Equity in Planning & Design – Food Sovereignty and Access to Land

August 12, 2021   /   Equity


The Asakura Robinson Equity Committee, founded in April 2019, is an internal group of employees working to ensure equity and accountability throughout the firm and our practice. In the summer of 2020, the committee expanded and one of its working groups, the quarterly Equity in Planning Blog Series, was formed. The Equity in Planning Blog Series looks to highlight issues that we have faced as practitioners in our work and, more generally, in the Planning and Design field. We aim to be transparent in bringing light to these issues, and we hope to achieve a more equitable and honest conversation about positive change and solutions for the communities we serve.

Access to land has been a core component of human society throughout history. Humans need access to land for basic resources such as food, shelter, and economic activities. Land can also hold great cultural, religious, and legal significance; access to land can confer social status and decision-making power within a community. 

In practice, access to land is complex and involves an interplay between different types of land tenure and land rights.  Land tenure, or the relationship people have to land, can be defined by laws or by customs that govern how people use the land’s resources. Different types of land tenure include private, in which the person or entity who holds the land rights can exclude others from using the land’s resources; communal, in which members of a community have rights to use the same land independently, such as communal grazing land; open access, where no one is specifically given or excluded from rights to use the resources; or state, in which land rights are governed by an authority.

Land rights include use rights, which are the rights to use the land for resources such as growing food or grazing; control rights which are the rights to make decisions about use of the land; and transfer rights, or the rights to reallocate use  and control rights through sale or transfer of the land to another entity.

Access to land is a crucial asset for food production and is key to community development. Reliable access to land, along with use rights, control rights, and/or transfer rights, can give communities a valuable means of self-determination and ability to produce food for consumption and economic benefit, as well as building community and carrying on traditions. However, land is an increasingly scarce resource both in urban and in rural areas due to development, and economic and demographic shifts throughout society. People and communities who are historically marginalized often have more tenuous access to land, and are the most affected by loss or lack of access to land.

Urban Perspective

Urban communities in the United States have various relationships with food and agriculture that speak to their histories in the country. Families have had connections to the land through farming, sharecropping, or other long-standing cultural practices and traditions. Many people find they do not have access to healthy, affordable, and culturally relevant food and don’t have the resources needed to grow it for themselves and their communities. For many communities, access to land, and the ability to grow food, is about self-determination, education, community building, and preserving and maintaining traditions. Programs around urban farming and gardening often try to address multiple concerns at once, including land ownership.

"Stars Complex Urban Garden" by Gabriel Kamener, Sown Together is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Access to land continues to have many structural barriers in cities, especially when the focus is on growing food. Historic barriers have included the USDA making it difficult for farmers of color to secure loans. Ongoing barriers to accessing land include :

  • Land speculation.
  • Clarity around available land
  • Growers needing financial assistance purchasing land
  • Cities not having zoning that allows for urban agriculture

Accessing and growing food on land speaks to history, culture, and centuries-old traditions and meets real tangible needs. The USDA estimates that about 17.4% of the US lives in low-income and low food access census tracts. John Hopkins found that food deserts are more prevalent in neighborhoods with more people of color. Despite systemic barriers, many groups have developed  innovative approaches to addressing access to land, food sovereignty, and food apartheid. 

Organizations focused on educating youth and reconnecting to their histories through tending to land and growing food often utilize sustainable practices. Growing food impacts and is impacted by climate change because it requires healthy land, air, and water. Growing and harvesting practices, especially at large industrial scales, directly impact on environmental quality. Soul Fire Farm, while not urban, is one example of how many organizations are rooting themselves in practices that reflect their ancestries in order to sustain the health of the land, air, and water long term. 

During the Storm Uri in Texas, many farmers and gardeners had their crops destroyed. As the weather conditions become more extreme and unpredictable, farmers will need support as they try to adjust. The ability for growers to be supported and bounce back after these major shocks depend on their networks and local, regional, federal support.    

Growing food in urban areas for many people is about addressing issues around access, bringing forward practices of the past, and preparing for a more equitable future. 

Written by former Associate Urban Ecological Planner, Ucha Abbah

Rural Perspective

"Benton farms HDR" by thaddselden is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Access to land in a rural area is a very broad concept in that there are many types of land and many ways in which to access (or prevent access from) them. As access to land relates to food and agriculture in rural areas, there is a wide range in scale of food production that takes place, ranging from a family’s backyard garden to a grain production farm that plants on hundreds of thousands of acres. The type of food production that occurs is influenced by access to land, equipment, and labor as well as market conditions. These factors coalesce into spatial impacts that have bearing on ecology and on how people perceive places, which in turn leads to varying types of connection to the land for different people groups. Land in rural areas, its perception and its use, is a driver in people’s identities and livelihoods, and it can be leveraged to support a family, to support wildlife, or stewarded to strike a balance to support both.

For many people in rural areas, farming is a way of life. Many people who are farmers do so on land that has been passed down through generations and has been inextricably connected with their sense of identity. My own family is an example of this:  I grew up just a mile down a gravel road from where my mother grew up, my mother grew up among fields that her father farmed, a stone’s throw from where he himself grew up with cattle and corn raised by his father, on land that my great-great grandfather settled on after relocating to central Indiana from the banks of the Ohio River. Our stories revolve around the land that has framed our memories, our social networks, our income; in the way that so many people have before us, this is the land that we call home.

This type of emotive connection to land is referred to as “affective attachment” and is defined as a socially-constructed deep emotional tie to a place. People can also experience connections to land through functional or cognitive attachment which are based on behavioral interactions and constructed meaning, respectively. Researchers have found that land ownership is a strong indicator of emotional ties to land, especially paired with intergenerational stewardship and the capacity to shape the land over time (Baldwin, et al 38). These kinds of psychological interpretations and rationalizations of land affect how a person defines themselves and how they see themselves fitting into the stewardship of the land.

One aspect of land stewardship in rural areas can be discussed through the lens of a spectrum with production agriculture on one end and complete environmental preservation on the other. People who rely on agriculture for their livelihoods can occasionally be typecast as being a sort of antithesis to vibrant ecological systems. However, the connections that people form with the land that they cultivate catalyzes a desire to protect that land. The definition of protection becomes complex as the goals and impressions of responsible land management vary based on individuals’ experiences.

Some producers view care of their livestock and livelihood as paramount while others seek to find a balance in managing production and conservation in an effort to ensure that their land remains in a natural state while simultaneously being productive (Baldwin, et al 41).

Troy Bowditch of Arrowhill Farm in New Era, Michigan is a small-scale farmer and Worldwide Organization of Organic Farms (WWOOF) host who greatly values the balance of ecology and agriculture and seeks to cultivate symbiotic relationships wherever possible. When presented with a forested plot of land, Troy began managing a goat herd “for the purpose to…maintain our forest” (Bowditch 2021).This opportunistic approach with careful attention to relationships between production agriculture and ecological conservation is one manifestation of a facet of the complexity of the aforementioned spectrum.

One of the prominent drivers in determining where farmers fall on this spectrum of stewardship is the amount of land that falls under their care. Farms in the United States are classified as family farms or nonfamily farms, with the former being defined as “any farm organized as a sole proprietorship, partnership, or family corporation” (“Family Farms”). According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s census of Agriculture, almost 96 percent of farms in the United States are family farms. These family farms are further classified into categories based on gross income. Small farms have an annual gross cash income of under $350,000 and large farms have an annual gross cash income of over $1 million (MacDonald et al). With many family farms being incorporated and large farms accounting for 2.9 percent of all farms but 42 percent of total production, it appears that the disparity in size and production intensity between small and large farms is vast, and that size, rather than family versus corporation, is the dichotomy that should be explored when considering conservation and access to land

Farms that have gross incomes of over $1 million are likely to occupy thousands if not hundreds of thousands of acres, which calls into question who is managing land in this quantity and how they are developing a connection, whether affective, functional, or cognitive, to the land. Perhaps there is a size threshold that, once crossed, presents significant barriers on developing personal connection with land and could push a person farther to one side on the spectrum of production and preservation.

People in rural areas experience land in a variety of different ways that are impacted by complex decisions regarding their goals for the land as well as what resources and how much access to land is at their disposal. Rural farmland in the United States is a blend of commodity production, livestock and wildlife habitat, homes, and identities. People act as stewards for this land, often within familial structures, and can develop various physical and psychological connections to the land that result in collective yet nuanced conventions in how this rural land is viewed as a resource and as an extension of one’s self.

Written by Associate Designer, Tucker Rose

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Gender and Access To Land (FAO Land Tenure Studies). FAO, 2005, www.fao.org/3/y4308e/y4308e00.htm#Contents.
Laura Reiley, “Relief Bill is Most Significant Legislation for Black Farmers since Civil Rights Act, experts say,”Washington Post, March 8, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/03/08/reparations-black-farmers-stimulus/.
“Rhonda J. Smith, It Took a Group of Black Farmers to Start Fixing Land Ownership Problems in Detroit,” Civil Eats, November 6, 2020, https://civileats.com/2020/11/06/it-took-a-group-of-black-farmers-to-start-fixing-land-ownership-problems-in-detroit/.
“Documentation,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, accessed June 17th, 2021 https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-access-research-atlas/documentation/.
Whitney Sherman, “Research Shows Food Deserts More Abundant in Minority Neighborhoods,” John Hopkins Magazine, accessed accessed June 17th, 2021, https://hub.jhu.edu/magazine/2014/spring/racial-food-deserts/.
Rebecca Hersher and Allison Aubrey, “To Slow Global Warming, U.N. Warns Agriculture Must Change,” NPR, August 8, 2019 https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2019/08/08/748416223/to-slow-global-warming-u-n-warns-agriculture-must-change.
Jennifer Whitlock, “Winter Storm Uri Causes Over $600 Million in Ag Losses,” Texas Agriculture Daily, accessed June 17th, 2021 https://texasfarmbureau.org/winter-storm-uri-causes-over-600-million-in-ag-losses/.
Baldwin, Claudia, et al. “Love of the Land: Social-Ecological Connectivity of Rural Landholders.” Journal of Rural Studies, 2017, doi.org/10.1016/j.jrurstud.2017.01.012.
Bowditch, Troy [arrowhillfarmmi]. Video of goat forest management. Instagram. 23 May. 2021.
MacDonald, James, and Robert Hoppe. “Large Family Farms Continue To Dominate U.S. Agricultural Production.” USDA ERS – Large Family Farms Continue To Dominate U.S. Agricultural Production, USDA, 2017, www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2017/march/large-family-farms-continue-to-dominate-us-agricultural-production/.
MacDonald, James, and Robert Hoppe. “Large Family Farms Continue To Dominate U.S. Agricultural Production.” USDA ERS – Large Family Farms Continue To Dominate U.S. Agricultural Production, USDA, 2017, www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2017/march/large-family-farms-continue-to-dominate-us-agricultural-production/.


It’s important to acknowledge the role of cities and neighborhoods in the fight toward LGBTQ+ equality. Neighborhoods, or perhaps Gayborhoods, have played a key role throughout the country as both centers of activism in our cities as well as spaces for mental reprieve when it may feel like there is nowhere else you truly belong.

We completed the Montrose Livable Centers Study in early 2021, a comprehensive look at how a rapidly changing urban neighborhood could proactively improve quality of life for all residents by addressing multi-modal mobility issues, access to parks and green spaces, hotter and hotter urban environments, a rich cultural arts scene, issues with access to housing across income brackets, and more. Montrose is also widely known as the City and region’s hub for arts, counterculture, and LGBTQ+ community. This was at the forefront of our mind when we cultivated our team for the project, including a predominantly LGBTQ+ identified leadership team for both Asakura Robinson and sub-consultant Walter P. Moore, an academic advisory role for Dr. Petra Doan – an expert on LGBTQ+ planning, and a role for an equity-focused community art practice – UP Art Studio. 

In late October 2020 as a part of our work on the Montrose Study, we were honored to coordinate and host a panel of national experts whose previous work has focused on planning for and with LGBTQ+ communities. Alongside Dr. Petra Doan of Florida State University, Asakura Robinson facilitated a discussion on the importance of LGBTQ+ spaces in cities across the country, including conversation about the role of LGBTQ+ spaces in the larger regional ecosystems of cities being a refuge for rural LGBTQ+ folks who may be more likely to not have safe spaces in their own communities, as well as the importance of planning in understanding how to best recognize, honor, and support the preservation of LGBTQ+ places in cities.

Check out a recording of the panel below!

Planning for Inclusive Cities: The Importance of LGBTQ+ Spaces June 29, 2021   /   Speaking Engagements/Conferences