There are increasing interfaces between urban planning and agriculture. But while it is clear today that small-scale and organic farming adds value to local development – as an asset for food security, climate resilience, and territorial attractivity – there is still work to do to stop considering farmland as a reserve for urban development. In order to better achieve the protection of farmland in land use planning, this handbook advocates for:

  1. developing a shared vision for farmland in planning documents;

  2. leveraging planning tools to safeguard farmland;

  3. making long-term decisions and exemplifying good practices.

Developing a vision and strategy for agriculture, recognising its multiple contributions to local development and territorial balance

To prioritise land stewardship in local land plans, local authorities can back planning processes with the following dimensions:

  • Engaged planning. Going beyond the consultation of traditional experts and institutions, local authorities can ensure that land use planning processes engage with communities, non-profits, businesses, and preferred land users (e.g. new entrants, organic farmers). Addressing the topic of farmland in interaction with other key planning topics – housing, infrastructure, community facilities, among others – can provide a deeper and more coherent vision of how farmland should be used, and under what conditions land use changes are possible.

→ Learn more about organising democratic dialogue on land in the “Acting as a facilitator of local land dynamics” section.

  • Interacting with other frameworks. At state level, some countries (e.g. Germany, France) have started defining long-term objectives to curtail the loss of farmland. Spatial planning documents set for regional or provincial levels also increasingly put forward sustainable development targets. Ensuring good coordination between planning at national, regional and local levels in terms of objectives, priorities and speed of action is an important task, which can be better performed if the cross-participation of different levels of governments in planning processes is well organised.

  • Setting specific territorial goals for agriculture. Local authorities can also inform decision-making by creating a better picture of the contributions of agriculture to local development – e.g. measuring benefits in terms of food production, carbon sinking, risk management (see table “agriculture and territorial risk management” below) – and of the amount of land and type of farming needed to meet public goals (see Zoom box on PARCEL, online modelling for promoting local food systems). There is also a need to work into spatial planning considerations on the needs of farms and farmers, e.g. need for ecosystems preservation, need for land coherence beyond the farm unit, etc.

Type of riskPossible response through agriculture

Flooding and drought

  • permaculture projects that reduce water needs of farmers/small farms that incorporate hedges, pond

  • agroforestry and/or agriculture relying on perennial plants (with deep roots/which improve infiltration of water and reduce erosion)

  • safeguarding strategically-placed plots to improve the “sponge effect” of the city/area


  • organic farms on water catchment area

  • organic, carbon-storing projects air cleanline

  • non-food plants that can help depollute soils (e.g. hemp)

Food insecurity and health

  • farming for short food supply chains and CSA schemes

  • social farming projects associated to individual gardens or local stores

  • farming associating educational projects (to sensitise beneficiaries to better food practices, to the benefits of local agriculture, and so on.

  • other farm-to-fork collectives…


  • support extensive grazing of lands at fire risk

Zoom on: PARCEL: online modelling for promoting local food systems

Key features:

  • Model how much farmland you need to produce organic food for an area, group, or structure

  • Find out about the impact in terms of job creation and carbon emissions

Terre de Liens, the French Federation of Organic Farming and the activist think-tank BASIC created an online tool called PARCEL (for Promoting resilient, civic local food systems). The PARCEL website allows French consumers, citizens, local authorities to model how much farmland is needed to supply organic food to a given area (city, municipality…), structure (school, hospital), or group of population (children, seniors…). The website also shows how the area of farmland needed varies if you reduce food waste or meat consumption.

For instance, PARCEL shows that if the Ile-de-France region (Paris area) was to re-localise all food production, shift to 100% organic food, reduce meat consumption and food waste by 25%, it would reduce its carbon emissions by 50% and employ over 200,000 people in the agricultural sector. It would, however, need about 5.5 million more hectares of utilised agricultural area to achieve these goals.

Though only available with French data, the principle of PARCEL can be reproduced in different planning contexts. Studies or prospective scenarios can give a concrete basis to start discussions on how much land is needed to feed your city/territory. It also renders visible interdependence between urban and rural territories.

--> See more at:

Earmarking land for agriculture

Local authorities need regulatory tools to implement the protection of farmland in land use plans and to operationalise them. This varies across countries. Depending on your context, you may be able to leverage:

  • Area zoning/designation, designating areas for agriculture, nature conservation, and forestry, in addition to areas for development, urban densification, risk management, and so on.

  • Protected/strategic agricultural areas, demonstrating the public utility purpose of specific agriculture areas and applying additional land use protection (e.g. legal procedure to change use). See the Zoom box below on Protected agricultural zones and perimeters for the protection of agricultural and natural peri-urban areas in France.

  • Proactive greenbelt planning/densification policies to limit sprawl, encourage urban/city centre regeneration and brownfield development and create permanently open (and potentially productive) spaces around cities.

  • Proactive designation/labelling of natural sites where biodiversity protection can be associated with sustainable agriculture practices (parks, monuments, Natura 2000 areas, etc.).

  • Conservation easements/voluntary agreements between farmers and the local government to maintain land in farming for a set term (in return for contributions by the local governments, for instance, lower land use taxation rates).

  • Developer tax/compensation mechanisms, requiring developers to restore areas and natural infrastructures to compensate for the destruction of others or taxing development to provide resources for conservation/public purchase of agricultural land elsewhere.

  • Purchase/transfer of development rights, to remove or transfer development rights from agricultural areas to areas designated for development (for denser urban development).

Some planning tools can be leveraged to favour specific land users, e.g. permits for farm housing and buildings (which can be delivered only for specific buildings needed in organic farming for instance), or infrastructure development for access to specific farmlands.

The Grenoble Metropolis perimeter for the protection of agricultural and natural peri-urban areas

The Grenoble Alpes Métropole (GAM) has enshrined clear goals to protect farmland in its planning documents. The Metropolis’ territorial coherence scheme (SCoT) – which provides wider orientations for planning – has set the goal to slow down urban development and to protect 90% of the agricultural and natural areas as they existed in 2000. More locally, the inter-municipal Local Urbanisme Plan (PLUi) – which defines rules for building and land use at the plot level – has declassified 188 ha of land intended for urbanisation in favour of land protection. Furthermore, the GAM has applied reinforced protection and an agricultural development programme on 610 ha, which were included in a protected agricultural and natural area (PAEN).

In addition to this, the GAM has a long-standing land intervention policy. An agreement with the SAFER rural land agency and EPFL (public land company) has been created to acquire land to be protected (through the SAFER, which has a pre-emption right). This land can be banked by the EPFL for as long as necessary to establish an agricultural project on it. The agreement has led to the acquisition of over 80 ha of farmland. An inter-communal farm was also established with public investment in the farm building and a call for tender to award the lease to organic farmers.

The GAM case provides a good example of an approach that successfully combines agricultural development and land use planning. The local land policy incorporates many of the tools available to local authorities in a coherent manner around clear and shared objectives.

Zoom on: Protected agricultural zones and Perimeters for the protection of agricultural and natural peri-urban areas in France

Key features:

  • Strong zoning tools to earmark land for agriculture

  • Processes that can constrain private owners

A protected agricultural zone (ZAP) allows earmarking agricultural zones in the local plan to apply reinforced protection based on their general interest value of these lands (quality of their production, geographical situation, or agronomic quality). A ZAP is established by prefectural decree at the request of communes. The creation of a ZAP implies that any change in land use or occupation that could permanently alter the agronomic, biological or economic potential of the area is subject to the opinion of the chamber of agriculture and the agricultural commission. Besides, if the change leads to a reduction of the area, it is submitted to a prefectural decree.

A perimeter for the protection of agricultural and natural peri-urban areas (PAEN) is a protection tool that includes:

> one or more areas designated as protected agricultural and natural land

> an action program to revive or value the area (guidelines for development and management)

> a specific right of pre-emption to carry out land acquisitions (via the land agency, at the request of the department).

The PAEN is set up by the departmental council or the intermunicipal body in charge of SCoT planning, with the agreement of the communes concerned and after the consultation of the chamber of agriculture. The protection is very strong since the perimeter can only be modified by interministerial state decree.

--> See more (in French) at:

Ensuring the stability of zoning and perspectives for agricultural development

Besides regulatory protection, consistent action and exemplary behaviours from local authorities is an instrument of success to keep land in agriucltural use. In many countries, a vicious circle fuels urban sprawl:

⇒ Urban development has led to frequent land use changes.

⇒ Landowners entertain the idea that their land may become buildable, and thus more valuable. They prefer not to rent the land to farmers or rent it only through short-term contracts that do not allow investing/establishing a farm business on the land (e.g. land is rented for grazing horses).

⇒ As a result of landowners’ resistance, there is less farming and farmers on peri-urban land and thus urban development becomes justified because lands are abandoned or underused.

If they give a clear and strong signal that land will not become buildable and will be dedicated to agriculture in the long term, local authorities can gradually break this circle. Over time, they can change landowners' mindsets (see section raise awareness), and give more perspectives for the development of dynamic agriculture projects.

Figure: the role of urban planning to support local agriculture (source: Coline Perrin, INRAE, “Towards an agricultural urbanism?” (online presentation in French))

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