Urban agriculture

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 spaces (). 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 settings (, Bellows 2004). Typically urban agriculture activities produce food on a larger scale, beyond production strictly for home consumption or educational purposes (Golden 2013).

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Increased access to fruits & vegetables

  • Strengthened local & regional food systems

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • 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

Evidence of Effectiveness

Urban agriculture is a suggested strategy to increase access to fruits and vegetables and build more sustainable, self-reliant local food systems (CDC-Urban ag, Clark 2013, Grewal 2012, FAO-Food for cities, Bellows 2004, Golden 2013). Urban agriculture is also a suggested strategy to reduce hunger and obesity (CDC-Urban ag, Clark 2013). Models suggest that many US cities may be able to achieve near self-reliance for fresh produce, poultry, eggs, and honey (Grewal 2012). Available evidence suggests that many small scale projects in an area can increase food security overall (, , Santo 2016, Clark 2013, Grewal 2012, Bellows 2004, Golden 2013). 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 broadly (). In some cases, urban agriculture activities provide entrepreneurial opportunities, which are associated with increased income for participants (Kaufman 2000, FAO-Food for cities), as well as greater levels of local business incubation, skills training, and job creation (Santo 2016, Golden 2013). Urban agriculture may increase social capital and strengthen community connections (, Horst 2017, Santo 2016, ). 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 security ().

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 food (, , CDC-Urban ag). Urban agriculture activities may improve air quality and reduce impervious surfaces, diminishing urban heat island effects and stormwater runoff (, , Santo 2016, , CDC-Urban ag). Other environmental benefits may include creating habitats for pollinators and increasing insect and animal biodiversity (, , Clucas 2018, Santo 2016, ). Experts suggest such ecosystem services can contribute to climate resilience (, ). However, such benefits may not be realized if urban agriculture designs use chemicals and fertilizers, compete with native species (), or require large energy inputs for year-round food production, as in some northern climates ().

Some urban agriculture sites may contain lead contaminated soil and require remediation before beginning activity (), although studies show minimal uptake of lead into edible plant tissue when grown in contaminated soil (). 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) (). 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 pollinators ().

Organized urban agriculture projects are often located in low income, inner city neighborhoods (Kaufman 2000, Golden 2013), 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 approved (Mukherji 2010). A Seattle-based study suggests urban agriculture policies and programs can benefit socioeconomically 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 owners (Horst 2017), and surveys suggest front yard gardening is associated with homeownership, and is more common in middle- and mixed-income neighborhoods ().

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 agriculture (Hu 2013). Additional challenges to implementing urban agriculture initiatives include initial installation costs, limited knowledge about new farming techniques (Al-Kodmany 2018), and limited land availability ().

Impact on Disparities

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 farms (CKC), and Keep Growing Detroit (KGD-GID). Some urban agriculture non-profits such as Greensgrow in Philadelphia, PA (Greensgrow-Urban farm) and Growing Green Urban Farm in Buffalo, NY (MAP-Urban ag) 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 programming (Horst 2017, Tilth Alliance).

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 efforts (DBCFSN-Urban ag). In West Oakland, CA, City Slicker Farms provides training, tools, soil tests, and supplies to encourage urban farming and backyard gardening (CSF-Sustainable food). Weavers Way Coop in Philadelphia, PA sells large quantities of fresh produce from their own urban farms in Northwest Philadelphia (WWC-Our farms). Plant Chicago, located in a former meatpacking plant, is an example of an indoor urban farm (Plant Chicago). The majority of urban rooftop farming is currently in North America, with the most examples in New York City and Chicago (Buehler 2016), including Brooklyn Grange, New York City’s largest rooftop farm (Brooklyn Grange).

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 activities (SELC-Urban ag 2018). 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 greenhouses (USDA-NRCS Ohio), and the Gardening for Greenbacks program offers grants related to growing and selling produce (City of Cleveland-Gardening for Greenbacks, ). Tennessee and West Virginia also enacted legislation addressing infrastructure barriers and liability concerns related to community gardens (NCSL Winterfeld-Obesity prevention 2014). Municipal policies and zoning plans in Seattle (Seattle-Urban ag), Boston (BRA-Urban ag zoning), and Somerville, MA (Somerville-MUAI), and city government agency activities in San Francisco (SF DOE-Urban ag) and Boston (Boston-Urban ag) 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 activities (, Five Borough Farm). Philanthropic partnerships, such as Community Food Funders, can also support organizational capacity-building (, Community Food Funders).

Implementation Resources

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

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

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

ATTRA-Urban ag - ATTRA. Urban and community 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.

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

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

SELC-Urban ag 2018 - UC 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.

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.

Citations - Evidence

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

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

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

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Citations - Implementation Examples

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

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

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

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

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

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.

NCSL Winterfeld-Obesity prevention 2014 - 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.

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

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

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

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

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

Greensgrow-Urban farm - Greensgrow. Urban farm: Growers of food, flowers, and neighborhoods.

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.

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

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

SELC-Urban ag 2018 - UC 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.

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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.

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

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

Date Last Updated

Sep 22, 2019