Thursday, November 4, 2010

On Agrarian Urbanism

An opportunity for point-counterpoint on the topic of Agrarian Urbanism - one that, with the recent explosion of discussion and interest in urban agriculture - is vital to discussing the place of food in the city, and what impact this will have on the form and function of our urban agglomerations.  The topic is poignant here in Portland, as it is both a hotbed of urban agriculture, as well striving for density through urban growth boundaries (UGBs) to protect adjacent farmland.  The question becomes one of spatial configuration - as space within cities can be allocated in whatever configuration we choose - but this does have implications on the overall spread.  I'm amazed with the ability to drive 10 minutes and find working farms - (while also looking around my neighborhood and finding working produce, poultry and other small-scale productive urban gardens).  Both of these will contribute to a final spatial arrangement of the city.

:: image via OregonLive

More on this urban/rural - inside/outside dichotomy, but for now a few bits of related reading.  Charles Waldheim has a recent post on Design Observer: Places, 'Notes Toward a History of Agrarian Urbanism', which is excerpted from the recent issue of Bracket: On Farming' and takes a mentioning Wright's Broadacre City, Ludwig Hilberseimers 'New Regional Pattern' and Branzi's Agronica  (a great article, once you translate from Italian here) which is great as a social critique, if not in its formal design qualities.  Looking backwards to see the future, the idea is to think about these not in terms of individual interventions, but with an eye on holistic urbanism.  From the article.
"To date the enthusiasm for slow and local food has been based, on the one hand, on the assumption that abandoned or underused brownfield sites could be remediated for their productive potential; and on the other it has been based on the trend toward conserving greenfield sites on city peripheries — on dedicating valuable ecological zones to food production and to limiting suburban sprawl. But these laudable goals are not much concerned with how urban farming might affect urban form."
:: image via Places

As a historical overview, Waldheim's thesis (the point) is to understand some of this utopian precedents, 
Broadacre City as a vision is appalling, but as a futurist prediction of auto-dominated sprawl, it may not be that far off.  To augment the examples mentioned, I would add Le Corbusiers' Radiant City - perhaps with a less modernist blank green space but as dense spires amidst farmland... Both this and Broadacre City are equally dispiriting, but in polar opposite ways.  In the abstract - both could be vehicles for agricultural urbanism that will appeal to a particular urban/suburban demographic of the population.

:: image via Brian's Culture Blog

The Howard-esque Garden City/Greenbelt City  is another integrated agro-urban example, focused more on concentration of uses (focused urban density) than full integration.  Similar to the drivers of Portland's UGB, there is clear compartmentalization of agriculture from city - keeping it in proximity but also at arms length... to connect the urban dweller to the rural worker in physical and cultural ways - at least in the abstract.

 :: image via Cornell Library

All the examples are not urban per se (as in densely agglomerated), but rather suburban (dependent on continued decentralization) in their contexts (or at least in their location of agricultural uses) - but do tell us much about the cooperative potential of the urban and the agricultural... perhaps the connection between the desire for land and space (our roots) and the historical suburban dispersion.  It was less about a 19th century model of  fleeing the ills of the city, as it was about recapturing some of our agrarian ideals.  The problem therein, lies in really tackling this in a truly urban form not the quasi-middle ground of suburbia (although a ripe ground for re-purposing to include agricultural uses, for sure). 

:: image via Places

The point is that it is fundamentally about what we want in cities (the actual urban parts, not the sprawling metropolitan statistical areas) - monocentric agglomeration and density or polycentric dispersion and space?  The point being, when looking at the 'landscape' of cities - the spaces for non-building, road, etc. there is opportunity (Mason White's 'Productive Surface'?) available at a variety of scales, where 'agriculture' amongst other uses (programmed and other) can exist within cities.  This may be the simplistic, Thus the continuum of spaces is not specifically relegated to the dispersed - large tracts of agricultural land in cities (reducing density, likely leading to sprawl) or the hyper-dense (and I say neo-utopian) vertical farms (technological solutions at exorbitant cost - although I hear they may save the world).

:: image via Treehugger

It's obvious that industrial agriculture is undergoing a necessary shift, and that some space is necessary for food production in the city, but the extent and shape of this (both spatially and culturally) is yet to be determined.  This differs (and influences) urbanism in many ways, depending on what you believe, where you live, and what you grow - amongst myriad other variable.  But is on the minds of many.  These are leading to both inventive proposals, the provocative, the cute and ephemeral, the strange, or the already tried and true - yet somehow new ideas, in the name of agriculture made urban.

The historical account of Waldheim may be compared to (the counterpoint), a similar crop of recent writings by Andres Duany on the same topic, particularly the New Urbanist recent interest in Agricultural Urbanism - which spawned a very NU-centric book (but mostly referenced by Duany as the same 'Agrarian' moniker).   As mentioned on Planetizen, this is to become an emphasis:

"At the 18th Annual Congress for New Urbanists, Andres Duany announced 'Agrarian Urbanism' as his new planning emphasis. He believes that the success of New Urbanism has stultified its progress and reduced its potential...  Agrarian urbanism is a society involved with the growing of food," explains Duany. He now aims to create a locavorous community where the resident is responsible for designing his "own utopia." Greg Lindsay believes the ideas could be attractive to the Whole Foods demographic but is unsure if they are ready for the hard work involved with growing food. Duany concedes that his agrarian communities would still "end up hiring Hispanic laborers to do the dirty work," but that these laborers would have a closer relationship with their employers."
For some of Duany's view on this topic (echoing the above quote) you can turn to Fast Company,  New Urbanism for the Apocalypse, a snapshot of the CNU annoucement, particularly how this viewpoint fits into the NU paradigm.  From the article:
"Agrarian urbanism, he explained, is different from both "urban agriculture" ("cities that are retrofitted to grow food") and "agricultural urbanism" ("when an intentional community is built that is associated with a farm)." He was thinking bigger: "Agrarian urbanism is a society involved with the growing of food." America abounds with intentional communities, he pointed out -- golf course communities, equestrian ones, even the fly-in kind. So why not build one for locavores? And they can have as much land as they like -- it's just that they would have gardens instead of yards, or community gardens and window boxes if they choose to live in an apartment. Their commitment to "hand-tended agriculture" would be part of their legally binding agreement with the homeowners' association. "You design your own utopia," he said. Instead of a strip mall in the town square, there's a "market square" comprised of green markets, restaurants, cooking schools, an agricultural university, and so on. "This thing pushes buttons like mad," he said. "The excitement this triggers -- they get as excited about this as they did in the old days about the porch and the walkable community."
:: Agricultural Transect - image via Fast Company

I particularly enjoy the idea of writing this into the CC+R's of a community (above underlined passage) a sort of 'thou shall farm' edict that allows you to design your own utopia, as long as it fits within certain cultural and community expectations as defined and dictated those in power.  Is this the small-scale version of hobby-farming to the suburban masses - because it isn't really a model of truly 'urban' development?

Another, from Houston Tomorrow, sums up a recent presentation on 'Agricultural Urbanism: Transects & Food Production' with a focus on the recent NU-inspired Southlands project in BC .  Picking up the thread of CNU18, Kunstler shows he may be on board, quoted  on Clusterfuck Nation echoing the need for this return to the farm as also a response to impeding climate change related disruption. (underlined quote mine)
"Among other things, the most forward-looking leaders in the New Urbanist movement now recognize that we have to reorganize the landscape for local food production, because industrial agriculture will be one of the prime victims of our oil predicament. The successful places in the future will be places that have a meaningful relationship with growing food close to home. The crisis in agriculture is looming right now -- with world grain reserves at their lowest level ever recorded in modern times -- and when it really does hit, the harvestmen of famine and death will be in the front ranks of it."
The Houston article links to the long presentation by Duany about the topic, via YouTube - although I haven't had a spare two hours to check it out yet... anyone will to summarize, let me know.

For some related content, one must delve into the interesting concept of CPULs.  Also check out the project 'Garden Block' project by Daniel Nairn, which has garnered praise for it's plausibility from Smart Growth advocates like Kaid Benfield ('Agricultural Urbanism that actually is urban') who have been critical of some urban agriculture proposals.  As an object of defined spatial arrangement incorporating density and agriculture - it seems to work for this block (one that would attract some, but not all urban agrarians).  I expect and desire more models, both the practical to the sublime, from NU/LU/EU and other 'U's - investigating codified solutions and abstract indeterministic ones - giving plenty of fodder for discussion on the future of food in the city.

:: image via Grist

The question of this not just as a site or district image, but as it relates to the overall structure of how we plan and shape cities - is a much larger question indeed.  Looking at utopian precedents, and site specific examples, we have opportunities for not just the physical integration of agriculture into cities, but a clear picture, good and bad, of what some of the consequences may be. 


  1. cAnother excellent post -- favorite topic at the moment for many.
    You said it's obvious that industrial agriculture is undergoing a necessary shift. I wonder how much shift is actually occurring, and how much resistance is yet to come to spoil local, state and national initiatives for urban agriculture.
    I like considering the different garden-space-provision models, but I'd also like to read much more on ideas to provide affordable irrigation water. My experience with household vegetable gardening in the US and Namibia is that the price of potable water is a personal budget killer. I think we need advancements in small-scale greywater treatment technology and compatible irrigation systems.

  2. Duany could sell ice to an eskimo, just saw him speak last week

  3. Here's a NU post regarding agricultural urbanism which refers to a residential site design by Steve Mouzon that accommodates urban agriculture a module in the Smart Code for agricultural urbanism.


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