Putting paradise in the parking lot: using zoning to promote urban agriculture.

Author:Maloney, Stephanie A.


In March of 1997, Mary Seton Coroby and her then-business partner Tom Sereduk stood on the abandoned, trash-strewn lot of a former galvanized steel plant in Philadelphia. (1) The old industrial site located amongst the still-operating factories of York Street (2) and a neighborhood of tightly packed row houses was perhaps the furthest thing from an archetypal farm property. (3) Undeterred, Mary and Tom capitalized on the beginnings of the "buy local" movement, planting and hydroponically (4) growing thirteen varieties of lettuce and selling to the City's restaurants. (5) Years later, Greensgrow Farm has transformed that once dilapidated industrial lot into a thriving business that earns close to one million dollars a year. (6)

Urban agriculture and the local food movement are altering the way Americans think about and experience food production, creating a "new wave of conscious eaters" (7) who want to buy fresh, local, and sustainably grown food. From Michelle Obama's organic vegetable garden on the South Lawn of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (8) to rooftop growing beds in Brooklyn, (9) Americans and their cities have begun to take notice of the urban agricultural movement (10) as a way to encourage health, food security, environmental stewardship, and economic and community development. (11) While the success of urban farms is tied to the vision and industriousness of local producers, (12) such as Mary Coroby, it is also inextricably tied to the municipal zoning regulations of the cities the farms call home.

The establishment and operation of urban agricultural activities are significantly affected by municipal zoning and land use policies. (13) On a general level, urban agriculture can be defined as "the growing, processing, and distribution of food and other products through intensive plant cultivation and animal husbandry in and around cities." (14) As cities begin to recognize the numerous forms and benefits of urban agriculture, some have taken steps to actively promote it through "protective zoning," (15) which sanctions agricultural production. Conversely, local policies can also place inhibitive restrictions on urban agriculture. Outdated zoning regulations frequently, and often unintentionally, present obstacles to urban agricultural development. (16) Restrictive zoning can prohibit city residents from raising farm animals, constructing greenhouses, and even selling produce from a backyard garden. (17) Examining the policy regimes of cities that have been leaders in urban agricultural zoning (18) can facilitate responsible consideration of the different kinds of zoning and the purposes those models are designed to serve.

This Note explores municipal zoning regulations related to urban agriculture and evaluates specific zoning mechanisms that can be implemented to promote the efficient accommodation of urban agriculture and access to locally grown food. Consideration of the benefits and costs of urban agriculture, alongside the zoning practices of leading cities, will assist in developing zoning laws that meet the needs of American cities and citizens. Part I of this Note introduces the concept and history of urban agriculture, providing an overview of its benefits and challenges. Part II examines municipal zoning and the principal zoning restrictions that impact farming and gardening in a city. Part III reviews the varied efforts of municipalities to support urban agriculture by incorporating it into local zoning codes. Part IV concludes by offering recommendations for the municipal integration of agriculture into the urban fabric, with particular attentiveness to participatory policymaking in the form of food policy councils. (19)


    A basic definition and knowledge of urban agriculture--its history, evolution, characteristics, benefits, and risks--is necessary to realizing how municipal planning and policy can promote farming and gardening in cities. This Part provides an overview of urban farming, emphasizing the diversity of form and function within the urban agricultural movement. This will supply the framework needed to understand current agricultural initiatives and evaluate the extent to which municipal zoning for agricultural promotion can be developed.

    1. Defining Urban Agriculture

      Historically, discussion of farming in American cities has "focused primarily on private ... and community gardens." (20) Today's urban agriculture exhibits much greater diversity and is characterized by a "wide range of types, sizes, and locations." (21) Urban farming is no longer just about vegetables; city-dwellers are raising chickens and pigs, farming fish, and even making honey on rooftops. (22) The definition and vision of urban agriculture has expanded beyond the community garden to include "not only growing plants and raising animals for consumption, but also the processing, distribution, marketing and sale of food products and food by-products, such as compost." (23)

      Fundamentally, "urban agriculture" is an umbrella term meant to capture the breadth and variety of municipal food growing and distribution practices, from private family gardens to intensive, entrepreneurial urban farms, from street vendors to canning plants. (24) Urban agriculture can be classified into many categories, (25) but for the purposes of this Note will be defined as "food production in cities, through plant cultivation or animal husbandry, and the processing and distribution of that food." (26) To that end, urban agriculture taps "resources (unused or under-used space, organic waste), services (technical extension, financing, transportation), and products (agrochemicals, tools, vehicles) ... and, in turn, generates resources (green areas, microclimates, compost), services (catering, recreation, therapy), and products (flowers, poultry, dairy) largely for [the] urban area." (27)

      Within this overarching definition fall the many variations of urban agriculture: "home vegetable gardens, orchards, community gardens, school gardens, roof gardens, market gardens, urban farms, aquaculture, greenhouses, animal husbandry as well as urban farm stands, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farmers' markets that sell produce from urban sources in urban areas." (28) Each expression of urban agriculture employs a different and unique type of municipal land space, according to the types of land available. Urban farms and gardens are appearing in "almost every corner of our cities," (29) in backyards and window boxes, on rooftops and roadsides, beside railroads and city rivers, in vacant lots, and on the grounds of schools, hospitals, and prisons. (30) An abandoned quarter-acre lot behind Crenshaw High School in South Central Los Angeles was transformed into a vegetable garden for environmental education. (31) In Seattle, underutilized City lands, public right-of-ways, and the ground beneath power lines have become home to community gardens coordinated by the P-Patch program. (32) In Queens, New York, Brooklyn Grange farm occupies an acre rooftop, holding about 1.2 million pounds of soil. (33) Indeed, "urban agriculture is anywhere and everywhere that people can find even the smallest space to plant a few seeds." (34)

      These varied forms of practice and location raise implications for urban planning and municipal zoning since much urban agriculture falls outside the range of traditional land use designations. (35) Land use controls, particularly zoning regulations, play an important role in the viability of urban agricultural production, infrastructure, and distribution. Municipal zoning policies govern the permissible land uses in any given area of the city, (36) often prohibiting a mixing of uses in an attempt to "order" the city. (37) As zoning is typically a restrictive regulatory mechanism, (38) urban agriculture is generally not permitted as of right in residential, commercial, or mixed use zoning districts (39)--meaning, for example, residents may be unable to raise chickens, erect greenhouses, or even grow vegetables above a certain height. (40) This separationist "order-maintenance agenda" (41) may be rooted in traditional zoning principles, but it does not necessarily parallel the history of urban agricultural activities.

    2. Centuries of City Farming: The History of American Urban Agriculture

      For most of human civilization, the histories of agriculture and cities have been closely connected. (42) Food production is perhaps the most basic of all human activities, (43) and many of the first great cities developed atop good farmland and were "designed ... in part to defend and control the food supply." (44) This intimate connection between urban and agricultural land physically and socially shaped the evolution of both for the better part of 11,000 years--"it is only in the last 100 years or so that we have attempted to separate the two." (45)

      Agricultural production has been present in American cities for centuries, dating back to the residential kitchen gardens of the colonial period. (46) Given that food production was the basis of most eighteenth-century regional economies, colonial America understood agriculture as central to urban economic growth. (47) As cities industrialized in the nineteenth century--presumptively putting urban land to "higher and better uses" (48)--land-intensive farming operations began shifting to the outlying rural and suburban areas. (49) Urban farmers downscaled to vegetable gardening, orchards, and other perishable crops. This transition coincided with the expansion of public markets, reducing the need for self-production of food.

      The financial panic and recession of the late 1800s ushered in a period of school gardens and vacant lot cultivation intended to address poverty and economic need. (50) Detroit introduced a garden "potato patch" program, (51) which was replicated by twenty other city governments, including Chicago, Philadelphia, and New...

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