Former Associate editor Margret Aldrich on the hunt for happiness, community, and how humans thrive
Whatever you call it—“agricultural urbanism,” “new ruralism,” or one of the dozen other alternate labels—the concept of carefully planned agrarian suburbs sounds like utopia. Protecting land while permitting growth, “agriburbia” is a farm-friendly antidote to the eat-it-up philosophy of consumerist suburban sprawl.
When populations encroach into the countryside, we sacrifice more than pastoral vistas, says Jonathan Lerner in Miller-McCune. “The steady loss of farmland and natural habitat to sprawl-pattern development endangers food supplies and other resources, as well as the health, wealth and survival prospects of individuals and even whole communities,” he explains.
In Fresno County, California—where the majority of farms are small, family-run enterprises and half are minority operated—the threat to the agrarian landscape that produces everything from plums to almonds is undeniable. “The American Farmland Trust has estimated that if conventional growth patterns continue, by 2040 the county could lose another 135,000 acres of farmland, out of a total of about 2.25 million acres,” Lerner writes. He continues:
[A] new approach to regional planning could help turn that pattern around in Fresno and elsewhere. At scales ranging from a few hundred to many thousands of acres, the approach aims to protect unspoiled and working landscapes while allowing development to accommodate expanding populations….
Forget large-lot, single-family, cul-de-sac subdivisions accessed by traffic arteries lined with fast-food and big-box outlets. Future development would be densely clustered or channeled into towns and villages on sites less valuable for farming and conservation or where infrastructure already exists. Besides homes, these growth centers would include shops, workplaces, schools, pedestrian amenities and transit.
This kind of development, known as new urbanism, is already increasingly familiar. What’s new is its integration with efforts to protect working and natural landscapes.
The agriburban plan being considered for Fresno, called the Southeast Growth Area (SEGA), would combine a vibrant residential community with agriculture in a 9,000-acre belt of land at the edge of the city. Gardens and orchards would grow throughout, and small commercial farms would border the eastern perimeter.
Agriculturally oriented subdivisions are springing up in other parts of the country, too: There’s Hampstead near Montgomery, Alabama; The Farmstead, outside Charlotte, North Carolina; and Pingree Grove, less than an hour from Chicago. With amenities including elaborate community gardens, local food farmers markets, farm-to-table restaurants, and active community involvement, there are plenty of reasons to live there beyond land preservation.
“Though the particulars differ, they all share the basic approach of building compact towns or villages as a way to avoid consuming undeveloped land,” Lerner writes. “New-urbanist thinking is essential because it provides the tools for creating places for growth that are not only dense but desirable.”