CIRS Blog about Rural California

Originally published by CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture)

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America is blessed with some of the world’s most productive farmland, yet 40% of our food goes uneaten, according to a recent report by the National Resources Defense Council that analyzes food waste from farm to table to landfill. Among that waste, approximately 7% of planted fields are never harvested. With one in six Americans lacking a secure supply of food, how can this be?

There are many reasons that crops go unpicked: market prices are too low to justify the costs of harvest labor and transportation, produce is too ripe or doesn’t satisfy cosmetic criteria imposed by retailers, or farmers wind up with more crop than the market demands in a given season.

Eight years ago, Marin Organic, an association of Marin County organic farmers dedicated to promoting local and sustainable agriculture, witnessed this problem on a tour of Fresh Run Farm, where visitors saw a field full of unharvested zucchini. Farmer Peter Martinelli explained that he couldn’t sell much of the crop because markets had precise aesthetic standards and wouldn’t purchase squash that was crooked or too big.

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Fueling California's growth and diversity is the increased migration of populations into the state's various regions. Much of the recent growth has come from migrants and historical minority groups such as Latinos (mostly of Mexican descent) who now comprise over a third of the state's population and are projected to triple to over 31 million, or 52 percent of the state's population, by 2050. In 2000, only two of California's 58 counties (Imperial and Tulare) were 50 percent or more Latino. By 2050 it is expected that 22 will be over 50 percent Latino and 16 will be between 30 percent and 50 percent [1]. The continued association of many Latinos with their places of origin has produced transnational identities and cultural practices, yet this will no doubt change given that most Latinos will be native born in the near future [2]. The fact that California is now a “majority-minority” state underscores that we are truly at a cultural crossroads. However, struggles over place have become a battleground for issues related to anti-immigration and xenophobia. Everyday manifestations of these antagonisms include gang injunctions, curfew laws, zero-tolerance zones, and punitive day labor ordinances.

 

 

The tensions arising from the growth of Latino communities in California and the rest of the United States were the impetus for a series of “diálogos” sponsored by the Latinos and Planning Division of the American Planning Association. A total of nine forums were held in a number of states beginning in 2005 where professionals were asked to identify and prioritize key community planning challenges. Some of the states included California, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Texas. Several themes emerged as the top priority issues. These included the lack of participation of Latinos in planning decisions, the cultural divide that exists between practitioners and communities, and community designs that do not meet the needs and preferences of many Latinos.

 

One outcome of these discussions was the publication of Diálogos: Placemaking in Latino Communities (Routledge 2012). The aim of this educational resource is to assist individuals seeking to learn about, engage, and plan with Latino communities. One example is the growing practice of incremental construction in rural areas [3]. Incremental construction is a gradual process of construction and upgrading of dwellings as funds become available. With roots in common building practices in Latin America, this type of housing production occurs when there are few guiding regulations. However, it can take years to improve and expand houses, and site and home improvements depend more on the resources and needs of property owners than the concerns of neighbors. While there are benefits and challenges of incremental construction, it is a form of affordable housing for many Latino households that do not have access to mortgage financing. The adoption of local regulation to allow incremental forms of housing construction is important, as is the development of guidelines to meet health and safety standards. This example highlights the need for local policymakers and planners to rethink their assumptions and redirect their energies toward novel, creative, and adaptive strategies to accommodate the needs of low-income communities.

 

Different visions of “home” among Latinos often come into conflict with existing cultural norms. For many Latinos, local places provide a common sense of identity despite the fact that these groups often have roots elsewhere. One characteristic is a longing for homeland across national borders and thousands of miles away. One manifestation is the formation of hometown associations, or clubes de oriundos, that fundraise in the U.S. to implement public works and social projects in many rural towns in Latin America. A networked and expanded notion of home is inclusive of both material (that is, a house or piece of land) and immaterial qualities such as memory and imagination. This multifaceted conception of home also has implications for policy and regulation as many Latino families utilize their houses in ways that are out of compliance with local zoning ordinances. The use of residential sites for home businesses and household occupancy that exceeds “single family” standards are some examples. Becoming more familiar with how Latinos perceive their belonging and how these understandings may differ from local custom is an important step toward creating a community that everyone can call home.

 

Placemaking occurs when people attach associations and construct meanings in the places in which they live and work, play and pray. Civic engagement is one way in which Latino communities create a sense of belonging as they struggle to build community, and gain social and political standing. However, most methods of civic participation fall short when it comes to engaging Latinos in a meaningful way. By contrast, novel approaches to participation can build cross-cultural bridges between Latinos and non-Latinos, especially in rural communities that are often divided along cultural lines. One successful method is scenario planning and was used in the Central Valley to consider multiple, plausible realities, rather than a single plan or vision. Facilitated by the Great Valley Center, the aim was to develop a means by which Latinos could give a voice to their present condition and future prospects. Scenario planning, in this case, evaluated the differentiated effects that plans had in the Central Valley's Latino communities.

 

The growth of Latinos has implications for the immanent shape of California and will undoubtedly impact communities on multiple scales from metropolitan transportation policies to local land use configurations. However, the issues emanating from the changing landscape of California do not suggest that cultural differences are to be viewed as a problem to overcome. The increasingly diverse world we live in today presents an opportunity for elected officials, policymakers, and planners, among others to learn and apply new skills as cultural brokers. An important task is to not only build and make places with local communities, but also to reimagine how we practice democracy in a country that is yet to come, but is already here in California.

 

Sources:

 

[1] (State of California, Department of Finance, Population Projections for California and Its Counties 2000-2050, Sacramento, California, July 2007).

 

[2] D. Myers, J. Pitkin, and R. Ramirez, “The New Homegrown Majority in California: Recognizing the new reality of growing commitment to the Golden State,” Population Dynamics Research Group, School of Policy, Planning, and Development, USC, April 2009.

 

[3] Giusti, Cecilia & Olivares, Miriam (2012). Latinos and incremental construction: a case study of Texas colonias. In Michael Rios & Leonardo Vazquez (Eds.), Diálogos: Placemaking in Latino Communities (98-110). New York: Routledge.

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