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Can You Put An Urban Farm There? This App Will Tell You

Data viz guru Ben Fry releases Urb.ag, an app that distills labyrinthine rules for urban farming into a simple map.

Can You Put An Urban Farm There? This App Will Tell You
[Top photo: Flickr user Su-May]

Urban farms are a great idea, in theory. People in cities need food, and shipping food over short distances (or not at all) saves fossil fuels. One problem? Urban farming, at least on the commercial level, isn’t always legal.

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Urb.ag, a web app from Fathom Information Design, reveals where you could actually start an urban farm in Boston, where new legislation has made commercial urban farming possible. Based on the type of farming you want to do, the zoning of the site, and more, the app walks you through the process of submitting applications, obtaining permits, and even attending public hearings if necessary, with all the information tailored to the exact code that applies to the would-be farm’s address.


The term “urban farming” can mean any number of things, from keeping bees to growing vegetables in a rooftop greenhouse or in a vacant lot. And the rules differ depending on where you’re looking to start your farming operation. But depending on zoning and legislative restrictions where you live, certain farming activities (or any farming at all) might not be allowed.

The project, funded by the Knight Foundation’s Knight Prototype Fund, was inspired by a tweet Fathom designer Terrence Fradet* spotted from Boston’s mayor about what was then draft legislation that would make urban farming legal in Boston. That legislation, called Article 89, was passed in December 2013, opening up much of the city to commercial farmers.


When you punch your Boston address into the app, a few different options come up. Do you want to farm on the roof or on the ground? What size of structure might you be building, if you’re using one at all? Are you looking to plant crops in soil, or will it be a hydroponic operation? Do you just want to compost? Based on your answers, Urb.ag will reveal your next step. If you need to submit an application to the Boston Landmarks Commission because your farm is located in a Historic District, it tells you–and it includes links to all relevant applications and permits online.

Fathom built the web app over the course of six months, and launched it this past summer. It’s a prototype, and it’s really only useful on a mobile device. (Looking at it on a desktop is a lot like holding your phone against your computer screen, and about as user-friendly.)

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After initially testing a desktop site and deciding it got too bogged down in complex legislative data, the designers made a deliberate choice to tailor the design to mobile users, at least as a starting point. It was a design strategy that challenged Fathom’s team to condense the legislative and spatial information to the bare minimum necessary. “It gives us a way to really make the design really simple,” Fathom Information Design’s Ben Fry explains. “We thought for this initial round, we’d rather lead with the phone and be able to make it as simple as possible.”

Fry goes on: “It’s structured around progressively disclosing more information to people. We’re trying to avoid assaulting people with a whole lot of information at once.”

Beneath the simple interface, there’s a trove of data the designers had to distill. “The way that zoning legislation works, you have different divisions, and within that there are subdistricts, and within that there are parcels,” explains Alex Geller, the data lead on the project. “But those puzzle pieces don’t always fit together.” Some zones overlap. Your building might be in both a historic district and a wetland protection area, both of which have different rules for commercial farming. The simple map that shows up highlighting the building you search for on Urb.ag is actually a compilation of several zoning maps. And then there’s the legislation itself, which isn’t necessarily written in a way that’s user-friendly for people looking to start up a farm business. “The legislation starts with activities then goes into all these provisions from there,” Geller says. “You really quickly fall into a rabbit hole.”


The app, on the other hand, starts with where you are, and then tells you what you could do there. The designers purposely chose not to use red to indicate when something isn’t allowed at a certain location, because it signifies a hard stop–a discouraging signpost for an eager future farmer. “We generally wanted the app to be encouraging,” Geller says, so it uses orange to signify when something isn’t allowed by the legislation, and purple to signify that something just isn’t applicable to your space. Fathom’s office building, for instance, doesn’t have enough ground space to do any kind of farming activity, so all activities in the “ground” option show up as purple. Green, of course, means go ahead and farm.

Urb.ag is only located in Boston right now, but could one day expand to other cities. According to Geller, the team has gotten feedback that the app is being used by citizens looking to start urban farms, but also by city officials who are trying to explain to citizens whether and how they can start farms.

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*The original version of this article misspelled the last name of a Fathom designer. It is Terrence Fradet, not Frabet.

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.

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