What Is Urban Farming?

A Guide to Understanding Urban Farms

Urban Farm

Getty Images/Tara Moore

If you live in a city, chances are the topic of urban farming has come up once or twice in conversation or at community meetings. These small, but larger than a home garden sites have become a popular way for communities to bring fresh produce, eggs, and meat to the people living around them. Often, urban farms are in underserved areas (often referred to as food deserts), and may supply a small farmers' market or a simple roadside stand. The goal is to increase access to fresh, local food. Many urban farms exist right under the city dweller's noses, with people growing vegetables, gathering eggs, culling chicken for meat. It's a true farm-to-table movement, right in the backyard.

What Is Urban Farming?

Urban farming occurs when someone living in a city or heavily populated town repurposes their green space to grow food and/or raise smaller animals (think goats, rabbits, chickens, turkeys). Not every urban farm has to be at the owner's house; some urban farmers lease land and work the soil in other backyards, utilize rooftops or even farm indoors. Unlike a personal garden, an urban farmer grows to feed the community, sometimes selling it for little or no profit.

How to Start an Urban Farm

You need two things for urban farming: space to do it, and hard work. Farming, even on a small scale, involves planting, tilling, sowing, watering, weeding, and harvesting. It also requires research to learn what plants grow best for the zone in which the farm is located, in what season vegetables should be planted, and the best ways to help the vegetables and fruit thrive. 

An urban farm isn't a large venture like a rural, more commercial farm, and there are many ways to utilize a backyard, front yard, a borrowed plot of land, or an abandoned but repurposed brownfield. Space determines the type of urban farm you'll run, so do your homework ahead of time to determine what is and isn't permitted in your desired space.

Types of Urban Farms 

To get started, look at available space and how much food you want to grow. The types of plants will also play into it. For example, you can't grow runners like squash or cucumbers if you don't have room for them.

  • Rooftop Gardening: New York City and other urban centers boast rooftop gardens, but many of these green patches are actually urban farms. They're typically made of raised beds and usually get full sun, which is great but sometimes challenging; it's best for tomatoes, squash, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, and basil. (Shade structures can be created to protect and grow more delicate plants such as lettuces, radishes, herbs, and peas.) Rooftop farms are also great for keeping honeybees, which help with pollination and provide honey. The hardest part of maintaining a rooftop farm is getting water up there. Some buildings have water access on the roof, but many farmers run hoses up the side of the building or haul water each day. An irrigation system can help, if available. As a bonus, rooftop gardens improve air quality and reduce urban heat islands, which is when urban areas heat up more than rural areas
  • Vertical Farming: In this innovative method, farming happens indoors via stacked layers in a controlled environment, using hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics. This type of farming without soil is great for crisp and clean lettuces, greens, microgreens, mushrooms, tomatoes, and strawberries. Vertical farming loses less produce to pests and saves water, but it can be expensive to maintain a consistent growing environment and harder for plants to pollinate if they aren't outside. 
  • Yard Farming: Some urban farms are the size of a housing lot in someone's backyard, while others use the front yard and backyard to grow food. Imagine a mix of raised beds and ground gardens, green walls, small greenhouses, hoop houses, and areas for animals. The whole yard is typically utilized, with planting based on season. Many yard farms use compost areas and rain barrels for collecting water (though check the local laws surrounding water rights).
  • Animals: Raising animals and bees can be done on its own or alongside plants depending on the local laws. Urban farms favor smaller animals such as chickens, goats, turkeys, rabbits, and ducks. All animals need enough room to move, grow and live, as well as plenty of food and water and predator-proof shelter. Check the local cottage laws in regards to processing meat on a small farm, though not every city allows for it to be sold. Eggs fall into a different category so check the rule, though keep in mind any meat or dairy can be given away for free.

How to Find Urban Farms

It may not be obvious or easy to find them. Check social media, health foods stores, and even the local coffee shop, which may have such information. Many urban farms collaborate to host farmers' markets, or they may offer delivery or pickup. Some wholesale their products to local grocery and health foods stores, or sell at farmers' markets. Call and ask.

Benefits of Urban Farming

Urban farming provides healthy, fresh, locally grown produce, often to locations that are typically underserved. Aside from access, urban farms have a strong outreach component, educating people about how the food is grown, what grows in the region, ways to prepare the food, and the importance of seasonality, for example.

People increasingly take to urban farming to lower grocery bills and bring healthy foods to the collective plate. Some urban farms are designed to train people to farm and re-enter the workforce. Other ventures fit into the idea of making fresh food more accessible to economically disadvantaged communities.

Ultimately, urban farms help save money on groceries, limit the food's carbon footprint, and provide the chance to "shake the hand that feeds you". No matter the reason, urban farms are growing and fueling many cities. 

Check the Soil

Have the soil tested. In some urban areas the soil carries enough toxins that can make growing food in it difficult and/or unsafe. Some soils also have a lack of nutrients, which can be treated with compost, egg shells, banana peel water and other pH-balancing hacks. Another way around the soil roadblock is to create raised beds or doing a full-on soil replacement.

Article Sources
The Spruce Eats uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. What is an urban heat island? NASA Climate Kids.