Urban Agriculture in Los Angeles County: An Assessment of Public Health Impacts, Production Potential, and Community Access to Local Food

Project Summary

Like many other North American cities, Los Angeles is promoting urban agriculture (UA) as a community strategy to improve public health, environmental sustainability, social cohesion, and economic development among other co-benefits. However, there is limited assessment to date of existing and potential UA production and distribution in Los Angeles. This study aimed to gain a better understanding of UA through (1) semi-structured interviews to collect local UA perspectives and farm/garden data; (2) calculations of potential growing area and volume; (3) geospatial analysis of the distribution of UA sites and vacant land relative to underserved neighborhoods; and (4) analysis of municipal UA policy and recommendations to support future UA development in Los Angeles. An expanded understanding of UA in Los Angeles could help inform and guide policy and practice to better realize the stated goals of UA, especially for underserved communities.

Research Team

Tyler Watson
Environmental Health Sciences, Fielding School of Public Health

Advisor: Hilary Godwin
Environmental Health Sciences, Fielding School of Public Health

Progress and Results

Urban agriculture development in Los Angeles can better prioritize underserved communities to achieve its stated goals of improved community food access and security. Some policy and planning options include a comprehensive municipal UA plan and coordinator, securing more urban land in long term land trusts, include UA priorities and incentives in new public and private land and building development, providing additional supporting infrastructure and services such as lower water utility rates, and developing networks and distribution systems to better connect to the local food system (e.g., farmers markets, neighborhood markets, restaurants, etc.). Ideally, stakeholders in underserved communities would be involved in the decision-making around municipal UA policy and planning including resource allocation. Additional research is needed to better understand the real-world benefits of UA in Los Angeles and identify the best candidate sites for UA expansion.

This project showed that (1) interview themes included a primary motivation of community building (not food production), innovative approaches to food production within the constraints of an urban environment, a dedication to sustainable practices, and a lack of data collection despite acknowledgement of the need for data. Of the few UA sites collecting data, they appear to be small (less than a half-acre), productive in terms of pounds of vegetables produced per square foot, and implementing water conservation strategies that appear to use less water than a lawn of equal size. (2) Calculations of aggregate vegetable production on all available vacant land in the city of Los Angeles demonstrated that only part (13-74%) of total city vegetable consumption could theoretically be met by UA production, but it could provide enough vegetables for the entire food insecure population. (3) Existing UA sites (community gardens, farmers markets, and urban farms) are irregularly distributed across the city of Los Angeles, with fewer sites in the San Fernando Valley relative to the rest of the city, and fewer sites in the urban core when accounting for population density. Vacant land is far more prevalent on the periphery of the city and in the Santa Monica Mountains. UA sites, particularly community gardens, may be playing an important role in community food access as nearly three-quarters of the population in food deserts and highest need areas live within a half mile of a UA site. About one-quarter of vacant land area would be eligible for Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone (UAIZ) designation, a policy that incentivizes private landowners to lease their land for UA activity. (4) Despite its rich agriculture history, to date the city of Los Angeles has not been a leading city in UA policy and practice. Several recent municipal policies and planning changes have started to increase support for UA, but additional efforts are needed to more fully realize the potential of UA in Los Angeles. 

The preliminary results of this work have been presented to the Los Angeles Food Policy Council's Urban Agriculture Working Group. Currently, the full results of this work are being written as two dissertation chapters that will be completed by May 2018, and subsequently submitted for publication in peer-reviewed journals.

Reports and Publications