American Society of Landscape Architects ASLA 2007 Student Awards
ASLA Home  | ASLA Honors and Awards  |  Call for Entries  |  Awards Jury  | Awards Press Release  |  News Room & Publications

<< back to main page



Repairing the Local Food System: Long-Range Planning for People’s Grocery
Alethea Marie Harper, Student ASLA
University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
Faculty Advisors: Charles Sullivan, Michael Southworth and Robert L. Thayer, FASLA

"What an interesting topic--food truly binds the community together. The presentation is very thorough, from analysis to planning to site design. It's tactile and rigorous. "

— 2007 Student Awards Jury Comments

Project Statement
West Oakland is a community with limited access to healthy food. My work for People’s Grocery, a local nonprofit, will help the neighborhood and the nearby agricultural community work together to repair the local food system. Local production, self-sufficiency, and restoration of knowledge and local bonds are emphasized throughout. This project exemplifies how analysis and planning can combine pragmatism with idealism, creating a realizable vision for a thriving neighborhood and a robust local food system.

Project Narrative
Like many inner-city neighborhoods in the post-industrial United States, West Oakland is a neighborhood in need of an economic anchor. Once a thriving industrial center with plentiful blue-collar jobs, West Oakland now finds itself with high unemployment, deteriorating housing stock, disheartening crime statistics, high rates of heart disease and diabetes, and a lack of fresh, healthy food. While access to high-quality food may seem like a small problem in comparison to pervasive crime and major health disorders, it is in fact a quiet crisis on par with these other problems. Repairing the local food system is one step in the process to reinvigorate West Oakland’s food culture and local economy.

This project, a master’s thesis, was prepared for People’s Grocery. People’s Grocery is a non-profit organization in West Oakland working “to develop a self-reliant and sustainable food system in West Oakland that fosters healthy and equitable community development”. I set out with four main objectives: first, to evaluate neighborhood food justice and agricultural potential; second, to summarize best practices for achieving food justice; third, to inventory and analyze ongoing efforts in West Oakland; and fourth, to make recommendations for repairing the local food system.

Over the course of the project, I employed several methods for gathering and synthesizing information. These methods included: a literature review to identify key ideas and leading theories; interviews with experts to identify obstacles and learn about ongoing food justice efforts; GIS mapping to identify resources or lack thereof; an inventory of produce price and availability to provide a clear picture of the severity of food injustice in West Oakland; case studies to create a toolkit of successful food justice strategies; fieldwork to identify appropriate sites for various proposed elements; and design exploration to generate and refine possible solutions to site, neighborhood, and regional design and planning problems.

West Oakland Context and Existing Conditions
West Oakland, in the San Francisco Bay Area, is bounded by the 880, 580 and 980 freeways. I collected data from the Berkeley Geographic Information Science Center, the US Census Bureau, the Oakland Community and Economic Development Agency, and the Oakland Food System Assessment Report to assess existing conditions in the neighborhood. As you can see in Image 1, I found the neighborhood’s population of 19,000 to be concentrated in a crescent, excluding industrial and heavy commercial areas. Services are located in this populous crescent. There is a network of corner stores throughout the neighborhood, but inventories are quite limited. Access to fresh food is further restricted by the fact that the closest grocery stores are outside neighborhood boundaries. There is a small but growing collection of community gardens in the neighborhood, along with a large number of vacant lots. Toxic materials, a legacy of the neighborhood’s industrial past, are common and must be taken into account when building in this area. The neighborhood may see rapid change in the near future: many new developments are slated, including two with over 1,500 residential units each.

Food Justice Gap Analysis
Compared to Rockridge, a nearby middle class neighborhood, it is extremely difficult to find fruits and vegetables in West Oakland. I conducted a price and availability study by visiting stores in the two neighborhoods. Comparing the nearest grocery store to the neighborhood, in the Pill Hill district, with a grocery store in Rockridge, I found similar prices and reasonable selection at each store. However, it should be noted that the Pill Hill store is an overstock outlet, with a wildly fluctuating inventory. A shopper attempting to meet their food needs within West Oakland would have to rely on corner stores. As shown in Image 2, it is not high prices, but rather the lack of availability that creates food access problems in West Oakland. It is impossible to buy healthy groceries within the neighborhood.

Understanding Food Justice
As People’s Grocery puts it, food justice means healthy food for everyone. There are several crucial components to food justice, including the presence of nearby growers, processors and distributors; economic development (job opportunities); political support for the idea that access to healthy food is a human right; education about nutrition and healthy living to create demand for good food; and sales outlets offering a full line of healthy food. As shown in Image 3, West Oakland is currently missing many of these components.

Best Practices for Achieving Food Justice
My research indicates that the four most important aspects of food justice are ease of access to food, education about food and nutrition, the size and resilience of the foodshed, and the physical design of cities. I followed this research with a series of case studies, and found that the leading strategies for achieving food justice fall into six main categories: 1) creating a network of grocery stores by reintroducing supermarkets and retrofitting existing corner stores to sell produce; 2) reclaiming the local economy through direct marketing, recreating local distribution networks, and political action; 3) expanding urban agriculture efforts; 4) improving education about nutrition, cooking, and growing food; 5) improving access to the federal Food Stamp program; and 6) and reducing unemployment.

Ongoing Efforts in West Oakland
Some organizations, including People’s Grocery, are already working for food justice in the neighborhood. People’s Grocery projects currently include a mobile market that drives through the neighborhood selling fresh produce, a network of urban gardens and a stake in the Sunol AgPark, numerous educational programs, and planning for a full-service cooperative grocery store. Other organizations include City Slicker Farms, with their network of market farms and sliding-scale produce prices; the Mo’ Better Food Farmers’ Market; and a collection of teaching gardens run by Oakland Butterfly and Urban Gardens (OBUGS). These organizations are mapped and their focus areas inventoried in Image 3.

Neighborhood Agricultural Potential
West Oakland has enormous latent potential in the form of vacant lots. As illustrated in Image 4, I created an Agricultural Potential Prototype Study as a visualization tool, meant to demonstrate the productive potential of West Oakland’s vacant land. I identified three block types in the neighborhood: first, those that are >50% vacant; second, those that are 25-50% vacant; and third, those that are <25% vacant. For study areas representing each block type, I categorized land according to its use (front yard, back yard, building, vacant, etc), assigned an ease-of-conversion factor to each land type, and created conversion diagrams, which may be thought of as agricultural zoning maps, demonstrating the land’s potential. These diagrams could be used to establish Ag Enterprise Zones, or by block associations wishing to build support for new community gardens. This initial study would be followed by detailed site analysis on chosen plots of land. According to estimates by biointensive growers, one acre of land could provide all the fruits and vegetables needed for ten people. If this is the case, all the vacant lots in West Oakland, a total of 78.6 acres, could feed 786 people.

Regional Plan for California Certified Organic Farmers Member Businesses
The problem of community food justice is deeply connected to the problem of regional food distribution. Small farmers and struggling neighborhoods are frequently left out of the conventional, industrial food system. If networks of local distributors and processors could be established, farmers could be connected to local markets much more easily. How can urban communities and local growers work together? As you can see in Images 5 and 6, I geocoded the member database for California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), and looked for logical ways to cluster growers into geographically defined groups. I used a hierarchical linear clustering algorithm to achieve this. In the Bay Area bioregion and nearby bioregions, there is great agricultural bounty that is currently not getting into West Oakland. I proposed new distributors at the geographic center of each Bay Area cluster. This will create short supply chains with food changing hands only a couple of times between field and table, keeping prices affordable for the neighborhood and profitable for growers. If we replace the local and regional distribution infrastructure that has been dismantled over the past few decades, farmers will be able to make a decent living, and fresh, affordable food will be available to our cities.

West Oakland Neighborhood Development Plan
As you can see in Image 7, The proposed People’s Grocery store has few real competitors within a one-mile radius, and that same area is home to a significant existing population, and several large proposed residential developments. These populations represent a good client base for the new store. The flagship store will be part of a network of smaller stores, teaching gardens, minifarms, and food processing centers.

If all the growers in the nearby agricultural community had to maintain individual distribution and sales relationships with all the large and small stores in West Oakland, the resulting web of relationships would be complex, time-consuming, and expensive. Introducing People’s Grocery as a cooperative buying club will simplify life for the managers of small stores and small farms, and result in lower prices for the community, and better profit margins for growers. These two distribution models are show in Image 8.

West Oakland, 2030
As diagrammed in Images 9 and 10, the geography of food in West Oakland will evolve over the next twenty years to including local production and processing, and a robust network of large and small stores carrying healthy produce and prepared foods. Neighborhood residents will be employed in every aspect of the food supply chain, from production to processing and retail. The wellness village and demonstration garden at the flagship store will help residents maintain healthy lifestyles, and strategically placed new small stores will ensure walking-distance access to food for every resident. These stores will also provide a model for other corner stores seeking to convert to produce sales. Teaching Gardens and minifarms will be established on uncontaminated vacant lots, new food processing centers will return much-needed industry to the neighborhood, and the People’s Grocery food label will help instill local pride. Less-profitable aspects of this model will be subsidized by more-profitable aspects, and People’s Grocery will be a catalyst for a renewed local food system.

People’s Grocery and Wellness Village Site Design
The grocery store site is a physical embodiment of the values of People’s Grocery. As you can see in Image 11, the 15,000 ft2 full-service cooperative grocery store is set in a pleasant pedestrian environment with wide, shady walks, seating areas, a bus shelter, and sidewalk bulb-outs at intersections. Safe, high-quality bicycle facilities include a protected bike entrance and parking area. Climate-appropriate planting is used throughout the site. A large food forest demonstration garden forms the centerpiece of the site, with space nearby for a moveable stage to be set up festival days.

As shown in Images 12, 13 and 15, graceful arches mark entrances to the site and the main intersections. The site is transformed from a litter-strewn, forlorn place to a well-cultivated, very green environment. All plants are either edible, or used to attract beneficial insects. The back façade, facing a residential street, is covered in espaliered fruit trees and endowed with a large window onto the cooking school to present a pleasant image to the neighborhood. Trellises over parking spaces keep the site green and cool, infiltration swales handle runoff, and a chess table pocket seating area provides a safe gathering place for people with free time.

Illustrated in Images 14 and 15, the Food Forest Demonstration Garden is based on permaculture principles. Elements that will be common to every teaching garden in the People’s Grocery network are found here, including a grand trellised entry, a hand-built gazebo for gatherings, and composting demonstrations. Food forests are designed to maximize planting space and use resources efficiently. Here, a U-shaped sun trap of larger plants and trees along the north and east edges of the site accommodates tall plants without shading out smaller ones; narrow beds at the entrance of the site are used for plants with long harvest periods, such as tomatoes and cucumbers; spiral beds in the rest of the garden maximize planting space and minimize path space for crops like garlic and corn that are harvested all at once; and an herb spiral provides appropriate microclimates for a wide variety of herbs in a small space.

This project will guide and inspire the work of People’s Grocery and the local activist and agricultural communities over the next twenty years. Starting with a cooperative grocery store, expanding to a development plan for the entire neighborhood, and working up to a new local food system, this plan addresses neighborhood food justice at several interrelated scales. Local production, self-sufficiency, and the restoration of cultural knowledge and local bonds are stressed at every level, creating a vision for a thriving neighborhood and a robust local food system. When infrastructure upgrades and physical improvements are coupled with economic development and education, an entire neighborhood – including its residents – can be uplifted, rather than simply displacing poorer residents. The proposals made here for People’s Grocery and for West Oakland should be thought of as models to be adapted to local needs in other communities in the Bay Area and beyond.


ASLA Home  | ASLA Honors and Awards  |  Call for Entries  |  Awards Jury  | Awards Press Release  |  News Room & Publications