The demise of core central cities, especially in the upper Midwest, should be of interest to rural residents. The reason? Cities are looking at agriculture on various scales in an effort to make abandoned urban land more profitable.
In some cases, this push has created urban neighborhood gardens, endeavors to build community and provide city dwellers with low-cost, fresh food; this type of project has been around for decades. Somewhere in the middle of the scale are rooftop gardens and smaller buildings designed to grow food either in the open or under greenhouse conditions. A larger variant, perhaps huge, is in the design stage: a small skyscraper built to accommodate diversified agricultural operations. Cowpies in the sky, anyone?
This is a recurring and serious trend. Grist Magazine has recognized the importance of the American urban farm movement with a 14-part series, “Breaking through Concrete: stories from the American urban farm.” The series introduction notes that these farms “are transforming our built environments and creating jobs, training opportunities, local economies, and healthy food in our nation’s biggest cities.” The last installment is about a distant Chicago suburb, Prairie Crossing, a conservation subdivision that combines small-scale farming with open spaces.
Now, here’s the big, big vision. Andres Duany, who 30 years ago formulated the highly debated but now widely accepted principles of “new urbanism” – higher density, mixed use, walkable neighborhoods with few cars – is now moving on to, well, greener pastures. According to Greg Lindsay on fastcompany.com, Duany, in response to global ecological and social crises, is creating a new vision for cities: Agrarian urbanism.
Quoting Duany directly and indirectly, Lindsay writes that this 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’). [Duany is] thinking bigger: ‘Agrarian urbanism is a society involved with the growing of food.’ America abounds with intentional communities … golf course communities, equestrian ones…. So why not build one for locavores? …
“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. … 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.”
Lindsay notes that Duany is “trying to push the body of planners and architects toward a small-town America that more closely resembles pre-1850 America than pre-1950.” You get the impression that Duany thinks environmental conditions are going to get bad, really bad. Who knows? He may be right.
The heart of Duany’s proposal is that a dependable local food supply, raised by human hands with a minimum of fossil energy, is not only doable — it may be necessary: Duany calls it, “circling the wagons” against ecological disasters brewing around the globe.
As a rural observer who has seen far too many slums – both rural and urban – I don’t want to pooh-pooh Duany’s idea. Putting aside for now its ironic, perhaps dismissive, overtones for rural America, the idea has tremendous merit, whether we’re sliding toward ecological perdition or not. In fact, many cities and towns have died, and any idea that can help stem the waste resulting from those deaths deserves a hearing, especially in smaller rural towns, the original walkable communities.
For a change, rural communities are at an advantage in such an effort. Human and natural assets are already in place to reshape small towns around small-scale farming and gardening for food and small-scale renewable energy production, perhaps with the goal of becoming ecovillages. When you drive through small towns during the summer, you’ll see absolutely beautiful plots of vegetables and flowers. There’s talent galore here, people who grew up on farms and brought their gardening talents with them when they moved to town to work or retire.
The youth component is there, too. Many rural high schools already teach agriculture-related courses, and community colleges often have horticulture programs. Many young people might be interested in pursuing green careers; schools could create youth-focused, garden-oriented earthtrepreneurship with guidance from older folks in the community to enhance sustainability.
In addition, small-town creativity is ready to be tapped. Many small towns are already trying to attract people by offering incentives on housing and lots. These towns know they need new families to survive, but new residents also need ways to earn a living. Harking back to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, perhaps we can revitalize rural towns through small-scale farming and gardening, attracting back-to-the-landers who can help meet today’s community and regional needs.
Why not support families in the community or attract families that have been displaced by the recession? The U.S. Department of Agriculture has already made some moves in this direction. Its Community Food Security Initiative provides grants for qualifying projects.
How about federally funded training, small incentives or loans, and local mentoring to help people learn how to grow food for themselves and the community? Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardener programs might offer another possibility for training.
In addition, communities could form land cooperatives or community supported agriculture operations that focus not only on growing food, but harnessing biomass for small, renewable energy operations, preserving land and wildlife, promoting agritourism and and creating local and regional markets.
Radical as his ideas may seem, Duany is, in reality, is proposing a conservative strategy for urban areas. Variations of his concepts are already being enacted in some big cities; they certainly could apply communities in the hinterland, drawing upon the enduring character of small towns. For in rural America, the idea is truly traditional, cutting to the core of community possibilities for relative self sufficiency with closer ties to the land, good, wholesome food, and green energy. No matter who’s credited with its conception, this approach could also create rural income and wealth responsibly, build social relationships, and move communities toward sustainability.
Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.