Urban agriculture

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Expert Opinion

Strategies with this rating are recommended by credible, impartial experts but have limited research documenting effects; further research, often with stronger designs, is needed to confirm effects.

Health Factors  
Date last updated
Community in Action

Urban agriculture or urban farming refers to activities that facilitate food production, primarily for sale, in urban environments. Many for-profit urban agriculture ventures use forms of controlled environment agriculture (CEA) such as vertical farms, hydroponics, aquaculture, greenhouses, and other efficient systems to maximize the productivity of small spaces1. Urban agriculture activities frequently take place on small areas of land such as median strips, rooftops, courtyards, and balconies, and can include edible landscapes, urban orchards, front yard or rooftop gardens, window farming, and vertical gardens in home or community settings2, 3. Typically urban agriculture activities produce food on a larger scale, beyond production strictly for home consumption or educational purposes4.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased access to fruits & vegetables

  • Strengthened local & regional food systems

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Reduced obesity rates

  • Increased food security

  • Increased healthy foods in food deserts

  • Increased earnings

  • Reduced emissions

  • Reduced runoff

  • Increased social capital

  • Improved sense of community

What does the research say about effectiveness?

Urban agriculture is a suggested strategy to increase access to fruits and vegetables and build more sustainable, self-reliant local food systems3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. Urban agriculture is also a suggested strategy to reduce hunger and obesity5, 6. Models suggest that many U.S. cities may be able to achieve near self-reliance for fresh produce, poultry, eggs, and honey7. Available evidence suggests that many small scale projects in an area can increase food security overall1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9. However, additional evidence is needed to confirm effects.

Participating in urban agriculture activities may increase willingness to try new fruits and vegetables among urban youth, and may increase fruit and vegetable consumption, especially among youth from more advantaged communities. State and federal policy support for community food system improvements is needed to improve access to healthy foods and healthy eating behavior more broadly10. In some cases, urban agriculture activities provide entrepreneurial opportunities, which are associated with increased income for participants8, 11, as well as greater levels of local business incubation, skills training, and job creation4, 9. Urban agriculture may increase social capital and strengthen community connections1, 9, 12, 13. Surveys suggest individuals with higher incomes may be more likely to engage in urban agriculture for environmental reasons, while those with lower incomes may be more likely to engage to improve food security14.

Urban agriculture activities may reduce fossil fuel energy used to produce, process, and transport food; reducing post-harvest storage and handling may also improve the taste and quality of food1, 5, 15. Urban agriculture activities may improve air quality and reduce impervious surfaces, diminishing urban heat island effects and stormwater runoff1, 2, 5, 9, 16. Other environmental benefits may include creating habitats for pollinators and increasing insect and animal biodiversity1, 2, 9, 16, 17. Experts suggest such ecosystem services can contribute to climate resilience2, 16. However, such benefits may not be realized if urban agriculture designs use chemicals and fertilizers, compete with native species2, or require large energy inputs for year-round food production, as in some northern climates13.

Some urban agriculture sites may contain lead contaminated soil and require remediation before beginning activity18, although studies show minimal uptake of lead into edible plant tissue when grown in contaminated soil19. Experts suggest urban agriculture is highly unlikely to increase incidence of elevated blood lead levels among children through direct (e.g., soil ingestion) or indirect exposure (e.g., plant consumption)20. Efforts to reduce lead exposure include washing and peeling produce, wearing gloves, mulching between crop rows, and planting borders of non-food perennials like flowers, to reduce dust and attract pollinators19.

Organized urban agriculture projects are often located in low income, inner city neighborhoods4, 11, which may reduce disparities in access to healthy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Municipal zoning policies can support urban agriculture activities by designating agricultural districts or specifying certain agricultural uses that are permitted or conditionally approved21. A Seattle-based study suggests urban agriculture policies and programs can benefit socio-economically disadvantaged residents by targeting city investments and permanently establishing more city land for urban agriculture. However, urban agriculture policies without explicit equity considerations may reinforce social inequities by being more beneficial for property owners12, and surveys suggest front yard gardening is associated with homeownership, and is more common in middle- and mixed-income neighborhoods14.

Price, location, food culture, or lack of interest may be challenges to successful urban agriculture; mobile food carts or farm stands, marketing foods with taste tests and cooking demonstrations, and youth mentorship may help remove barriers to purchasing healthy food produced by urban agriculture22. Additional challenges to implementing urban agriculture initiatives include initial installation costs, limited knowledge about new farming techniques23, and limited land availability24.

How could this strategy impact health disparities? This strategy is rated no impact on disparities likely.
Implementation Examples

Many non-profit organizations support urban agriculture efforts, for example, Cultivate Kansas City, which supports a network of farms25, and Keep Growing Detroit26. Some urban agriculture non-profits such as Growing Green Urban Farm in Buffalo, NY27 include compost, vermicompost, aquaponics, and livestock on their farms along with outreach efforts such as farmers markets, mobile markets, community supported agriculture (CSA), and education programs. Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands is the largest urban farm in Seattle; offering education, community meals, distributing low-cost produce, and emphasizing culturally-specific foods in its programming12, 28.

The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network works to build self-reliance, food security and justice in Detroit’s Black community through urban agriculture activities and other efforts29. In West Oakland, CA, City Slicker Farms provides training, tools, soil tests, and supplies to encourage urban farming and backyard gardening30. Weavers Way Coop in Philadelphia, PA sells large quantities of fresh produce from their own urban farms in Northwest Philadelphia31. Plant Chicago, located in a former meatpacking plant, is an example of an indoor urban farm32. The majority of urban rooftop farming is currently in North America, with the most examples in New York City and Chicago33, including Brooklyn Grange, New York City’s largest rooftop farm34.

State and local legislation can support urban agriculture initiatives. For example, California enacted legislation in 2013, renewed in 2017, that allows cities and counties to create incentive zones in urban areas for local food production, providing land owners a property tax break for urban agriculture or community gardening activities35. Cleveland, OH adjusted its zoning to promote urban gardens and to allow residents to keep livestock; the Cleveland High Tunnel Initiative offers grants to build steel-framed high tunnel greenhouses36, and the Gardening for Greenbacks program offers grants related to growing and selling produce16, 37. Tennessee and West Virginia also enacted legislation addressing infrastructure barriers and liability concerns related to community gardens38. Municipal policies and zoning plans in Seattle39, Boston40, and Somerville, MA41, and city government agency activities in San Francisco42 and Boston43 are examples of local efforts to support these initiatives.

The Five Borough Farm project in New York City recommends municipal governments create urban agriculture plans and address the need for technical assistance, networking, and outreach, to increase equity in urban agriculture activities44, 45. Philanthropic partnerships, such as Community Food Funders, can also support organizational capacity-building44, 46.

Implementation Resources

ATTRA-Urban ag - ATTRA. Urban and community agriculture.

ChangeLab-Growing food guide 2013 - ChangeLab 2013. Dig, eat, and be healthy: A guide to growing food on public property.

ChangeLab-Urban ag policies 2014 - ChangeLab 2014. Digging in: Local policies to support urban agriculture.

PolicyLink-Hagey 2012 - Hagey A, Rice S, Flournoy R. Growing urban agriculture: Equitable strategies and policies for improving access to healthy food and revitalizing communities. Oakland: PolicyLink; 2012.

PolicyLink-CGs 2008 - PolicyLink. Equitable development toolkit: Urban agriculture and community gardens. 2008.

USDA-Urban ag - U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), National Agricultural Library (NAL). Urban agriculture.

PAS-Zoning 2016 - Planning Advisory Service (PAS). Planning & zoning for health in the built environment. American Planning Association (APA); 2016.

UMO Ext-Urban ag - University of Missouri Extension (UMO Ext). Urban agriculture.

SRTSNP-Safe routes to healthy foods - Safe Routes to School National Partnership (SRTSNP). Healthy communities: Safe routes to healthy foods.

SELC-Urban ag 2018 - University of California Berkeley, UC Cooperative Extension, and the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC). California urban agriculture food safety guide: Laws and standard operating procedures for farming safely in the city. 2018.


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1 Goodman 2019 - Goodman W, Minner J. Will the urban agricultural revolution be vertical and soilless? A case study of controlled environment agriculture in New York City. Land Use Policy. 2019;83:160-173.

2 Lin 2015 - Lin BB, Philpott SM, Jha S. The future of urban agriculture and biodiversity-ecosystem services: Challenges and next steps. Basic and Applied Ecology. 2015;16(3):189-201.

3 Bellows 2004 - Bellows AC, Brown K, Smit J. Health benefits of urban agriculture. Portland, OR: Community Food Security Coalition's North American Initiative on Urban Agriculture; 2004.

4 Golden 2013 - Golden S. Urban agriculture impacts: Social, health, and economic: A literature review. Davis, CA: UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis; 2013.

5 CDC-Urban ag - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Land use planning and urban/peri-urban agriculture.

6 Clark 2013 - Clark KH, Nicholas KA. Introducing urban food forestry: A multifunctional approach to increase food security and provide ecosystem services. Landscape Ecology. 2013;28(9):1649-69.

7 Grewal 2012 - Grewal SS, Grewal PS. Can cities become self-reliant in food? Cities. 2012;29(1):1–11.

8 FAO-Food for cities - Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Food for the Cities: Production systems (UPA)

9 Santo 2016 - Santo R, Palmer A, Kim B. Vacant lots to vibrant plots: A review of the benefits and limitations of urban agriculture. Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. 2016:1-35.

10 Raj 2017 - Raj S, Raja S, Dukes BA. Beneficial but constrained: Role of urban agriculture programs in supporting healthy eating among youth. Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition. 2017;3:406-428.

11 Kaufman 2000 - Kaufman J, Bailkey M. Farming inside cities: Entrepreneurial urban agriculture in the United States. Cambridge: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy; 2000:WP00JK1.

12 Horst 2017 - Horst M, McClintock N, Hoey L. The intersection of planning, urban agriculture, and food justice: A review of the literature. Journal of the American Planning Association. 2017;83(3):277-295.

13 Goldstein 2016 - Goldstein B, Hauschild M, Fernandez J, et al. Testing the environmental performance of urban agriculture as a food supply in northern climates. Journal of Cleaner Production. 2016;135:984-994.

14 McClintock 2016 - McClintock N, Mahmoudi D, Simpson M, et al. Socio-spatial differentiation in the sustainable city: A mixed-methods assessment of residential gardens in metropolitan Portland, Oregon, USA. Landscape and Urban Planning. 2016;148:1-16.

15 Weidner 2019 - Weidner T, Yang A, Hamm MW. Consolidating the current knowledge on urban agriculture in productive urban food systems: Learnings, gaps and outlook. Journal of Cleaner Production. 2019;209:1637-1655.

16 Carlet 2017 - Carlet F, Schilling J, Heckert M. Greening U.S. legacy cities: Urban agriculture as a strategy for reclaiming vacant land. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. 2017;41(8):887-906.

17 Clucas 2018 - Clucas B, Parker ID, Feldpausch-Parke AM. A systematic review of the relationship between urban agriculture and biodiversity. Urban Ecosystems. 2018;21(4):635-643.

18 Wortman 2013 - Wortman SE, Lovell ST. Environmental challenges threatening the growth of urban agriculture in the United States. Journal of Environmental Quality. 2013;42(5):1283–94.

19 Wortman 2014 - Wortman SE, Lovell ST. Environmental challenges threatening the growth of urban agriculture in the United States. Journal of Environmental Quality. 2014;42(5):1283-1294.

20 Brown 2015b - Brown SL, Chaney RL, Hettiarachchi GM. Lead in urban soils: A real or perceived concern for urban agriculture? Journal of Environmental Quality. 2015;45(1):26-36.

21 Mukherji 2010 - Mukherji N, Morales A. Zoning for urban agriculture. American Planning Association. 2010;27(3):1-8.

22 Hu 2013 - Hu A, Acosta A, McDaniel A, Gittelsohn J. Community perspectives on barriers and strategies for promoting locally grown produce from an urban agriculture farm. Health Promotion Practice. 2013;14(1):69–74.

23 Al-Kodmany 2018 - Al-Kodmany K. The vertical farm: A review of developments and implications for the vertical city. Buildings. 2018;8(2):24.

24 Angotti 2015 - Angotti T. Urban agriculture: Long-term strategy or impossible dream? Lessons from prospect farm in Brooklyn, New York. Public Health. 2015;129(4):336-341.

25 CKC - Cultivate Kansas City (CKC), The Center for Urban Agriculture. Growing food, farms, and communities for a healthy food system.

26 KGD-GID - Keep Growing Detroit (KGD). Grown in Detroit (GID).

27 MAP-Urban ag - Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP) & Growing Green. Building the local community through food, urban farming and entrepreneurship.

28 Tilth Alliance - Tilth Alliance. Rainier Beach Urban Farm & Wetlands.

29 DBCFSN-Urban ag - Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN). About us: Agriculture, policy development, and cooperative buying.

30 CSF-Sustainable food - City Slicker Farms (CSF). Supporting a just and sustainable food system in West Oakland.

31 WWC-Our farms - Weavers Way Coop (WWC). Our farms: Community-owned food markets open to everyone.

32 Plant Chicago - Plant Chicago. Closed loop, open source for sustainable food production.

33 Buehler 2016 - Buehler D, Junge R. Global trends and current status of commercial urban rooftop farming. Sustainability. 2016;8(11):1108.

34 Brooklyn Grange - Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farms. About Brooklyn Grange.

35 SELC-Urban ag 2018 - University of California Berkeley, UC Cooperative Extension, and the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC). California urban agriculture food safety guide: Laws and standard operating procedures for farming safely in the city. 2018.

36 USDA-NRCS Ohio - U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Ohio. Cleveland High Tunnel Initiative.

37 Cleveland-Gardening for Greenbacks - City of Cleveland Economic Development. Gardening for Greenbacks.

38 NCSL Winterfeld 2014a - Winterfeld A. State actions to reduce and prevent childhood obesity in schools and communities: Summary and analysis of trends in legislation. National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL); 2014.

39 Seattle-Urban ag - Erickson L, Griggs K, Maria M, Serebrin H. Urban agriculture in Seattle: Policy & barriers. Seattle: City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, P-Patch Program, Department of Planning and Development.

40 BRA-Urban ag zoning - Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). Urban agriculture rezoning initiative.

41 Somerville-MUAI - City of Somerville. Mayor’s urban agriculture initiative.

42 SF DOE-Urban ag - San Francisco Department of the Environment (SF DOE). Urban agriculture: SF Environment's role in urban agriculture facilitating local food production and opportunities for urban gardening throughout San Francisco.

43 Boston-Urban ag - City of Boston. Urban agriculture.

44 Cohen 2015 - Cohen N, Reynolds K. Resource needs for a socially just and sustainable urban agriculture system: Lessons from New York City. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. 2015;30(1):103-114.

45 Five Borough Farm - Five Borough Farm. Seeding the future of urban agriculture in NYC.

46 Community Food Funders - Community Food Funders. About CFF: Mission.