was doing in terms of urban food production.
Most restaurants we went to had some advertising about the locality of its food. Some highlighted nearby farms their vegetables came from; others sponsored local bakeries or butchers they partnered with. Despite being upwards of 90 degrees and full of unironic cowboy hats, the city reminded me a lot of Portland, OR., so I assumed they had to be doing something along the lines of urban agriculture.
Zoning is of a particular interest to me so I looked primarily into recent actions there.
According to Austin’s city government, zoning has three elements:
- allowed use
- site development standards
Allowed use is dictated by the zoning district e.g., single-family residential, food sales, retail, or industrial. As Austin’s Planning and Zoning website says, “Most uses are allowed in several zoning districts, and each zoning district allows several uses.”
They go on to further delineate “permitted use”, meaning allowed by right and not requiring review by the City, vs. “conditional use”, which needs Planning Commission or City Council approval.
Site development standards encompass how buildings or structures are placed within zones. It includes standards for height, setbacks, floor-to-area ratio, and landscaping.
Finally geography; which merely states that the City of Austin can only regulate buildings and land within their city boundaries.
Overall the City of Austin has 39 base zoning districts. There are also “combining districts” which provide additional regulations. The most common example of this is a historic neighborhood, which would have a residential base zoning district, plus an extra layer of rules and guidelines for the historic buildings.
Below is a chart with the primary zoning districts of Austin.
The City also illustrates the zoning process, pictured below.
When it comes to Urban Agriculture, Austin is a step ahead of most. In 2016 the City Council approved amendments to the City Code that will help the city’s urban gardeners and farmers. The amendments ensure that “residential market garden” is a permitted use, by default, in every zoning district.
As stated earlier, permitted use does not require any further approval by the City Council or Planning Commission, which means that there is one less barrier to starting an urban agriculture endeavor, no matter the zoning district.
This measure also helps existing organizations. Before the amendment was passed, urban gardeners operated in a gray zone, regarding where they could legally grow and sell. The zoning code was unclear on areas such as alleyways, restaurants, rooftops, and backyards; leaving most urban farmers to restrict how much they invested in any particular venture.
Guaranteeing the legality of urban agriculture operations and the urban farmers and gardeners involved, is a huge show of support by the city. The last estimate showed there were approximately 1,000 urban agriculture activities taking place in Austin; early 100 urban gardens and several large-scale urban farms.