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Growing Cities: How Local Governments Can Promote Urban Farming and Community Gardens

Growing Cities: How Local Governments Can Promote Urban Farming and Community Gardens

With the arrival of spring and warmer weather right around the corner (crossing fingers, here), it’s time to start planning and planting our vegetable gardens. In cities, these gardens may take the form of containers on an apartment patio, raised beds in the parking strip, rooftop gardens, rented plots at a community P-Patch, or even small-scale urban farms. This blog post will explore ways that local governments are helping to promote urban and community gardens and farms, and what more could be done to bolster the locally-grown food supply. I’ll first highlight some existing programs and projects, and then consider how local policies and regulations can either incentivize or hinder different urban gardening and farming approaches.

Programs Promoting Urban Gardening and Farming

Many government agencies and nonprofit organizations have wholly embraced community gardens and urban farming. Local governments are in a great position to promote the cultivation of urban gardens and farms, either on public or private property. The City of Seattle has developed a Food Action Plan which includes a strong emphasis on growing food locally. In addition, Seattle has a long history of supporting neighborhood P-Patches, or community garden plots open to the public throughout the city. A portion of every P-Patch is dedicated to growing food for local food banks and other feeding programs. Among the more fascinating P-Patch projects in Seattle is the Beacon Food Forest, which utilizes a practice called permaculture that aims to simulate the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems when growing food. A similar project is the Woolley Food Forest, which will eventually provide food to the local food bank in Sedro-Woolley.

What Else Can Local Governments Do?

If your city would like to promote community gardens and urban agriculture, you should ensure that existing codes don’t create unnecessary barriers to would-be growers. Most zoning codes continue to adhere to single-use zoning with separate residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural zones. The purpose of these zoning designations is to segregate potentially incompatible uses and to concentrate similar-type uses in certain areas. As a result, local codes are often quite rigid in their allowed uses within each zone.

There are some common code provisions that create obstacles to community gardening and urban farming. In residential zones, community gardens may not fit neatly within a definition of a residential accessory use. Instead, if the food grown is intended for sale at a farmers market or community supported agriculture (CSA), or if the garden/farm is tended to by more than just the on-site residents, a city may characterize the use as commercial. Generally, city codes are very restrictive regarding commercial activity in residential zones, and allow only limited home-based business opportunities. A typical code requires that a home-based business occur wholly indoors, and may prohibit non-residents from being employed on-site. If home-based businesses are allowed, cities often require a conditional or special use permit. This blog post highlights the challenges faced by one resident of Berkeley, CA, in creating a neighborhood garden in her yard. A city could eliminate these unnecessary hurdles by amending its code to outright permit community gardens in residential zones, or by allowing small-scale urban farming as a conditional use. See some of the resources linked below for sample code language and other considerations regarding local land use policy.

Seattle adopted Ordinance No. 123378, which amends its development regulations to support urban agriculture. Seattle also allows people to utilize their planting strips (part of the street right-of-way) for gardening. The state prohibits cities from passing or enforcing any ordinance prohibiting the sale by or requiring license from the producers and manufacturers of farm produce and edibles as defined in this section. RCW 36.71.090.


There are a number of ways a local government can facilitate growing food locally in a way that is compatible with surrounding uses. Per this helpful and comprehensive publication, a city wanting to promote community and urban agriculture should ask itself these five questions:

  1. What form(s) of urban agriculture should the community allow?
  2. Where should different forms of urban agriculture occur?
  3. Should urban agriculture be a “permitted” or “conditional” use?
  4. What operating standards should be placed on urban agriculture activities?
  5. What activities related to urban agriculture should the community allow and what conditions should be placed on those activities?

I’d love to hear what your jurisdiction has done to promote this “growing” trend. Please feel free to share in the comment section below or email me directly at


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Jill Dvorkin

About Jill Dvorkin

Jill joined MRSC as a legal consultant in June 2016 after working for nine years as a civil deputy prosecuting attorney for Skagit County. At Skagit County, Jill advised the planning department on a wide variety of issues including permit processing and appeals, Growth Management Act (GMA) compliance, code enforcement, SEPA, legislative process, and public records. Jill was born and raised in Fargo, ND, then moved to Bellingham to attend college and experience a new part of the country (and mountains!). She earned a B.A. in Environmental Policy and Planning from Western Washington University and graduated with a J.D. from the University of Washington School of Law in 2003.