Agrarian Urbanism

Our firm had a recent Design Round Table where there was a showing of a TedTalk by Jeff Speck in regards to the “Walkable City”, followed by discussion and exploration of Nashville’s walkability and great experiences of walking in town. I explored something similar with my professor, TK Davis and his Urbanism seminar, in which I focused on Agrarian Urbanism. If you were fascinated by the TedTalk like I was, you might be interested in the following research I conducted a few years ago that focuses on the topic of “Agrarian Urbanism”, a wild pairing of two seemingly unrelated environments that could have the potential for great design futures.

Agrarian Urbanism is defined by Andres Duany as “when the entire community is involved in the growing and distributing and consumption process of producing”; its close sibling term is Agricultural Urbanism, referring to “settlements with working farms” where the residents do not participate in cultivation as a requirement but out of hobby or recreation. This reminds of medieval villages, how the community was tight knit, cottages housing the carpenters and welders and weavers and cobblers, work and home in one place. The business deals would happen in the marketplace, which would be the center of the community; if not the marketplace, the church would tower as the anchor of the society. There was little need for one to leave the colony; all of one’s needs could be met in one place. 

aerial image of “medieval” urbanism

 The pen behind the term of “agrarian urbanism” is Andres Duany, one of the principals of DPZ alongside Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. A practice that focuses on planning, they have “completed well over two hundred downtown and new town plans.” They are fountainheads of the urban design world, leading thoughtful discussions by co-founding the Congress of New Urbanism and teaching at the University of Miami. As a team, they are very involved with many urban planning projects such as Seaside, Florida, applying principles discussed in the Congress of New Urbanism.

sample sketch from Duany’s book, Agrarian Urbanism

Study 01 – Southlands, Vancouver, B.C.

At first doubtful about the potentials of agriculture and integrating it to community or a societal condition, a Vancouver developer named Sean Hodgins approached Duany about a vision for an agricultural community called Southlands. Hodgins had this dream for the ultimate integrated living experience. A Market Square with live-work studios for the makers and crafters of the community; the plaza space utilized weekly by those who operate the community farm with vendors and stands of fresh produce and meats. The people of the community can be seen on nice afternoons at the numerous public land locations such as the community farm, parks, and trails. Subtle details and positive impacts include the use of sustainable housing, its wide range of housing types and transit opportunities. Although unbuilt, it has just been approved for construction and similar communities and enthusiasts of agrarian urbanism projects are awaiting to see how this project may become a model for the future of neighborhoods and towns.

Although Southlands was the first project Duany had heard of its kind, there were already many well-established communities in the United States that are exemplifying both community and countryside. 

Study 02 – Serenbe, GA

Serenbe, Georgia is one of these establishments. South of Atlanta, Georgia, it is a reinterpretation of a modern village. After visiting the pastoral landscape with their family, Steve and Marie Nygren wanted to share this beauty with others, yet maintain a responsible nature by being sustainable and creating opportunities for “porch conversation”. Steve comes from a family of farmers and is from the restaurant business; he believes that people “love the idea of sitting on their back porch and watching the farmers grow the food”. What started as sixty acres of farmland has become a thousand acres of community and farm; what started as twenty lots sold in forty-eight hours has become a neighborhood that is growing to an expected twelve hundred residents.

Serenbe, GA

As a modern village with a focus on interaction, there are a few key design decisions that the Nygren’s made that allowed Serenbe to be successful. The project caters to pedestrians rather than the vehicle and fosters moments of interaction and unexpected encounters in various locations such as the porch, trails, the twenty-five acre farm, one of the many plazas or market squares. The development is sectioned off into four hamlets: arts, agriculture, education, and health with various multi-generational living options interspersed. The homes themselves are very sustainable, making small environmental footprints on the Earth.

Study 03 – Prairie Crossing, IL

Another similar establishment is Prairie Crossing, Illinois, just outside of Chicago in Grayslake. Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelly bought the parcel of land in 1987 and soon developed the countryside to create a community that would counteract urban sprawl. The couple wanted to give people the opportunity to live near landscapes and agriculture parcels and opportunities for interaction in these spaces. They allotted one hundred acres for agricultural production and reserved other acreage for natural reserve; in fact, the work the community has done has positively affected the water supply and the biodiversity there, reintroducing native species where they have been long absent. Its amenities include Lake Aldo Leopold, which is clean enough, due to the efficient storm water runoff system in use, for residents and guests to swim in, a hidden treehouse for the young residents to imagine in and congregate, stables for equestrian enthusiasts, and copious trails and parks for outdoor recreation. The development has been bestowed many awards within its twenty plus years of existence, for its sustainable nature and vision for the future of community living.

Criticisms

Despite the progress accomplished by these colonies, there are many criticisms of the interworking of people living in this way. The average home price and rent is much higher than what is considered affordable, especially in places like Serenbe and Prairie Crossing. Serenbe’s homes on average cost around $700,000. Therefore, there is a lack of economic diversity in a zone where they claim they do cater to different incomes. Additionally, a criticism is the lack of history and the false authenticity of these communities to construct a place of being in a site where there was little context. These constructions follow building archetypes that associate themselves with a certain period, i.e. “craftsman” style or “farmhouse” or even “Victorian” or “Cape Cod ”. Lastly, there is great potential for transit to these nearby urban metropolises, like how Serenbe is by Atlanta and Prairie Crossing is near Chicago. These may be in action already but what type of transportation? Bus, train, subway? The value of the agrarian neighborhood could be immense if public transportation is organized to major metropolises. 

Mandating Urban Sprawl

Europe represents how agrarian urbanism could be in its greatest potential. In England, there is a long mandated policy to prevent urban sprawl around high density places such as Manchester and London by introducing greenbelts that wrap around these urban centers and restrict growth.

 

diagram of mandated greenbelts around the major metropolises of England

These greenbelts provide the opportunity for inhabitants to enjoy the benefits of urban life and the views of fields and pastures. Currently, however, there is some discussions as to whether or not these urban centers are becoming too dense and how would the city and country of England approach an addendum to expanding built civilization on these preserved and pastoral greenways to alleviate the tension of layers of people living in a city. 

More locally, Nashville also has enacted land preservation laws that would limit sprawl and encourage the preservation of farmland, green space, and wooded parcels of land. The Land Trust for Tennessee makes it possible for land to be preserved for future enjoyment and to limit our urban growth. The organization focuses on retaining existing farmland, historic sites, water routes, idyllic landscapes, parks, and wooded green space. In Tennessee, where Nashville is one of the fastest growing cities, land conservation is becoming more and more prevalent; more recently, the Greenway system in Nashville has encouraged energy efficiency and reinforces the need for keeping spaces like these, but also emphasizing outdoor recreation. Tennessee’s Land Trust organization has been very successful since 1999, preserving more than 100,000 acres of land by way of 319 projects thus far. 

Conclusion

Where do we go from here? How could college and university campuses adopt a similar model? Our very own University of Tennessee is “landlocked” by other buildings forcing the university to expand within the land it was allotted; this reflects what the greenbelts in England try to achieve. If a campus theoretically had a greenbelt around its campus, the health of students could be greatly improved if dining options on campus used produce from surrounding land and easy access to running trails and greenways like that of Nashville.

If we could make these developments more affordable, these communities would be a lot richer in diversity and community. This urbanism theory really provides the opportunity for people to change their mindset of rural and urban as two separate entities and rather an integrated condition where both environments can be enjoyed. 

References

Citations, References, & Sources for Imagery

  1. Duany, Andres. Agrarian Urbanism. London: The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, 2011. Print.
  2. “Home Grown: Moving Next to the Farm”. Prod. Mark Hudspeth. Sunday Morning. CBS. WCBS, New York, 22 November 2015. Television. 
  3. “A Brief Introduction to Garden Cities.” heritagecalling.com. Historic England Blog, 18 February 2016. Web. 5 December 2016. 
  4. “About Us.” landtrusttn.org. The Land Trust for Tennessee, 2016. Web. 5 December 2016. 
  5. “Video.” livecannerydavis.com. The New Home Community, 2016. 5 December 2016.
  1. “Edinburgh’s Garden District.” N.P. Mispresentation Act, 2015. Print. 
  2. “Community.” serenbe.com. Serenbe, 2016. 5 December 2016. 
  3. “History.” prairiecrossing.com. Prairie Crossing, 2016. 5 December 2016.
  1. “Greenbelt.” padctn.org. Nashville Accessor of Property, 2015. 5 December 2016. 
  2. “Overview.” imaginesouthlands.ca. Century Group, 2016. 5 December 2016.
  1. “Is it time to rethink Britain’s green belt?” theguardian.com. Guardian News and Media Limited, 19 October 2014. 5 December 2016. 

Pictures

  1. Duany, Andres. Agrarian Urbanism. London: The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, 2011. Print.
  2. “Community.” serenbe.com. Serenbe, 2016. 5 December 2016. 
  3. “7 Abandoned Villages That Teach Us About Medieval Life”. heritagecalling.com. 29 August 2014. Web. 5 December 2016.