Planning Tools to Increase Access to Healthy Food

Planning Tools to Increase Access to Healthy Food


This section shares specific tools that planners can use to help increase access to healthy foods in their communities. Click the plus sign to the right of each title to learn more about each tool.

Urban Growth Boundary

Several regions in the United States have used an urban growth boundary (UGB) established outside of a metropolitan area to limit development. The impetus for creating a UGB is mainly environmental and economic, to curb urban sprawl and spur walkable and compact urban areas; it is not intrinsically a food systems tool.15 When planners, food systems advocates, and policymakers give thought to how their UGBs can build and enhance a strong food system it can lead to positive outcomes. In a food systems context, a UGB can shape how and where food can be grown.

A notable UGB surrounds the Portland, Oregon, metropolitan area. Here, the regional government and planning organization (colloquially known as “Metro”) requires some 240 municipalities to establish a UGB in balance with their expected growth over a 20-year period as part of its comprehensive planning process.16 These individual local UGBs add up to a collective regional one, inside of which publicly funded urban services (e.g., roads, fire, and utilities) are provided, preserving the outer reaches of the region for agriculture. The decades following the boundary’s establishment in 1979 saw the Portland Metropolitan Area become a model of regional food systems governance, going against the national trend of heavy agricultural land loss and establishing local farmers markets, community-supported agriculture programs, and a food policy council through relationships between urban municipalities and regional farms.17

The Portland region’s robust food system is often attributed in part to its UGB.18 However, the outcomes the region has seen would not have occurred without its thoughtfulness toward how the UGB could be leveraged to strengthen regional food systems. For example, the importance of consuming regional food on land protected by the UGB has been front and center in the region’s planning, including the Food System Report prepared for its comprehensive plan, its 1993 Climate Action Plan, and the Multnomah County Food Action Plan.19

Transfer of Development Rights

Transfer of development rights (TDR) programs are familiar to many planners. These programs allow property owners to sell their development permissions to others in the community, thus preserving the property in the former (“sending”) area and promoting development in the latter (“receiving”).20 One program encouraging TDR that has resulted in a strengthened food system in Maryland is Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve Program. The county zoned 90,000 rural acres to permit one unit of development per 25 acres, unless a landowner wished to transfer their development permissions to designated receiving areas in the county. If a developer purchases these rights from a farmer, the farmer can then build one unit per five acres for agricultural purposes only.21 About two-thirds of the acreage in the sending area is dedicated to farming now, and 540 farms have been retained this way.22

Urban Agricultural Ordinances

To provide for and regulate agricultural activities on urban land, from growing fruits and vegetables to processing them to selling them, cities will often enact ordinances into local law, generally zoning law. A good urban agricultural ordinance will clarify what land use activities (e.g., animal husbandry, food cultivation, or sales) are permitted and prohibited, what materials and structures (e.g., raised beds or sheds) are permitted and prohibited, where (e.g., residential and retail zones) they are permitted and prohibited, and define any key terms.

An example of a community that has committed to strong urban agricultural programs is Detroit, Michigan, where deindustrialization kickstarted a population decline that has continued through today, leaving behind an abundance of vacant space. Recently, planners, policymakers, and community health advocates have begun to focus less on initiatives to repopulate the city, and more on turning that empty space into something productive and community driven. Detroit has dabbled in urban agriculture as early as the 1890s, but only in this millennium has it been embraced as a major driving force of community and economic development. In 2004, Detroit was home to some 80 community gardens.23 Today, over 23,000 Detroiters participate in urban gardening, in over 1,500 gardens throughout the city.24 The explosion of urban agriculture in Detroit has improved food security for many residents, revitalized civic spaces, and, through the introduction of new businesses and supply chain linkages, served as a much-needed boon to the local economy as well.25

Detroit’s City Planning Commission passed an Urban Agriculture Ordinance (UAO) in 2012 and has enforced it since 2013.26 The UAO expressly allows for agricultural uses such as farmers markets, greenhouses, urban farms, and other activities to exist in certain residential, industrial, business, and special land uses. To reflect a local desire to produce and sell fresh, culturally appropriate, and affordable food at a neighborhood level, urban gardens (up to an acre in size) and associated farm stands are now permitted by right. The UAO is one example of how planning practice has begun to formalize urban agriculture.

To learn more about how cities can improve their zoning laws for urban agriculture, see Zoning for Urban Agriculture: A Guide for Updating your City’s Laws to Support Healthy Food Production and Access.

Planned Unit Development

Planned unit development (PUD) is a type of land use intended to provide more flexibility for land use than single-use zoning does. Specific definitions of what is and is not allowed in a PUD vary from city to city, but it generally allows developers to propose their own land uses and designs on a parcel of land, to be reviewed by a local planning commission.27 This is as opposed to single-use zoning, in which a developer is subject to preexisting design and land use regulations. Typically in a PUD, a planning commission might consider whether a site plan meets a local need, such as a grocery store in an area where none exist, or a park where few recreational opportunities exist. Sometimes a city might view food production as a particularly beneficial land use activity. Troy Gardens, a PUD in Madison, Wisconsin, is one such example. It protects 26 acres of land for community gardens, an organic farm, a restored prairie, and nature trails.28

Elsewhere, a PUD might offer opportunities for people to get food. In 2016, developers in Washington, DC, committed to including a grocery store as part of a redevelopment plan for the Kenilworth Courts public housing project, an area long lacking fresh food opportunities.29 This commitment allowed them to secure a PUD permit which would provide for the new grocery store, a variety of different housing styles, and a redesigned street grid.

Land Use Permissions for Processing

Processing activities are often included as a permitted land use activity in zoning ordinances, but generally are only well-defined in certain areas such as manufacturing, industrial, or large-scale agricultural zones. A lack of clarity for other zones can inadvertently lead to some confusion about what is permitted in commercial or residential areas. This is an area where planners can aid in supporting local and smaller-scale food processing facilities by providing clarity in land use permissions and designations.

Salt Lake City, Utah’s planning department provided this kind of clear direction. In 2015, the mayor flagged that the local zoning ordinance “does not differentiate between scale such as large commercial food processors (i.e. cereal manufacturing or national brands) versus smaller home grown companies making jam or selling honey,” and that it “contains a very general definition and is basically geared towards larger-scale food processing since it is mostly allowed in the manufacturing zoning districts.”30 The mayor further noted that an increase in small-scale food production had contributed to the widespread popularity of community kitchens for processing activities that ultimately allow producers to sell their products at farmers markets. The increase in this level of food production led to the city revising its zoning ordinance to include “artisan food production” and “commercial food production” land use designations, which explicitly outline processing permissions in non-large scale agricultural settings.

Overlay Districting

Many planners are familiar with the concept of overlay districting, which is used by planning departments to apply additional regulations or standards on top of a preexisting “base zone.” The base zone maintains its zoning standards, and the overlay district creates additional standards on top of it. One way to use overlay districts is to retain underlying land use allowances and introduce certain requirements that limit an abundance of retailers that sell junk food. This way, even if there is substantial property available for sale or development, it cannot be filled by a retailer that offers mostly junk food and only a small amount of fresh, healthy options.

The city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, has utilized overlay districting to help residents have access to healthier food. In 2018, it passed a Healthy Neighborhoods Overlay ordinance.31 Retailers in the city’s North Side, which contains only 17 percent of its population but over 40 percent of its Black population (the area itself is 80 percent Black),32 are predominantly dollar stores, which offer mostly cheap, heavily processed junk food. The Healthy Neighborhoods Overlay creates a spacing requirement for dollar stores, prohibiting the development of new ones within a mile of existing ones. The purpose of such a policy is to prevent dollar stores from crowding into communities, and to encourage fresh food retailers to fill the gap. To this end, the ordinance supplements the overlay with a reduction of parking requirements for prospective grocery stores by 50 percent.

Overlay districting can be used to strengthen other areas of the food system as well. In Ohio, Cleveland’s Urban Agriculture Overlay District applies the overlay in areas where the city deems urban agriculture an appropriate use. In defining urban agriculture, the city permits growing food via farming, greenhouses, hoop houses, coldframes, and other structures; and allows composting of waste.33

Incentive Zoning

Incentive zoning is a mechanism in which a “developer gets to build a project that would not otherwise be permitted under the existing zoning regulations in exchange for providing something that is in the community’s interest,” usually by a “city allowing the developer to build a larger, higher-density project.”34 For example, if a city allows a height maximum of 100 feet for multifamily apartments, but a development proposal offers to include affordable housing units that the city needs, the city might allow for the developer to build up to 120 feet. Historically, housing has been a large focus of local incentive zoning laws, along with human services needs, localized infrastructural improvements, and urban design standards.

Communities can use incentive zoning to increase access to healthy food by incentivizing developers to open grocery stores in target areas. In New York, New York City’s FRESH (Food Retail Enhancement to Support Health) Program, started in 2009, provides zoning and financial incentives to encourage the building or renovating of grocery stores in certain underserved areas of the city. Financial incentives include eliminating city and state sales taxes on materials purchased for construction, and a 25-year abatement on both land and building taxes. There are also zoning benefits, which provide additional development rights with one foot of additional development for every foot of grocery store up to 20,000 square feet, as well as reduced parking minimums. These benefits make opening grocery stores in these previously underserved areas more economically viable for private businesses. Since its inception, the program has helped 22 grocery stores open.35

Incentive zoning also can be used to make it easier for community members to grow and sell food. For example, San Jose, California, has an Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone which is designed to foster land use on blighted property in the city. In exchange for a reduction in property taxes, owners of vacant, unimproved, and blighted land may grow and sell agricultural products on such land.36

Complete Streets

A broad concept that encompasses planning above and beyond the automobile, Complete Streets are defined by Smart Growth America as streets that are “designed and operated to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities.”37 Municipalities across the country have passed Complete Streets policies to ensure planners and policymakers consider sidewalks, bicycle lanes, public transit, crosswalks, traffic calming, and pedestrian signals in their transportation planning efforts. State transportation departments have also adopted Complete Streets policies as well to guide future transportation planning. Such policies can increase access to healthy food and support equitable food systems by making it easier for those who may not own vehicles and who rely on bicycle, foot, or public transit to get to grocery stores. However, Complete Streets policies rarely make food access an explicit goal.

In 2011, the Maryland Department of Transportation’s State Highway Administration (MDOT SHA) passed a Complete Streets policy that does exactly this.38 The policy “requires that all MDOT SHA staff and partners consider and incorporate complete streets criteria for all modes and types of transportation when developing or redeveloping our transportation system.” In 2019, the Maryland State Legislature expanded these features to include “(a)ccess to retail stores that provide healthy food and other necessities, especially in food deserts.”39 In doing this, MDOT SHA placed food access on the same level of importance as other considerations of Complete Streets (e.g., sidewalks, paved shoulders for bicyclists, crosswalks, and pedestrian signals) in working with communities in Maryland.

Transit-Oriented Development to Promote Fresh Food

Making fresh food available for transit users to get is an issue of equity. Nationally, users of public transit are predominantly Black, Indigenous and people of color, and with low to moderate incomes.40 When food access is incorporated into the transit planning process, it benefits those populations who experience the worst diet-related health outcomes. One way to do this is to create food hubs within transit stations, so that getting food is easier for passengers.

In 2015, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) partnered with four local food organizations to develop Fresh MARTA Market, a retailer that sells fresh produce at five different transit stations in Atlanta, Georgia.41 Each market is open one day a week, with at least one market in operation every day from Tuesday through Friday. The Atlanta Department of City Planning recognizes the importance of Fresh MARTA such that in 2021, they recommended an expansion of the program to strengthen food security in the city.42

Affordability is a focus of Fresh MARTA. EBT/SNAP is accepted and its value doubled, meaning a five dollar SNAP purchase will buy ten dollars’ worth of food. Additionally, Fresh MARTA Market buys much of its supply in bulk from local urban agriculture programs. This model not only strengthens the local food system and improves the local economy, but also allows these growers to sell their produce without spending time away from the urban farms that they operate. Between the incentives for EBT/SNAP recipients, purchasing in bulk, the time-saving measures of working with local growers, and cutting out intermediate supply chain steps, Fresh MARTA is able to cut the costs of fresh and healthy produce for its consumers.43

For a transit system to do this, regulatory tools need to be in place to allow for fresh food retail activities to occur. As a transit system, MARTA does not control the land uses of the area’s surrounding routes and stations. However, in 2010 the agency published guidelines and recommendations for transit-oriented development (TOD) to ensure land use adjacent to its system was compatible with transit.44 MARTA identified four foundational principles of TOD, among which was a mix of land uses, and established themselves as “TOD advocates” whenever land use decisions were being made at city, county, regional, and state levels of government. The city of Atlanta has embraced these guidelines and promoted TOD, and has established land use regulations that encourage a mix of uses including retail, which allows Fresh MARTA to operate in its five locations. The HE Holmes Station, for instance, is in a commercial-residential area, which provides for moderate to high-intensity mixed-use type development.45 The West End Station is in a special historic district that also permits a mix of uses including retail.46

Tax-Increment Financing for Food Hubs

Tax-increment financing (TIF) is a planning and economic development tool in which a developer’s property taxes are frozen in place for a certain amount of time, with a certain amount of the additional revenue going back into the development area itself. Planning tools such as TIF can be used in creative ways in the development and operations of food hubs and increase access to locally grown and healthy foods. In the United States, there are over 200 food hubs, which the United States Department of Agriculture defines as a “business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products to multiple buyers from multiple producers, primarily local and regional producers, to strengthen the ability of these producers to satisfy local and regional wholesale, retail, and institutional demand.”47

In 2014, developers in St. Louis, Missouri, built a grocery store in its Lafayette Square-Soulard Neighborhood, which badly needed one.48 This retailer also serves as a regional food hub, which aggregates and distributes locally grown foods. The hub’s activities include growing, making, getting, and distributing food. In addition to the retail space itself, the St. Louis Food Hub includes a 29,000 square foot facility dedicated in part to food processing and preparation. Workers at the hub make salads, ready-to-eat products, and packaged items—largely from locally sourced foods including some from the urban farm they operate—which are then distributed.

The St. Louis Food Hub was able to secure a significant amount of its funding through local approval of a tax-increment finance (TIF) district application.49 In the case of the St. Louis Food Hub, this amounted to $4.5 million of financing over the course of 23 years.50 This financing mechanism allowed the St. Louis Food Hub to weave food distribution for an entire region into the redevelopment of a local area facing food insecurity.

Comprehensive Planning for Zero-Waste

In some regions, the comprehensive planning process aligns the typical features of plans (e.g., land use, transportation, and housing) with the delivery of municipal services. The seven-county Twin Cities region in Minnesota is one example where the comprehensive plans specifically include goals and policies related to food surplus and waste. In 2015, the city of Minneapolis developed a Zero-Waste Plan, in which it resolved to recycle and compost 80 percent of its waste by 2030.51 In support of this vision, the city’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan has outlined action steps to divert food waste from the landfill. It proposes to supplement the city’s existing multifamily recycling ordinance to allow residents to recycle their organics if they so choose, and incentivizes businesses to divert organic materials from the trash.

Next: Gaps and Opportunities



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16Oregon Metro, Urban Growth Boundary (Feb. 24, 2020),
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22Am. Planning Ass’n., 2017 National Planning Excellence Award: Planning Landmark; Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve, (2021).
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31Tulsa, Okla., Ordinance 23904 (Apr. 11, 2018)
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33Cleveland, Ohio, Code §§ 336.01-336.05 (current through Sept. 20, 2021).
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36San Jose, Cal., Code Ch. 4.88 (current through Aug. 3, 2021).
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38Md. Dep’t. of Transp., Context Sensitive Solutions & Complete Streets,,pedestrians%20and%20other%20community%20needs (undated).
39Md. Code Ann., Transp. § 2-112 (West 2021).
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46Atlanta, Ga., Code § 16-18U.008 (Aug. 31, 2021).
47U.S. Dep’t. of Ag., 2021 USDA’s Food Hub Directory Update, (expiration date 1/31/23).
48Lisa Brown, New Grocer Will Give Lift to Lafayette Square-Soulard Area, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Oct. 4, 2013),
49Lisa Brown, New Grocer Will Give Lift to Lafayette Square-Soulard Area, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Oct. 4, 2013),
50St. Louis, Mo., Ordinance 68971 (Aug. 20, 2011).
51Minneapolis, Minn., 2020-2022 Zero Waste Action Plan (Oct. 30, 2019),

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