Urban Agriculture On the Rise:

Interested in the potential of urban agriculture? A recent study by the Turner Environmental Law Clinic at the Emory University School of Law offers an in-depth look at urban agriculture programs in various cities around the United States, and is a great template for people hoping to expand urban farming in their area.  The study, also sponsored by Georgia Organics, is one of the most comprehensive studies of urban farming policies across the country.  Some of the cities mentioned in the report have been quick to find ways to help urban agriculture thrive in the city, while others are still struggling to identify the best ways to encourage the growth of urban farming.  This wide variety of conditions in different cities demonstrates that there is no single best policy to encourage urban agriculture, but rather each city needs to develop its own policy based on its own needs.

Photo by Michael Levenston of City Farmer News

One example of a city where urban agriculture is well-established is Portland, Oregon.  In 1975, the Portland Department of Parks and Recreation started the Community Garden Program (CGP).  Through this program, farmers can rent land and receive the materials necessary to start their own garden.  Another program by the Portland Department of Parks and Recreation is called Produce for the People.  This program “…links community gardens with local emergency food agencies to provide individuals and families in need with fresh, healthy, local produce.”  It has helped to donate over 25 tons of fresh produce to emergency food providers since 1995.

Even with well-established and popular program like Portland’s, the city is looking for ways to expand and improve its urban farming practices.  For example, Portland’s Urban Food Zoning Code Update Project Advisory Group (PAG) is revising its zoning code to address community gardens, farmers’ markets, and urban food production.  Another issue the PAG is considering is how to best expand urban farming to the widest area possible without disturbing businesses or neighbors.  Now that issues like these have been identified, the next step for the PAG is to publish the Urban Food Zoning Code Concept Report, which will identify issues and possible solutions to these problems.

Baltimore has also been making great progress in urban agriculture.  Maryland has adopted initiatives to promote urban farming throughout the state, including a 2010 bill allowing the counties and the independent city of Baltimore to put in place an Urban Agriculture Tax Credit for property used for urban agriculture.  Before this, in 2008, the city government created an Office of Sustainability.  This Office aims to enhance the local food system by increasing the amount of land used for urban agriculture, developing an urban agriculture plan, increasing demand for local foods in schools and other places, and enacting the Baltimore Food Policy Task Force’s recommendations for food policy.

Currently, Baltimore’s zoning code allows only for “nurseries” and “truck gardens,” as well as agriculturally-related retail such as farmers’ markets, garden supply centers, and garden stores.  But in April 2010, Baltimore’s City Planning Department proposed a new version of the zoning code to simplify the existing code, and to protect open space and community gardens.  This zoning code has yet to be approved, but community gardens are thriving in Baltimore, partly due to the city’s willingness to sell vacant lots to community groups.  Many of the city’s vacant lots are being turned into community gardens, a trend that will accelerate if the proposed zoning code is approved.

Detroit was unique among the cities surveyed in that it did not permit urban agriculture in the city, due to the Michigan Right to Farm Act (RTFA).  The state of Michigan passed this law in 1981 to protect rural farmers from nuisance complaints by neighbors moving into rural areas.  To prevent local governments from enacting ordinances to restrict farming methods that may be considered a nuisance, the RTFA prohibits any government lower than the state from passing any codes, ordinances, etc. that conflict with the provisions in the Act.  This has the side effect of prohibiting cities like Detroit from formally recognizing urban agriculture as an allowable activity.  However, in 2010, officials in Detroit proposed a City Planning Commission draft report that would allow urban agriculture in the city.  This has yet to be approved.

Photo by Detroit Black Community Food Security Network

Despite the lack of provisions allowing for organic farming, several urban farms operate successfully in Detroit and have contributed to the greening of that city.  One such farm is the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which aims to address the issues about food security and food justice in the city, and which owns a seven-acre farm called D-Town Farm.  Another is the Garden Resource Program Collaborative, which provides “resources, support and community connections to families, schools and community gardens throughout Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park.”  Hantz Farms is a for-profit Detroit urban farming project that is still in the planning stages and aims to become the world’s largest urban farm.

This report shows that the urban farming movement is growing rapidly throughout the USA and will continue to grow as more people become aware of the benefits of growing and eating local foods.   The Georgia Organics report provides an overview of 16 US cities and is extremely user-friendly, containing extensive links, resources, and specific legislative case studies of great value for urban farming advocates across the country.

7 Responses to “Urban Agriculture On the Rise”
  1. Roxanne Christensen says:

    What policymakers continue to miss is that networks of sub-acre scale commercial urban farms can produce significant economic activity. That is because there have not been any economically viable crop production models that were appropriately scaled for cities. But in the last few years new farmers in the US and Canada have been having success with SPIN-Farming, which is an organic-based, small plot farming system that outlines how to make money growing in backyards, front lawns and neighborhood lots. The next important step in harnessing the full potential of urban agriculture is to convert some of the energy and enthusiasm surrounding urban agriculture into viable farming businesses. This will require training a large and diverse number of residents in appropriately scaled farming methods and microenterprise development and getting them up and operational quickly. This will create entrepreneurial neighborhood-based farms that will be the cornerstone for a broad local foods industry that will have a significant, and lasting, economic impact.

  2. Chris says:

    Interesting post. I’m especially interested in the SPIN-Farming idea you mentioned. If people used it to grow fresh, healthy foods for themselves while at the same time making money by selling leftover produce, then that could be a great way to promote local farming and also to provide fresh foods to people living in food deserts. Thanks for sharing this!

  3. Chris says:

    big business can’t make money if we all start farming our own land… geez….

  4. Bob says:

    Sounds like a lot depends on government over where you guys are; over here there’s a lot of initiatives “of the people, by the people, for the people” bottom-up-just-go-do-it:



  5. Dr John Andrew Siame says:

    Urban Agriculture (UA) makes a significant contribution to the welfare and nutrition of resource poor, low income households in many cities of the world. To the extent possible, UA should be encouraged and facilitated by favourable legislation.

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