Research and discussion for citizens and decision makers

Agricultural Urbanism

Transects & food production

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On October 30, Andrés Duany, a founding principal at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, spoke about agricultural urbanism as part of Houston Tomorrow’s Distinguished Speaker Series. Urbanism in general, he said, must be compact, accessible to those without cars, mixed-income, and convivial. Agricultural urbanism is one part of that, he said.

Agricultural urbanism, Duany explained, is different from urban agriculture. Agricultural urbanism creates a walkable urban form surrounded by large-scale food production, while urban agriculture simply refers to growing food in empty lots or backyards. Agricultural urbanism requires extensive planning, while urban agriculture does not. Detroit, he said, has many examples of urban agriculture, but it does not exemplify agricultural urbanism.

In a rural setting, agricultural urbanism means clustering buildings together. This allows farmers to still work large tracts of land, but it also enables them to pool resources and interact socially with other farmers. For instance, by clustering buildings together, farmers can share expensive farm equipment, create a farmer’s market and cooking classes, process and recycle sewage, and use commercial kitchens to process food. (It is illegal in the US to sell processed food from an individual’s kitchen.) None of these is possible if the buildings are scattered and isolated.

Urbanism - and agricultural urbanism - progresses along transects, Duany said. These transects, which become progressively more and more populated, are: natural zone, rural zone, sub-urban, general urban, urban center, and urban core. Duany said that this allows for complexity, which is necessary in an urban setting. He noted that by law in most cities, you can either have no chickens or 50,000 chickens, but there is no room in between those extremes. “Has anyone thought about four chickens?” he asked.

The transect model provides the maximum amount of social and environmental diversity, he said. Natural zones are incredibly diverse environmentally but have no social diversity, while urban cores are socially diverse and have little environmental diversity. Sub-urban areas have the least overall diversity, he said, but this can be somewhat compensated for by incorporating food production into the sub-urban landscape.

Food production also has transects, Duany said, including forageable land, tractor farms, specialty farms, gardens and rooftop gardens, community gardens, and container gardens. “The more land you’re wasting with a large lot,” he said, “the more you’re expected to produce.” In addition, he said, it centers public gathering places around production instead of consumption. Rather than having a slew of retail shops, there can be farmer’s markets, barns, restaurants, dance halls, and other buildings.

Duany cited Southlands, British Columbia, as an example of agricultural urbanism. By planning, the community was able to develop two-thirds of its original farmland and yet increase food production by three times. Each block is one acre, just like farmland, but the blocks have different residential and agricultural densities. Some contain multi-story apartments with balcony gardens, some contain community gardens, and some contain single-family homes with adjacent arable land. Even at the edge of the community, where there are large farms, Duany noted that the farmhouses themselves are still integrated into the urban fabric.

Duany said that the US has the money to achieve similar things, noting that Americans spend vast sums of money on decorative landscaping every year. By focusing on agricultural urbanism instead, he said cities could both improve social networks and increase local food production.

Matt Festa at the Land Use Prof Blog has also provided some thoughts on the event.

Duany’s presentation (.key, 38 mb) (.ppt, 14 mb) (.pdf, 10 mb) has posted audio of Duany’s lecture

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