University of Maryland Extension

What is urban agriculture?

Neith Little, Extension Agent, Urban Agriculture

Urban Ag home | Table of contents

Interest is high in urban agriculture, with many not-for-profits, businesses, municipalities, and individuals launching urban agriculture ventures. These individuals and organizations engage in urban agriculture to achieve a range of lofty private and public goals: to improve their own health and economic situation, to improve food access in their communities, to create income and jobs, to beautify their communities, to educate about gardening and farming, to create a feeling of community, and to provide ecosystem services for their communities (Santo, Palmer, & Kim, 2016).

But what is urban agriculture? How is urban agriculture defined by government agencies and researchers? What does urban agriculture look like in real life? What production systems and business models do urban producers use?

What is the definition of “urban agriculture”?

Urban agriculture has been most concisely defined by Wagstaff and Wortman (2013) as “all forms of agricultural production (food and non-food products) occurring within or around cities.”

Government agencies and the peer-reviewed literature have reached consensus on this broad definition of urban agriculture, which includes all production in or near cities of plants or animals, whether for personal use or for sale, whether soil-based or hydroponic (Diekmann et al., 2016; FAO, 2016; Hendrickson & Porth, 2012; Oberholtzer, Dimitri, & Pressman, 2014; USDA, 2016). Agricultural production near cities is further defined as “peri-urban agriculture” (Diekmann et al., 2016; Hendrickson & Porth, 2012; Oberholtzer et al., 2014).

What is the definition of “urban”?

Because urban agriculture includes a broad variety of agricultural production systems unified solely by their location in and near urban areas, defining “urban” becomes necessary to defining “urban agriculture.”

Most definitions of urban and rural areas are based on measurements of population density and land use, but different branches and agencies of the United States government use slightly different thresholds and scales to delineate between urban and rural areas (John & Reynnalls, 2016). Both the USDA-Economic Research Service and the Office of Management and Budget define rural and urban at the county level (Cromartie & Parker, 2018; Donovan, 2015). This can be helpful in identifying counties where land prices and markets are likely to be influenced by nearby metropolitan areas (Heimlich & Anderson, 2001), and thus where agriculture might be considered “peri-urban.” However, for the purpose of defining urban agriculture, the US Census Bureau’s Urbanized Areas and Urban Clusters are more useful (Ratcliffe, Burd, Holder, & Fields, 2016), because they are defined and mapped at a more fine-grained scale (Figure1).

What is urban agriculture-Figure 1Figure 1: Urbanized Areas in Maryland, as defined by the US Census Bureau. Map made by Neith Little, using open-access mapping software Grass GISand TIGERLINE shapefiles provided by the U.S. Census Bureau:

At the local level, zoning boards often differentiate between locations prioritized for urban development or for rural open space preservation. These zoning maps can also be helpful in defining urban agriculture (Figure 2).

What is urban agriculture figure 2Figure 2: Urban Rural Demarcation Line in Baltimore County, MD, as mapped by the Baltimore County Planning Department:

What does urban agriculture look like?

Urban agriculture encompasses a broad spectrum of production methods and business models. Production systems can be broadly categorized as

  1. Ground-based outdoor urban gardens and farms (Figure 3)
  2. Hydroponic or aquaponic indoor production (Figure 4)
  3. Rooftop gardens and farms (Figure 5)
  4. Landscaping and nursery businesses
  5. Urban livestock

More detail about different urban agriculture production systems will be covered in Chapter 1: Urban production systems.

Intro Figure 3- Whitelock Community Farm, Baltimore, MD
Figure 3: Outdoor urban agriculture can be done in raised beds or containers,in-ground in native or imported soil, and in high tunnels or hoop houses. Picture taken at Whitelock Community Farm, Baltimore, MD by Neith Little, UMD Extension.
Intro-Figure 4 Urban Pastoral, Baltimore, MDFigure 4: Basil grown hydroponically in a modified shipping container at Urban Pastoral, in Baltimore, MD. Photo by Neith Little, UMD Extension.
Intro-Figure5 Up Top Acres, Washington, DC.Figure 5: Okra growing on a retro-fitted green roof at Up Top Acres, in Washington, DC. Photo by Neith Little, UMD Extension.

Similarly, urban agriculture encompasses a spectrum of business structures:

Intro-Urban Agriculture business structures

Many personal and community urban gardens exist, but for-profit and not-for-profit urban farms also grow crops for sale or distribution. Whether they are organized as for-profit or not-for-profit businesses, most urban farms include benefiting their communities among their goals. Not-for-profit urban farms might focus primarily on producing healthy, affordable food for their community, or on employing community members who face barriers to employment, while for-profit urban farms often use a “Robin Hood” business model, selling high-value crops to chefs and at farmers markets in order to be able to subsidize selling produce at affordable prices to their neighbors. Urban agriculture can be economically important to the grower, whether by producing food for personal use, creating supplemental income through a “micro-enterprise”, or enabling urban residents to start businesses and become entrepreneurs.

Additionally, much grey area exists between gardening and farming. For example, “market gardening” is a term for a type of small-scale market-oriented production: growing a diverse variety of vegetables and fruits on small plots for direct marketing to local customers. And some community gardens are experimenting with Community Supported Agriculture subscription programs, whereby community members can access food either by the sweat-equity method of working in the garden, or by the market-based method of buying into the garden.

Those doing urban agriculture use a variety of words to describe themselves and the work they do, but usually government agencies and academics differentiate between gardening and farming by whether money changes hands. As soon as a product is sold for money, or a person is paid to do work, additional legal responsibilities begin to apply to an urban farm, related to regulations, taxes, and liability. More information about legal topics important to urban farmers will be covered in Chapter 4.

The rest of this guidebook will be written with urban farms in mind, with “urban farmer” defined as anyone who grows or raises agricultural products in an urban area, for sale, whether for-profit or not-for-profit.

Urban farms usually “direct-market” what they produce, that is they sell directly to their customer through farm-stands, farmers’ markets, CSAs, and direct sales to restaurants and institutional customers. Economies of scale, and proximity to customers, means that selling to wholesale distributors is less economically viable for small-scale urban farms than direct-marketing produce to urban customers. More information about markets and marketing of urban farm products to which urban farms sell their products will be covered in Chapter 3: Marketing challenges and opportunities.

Literature cited

Back to top  
Previous page: Introduction
Next page:
What does success look like for you? Setting goals for your urban farm

Maintained by the IET Department of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. © 2021. Web Accessibility

University programs, activities, and facilities are available to all without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, marital status, age, national origin, political affiliation, physical or mental disability, religion, protected veteran status, genetic information, personal appearance, or any other legally protected class. If you need a reasonable accommodation to participate in any event or activity, please contact your local University of Maryland Extension Office.