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Zoning for Urban Agriculture


Urban Agriculture issue of Zoning Practice

by Nina Mukherji and Alfonso Morales
Zoning Practice – American Planning Association
March 2010
Nina Mukherji received her master’s degree in conservation biology and sustainable development from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Alfonso Morales is assistant professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

As sustainability moves up the municipal agenda, cities have begun to take an interest in urban agriculture as a way to promote health, to support economic and community development, and to improve the urban environment. This article places urban agriculture in a historical context, examines regulatory approaches, and makes recommendations for planning and zoning practice.


Zoning for Urban Agriculture

As sustainability has moved up the municipal agenda, cities have begun to take interest in urban agriculture as a way to promote health, to support economic and community development, and to improve the urban environment. Urban agriculture can include a number of food production and distribution-related activities, which for our purposes include food production through plant cultivation or animal husbandry as well as some nonindustrial processing and distribution of that food.

Urban agriculture can include temporary uses or more permanent responses to local food deserts, consumer demand, economic inequality, and mobility-constrained populations. When properly sited, urban agriculture projects provide neighborhood amenities and can contribute to a positive community image. Because of the diversity of its forms and benefits, urban agriculture can be seen as a powerful tool in a planner’s repertoire.

Whether intentional or not, municipal policy affects urban agricultural activities. Some cities actively promote urban agriculture through funding, land donations, or protective zoning. Unfortunately, local policies can also present barriers to urban agriculture, particularly when restrictive zoning makes urban agriculture difficult.

Urban agriculture has been considered in a number of recent comprehensive plans and neighborhood plans. In Seattle, the 2005 comprehensive plan requires at least one community garden for every 2,500 households in an urban village or neighborhood (Seattle Comprehensive Plan, Urban Village Appendix B). In response to public pressure, Vancouver, British Columbia, created a multidisciplinary taskforce representing various government offices and tasked it with developing recommendations for urban agriculture throughout the city (City of Vancouver, Community Services Group memo, January, 2009). Similarly, Milwaukee has urban agriculture advocates on almost every committee for its comprehensive plan revision process.

In addition to land-use planning, some cities have developed sustainability plans that address food issues, including urban agriculture. The Office of Environmental Quality in Kansas City, Missouri, included a detailed set of recommendations to promote urban agriculture in its Climate Protection Plan. The 2009 Baltimore Sustainability Plan addresses both production and distribution of local food, with specific provisions about urban agriculture. There is, for instance, a recommendation to “identify the predicted demand for urban farmed food and recommend location and distribution of urban agricultural institutions” (Baltimore Sustainability Plan, Greening Chapter). Finally, Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco declared food system planning the responsibility of city government (Executive Directive, July 2009).

Unlike comprehensive planning and programs used to promote urban agriculture, zoning is typically a restrictive, regulatory mechanism. However, planners interested in urban agriculture can do valuable work by reviewing and redesigning ordinances related to urban agriculture.

In zoning, urban agriculture can be treated either as a district or as a use category. It is common for local zoning regulations to permit a wide range of agricultural activities, including raising crops and animals, in designated agricultural districts in rural areas or on the urban fringe. This approach is being extended to urban agriculture in some cities, including Cleveland and Boston. Another approach is to treat urban agriculture as a use or set of uses that are permitted, conditional, or forbidden, depending on the district, as illustrated by cities such as Portland, Oregon, and Milwaukee. Both approaches have merit, and as we will see, they are not mutually exclusive.

It may be helpful for planners to think of agriculture in four categories based on two dimensions: the extent or dispersal of agricultural practices and the intensity of urban agricultural activities. The first category, extensive/intensive agriculture, includes rural and periurban farming and associated activities. The second category, less extensive/intensive urban agriculture, describes urban farms and farmers markets. The third category, extensive/less intensive urban agriculture, applies to backyard and community gardens. The fourth category implies little urban agricultural activity. This less extensive/less intensive urban agriculture was the situation in most cities until fairly recently, mostly due to the diminished interest in these activities in the middle 20th century. Here, home gardening is contingent on personal interest but is neither encouraged nor discouraged; community gardens exist, but irregularly and often outside regulatory regimes.

When considering policy changes, it may be helpful for planners to consider the following questions:

What are the possible urban agriculture activities for our city?
What can be allowed in a widespread way with little controversy?
What can be allowed, but controlled?
What can be allowed, but only in some places?
Are there some places where specific activities should be particularly encouraged?
Who are the likely participants and how can positive relationships be fostered?

The complete article (8 pages special issue of Urban as a PDF) can be purchased for $10 here.