Policy and Advocacy: Urban Agriculture & Community Gardens

From land use policies to zoning, find what you need to know about how to protect urban gardens and farms in cities.


Southeast Asian growers from Flats Mentor Farm, a periurban farm in Lancaster, Massachusetts, load produce for sale at Boston-area farmers’ markets, July 2008.  (photo by Martin Bailkey)


The most important policy issues relate to the consideration of urban and metropolitan farming as an approved land use. Nina Mukherji and Alfonso Morales, in a 2010 article for the American Planning Association, make an important zoning distinction between urban agriculture as a district or as a use category. Zoning divides a jurisdiction into areas and identifies allowable use within those areas, including single-or multi-family residential, neighborhood commercial, light industrial, agricultural, as well as a multitude of other uses. Zoning regulations establish development standards on lot size, density, use, setbacks, open space and parking building height, and signage. As a use category, urban farming is considered a set of practices that are permitted, forbidden, or conditionally approved for a specific land parcel. The creation of a district, on the other hand, results in a defined area where farming activities are reviewed and allowed for the public’s benefit.     

In 2007, the city of Cleveland amended its zoning ordinance to create urban garden districts to ensure that urban garden areas are appropriately located and protected to meet needs for local food production, community health, community education, garden-related job training, environmental enhancement, preservation of green space, and community enjoyment on sites for which urban gardens represent the highest and best use for the community. (Cleveland Zoning Code, Title 7, Ch. 336)

A related land use issue is how to regulate the direct selling of food produced from an urban farm site. This is an issue of commercial land use, and in some cities, such as New Orleans, commercial selling directly from gardens is illegal.  One emerging zoning approach is to designate “market gardens” as separate from “community gardens.” The amended Cleveland ordinance does this, and defines market gardens as an area of land managed and maintained by an individual or group of individuals to grow and harvest food crops and/or non-food, ornamental crops, such as flowers, to be sold for profit. This represents one of the first municipal actions to formally recognize an important difference between urban agriculture and community gardening.

Another land use issue that affects city farming involves the allowance and regulation of accessory structures such as greenhouses and hoophouses (also known as “high tunnels”).  Greenhouses are normally viewed as fixed buildings, with foundations and utilities, and thus regulated by municipal building codes.  Hoophouses, on the other hand, are not fixed; they can moved from place to place, and have no built foundation.  But because they can be of some length, and are spaces within which people work, they do share some characteristics with buildings.  So from a regulatory perspective hoophouses occupy a gray area.

Along with zoning, the most active local policy issue engaging today’s urban farmers is livestock raising – particularly chickens, which are banned in some large cities such as Toronto.  The desire to conduct animal husbandry represents a natural progression in the advancement of urban and metropolitan farming.  But from a policy standpoint, it pushes the envelope beyond community garden practices that are more widely accepted and not seen as nuisances or public health concerns. 

These concerns over livestock are being addressed by progressive policies in a growing number of cities.  Mukherji and Morales identified these recent actions:

  • Madison, WI – The city’s zoning code has expanded its original limited approval of residential chicken-keeping to now allow up to four chickens on a lot with up to four dwelling units, while also requiring a coop and forbidding roosters and slaughtering.
  • Portland, OR – A new section of the city code allows residents to apply for a livestock permit with the consent of neighbors living within 150 feet.  Up to three chickens, ducks, doves, pigeons, pygmy goats and rabbits may be kept without a permit.
  • San Antonio, TX – The city’s zoning code allows bovines, equines, sheep and goats if certain space requirements are met.

And in March 2010, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene voted unanimously to allow the keeping of common honeybees in all five boroughs, provided beekeepers register their hives with the Department.  “It’s nice to focus on bees,” said one victorious advocate, “and not have to worry about politics.”

Readers wishing to advocate for supportive metropolitan farming policies in their localities should first become aware of what farm operations currently exist and the policy barriers they face.  With this knowledge, an advocacy strategy can be designed that combines individual actions (such as contacting one’s councilperson or attending relevant public meetings) with working through intermediaries, such as a food policy council. Such a strategy can resemble a community garden campaign, as described elsewhere in the Food Security Learning Center.   


For over a decade, groups such as the Community Food Security Coalition and the American Community Gardening Association have dedicated a good portion of their advocacy efforts at the policies of US government agencies having direct or indirect relevance on urban and metropolitan agriculture.

Because of the food production opportunities, and the potential for metropolitan agriculture to alleviate community food insecurity, the Department of Agriculture – in particular policies funded through the omnibus Farm Bill package – have been a primary federal supporter.  Since 1996, the Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program, managed by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), has provided seed money for a significant number of urban and metropolitan farming projects, even though the program receives just $5 million annually for both grants and administration. Additional USDA support can come from farmers’ market initiatives that increase market opportunities for urban and metropolitan farmers.  And since urban and metropolitan farmers grow food through sustainable practices, they can benefit from USDA initiatives promoting sustainable agriculture.

Because the societal benefits of urban agriculture go beyond the food produced, advocates are also targeting other federal agencies, and their support mechanisms for urban communities.  These agencies include the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Human Services.  The Environmental Protection Agency, through its brownfield remediation programs has a particular interest in supporting innovative approaches towards converting former residential, commercial and industrial sites with varying levels of contamination.

As with local advocacy, federal advocacy can combine individual actions with collective efforts.  For those unfamiliar with how federal policy is created, urban agriculture advocacy offers a good way to learn.  (The Community Food Security Coalition offers a Federal Policy Advocacy Handbook online.)  Collective action involves learning of and joining with organizations combining the experience to understand federal food and agriculture policy with the human and financial resources for effective advocacy.   


Finally, it is becoming more apparent each year that the future of urban and metropolitan farming in the US and Canada will be greatly influenced by the degree that new urban/suburban Americans and Canadians with agricultural backgrounds (or those that simply want to learn how to farm) are allowed to apply those skills in their new country.  Thus, policies integrating immigrants, refugees and asylees from different cultures into the social networks of the US and Canada should be reviewed to determine what obstacles they present.

New England has become a laboratory for assimilating new Americans into community food systems.  Organizations such as the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project in Maine, and the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project and Flats Mentor Farm outside Boston, work to provide land, training and marketing opportunities in proximity to urban consumers.  While individually resourceful, new Americans are faced with a myriad of cultural and language barriers that make it particularly difficult to overcome government food production, management and marketing barriers.  The University of Massachusetts Extension, in partnership with USDA/NIFA, has developed a set of resources to help farmers from different cultures grow and market food for their cultural communities and the larger population.