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Urban Agriculture

Urban agriculture allows for the development of a variety of environmental, economic, and social benefits to the surrounding communities. Urban farming can reduce transportation costs, help reduce runoff associated with heavy rainfall, and lead to better air quality. Beekeeping and cultivation of native plants can provide pollination services to the community. Supporting local food producers, such as through a community supported agriculture (CSA) membership, also contributes to regional economic development by keeping capital within the local economy. 

Technological innovations have enabled urban farmers to move beyond traditional urban methods and expand their operations and growing seasons. These innovations include vertical farms, hydroponic greenhouses (e.g., soilless systems), and aquaponic facilities (e.g., growing fish and plants together in an integrated system). 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a history of supporting urban agriculture as part of the local and regional food systems. Examples include USDA farmers market programs, rural cooperative grants, child nutrition programs, and USDA research and cooperative extension services. This support expanded with the enactment of the 2018 Farm bill, which authorized numerous resources for urban agriculture, including:

  • an Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production to encourage and promote urban, indoor, and other emerging agricultural practices;
  • an Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production Advisory Committee;
  • USDA grant authority to support urban agriculture development and innovative production; and
  • pilot projects for counties with a high concentration of urban or suburban farms. 

Currently, there is not a statutory or single formal definition of urban agriculture. However, other definitions do provide general guidance. USDA defines the term “farm” as an entity that produces at least $1,000 worth of agricultural products annually. While this definition is helpful, it may exclude some operations such as community gardens, very small commercial farms, and nonprofit farms. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) defines “urban” as a geographic area that contains at least one urbanized area of 50,000 or more people, plus adjacent territory that is economically connected to the central urban area. 

In contrast, the Census Bureau categorizes urban areas into two types based on population size and density: urbanized areas and urban clusters. According to the Census Bureau, an urbanized area contains a population of 50,000 or above. Population density is 1,000 persons per square mile, with adjacent territory of at least 500 persons per square mile. Urban clusters are, by comparison, less densely populated with populations between 2,500 and 50,000. Urban clusters are often identified with the populated areas around small towns and cities. Urban areas of either type may not adhere to municipal boundaries.

The USDA website describes urban agriculture as, “City and suburban agriculture [that] takes the form of backyard, roof-top and balcony gardening, community gardening in vacant lots and parks, roadside urban fringe agriculture and livestock grazing in open space.”  Among the types of foods grown are vegetables, mushrooms, medicinal and ornamental plants, and fruit trees.  Animal and livestock options in urban agriculture include chickens, fish, goats, and honey bees. Currently, the USDA does not collect data on the number of urban farms in the U.S. 

While urban agriculture is not defined by U.S. law, the 2018 Farm Bill (Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, P.L. 115-334) refers to the urban farming demographic as urban, indoor, and other emerging agricultural production. 

  • Yes. Urban agriculture is loosely defined as the production, distribution, and marketing of food and other products within the geographical limits of a metropolitan area. This includes community and school gardens, backyard and rooftop plots, and non-traditional methods of caring for plants and animals within a constrained area. Some definitions also include farms that supply to urban farmers markets, community supported agriculture, or farms located within metropolitan green belts. Zoning is a critical issue in urban agriculture. Zoning dictates what growing is allowed and whether animal farming is permitted. Most cities have strong restrictions on raising animals for production purposes, so most urban farming involves gardening.

    Key Types of Urban Farms

    • Institutional Farms and Gardens – Typically linked with an institution (such as hospitals, churches, prisons, schools, public housing) whose primary mission is not large-scale food production, but instead to provide health, educational, and lifestyle opportunities.
    • Community Gardens – Usually located on publicly-owned land or land trusts and managed by local resident volunteers. Community gardens mostly grow food, but some also grow flowers. Some community gardens provide space for community gatherings and events.
    • Community Farms – Communal growing spaces operated by a nonprofit organization that engages the surrounding community in food production as well as social and educational programming.
    • Commercial Farms – Some for-profit farms exist in urban areas, although they tend to be small and often produce niche products. Some small urban commercial farms focus on non-traditional growing techniques like vertical or soilless farming. 
  • The USDA provides a variety of funding for small farmers that often encompasses urban agriculture. Access the Agricultural Funding Resources page to review programs and options. Many states and local governments also offer funding programs. Access each state’s department of agriculture at the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture’s state directory

  • All fifty states have right-to-farm statutes. These laws are meant to protect farmers from nuisance lawsuits filed by an individual who moves to an area where a farming operation exists, or in some cases where a farm has existed substantially unchanged for some time, and who files a lawsuit to stop the farming operation. 

    However, there are some limitations to the protections provided by right-to-farm statutes. Some states condition nuisance protection on a farm's compliance with state and federal laws and if the operation follows good agricultural practice. These limitations fall into at least one of the following categories.

    • Compliance with State and Federal Laws: The farming operation must be compliant with the applicable state and federal laws, otherwise the right-to-farm nuisance suit protection does not apply.
    • Following Good Agricultural Practice: Various states’ right-to-farm laws are only applicable to farms that follow good agricultural practices. Some states may legally define “good agricultural practices;” other states have provisions that generally require the farming operation to comply with good agricultural practices as required by industry customs.
    • Public Health and Safety: If the farming operation has an adverse effect on public health and safety, the operation may be considered a nuisance.
  • Yes. One major safety concern is the risk of contaminants, lead or other heavy metals in the soil. It is important to investigate the history of the land where produce may be grown, especially if the land is near a former industrial site. Soil tests are recommended for all new gardening sites. In areas with soil health issues, using raised beds or planting in imported soil may reduce the chances of contamination. 

  • The Healthy Food Policy Project has a guide on zoning for urban agriculture that addresses zoning laws that can support urban farming and access to healthy food.

Legal

U.S. Government Publishing Office.
U.S. Government Publishing Office.
U.S. Government Publishing Office.

Agricultural Law Information Partnership

Center for Agriculture and Food Systems. Vermont Law School. 
National Agricultural Law Center.
National Agricultural Law Center. 
Center for Agriculture and Food Systems. Vermont Law School.

USDA

USDA. National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
USDA. NAL. Alternative Farming Systems Information Center.
USDA. National Agricultural Library.
U.S. Department of Agriculture.
USDA. NAL. Alternative Farming Systems Information Center.
USDA. Natural Resources Conservation Service.
USDA. Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Other

Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Environmental Protection Agency.
National Center for Appropriate Technology. ATTRA.
Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Forestry (RUAF).
National Conference of State Legislatures.
National Center for Appropriate Technology. ATTRA - National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service.
Environmental Protection Agency.