Small Municipalities And Public Food Forests: Opportunities And Challenges

Food production generally has not been an explicit goal of contemporary urban and community forest management. However, food forests, which consist of multiple perennial and annual food-producing species in multistoried arrangements, provide canopy cover that is a priority of present-day urban forestry while also addressing resident needs such as food security and health.

Significance of Food Forests

Food forests also can improve biodiversity, increase pollinator habitat, mitigate flooding events, reduce costs related to stormwater management, minimize the heat island effect, and deliver other valuable ecosystem services. Installing food forests on municipal land has grown in popularity in recent years, and the number of projects in cities and towns is on the rise. A goal for many initiatives is shifting the locus of food and fiber production to communities while also enhancing ecosystem health and improving resident well-being.

Public food forests, among other forms of multifunctional green space, provide community services including food and nutrition education, places for social gathering and civic activity, and open space for recreation and sport. Initiatives that build community, such as food forests, increase social connectivity between residents and improve their ability to shape the future of the places where they live.

They also can enhance the aesthetics of public spaces and neighborhoods, which often inspire greater rates of resident connections to open greenspace. Additionally, municipalities can provide jobs or volunteer opportunities for people to steward public food forests, and residents who glean food can reduce the amount of produce they purchase.

Public food forests in North America and Europe are typically found in population-dense urban areas and larger towns, but some smaller municipalities are known to have them. However, public food forest research is largely limited to city centers with high population densities; thus, little is known about the challenges and opportunities associated with applications in smaller municipalities.

This has important implications for the field of urban green space management given half of the global population lives in towns or villages whose residents, like those living in large population centers, depend upon vibrant and healthy ecosystems.

Factors Affecting Public Food Forests

Improving insights into the factors affecting public food forests in smaller municipalities in the United States is critical if comprehensively understanding the potential, purpose, and availability of these systems is a goal. For instance, 61% of the U.S. population lives in municipalities with 50,000 or fewer residents and over three-fourths of the nation’s incorporated places have fewer than 5,000 inhabitants.

These communities stand to offer meaningful contributions to ecosystem health and productivity, and residents deserve access to healthy and functional greenspace. Understanding the ways in which public food forests in small municipalities are currently constrained and preferences regarding their structure and function will help inform ongoing and future initiatives in small municipalities in the United States and beyond.

Regardless of municipality size, however, the literature points to several factors that are highly likely to affect public food forest initiatives. Liability is an important factor that may hinder widespread use on municipal land. For example, food safety is a concern, as are downed fruits and nuts that are often viewed as unsightly and a danger in frequently traveled places.

The use of chemicals (e.g., pesticides and herbicides) to control competition during establishment also is a worry for fear of risks to resident health. Large wildlife seeking to forage and insect allergies also are issues, as are matters of planning and management equity, access for community members with disabilities, and crime.

A germane struggle faced by many municipalities is finding and securing approval for space that is suitable for a public food forest, which often is in competition with other land use goals like new sport fields and nature parks and trails. Tenure is another challenge that municipalities must overcome, which is especially pertinent for growing and managing woody perennials.

The allocation of financial resources for long-term maintenance of perennial woody species presents another substantial barrier for municipalities, many of whom consistently deal with tight budgets and limited flexibility for new allocation. This is compounded by the fact that permanence of public food forests not only requires a detailed plan but also continued investments in financial, human, and built capitals.

Municipal policies specific to food forests are one mechanism for improving the likelihood and ease of adoption. Policies can regulate and incentivize human behaviors, thereby influencing human–environment interactions. For example, zoning laws and codes help regulate and direct land use, which can lead to ecological change. When applied to the context of public food forests, most municipalities in the United States are at a disadvantage because they do not have land-use codes that promote the use of food-producing trees and shrubs in public places.

If residents of smaller municipalities aim to establish a food forest on public land, then understanding the legal and social constraints is a necessary step, and mayors and other elected government officials are necessarily involved when it comes to such matters.

Small Municipalities and Public Food Forests

In this study, researchers expected that mayors of municipalities with less than 25,000 people would similarly value the environmental, social, economic, and health-related opportunities associated with public food forests, and that a lack of physical space and long-term maintenance and liability would be equally challenging in terms of public food forest projects in the towns they serve.

Overall, researchers found that mayors of small municipalities place a higher value on social and health-related benefits, followed by environmental services. Economic benefits were not identified as an opportunity tied to public food forests, and long-term maintenance was by far the greatest challenge, followed by lack of space and liability related to falling and downed fruits and nuts.

Our comparison of mayoral perspectives regarding the acceptability of food forests and ease of implementation for their municipalities resulted in four mayoral-based municipality classifications, differing in levels of support, attitudes, and available space for food bearing trees and shrubs on public land:

  • ambivalent and resource-poor
  • optimistic and capable
  • doubtful and unsupported
  • unsure with potential

‘Optimistic and capable,’ with the highest means in each category, were characterized as having significantly greater capacity related to financial means and policy as well as political intention to plant woody perennials than those in ‘doubtful and unsupported,’ with the lowest means in each category. If mayors’ reports of their towns are a reliable indicator, this suggests that the likelihood of public food forest initiatives and complementary policies and procedures in small towns are likely to be influenced by the amount of available space, support for existing public green spaces, and town attitudes regarding implementation.

It is worth noting that ‘optimistic and capable’ contained the greatest number of towns with large population sizes (>10,000) and ‘doubtful and unsupported’ had the most towns with smaller populations (<500). Larger towns, therefore, might be more likely to adopt food forestry as a strategy to manage public lands. This coincides with what has been observed regarding greater use of public land for food production in cities, where populations are denser and access to large private parcels is rare.

Moreover, larger towns, like cities, likely have greater resources (e.g., social, fiscal, physical) to support these initiatives on public land. Another trend worth exploring in future research is the geographic variation observed within groups. Nearly 40% of ‘optimistic and capable’ towns were located in the valley region vs. none for ‘doubtful and unsupported,’ which suggests that regional differences may also influence the potential for growth of public food forests.

Findings suggest that mayors of small municipalities value preservation of public green space, and nearly 60% of respondents provided open-ended comments explaining the types of green space that they believed should be protected by land-use codes. They primarily value green space for benefits other than job creation and food production, and key reported benefits were largely along the lines of cultural and community services, such as recreation and aesthetics.

Educational Goals Role In Advancing Public Food Forest Production

Educational goals can potentially play an important role in advancing public food forest production, given that nearly three-fourths of the mayors in study indicated that they support outdoor education. Food forests differ from other forms of green space by functioning as classrooms for topics like growing food, nutrition, and cooking.

Since U.S. municipalities spend the most on education and the least on environmental services, framing public land use such as food forests, edible hedges, and public orchards as holistic centers for community education, nutrition, and wellbeing rather than singular food-producing hubs could be a compelling pathway for increasing and shaping complementary land-use policies.

Still, one-third of municipalities in this study lack food production systems on public land, and almost none have policies outlining which species and practices are permitted and where. Mayors explained that one basic impediment is a general lack of public space but most also believed there is widespread lack of interest in the public sphere because residents already grow food on private property.

In contrast, many residents in larger urban areas do not have private land apt for food production, especially forms that include woody perennials because of spatial and temporal requirements. This may also explain why food production on public land, as well as the creation of supportive policies, has been more popular in cities than in towns.

Where food production exists on public land in towns, mayors reported that most were community gardens rather than multiple-storied systems including woody perennial food-producing species for public access. The intentional use of food trees and shrubs is largely absent, yet around three-fourths of mayors indicated that there are no legal constraints to their implementation.

Perhaps this could be viewed as counterintuitive where nothing is specifically prohibited; it is likely more reasonable to suggest that an uptick in use is contingent on policies that define possibilities and outline implementation.

Role of Governments Or Community Members

Some mayors believe that municipal governments “can push people in the right direction” using policy mechanisms but others are opposed to “forcing an issue” through a regulatory approach, especially if there appears to be no public interest. If policy formation proceeded in earnest, it would be important to consider how the structure and function of food forests would complement other more common uses and visions of public green space.

In other words, focusing on tangible benefits rather than abstract concepts likely would generate more favorable public interest. For example, language like ‘ecosystem services’ may seem obscure to residents of small towns, but emphasizing educational and recreational opportunities would more likely resonate with the public.

Along these lines, food forest production can be integrated into town landscapes without increasing pressure on classic green space, about which most mayors in this study were quite protective. For example, edible shrubs and trees can be implemented along existing greenways in towns. Additionally, current forest patches can be transformed into edible landscapes by planting food-producing understory species.

Towns also can make use of unusual or underutilized areas (e.g., rooftops, medians, or streets), especially if competition for public land use is high. This integration is an asset, and some larger U.S. municipalities have started to retrofit, or ‘agrifit’, extant grey and green infrastructure along these lines.

According to mayors, the greatest barrier to implementing food bearing trees and shrubs in public spaces is maintenance. Confounding this challenge is that municipal policies explicit to food production on public lands are rare according to mayors, thus the permissible structure, function, and locus of such initiatives are largely undefined. Establishing comprehensive plans and land use codes may alleviate concerns related to long-term maintenance by specifying design relative to placement and scale.

It also would ensure that when political turnover occurs, established processes and practices carry forward, as some mayors have suggested. Mayors in favor of formal zoning mechanisms argued that policies are necessary for guiding municipalities if other assets (e.g., physical or financial) are lacking, whereas those who were opposed felt that awareness and education were best practices.

Either way, community-wide dialogue may be needed as a precursor to policy change to better understand public interest and preferences and to weigh associated costs and benefits. In open-ended comments, mayors pointed out that educational opportunities for residents and town councils could arise from such discussions.

Governments or community members who are interested in implementing food-producing trees and shrubs in public spaces also would do well to consider the type of municipality wherein their efforts will occur. For example, ‘optimistic and capable’ towns, which were characterized as having the most area available and greatest support for public green space and the most favorable attitudes regarding implementation, might consider larger initiatives like community food forests or public orchards.

‘Unsure with potential’ towns may have ample space, but a better understanding of how they could sustain support would be needed before taking steps like changing land use codes. ‘Ambivalent and resource-poor’ towns may be space limited, but they could try agrifitting or making use of underutilized spaces. ‘Doubtful and unsupported’ towns lack physical space and support needed for implementation, and, therefore, may decide that adding food production to what little public space they have is not currently feasible. Ultimately, the needs and limitations of U.S. towns are unique, thus public food forest implementation and design will differ.

Conclusion

Public food forests offer many potential benefits for towns, which can be prioritized in various ways to achieve unique municipal goals and meet resident needs. Municipal governments and residents would benefit from assessing possible opportunities and challenges together. By doing so, and when public food forests gain traction in the public sphere, they will be more likely to find an approach that optimizes collectively valued ecological, educational, and public health benefits.

For towns in this study, some residents are likely interested in public food forests or other forms of perennial food production, but a lack of policy, government support, and other resources may deter them from taking action. The use of multiple stakeholder processes, including government officials, community members, and scientific or technical experts, is a strategy that towns could adopt when making such determinations and decisions. Involving communities in decisions over public land use builds crucial social capital, or the “trust, networks, and norms of reciprocity that enable people to effectively work together”.

Small municipalities are changing worldwide, and this has implications for managing green space in built environments. Ecosystems likely will be strained in the coming decades as human population growth continues, thus heightening the need to strengthen local resilience. Access to private land could increase for some and decrease for others, which may influence the extent to which communities prioritize the use of public land for food production.

If this study is an indicator, then the majority of communities with small populations (and thus most incorporated municipalities) in the United States and likely the world over have not developed policies to promote food production, let alone food forests, in public spaces. Planning to do so would demonstrate progressive policymaking on behalf of local governments.

Source: Coffey, S. E., Munsell, J. F., Hübner, R., & Friedel, C. R. (2021). Public food forest opportunities and challenges in small municipalities. Urban Agriculture & Regional Food Systems, 6(1), e20011.

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