Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Is Agriculture the Future of Suburbia?

Agriculture Is The New Golf: Rethinking Suburban Communities (GOOD)

Look at Google Maps images of any platted but unbuilt or unfinished subdivision—all remaining evidence of what stood before erased, replaced with flattened house lots with nothing on them, paved streets including curvy cul-de-sacs, and even street signs, but no signs of life—and you’ll understand the impulse to do things differently. According the American Farmland Trust, more than 6 million acres of agricultural land in the United States were lost to development between 1992 and 1997 alone. Consider that many of those acres were lost to developments that never saw the light of day. Is it too late to restore that acreage? And is it possible that agriculture could be suburbia’s best hope?

Well, sort of. It’s not as if Orange County, California, despite its dire decline in home values, is going to revert back to acres of orange groves. But around the country, there’s a growing interest in looking at the ways agriculture might help retrofit ailing suburbs and cities, and offer an alternative way of thinking about new developments. Growing Power, run by the urban farming expert, MacArthur Foundation “genius,” and GOOD 100 honoree Will Allen, has already demonstrated the potential of urban (and suburban) farming with six greenhouses on nearly two acres of land in Milwaukee as well as a 40-acre rural farm 45 minutes away in the suburb of Merton. And in Detroit, the entrepreneur John Hantz is moving forward with an ambitious but controversial plan to build the world’s largest urban farm—and with it, create green jobs, help the environment, and supply food to the region.

In cities, agriculture might be able to take the place of vacant lots. And in suburbia? Well, in 2008, the New Urbanism evangelist Andrés Duany, of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ), architects and town planners, proclaimed that “agriculture is the new golf,” a prescient and deliberately provocative claim that is helping frame the conversation about suburbia’s future. “Only 17 percent of people living in golf-course communities play golf more than once a year. Why not grow food?”

Why not indeed? While we may have a way to go before we achieve a reality of agricultural urbanism, Duany’s idea seems increasingly reasonable: that we design around agriculture just as golf communities were designed around courses. (Though even the most fervent fan of farming might concede the disparity in cachet between bogeying and back-hoeing.)

In Solano, Kelly and his colleague Amie MacPhee created a plan for a clustered rural community that marries innovation with deeply rooted farming patterns. The big idea here is that they’ve retrofitted not buildings but the typical pattern of development: The existing agricultural land is clustered into a 1,400-acre plot, while the rest of the community is preserved open lands, habitat preservation, and a village of 400 homes at the center. A land conservancy, partially funded by a percentage of home sales, would provide a mechanism with which to manage and monitor the land. As MacPhee explains, “Agriculture is an amenity. You can’t just wish for it, you have to support it.”

In Colorado, a planner and farmer named Matthew “Quint” Redmond has found that to be true. He is working on a similar suburban re-envisioning, with his own version of house-meets-farm that he’s calling “agriburbia.” Marketing his efforts with the tag line “Growing sustainable communities by the bushel!,” Redmond recalls being laughed out of the room for a similar idea back in 2003, though developers now seem to be taking him more seriously. New developments, such as the 3,000-acre Sterling Ranch in Colorado, typically mix housing, commercial development, and significant acreage dedicated to professionally farmed land that will provide produce to the neighborhood as well as the larger region.

Redmond’s vision of agriculture-based development is notable not just for the farming itself but for its mention of a secure food supply in the marketing materials. As concerns around food health and safety continue to make their way into national discussions, a community that produces a trusted food source is a community in possession of a meaningful market differentiator.

“The issue of where your food comes from is disturbing to everyone,” says the activist and architect Fritz Haeg, whose Edible Estates project has urged homeowners to take back their lawns and replace them with edible landscaping. “When my aunt in Omaha is aware of these issues, I know it’s taken off.”

From the Neighborhood Issue of GOOD Magazine:

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