Monday, March 28, 2011

Farmers' Markets don't fit modern city codes

Farmers' markets and street vendors with carts undoubtedly defined the streets of Ur, the biblical city where civilization began.   Certainly the vegetables were organic, and they were grown locally – how far can one carry a fresh fig on a donkey?  And people met and talked and ate small treats prepared on the spot.  Perhaps musicians played for tips, but I doubt the markets of Ur offered Qigong classes on the lawn like our new Farmers Market in South Miami. 

The farmers markets opening up everywhere around the country are part of a movement to strengthen local agriculture and local businesses on a shoestring, so towns become more ecologically and economically sustainable.  Local government, however, has to catch up.  Modern zoning codes have trouble categorizing the function of something that is both public and private, both temporary and permanent, with a shifting set of vendors who sell raw food like a grocery store and cooked food like a restaurant, and perhaps clothing and crafts, as well as occasional entertainment.  Are musical buskers running a business or begging?  Is a farmers' market an event or a food court?  Is it a public service or a private enterprise?  What sort of license does it need anyway?

It turns out that many of the inventive strategies for sustainability run afoul of the rigid building and zoning codes that structure towns into discrete properties and uses.  Codes depend on separating land into lots and activities into categories of use.  Ecological thinking however recognizes connections across categories rather than separations between them.  Felix Guattari offered a famous example of the interdependent orchid and its bee, which evolved together, each taking advantage of the other by serving the other's needs.  A bee feeds on nectar while carrying the orchid's pollen, so both benefit.  The arrangement sounds a lot like Adam Smith's capitalism in which people create small businesses to support themselves by serving the needs of others so everyone's life improves through the efficiencies of specialization.  The next leap is to include ecological health in economic calculations, so the ecosystem benefits as we support ourselves.  A market supporting local, organic farms is a fine place to start.

So is a farmers market an example of pure conservative capitalism or eco-huggy liberalism?  Perhaps "yes" is the best answer.  Perhaps cities can figure out how to rethink codes so they can say yes to ecological innovation that depends on building relationships across categories.  It beats the heck out of "no". 

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