10 US Cities Leading The Urban Ag Charge. #8 Will Surprise You

10 Cities That Are Leading The Way For Urban Ag

With Favorable Laws and Ordinances To Encourage And Support Urban Ag

While urban gardening has been a practice that goes back to the development of cities, commercial-scale farming has always traditionally been relegated to rural and suburban towns. In fact, many cities have laws, most decades old, that actually prevent urban ag on a large scale. Practically no one wants to live next to a feedlot for 10,000 chickens. As a result of our population density in cities, along with safety and sanitary concerns, we restricted most forms of intensive agriculture.

However, as our populations rise, our cities expand, and our farmland decreases we are seeing that we need to find more places to grow food if we are going to meet the demand of almost ten billion people by 2050. As a result, urban farming has been looked at as one of the great ways we can tackle this issue. It brings food locally to where the demand is highest, it relieves some of the pressure on rural farmers created by urban sprawl and allows them to focus on crops that make the most sense in rural settings. It’s also been a huge economic driver for the cities that are embracing urban farming, helping to create new jobs, keep more spending dollars local, revitalize blighted neighborhoods and much more.

Today we are going to look at 10 cities leading the charge, creating favorable zoning laws and ordinances, offering aid to urban farmers, and helping to create the infrastructure needed to support a local food ecosystem.

1. Detroit, MI

Detroit is likely the most well-known example of a city taking the initiative to reduce as much friction as possible in an effort to allow and support urban gardening and farming. In March 2013, Detroit City Council finally adopted the city’s first urban agriculture zoning ordinance recognizing agriculture as a legitimate land use and setting standards for it.

The ordinance establishes legal definitions for an array of urban agriculture uses, including aquaculture, aquaponics, farm stands, farmer’s markets, greenhouses, rainwater catchment systems, hoophouses, orchards, tree farms, urban farms and urban gardens. The ordinance has been so successful that it is becoming the basis of discussion for other cities in the country looking to use urban growing at any scale as an economic and social driver.

The ordinance has been in place for almost 5 years and the infrastructure that has sprouted around urban farming and gardening is amazing. The city is now home to 1350 community gardens, as well as farmer’s markets, food trucks, small urban growers and local businesses focused on neighborhood stabilization. There’s amazing help and resources out there for anyone who wants to start growing at any level.

2. Portland, OR

Portland and Eugene are home more urban gardens and urban gardeners than almost any other city in the country. However, it is Portland, that has really gone out to change the local landscape to be more inviting and supporting of urban growing practices. One of the main reasons, it has been actively supporting urban gardeners since 1975. The city now has two main programs that cover urban agriculture: a Community Gardens Program established in 1975 and a Sustainable Food Program.

“We have really focused on preserving the agriculture land that is right outside our border,” says Steve Cohen, who manages food policy and programming for Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. 

Portland is now home to over 25 farmers markets, over 20 acres of community gardens, and more than 150 food trucks. It’s safe to say that it has a thriving local food ecosystem thanks to its dedication to not only preserving land just outside city limits for farming, preventing the usual urban sprawl, but also creating the laws and infrastructure for community gardens, markets, small businesses and urban farmers to thrive.

3. Boston, MA

Boston is generally not the first city you think of when thinking about city’s leading the charge for urban farmers. Biotech maybe, but agriculture is not what Boston is known for. So it may be surprising to learn just how much Boston has supported changes that benefit and permit urban farming and food production.

In December of 2013, the City of Boston adopted Article 89 into their zoning code. This ordinance focused on providing structure for developing urban agriculture while also helping to promote its growth. Prior to the ordinance, there was nothing in city code that expressly allowed or discouraged urban agriculture in the city. Article 89 permits ground-level and roof-top farming, bee-keeping, chicken-keeping, aquaponics, and hydroponics as well as farm stands and farmer’s markets.

Boston now boasts over 200 community gardens making up 50 acres of grow space. More than 100 schools in Boston have gardens for learning. There are even numerous urban orchards across the city.

4. Austin, TX

The city of Austin adopted the Sustainable Urban Agriculture and Community Garden Program (SUACG) in 2009 providing a framework of guidelines for an established local food system. Today the city’s community gardens provide over 100,000 pounds of local fresh food annually. Austin has a young progressive population demographic that values local and healthy eating so gardeners and farmers have found the local market favorable to their produce.

The first step was to offer gardeners and small farmers the commercial rate for water. Then came tax benefits for small farmers, and a new allowance for farmers wishing to sell value-added items on site and at farmers’ markets. Austin City Council later adopted a resolution “to enhance local production of quality food and its accessibility to residents in Austin” by establishing city-sponsored support systems for sustainable urban farms and community gardens.

Austin is focused on smart water use and smart and healthy growing. It does not allow the use of pesticides in community gardens that are on city property. It’s about creating sustainable practices and sustainable support for its urban growers.

5. Chicago, IL

Chicago has been in the headlines for good and bad news on its urban farms. It houses some of the most successful, earliest, and largest urban and rooftop farms in the country. Chicago broke on the scene when FarmedHere started up, at the time the largest urban vertical farm in the country. It was also in the news when GothamGreens moved its second commercial rooftop greenhouse operation to Chicago after finding success in NYC.

In 2011, Chicago adopted a revision to its zoning code to allow urban agriculture as a permitted use within the city limits. With 64 food truck vendors, 24 seasonal markets and one year-round market, 62 urban farms and community gardens, 54 businesses and organizations actively promoting urban agriculture, not to mention an ever-growing bounty of restaurant rooftop gardens, Special attention to utilizing urban agriculture to revitalize urban neighborhoods on Chicago’s south side is paying dividends.

6. Seattle, WA

Seattle has always been a leader in urban farming and urban ag policy so it is no surprise to see them on the list of cites leading the charge in the US. With a community garden program established in 1973 and sustainability planning devised in 1994, Seattle has a long history of sustainable urban agriculture.

Seattle’s most popular urban agriculture program is the P-Patch community garden program. One of the largest community gardening operations in the nation, P-Patch began in 1973 and today consists of 85 patches comprising 31 acres of urban space including community gardens, youth gardens, and several market gardens. P-Patch growers donated 28,637 pounds to food banks and meal programs in 2013.

The Neighborhood Farmer’s Market Alliance manages seven farmer’s markets in the city. There are over 30 CSAs and dozens of urban farms in town and in the outlying region creating a vibrant local food culture.  The city’s latest urban agriculture addition is the Urban Garden Share program matching experienced gardeners that live in condos and apartment with local gardens with growing space to share.

7. Cleveland, OH

Cleveland only recently started making a concerted effort into creating and passing policy that supports urban farming and gardening initiatives. They began with green space policies in 2005 and then by 2007 they had already adopted favorable policies for urban gardens and urban farmers’ markets and that same year established a food policy council.

By 2010 they had policies for urban farming, chicken, and bee-keeping. Today they have 20 farmers markets, over 30 CSA and more than 200 community gardens. They have focused on bringing farms and gardens to blighted neighborhoods as a way to brighten those areas as well as provide gardening opportunities for low-income residents. Currently, the city’s Office of Sustainability is working on “Sustainable Cleveland 2019”, an initiative that brings together city players and resources with the goal of making Cleveland green, resilient and thriving for decades to come.

8. Baltimore, MD

Baltimore was the big shocker when researching cities with urban ag initiatives. Bu Baltimore in recent years has put a big focus on creating an urban agriculture plan to deal with the cities high vacancy, high poverty residents and as an economic driver. In, 2009 Baltimore created the Baltimore Sustainability Plan which provided and overview and recommendations to move the city towards a sustainable future.

In 2013 they put a larger focus on supporting the local food ecosystem with their ‘HomeGrown Baltimore: Grow Local’ a plan to “grow local, buy local and eat local”. The city sees its role as one that should support an already underway local food movement rather than trying to create what’s not there.

One of the most important steps towards achieving this goal is changing the zoning code to explicitly allow farms and community gardens in the city limits.

9. Minneapolis, MN

An urban agriculture ordinance passed in March of 2012 to implement the plan’s recommendations, providing detailed guidelines and use requirements for current and emerging urban farmers and growers. The City of Minneapolis is helping emerging urban agricultural businesses tackle the zoning, ordinances and permit requirements necessary for doing business.The Minneapolis Food Council collaborating with the Homegrown Minneapolis initiative makes urban agriculture policy recommendations to the city.

A number of sustainability programs, ordinances and codes have passed in recent years including an Urban Agriculture Policy Plan, changes to zoning laws to allow for sustainable urban development, the creation of a local food hub network and the adoption of a Climate Action Plan to reduce emissions in the city.

Home to over 80 food trucks, approximately 25 mini-farmers’ markets, seven large farmers’ markets and 200 community food-producing gardens, the City of Minneapolis continues to be among the leaders in the country in fostering urban agriculture and local food businesses.

10. Milwaukee, WI

In April 2012, a zoning code audit for the city supported the idea of promoting urban agriculture to build a new economy. Zoning for agriculture, bees and greenhouses already existed. Through the Office of Sustainability’s HOME GR/OWN program, vacant lots are being transformed into green spaces, urban farms, community gardens and city orchards.

With community garden grants, chicken and bee ordinances, vacant lot leases, tax breaks for Brownfield cleanup and funding for sustainable manufacturing, Milwaukee sets the bar high for city support of urban agriculture. The hope is that these initiatives not only solve access to healthy food, as Milwaukee is considered a food desert in areas, but also make assets of out the city’s current liabilities (such as vacant lots and Brownfields.

Conclusion: What Works Best For Supporting Urban Farms

There are a lot of similarities and differences between all the examples we’ve looked at of cities supporting urban agriculture. But there are a few areas that seem to have created the most impact, and the most thriving urban food ecosystems.

The thing they all share in common is that the ability to grow food in an urban environment needs to become much easier and the laws and ordinances need to support it. In the cases of Detroit and Milwaukee, we see the city focusing on using its distressed property’s and neighborhoods and bringing community gardens in as a way to revive the neighborhood, help increase food access and security, and stimulate the local economy. In a city like Chicago, we see this take form with increased support and resources to help commercial farmers find it easier to get permits, land, and funding to start their farms.

Another way cities are helping is by easing the economic burden for farmers with things like tax incentives, grants, and low-no interest loans. They also in some cases, offer assistance via low-cost land, free Brownfields with assistance for remediation, or other ways to find space for farmers to farm. Tax incentives are huge as well because it bridges the gap between the tax breaks on land that rural farmers see but have largely been unavailable to urban farmers who typically do not own the land they farm.

Cities are also helping local growers succeed by supporting and providing the infrastructure for farmers markets, CSAs and other methods of distribution. Helping farmers get their product off the farm and into the community is crucial to their sustainability long-term. Cities with the most thriving urban ag are ones that have thriving local farmers markets and CSA programs.

Finally, cities that focus on marketing their programs and resources are the ones that end up with the most successful and thriving local food networks. One of the biggest challenges for farmers is trying to learn about all the incentives, resources and specialized education they need to succeed. Detroit has a 9-week course that specializes in almost all areas of urban farming and is a large reason why they have been so successful in getting both recreational and commercial farms to thrive in their city. They focus on teaching farmers and would-be farmers about all the skills and resources they need in order to be successful.


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