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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Agri-sprawl: "farming is the new golf"

Kaid Benfield

Posted April 21, 2009

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  The Willows golf community, Saskatoon, CA (photo: Canadian Home Builders Assn.)

I want you to bear with me today, because this one is going to be a little long.

America's best farmland is in trouble, and will only be in more trouble when the recovery comes.  The American Farmland Trust, an organization I know well and respect greatly, provides some sobering facts on its website: 

"Every single minute of every day, America loses two acres of farmland," and we're losing our best land - the most fertile and productive - the fastest, according to the Trust.   The rate of conversion of such "prime" farmland was 30 percent faster, proportionally, than the rate for non-prime rural land in the 1990s, and there is no reason to believe that the rate for this decade will be any more comforting.  The development of prime land inevitably results in an incremental shift of more agricultural production onto marginal farmland, which requires more resources like water and artificial nutrients than does prime land. 

Meanwhile, our food is increasingly in the path of development:  86 percent of the nation's fruits and vegetables, and 63 percent of our dairy products, says AFT, are produced in urban-influenced areas.

Consider this map of the US, below.  The red and green areas both indicate land with prime soils, as defined by USDA and state agricultural authorities.  The red areas are the ones most threatened by urban and suburban expansion.  It's a lot:

  map courtesy of American Farmland Trust 

The solution to providing the best protection for the resource is to keep cities and suburbs as intact and dense as possible, to limit their spread across the rural landscape.  Low-density suburban development is the most inefficient in its incursions on farmland, as it is with regard to watersheds, wildlife habitat, and transportation efficiency.  Beyond the developed area, we must keep the farmland as intact as possible, too.  While we should incorporate community gardens and other like amenities into our new development, we should not do so in a way that compromises the average density of our overall development footprint or the contiguity of the farmland resource.  This is basically Smart Growth 101.

  one view of Lancaster County, PA farmland (photographer unknown)  another view of Lancaster County, PA farmland (photographer unknown)

  Jane Kirchner of AFT puts it this way:

"Farmland is somewhat like habitat in that big landscapes are important and fragmentation tends to degrade the resource value. When farmland is surrounded mostly by other farmland, it tends also to be close to abundant equipment, supplies and services. When farmland is surrounded by urbanization, these resources are harder to find and more costly to access.

"There is also the matter of conflicts related to farming as a business.  These can range from neighbors complaining about noise and dust, to congestion on the rural roads that farmers need to traverse to get their goods to market. For all of these reasons, agricultural land tends to be more productive when left relatively un-fragmented."

So why in the world are some otherwise progressive architects and developers wanting to expand suburban development onto prime farmland and seeking to be celebrated for creating "a powerful new model" of sustainability?  Bucks County, PA (photographer unknown)Well, the cynical answer is the obvious one, I guess:  there's money to be made, houses to be designed and built, and it's easier to keep developing in the countryside than to build in town at high densities.  I can understand (if also disagree with) that point of view, especially given the recession. 

But what truly bugs me is a new argument:  these guys want to make the suburban development about farming, deliberately intermingling the agriculture and the suburbs.  "Farming is the new golf" is the way one proponent reportedly put it.  Instead of suburban golf communities, let's have suburban organic farm communities.  Because then, you know, we bring the housing out to where the food is and, just like that, we have local food.  I am not making this up.  Here's how it is being justified for a 538-acre mega-development of 2000 new houses in British Columbia:

"The new approach - 'agricultural urbanism' - calls for carefully fitting numerous food-related activities, including small farms, shared gardens, farmers' markets, and agricultural processing, into a walkable community.

"'What's unique about this project . . . is that we're trying to integrate agriculture and urbanism at all levels' - from high-density housing with window boxes, Powder Horn, WY (by: Century 21 BHJ Realty)to somewhat less dense houses with kitchen gardens, to quarter-acre plots, 50-acre farms, and perhaps one 160-acre farm." 

There are lots of problems with this, one of the most obvious being that mixing new suburbia with farming fragments both.  The functional average density of our suburbs is lowered.  This creates transportation and infrastructure inefficiency for the new suburbs and, for the farming, all of the problems cited by Jane Kirchner above.  Not to mention that these would almost inevitably be hobby farms. 

Jane continues:

"Justifying housing in rural and ex-urban greenfield areas by building community gardens is not smart growth and not necessarily sustainable - for urban food systems or our rural and urban-edge farming systems.

"Where agriculture should be woven into the urban fabric is where it can help support high quality density. Seattle's High Point provides community gardens on a redevelopment site, without scarificing density (by: Doug Scott, AIA)Community gardens, edible (as opposed to purely ornamental) landscaping and farm plots on school grounds, for instance, can all add value to urban neighborhoods. These practices are still too rare and should be encouraged.

"Setting aside whole fields within development principally for food and fiber production where those fields are not also providing open-space services needed to support density is a mistake. The problem is that, to the extent that doing so requires an increase in the size of the urban service area to serve the same amount of development, farmland still loses and the environmental inputs required to further expand the road, sewer, transit and other urban systems are substantial."

In other words, "agricultural urbanism" is neither.

I suppose the leading prototype for so-called "conservation development" (of which this can be considered a new subset) is the now-iconic  Prairie Crossing, built in Illinois 40 miles north of Chicago.  Prairie Crossing (by: Payton Chung, creative commons license)The goal of Prairie Crossing was explicitly to build a lower-density development than originally proposed for its then-rural, 677-acre site, while preserving the unbuilt portion's environmental features.  As the developer's website puts it, the development's founders "formed a company with the goal of developing this beautiful 677 acres responsibly, with a total of only 359 single-family homes and 36 condominiums as opposed to 2,400 homes that were planned by another developer."

Prairie Crossing is not without merit:  it includes an onsite organic farm, and at least the residents of the cluster of development at the far southern tip of the site (see below) are within walking distance of a commuter rail station.  I will also grant that they did a great job on the environmental preservation aspects, and the community is undeniably lovely.  It's won all sorts of awards.  But dense it is not:

  Prairie Crossing is inside the yellow border (image by Google Earth, boarder by me)  Prairie Crossing is inside the yellow border (image by Google Earth, boarder by me)

Note in the satellite view on the left how spread out it is (although two segments appear to be more compactly built), and note in the view on the right (identical but for scale) that the site is now surrounded by sprawl and sprawl-in-the-making.  This is something that in my experience has happened around just about every idealistic new development begun with laudable qualities.  Actually, much of the development now surrounding Prairie Crossing is less sprawling, because it is built more compactly.

In theory, these "new towns" are great - self-contained entities providing walkability, efficiency, and all the services of a community within the development.  So, their proponents (nearly all of whom profit from them, one way or another) claim, it is a good thing to build them almost anywhere.  In practice, though, the nearby once-remote locations soon become filled with sprawl, in no small part because of the initial development, and the theoretical self-contained transportation efficiency never comes.  They become commuter suburbs, just with a more appealing internal design than that of their neighbors.

I do not know of a single instance where a "new town" has managed to perform even as well as the average of its metro region when it comes to limiting the growth of driving.

Napa Valley agriculture (by: Napa Valley Economic Devt Corporation)We can certainly expect no better from "agricultural (sub)urbanism."  I'm going to try to keep a sliver of an open mind about this, and it's possible that in five or ten years we'll see that the practice has been perfected to where we know that it doesn't spread regions out, increase driving and associated carbon emissions, and actually helps true farming economies.  But don't ask me to sign the blank check and say that it's a great thing now.  All signs point to the opposite.

I cannot conclude this better than does my friend Daniel Hernandez, a longtime developer with a conscience and now director of planning for the development firm Jonathan Rose Companies:

"It seems so wrong that we're looking at . . . building new farm-style bedroom communities, which no matter how many green technology strategies are incorporated into the design to reduce environmental impacts, they do not address issues around food production, networks, and distribution in this country, not to mention the loss of prime land forever. Nor does it support nearby local economic development efforts to revitalize downtowns with existing infrastructure. Nor does it support our efforts to curb sprawl: preserved agricultural land serves as a bulwark against sprawl.  

"Finally, after so many decades, policies for smart agricultural policy are just now emerging into some level of coherence, and building support. threatened Maryland farmland (by: Maryland Dept of Planning)It is clear that agricultural land preservation is critical to the economic future of our country and to feeding our country.  Anything that undermines that would be irresponsible.  

"Recognizing that much of this prime land around the country has unfortunately already been infringed upon, there is every reason to still support the complete preservation of these spaces.  Our challenge as planners, developers and policy-makers of the built environment in an era of climate change is to figure out how to strengthen agriculture systems and biodiversity of our farmlands, and connect them to livable cities and their consumers.  Our intention should be to support policies that preserve these valuable resources and strengthen their economic viability, not to assist in their destruction."

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 


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Elizabeth SchillingApr 21 2009 01:53 PM

"Farming is the new golf" is ironic, accurate and disturbing on so many levels...

I think the concept of the transect comes in really handy here: food production in all but the most rural sectors is actually called "gardening". "Agriculture" is an activity that must survive as a business and deserves to be treated with respect and humility by those of us who don't understand how that business is structured or what it takes to function.

Those developers on the cutting edge of agrisprawl happen to come from the same school as those who took the time and trouble to learn about what small businesses need to function and thrive. It isn't beyond them to grasp that the basic need of small farmers is 1) cheap land, ie. where values are not being driven up by the potential to convert it to more sprawl and 2) an economic cluster of other farmers to achieve economies of scale.

Pinning sprawl to the big-concern-of-the-moment could be seen as cynical and manipulative, if one chose to take it that way.

AnonymousApr 21 2009 06:26 PM

While the concept of agricultural urbanism or new ruralism may not be ideal, until the economic and political fundamentals of development change, these residential projects were going to be built regardless. I don't know many developments, at least out west, that specifically targeted prime farmland just so they could include an agricultural aspect - the land was purchased, the development thought about, and the agricultural aspect was added later as a means of differentiation or theme.

Therefore, to add in an agricultural aspect shouldn't be vilified outright. The theory behind the transect has proven to be just that in many cases - theory. Therefore, to introduce agricultural practices, or gardening, or however you want to term it, into urban and suburban and semi-rural residential uses can offer a host of benefits, including providing an abundant source of local food, creating community, and reconnecting our society with the food system and the natural environment. Prime farmland shouldn't be developed, but until we has society begin paying for the complete cost of our food, and a farmer's land is worth more in production than it is when sold to a developer, then don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Keith DavisApr 21 2009 09:15 PM

You need to check out Celebration Associates (the folks who were with Disney at the time Celebration was born) and the work they are doing now in Charlottesville, VA, Hot Springs, VA and Mount Washington, NH. In Charlottesville, a town of just over 4,000 acres and 45,000 folks is a farm called Bundoran. At a sizable 2,300+ acres, Bundoran was a complete working farm prior to development. Their process of development has created a farm in which over 90% of the land is remaining in use for either a cattle operation, active timbering, apple orchards, and other agrarian uses. Homesites are out of the public view shed, and road paths were designed using the original paths that the cattle trod out. Development doesn't have to destroy our farmlands. A favorite bumper sticker of Albemarle County is : Farmland Lost is Farmland Lost Forever.

Elizabeth SchillingApr 22 2009 01:27 PM

Anon - You're absolutely right that adding an agricultural aspect to a development is a worthy project. But billing that development as a way to preserve farmland, while ignoring its contribution to the destruction of farming, is villainous.

Some of us will continue to build on prime land, and some of us will pursue public policies and public opinions that achieve the goal of making prime lands more valuable for ag than development.

Kaid @ NRDCApr 23 2009 10:20 PM

Elizabeth is right. Viewed as a project in isolation, a mixed suburb/farm might be seen as a positive. No doubt it would be to the developer, who might be able to charge a premium for homesites that are, for now, spacious and rural.

But the effect is to fragment both farmland and development. Fragmenting farmland weakens the farming economy for all but hobby farmers. Why is it a good thing to replace a "complete working farm prior to development" with a farming suburb?

Meanwhile, fragmenting development means that we are continuing to spread our suburbs across the landscape, making transportation even more inefficient and more polluting by lengthening driving trips, raising the costs associated with infrastructure, and attracting more development nearby. We need to find better ways to grow, in Virginia, New Hampshire, and elsewhere that reduce rather than increase carbon emissions and that allow rural areas to remain rural while making suburbs more compact and efficient.

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