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Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.


Welcome to the Neighborhood Farm

 by Keith Goetzman


Tags: food, agriculture, sustainable farming, urban planning, community, environment, New Urbanism, Keith Goetzman,

Guest cottage at Serenbe 

Some developers are starting to incorporate a new feature into neighborhoods: A food supply. Landscape Architecture magazine reports in its April issue on forward-looking urbanists who are situating working farms next to homes in mixed-use projects.

“Both development and agriculture are broken, and the answer to each is in the other,” architect Quint Redmond tells the magazine.

Community gardens are a familiar manifestation of residential-area agriculture, but many of the new designs are incorporating farms that are bigger and intended to meet more of the community’s nutritional needs.

In one setup, a neighborhood of small lots adjoins land set aside for conservation and agriculture. The land is owned by a nonprofit or homeowners’ association, and the farm management and/or operation is contracted to a professional farmer. Residents can get the produce through a market or by joining a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. Prairie Crossing near Chicago and Serenbe near Atlanta are two examples of this type of approach.

Other proposed communities are still on the drawing boards and attempting to attract support. One designed by Redmond’s firm TSR Group would turn 618 acres of current industrial farmland in Milliken, Colorado, into an “Agriburbia” community using almost half the land for commercial farming. Another 135 of the acres would go to acres to parks and natural habitat, and the rest would host 994 dwellings.

In Vancouver, a 536-acre proposed project, dubbed the Southlands, would host 2,000 housing units ranging from multifamily dwellings to single-family homes to small farmsteads and larger farms. All the residents in this “agrarian urbanism,” as New Urbanist planner Andres Duany has called it, would contribute, in their own way, to food production.

Landscape Architecture hints at some of the conflicts that that could arise in such communities, noting that residents would have to be willing to tolerate farm smells and noises. (I’d add my own caveat: Unless we’re talking organic, non-GMO agriculture, who wants to live near pesticide drift and genetic cross-contamination?) Other significant logistical challenges remain, including “the niggling problem of individualism” in proscribing private land use.

Some critics have larger conceptual problems with the whole enterprise. Duany’s “agrarian urbanist” vision for Southlands attracted some blowback even in the planning stages, having kicked up a spirited row in 2008 between him and Toronto Globe and Mail architecture critic Trevor Boddy in the pages of the design-architecture magazine Arcade. Boddy sees the Southlands development as simply a new way to justify unjustifiably large yards:

My own view is that history will regard the New Urbanism as a last gasp attempt to reform suburbanism from within, before high energy prices and new respect for land compels much denser development. 

Boddy’s sharp attack aside, it remains to be seen whether something good can grow from these farm-and-live arrangements, which get down to the basic and long-lived question of how we should organize society. It seems it can’t hurt to start trying something other than big highways, big cars, and big stores.

Sources: Landscape Architecture (article not available online),  Agriburbia, Arcade 

Image by davidburn, licensed under Creative Commons.