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Dreaming of Home

It didn’t take the mortgage meltdown to make clear that residential patterns affect individual, societal and environmental health. And the crash only made the ruinous implications of conventional sprawl development harder to ignore. Now an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art asks how architecture and planning might ameliorate those consequences, proposing alternate ideals of home and imagining buildings and places to express them.

“Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream” (through July 30, 2012) presents conjectural designs for five representative but quite different suburban places where defaults have been especially numerous. There are no mile-high farming machines or magically floating street grids among these concepts. They are serious proposals with recognizable components—more and less radical, but readily buildable. If, that is, there might be a mass market for them.

The proposition made to the five design teams was this: The culture of the single-family house with lawn and driveway propels development forms that are demonstrably insupportable. What alternate visions of home and community can yield placemaking that is beneficial? What might that housing and those neighborhoods look like? What financial and property arrangements would they depend on?

This challenge is cultural as much as it is architectural or economic. Thus the proposals must be judged by how profoundly they address and encourage a modification—even an upending—of the so-called American dream. Actually, instead of “Rehousing the American Dream” a more accurate subtitle would have been “Redreaming the American Home.” To want to live in such reimagined communities, people would have to disabuse themselves of commonly held archetypes of house and neighborhood, deeply ingrained feelings about privacy and ownership, unquestioned measures of success and even selfhood. This would amount to a massive societal shift in expectations and values. But big changes in cultural norms do occur when people feel threatened. Vast numbers of us have eschewed tobacco, for example, and sprawl is arguably even more dangerous. So what the hell? Let’s dream.

What follows are thumbnail descriptions of the projects. (The museum’s online presentation includes a good portion of the material on display.)

Rendering of Visible Weather’s “Simultaneous City” project for Temple Terrace, Florida. Image courtesy Michael Bell, Eunjeong Seong: Visible Weather.

“Simultaneous City” would create a 225-acre town center for Temple Terrace, a Tampa suburb whose ‘center’ now amounts to commercial strips that have excessive setbacks, vast parking lots and otherwise underutilized land. A complex of connected buildings linked by walkways, courtyards and a plaza would integrate and stack uses: a city hall, incubator office spaces, a health facility, everyday retail. Several types of housing—rented, owned and supportive—would be accommodated in somewhat unusual structures, like two-story courtyard houses connected by open-air corridors built atop several office levels.

Absence of a center is a typical condition in suburban places, and there have already been so many proposals and attempts to establish density and downtown functionality on similar commercial-strip sites that the general approach seems hardly radical. “We see the project as a bridge to another space. We don’t want to create a utopia,” but “to show what was possible,” a team leader says in a video. The architecture is fresh, including significant gestures of passive response to the subtropical climate. It’s hardly off-putting, or at the level of the individual unit, profoundly different from the more familiar townhouse and garden-apartment typologies nearby. To the growing extent that people are willing to choose multi-family living contexts, it’s easy to imagine these being desirable.

Rendering of WORKac’s “Nature-City” for Keizer, Oregon. Image courtesy WORKac.

That’s not so sure with a scheme for a mostly undeveloped site of exactly the same size on the edge of Keizer, a suburb of Portland, Oregon. “Nature-City” could accommodate all of the town’s expected population growth of 13,000 people over the next two decades. Multiple building types would be clustered into pier-like extensions of the adjacent street grid. These would protrude into the site and in many places be elevated above it, leaving more than half the area as a restored nature preserve. The sense of porousness and continuous nature is palpable both in the plan view and in the concepts for the buildings: rows of party-wall houses bridging wetlands, “cavern” buildings allowing for wildlife corridors, a blossom-shaped building enclosing ponds for water treatment, and everywhere the designing of spaces for food production.

This is an ambitious effort to address resource and environmental issues. “The housing types offer vital services to the community as a whole, such as the production of renewable energy and the natural processing of waste and other by-products,” the team writes. But these biomorphic, eco-mechanical structures are more than a little unusual. Are there buyers for residential units in a dome-shaped building called “Compost Hill,” designed to trap methane from the landfill over which it sits? Today Portland, tomorrow the world? Maybe.

Architectural model for Zago Architecture’s “Property with Properties” project for Rialto, California. Photograph courtesy of James Ewing. © 2011 James Ewing.

“Property with Properties” is a proposal for the completion of a subdivision in Rialto, near San Bernardino, California, which failed with only 10 per cent of its conventional single-family houses out of the ground. This idea would overlay the site with additional density and introduce multi-family housing typologies by “misregistration,” blurring property and setback lines and narrowing streets. This would allow more area for building, and for seasonal river and wildlife pathways. Also proposed is an offbeat architectural style: buildings with colorful, patterned surfaces and irregular geometries that suggest jigsaw-puzzle pieces or dancers doing a rumba.

The color might be welcome in that near-desert landscape, and the close, origami-like unfolding spaces between the buildings do seem fun, but the weird interiors that would result from these shapes? Maybe not so much. The bigger question about this proposal is whether it fundamentally challenges the suburban model and mindset. A shuttle bus to a transit stop is envisioned, and some commercial space is incorporated, but this would remain an island-like, cul-de-sac subdivision, still quite car dependent—and with an internal street plan even more circuitous than the original. There are hundreds or thousands of similarly moribund subdivision projects around the country, called “PVC farms” for the stubs of conduit sticking out of their unsalable house lots. A better strategy might be to let them stay dead, or take them back to a greenfield state.

Of the five in the exhibition, only these three projects are set in post-war suburban locations. And none of them takes on what may be the most tragic and intractable effect the foreclosure mess has had on the built environment: monocultural single-family neighborhoods left pockmarked with deteriorating and abandoned properties. (This condition must have existed in these communities. At a time when the national foreclosure rate was 1.1%, the rate in Rialto was 11.4% and in Temple Terrace 7.4%. In Keizer it was only 2.5%, though.) Repairing such places is the hardest challenge. They lack viable transit. They typically lack a mix of uses and income brackets, while having populations who were expecting, if not explicitly promised, these things. Maybe for designers these places are the least appealing because they are not blank slates. They’re not even as blank as the asphalt parking lots of a stagnating commercial strip.

The other two projects are in towns that are nominally suburban. But these are inner-ring suburbs, old enough to have been built with regular street grids, multi-family and small-lot single-family housing, retail and industrial presence, and rail transit. It was to escape from or leap over precisely these places that the suburban dream held promise; their populations are now working class and poor.

Rendering of Studio Gang Architects’ “The Garden in the Machine” project for Cicero, Illinois. Image courtesy Studio Gang Architects.

“The Garden in the Machine” focuses on a defunct factory site in Cicero, just outside Chicago. Cicero is a first stop for Latino immigrants. They surely arrive with an American dream, though it might be focused more immediately on finding reliable work and stable housing than on acquiring McMansions and jumbo mortgages. They also bring with them a more communal cultural grounding. In response, the housing typology proposed is the most unconventional in the exhibition. The team used the metaphor of a Rubik’s Cube for its modular system in which kitchens, living rooms and workspaces can be shared, and bedrooms plugged in or out as family groupings and needs change. The plan incorporates spaces for gardens, events, a market and food court and defines a “cottage industry alley” on the lane behind an adjacent block of bungalows to encourage the garage-workshop enterprises already naturally arising there. This project is deftly tailored to the existing population of Cicero. But it would demand the most in adjusted expectations of home from more mainstream American householders.

Rendering of MOS’s “Thoughts on a Walking City” project for Orange, New Jersey. Image courtesy MOS.

Equally exciting and out-of-the-box is a project for Orange, New Jersey, called “Thoughts on a Walking City.” It would maximize the value of existing infrastructure and concentrate population by filling the streets with continuous, chain-like four-story buildings. They would have ground-floor retail, apartments above, and public areas on their roofs. The new spatial and visual relationships are intriguing to imagine: the blocks of existing one- to three-story buildings enclosed by the slightly higher new structures; the intimate, irregularly-shaped walkways and public spaces left over when the streets no longer exist. “We may have to rethink the size of fire trucks,” a team leader allows in a video, “and you might need a cart to bring home groceries.” He references Venice as an exemplary carless city.

Of the five projects, this is the most intriguing from the point of view of urbanism and urban aesthetics. It touches that nerve that resonates with close-built, alley-filled antique towns—the ones we love to travel to visit—with their informal, quirky spaces and their variety. It is perhaps the most valuable proposal because it could accommodate a lot of population growth in a place that already has urban infrastructure. It is also the most radical, imposing a pedestrian realm of enclosure and limited vista.

Surprisingly, the unsatisfactory aspect of the exhibition is its vagueness about the economic arrangements that would supposedly underpin these projects. The proposal for Orange, for example, would have “portable mortgages” and a “micro-governmental cooperative structure,” and the Cicero one would have a “limited-equity cooperative” model, whatever those things are. Others mention a public-private partnership or a real-estate investment trust—both more familiar terms—but what makes them right for these situations? We don’t really go to an art museum expecting a lesson in the economics of property development, but a related infographic for each proposal could have told enough. There’s a good reason to want to grasp the economics; we need alternatives to sprawl that can really work. The challenge is that it’s not just about design.

Architects EAT Melbourne

How things are panning out on Melbourne’s burgeoning skyline is questionable. But in the shadow of those weird towers, firms like Architects EAT are doing work that is subtle, refined, location-appropriate, and very beautiful.

The Victorian- and Edwardian-era buildings in Australian cities like Melbourne, echoing those of Britain, were highly ornamented. Typical terrace houses, even tiny ones, dressed themselves up with wrought iron filigree; cartouches on their parapets announced grandiose names like “Somerset” and “Anne’s Villa.” In the same spirit, commercial blocks were crenellated and corbelled and otherwise elaborated. Nevertheless, Australia came to produce a distinctly austere Modernism. It originated in the functional vernacular of a country that was, until recently, less than wealthy, and in response to the continent’s vast landscape and harsh climate. This was an architecture of clean-lined, unembellished structures – houses built of workaday materials like weatherboard and corrugated metal, with big windows, natural ventilation, outdoor access, and long views. A Bauhaus influence, arriving in the 1940s with European immigrants, added sophistication but hardly conflicted with that aesthetic.

Australia has escaped the worst of the Great Recession, and Melbourne – with over four million people, the second largest city – is enjoying a development boom. In architect-designed single houses and in additions to old terrace houses, the minimalist, environmentally responsive Australian-Modern sensibility prevails. But many larger projects there – office and apartment towers, cultural and university buildings – present a riot of bewildering and frequently awful design. Unsettling fractal facades, clashing saturated colors, weird biomorphic excrescences – a visitor starts to wonder whether delirium is epidemic in the local development community. “There are two quite distinct schools of architects here,” says Albert Mo, a principal of Architects EAT, a studio formed in 2000 that is gaining prominence in Melbourne and the region beyond. “One is what we call the ‘straight-line architects’ – like, ‘We never do a single curve or angled wall.’ The other one is more expressive and experimental, whether it’s crazy composition, or more organic sculptural form.” Mo and his colleagues don’t shy from experimentation, and may actually do the occasional curve or angled wall. But their work is firmly grounded in restrained Australian Modernism. It well exemplifies that of their generation, too – of its grounded members, anyway.

That doesn’t mean Architects EAT lacks playfulness. Their recently completed Pulse Apartments is a pair of trim, rectilinear five-story buildings composed of predominantly horizontal elements in concrete, glass, and steel. The modules themselves and the grid they form are reminiscent of Mies van der Rohe’s iconic designs for the Illinois Institute of Technology. A graphic, devised for EAT’s web page about the project, repeats a photo of van der Rohe, turned sideways and roughly duplicating the pattern of the buildings’ façades. The caption? “Stacking Mies.” EAT’s home page also links to Andy Warhol’s film “Eat,” a static black-and-white head shot of the artist Robert Indiana eating for 45 silent minutes – a more ironic comment on the modern world would be difficult to find. (Their name, chosen for its memorable idiosyncrasy, represents the first initials of the founders’ names; “E” for Eid Goh, “A” for Albert Mo and “T” for a long-gone former colleague. James Coombe, now the third principal, joined in 2005.)

Many old Melbourne neighborhoods, with their intact building stock, agreeable pedestrian scale, and excellent transit are desirable again – and gentrifying. Stroll their back alleys and you’ll see sleek contemporary additions slotted into the narrow rear gardens of those flamboyant little row houses. Like many young firms, EAT got its start designing backyard extensions. They still do a few, but “of much larger scale, a few million dollars’ difference,” says Mo. A recent example is the expansion of a free-standing Edwardian cottage, a project they call Elm & Willow for two trees dominating the garden that – beyond being preserved – gave the design its rationale.

The existing house was restored – fussy fretwork, leaded glass and all – but its interior was scrubbed of color; it has white walls uncluttered by art, and bleached plank floors. At the end of its long central hall a translucent door slides away to reveal the addition. Two transparent pavilions, parallel rectangles, define a graveled court in which one of the big trees spreads. Their concrete floors float above grade to not interfere with the root systems. Their walls are large glass panels that roll open, atop which float flat concrete ceilings, impressed with the wood grain of their forms. The first pavilion is a living area, while the further one, through which a garden at the back of the lot is visible, contains the kitchen, dining area, and deck. A service corridor that links the two spaces, hiding a bathroom, laundry, and rear entry, seems opaque, with a black wall facing the courtyard. But that wall is composed of louvres that render it, too, wide open and seamlessly part of the indoor-outdoor flow.

“Maybe because there’s so much damn land out there, and we love it,” says Coombe. “The ideal, high goal for a lot of architects is to do a single house monumentally stuck in the middle of the bush.” That’s a reference to work by Australian-Modern pioneer Glenn Murcutt, who has been a strong influence on the country’s younger architects. In practice, such commissions are few. But EAT still expresses that relationship to the outdoors, with houses like Elm & Willow in more urban contexts. Response to environment is also right on the surface of a 10-story apartment building the firm designed, which is being completed now; for its façade, a system of motorized louvres will open and close depending on sun angle and weather.

“They represent an emergent generation of Australian architects who are less interested in functional steel sheds, obsessively repetitive elements, or the complexities of a one-liner,” says Martyn Hook, Melbourne editor of Architectural Review Australia and professor of architecture at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. “These younger architects like EAT are interested in a richness of space, an appropriate but sustainable response to context, and a celebration of the opportunities that living in Australia presents not only in climatic terms, but also in social engagement and affluence.”

These days few of their projects are additions, but having done so many, and now undertaking multi-unit buildings in tight city locations, “we’re used to working within constraints,” Coombe says. “It’s quite funny. When we have a clean slate we have difficulty finding the basis.” That might be because they approach a project inquisitively, rather than with a signature idiom or toolkit of ready solutions.

Mo says their concern is for “the tactile quality of a building, where the touch and material, the sound, the light that comes in, is far more important than the stylistic quality. It’s about the journey through the building and through the seasons, ingrained into your memory. That is how we initiate our design process. We always think, ‘What do we want our clients to remember?’ A lot is site-specific. And the human context plays a really important part. We want the building to feel like our client.” EAT’s projects may not look much alike, but they share a close attention to detail – “how junctions work,” says Coombe, “the way welds are on a steel beam, the way the pulls are mounted on a drawer, how the materials come together. And texture. We want you to touch this wall and feel how it’s different from another place – for example using rough, recycled wharf timber to offset some really sharp concrete. It’s our holistic view.”

EAT’s practice in the early years was mainly residential, plus the occasional retail interior. Then came what Mo calls “a great architect-got-the-job story.” He went to meet a potential client who wanted his penthouse remodeled. “He opened the door, a really young kid, and I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I shouldn’t have taken the call.’ I was quite blunt, ‘We are not the cheapest around.’ He said, ‘Fine, let’s go.’” The kid’s father turned out to be a shopping center developer in the Philippines, who liked what they were doing for his son. He hired EAT to design a bowling center. They’ve been working for him ever since. Of the three principals, Goh focuses on retail and hospitality design, while Coombe and Mo handle the residential jobs. Goh says, “We tend to not cross-pollinate between them because they’re so different.” That goes beyond the distinction between public and private to include clients’ motives – profit center or place to live? – and projects’ life expectancies, with hospitality venues, for example, typically being redone every few years. “Unless you are designing a hotel, where I think the essences of both commercial and residential work cross paths,” he adds. Their first chance to verify that conjunction is now on the boards, a seven-story boutique hotel project in Bali.

EAT’s Philippine connection was a lucky break, but it reflects Australia’s increasing interconnection with its Asian neighbors. Investors from Asian countries are participating in Melbourne’s construction boom, and it’s not so remarkable that several people at EAT speak fluent Chinese – “not that it gets us more clients, but when we’ve got a job, we can communicate,” says Mo. Indeed, the ethnic backgrounds of the 11 people in the office reflect Melbourne’s vibrantly multicultural population. The families of only two originated in Britain; two came from China, one from France, one from Spain, one from Ireland, two from Singapore, one from Indonesia, and one from Hong Kong. Three are immigrants themselves. “The element that I find particular in their work is the fact that their Asian heritage presents them with a very contemporary understanding of Australia’s position,” observes Hook. “Their surprisingly efficient use of space and the careful approach to detail suggest to me perhaps an innate working method that is culturally specific.”

The cosmopolitan mix reflected by Architects EAT, and perhaps a sibling rivalry with prettier but stuffier big sister Sydney, give Melbourne an open, boundary-testing culture. It’s the edgier place for art, fashion, literature, cuisine, cocktails – and architecture. “People run with things a bit more, they’re willing to see how things pan out,” says Coombe. How things are panning out on Melbourne’s burgeoning skyline is doubtful. But in the shadow of those weird towers, architects like EAT are doing work that is subtle, refined, location-appropriate, and very beautiful.

Rescuing the Rural Edge — It Takes a Village

Where suburbia merges into countryside typically looks peaceful enough, with lawns giving way to forests and fields. But in most places, this is a zone of conflict and dysfunction. The steady loss of farmland and natural habitat to sprawl-pattern development endangers food supplies and other resources, as well as the health, wealth and survival prospects of individuals and even whole communities.

Take California’s fifth-largest city, Fresno, located in one of the most productive areas on Earth, the San Joaquin Valley. Agriculture is the principal industry in Fresno County — generating more than $5 billion annually — with table grapes, stone fruits, nuts, vegetables, cotton, dairy and livestock among its important products.

Vast, industrialized agribusiness operations may be the dominant image of California farming, and they’re present here. But the majority of Fresno County’s farms are relatively small and family-run, and nearly half of those are minority-operated. In 2007, more than half the county’s farms had gross sales of less than $50,000.

But Fresno could be the poster child for sprawl as easily as bigger exemplars, such as Atlanta or Los Angeles. Efforts to create growth boundaries and encourage compact land-use practices have not prevented new developments from leapfrogging into the countryside.

It’s a place “built on flat land, with no real limits to growth in a lot of directions,” says the city’s planning director, John Dugan, “like almost every place you could see in the Midwest or South.” He points to “new malls approved in the last couple of years — million-plus, 2 million-plus-square-foot malls eight, 10 miles from the central city,” and plans for “a 3,000-unit retirement community plunked out in the middle of nowhere,” 10 miles beyond the city limits.

September-October 2011 Never mind, for the moment, the aesthetics of this development pattern; the momentum of suburban expansion is also a threat to Fresno County agriculture. Between 1990 and 2004, more than 21,000 acres in Fresno County became urbanized. About three-quarters of that new development consumed agricultural land, more than half of which was considered high-quality. The American Farmland Trust has estimated that if conventional growth patterns continue, by 2040 the county could lose another 135,000 acres of farmland, out of a total of about 2.25 million acres.

But a new approach to regional planning could help turn that pattern around in Fresno and elsewhere. At scales ranging from a few hundred to many thousands of acres, the approach aims to protect unspoiled and working landscapes while allowing development to accommodate expanding populations.

A paradox?

An impossibility?

Not if that development takes a form radically different from conventional suburban sprawl.

Forget large-lot, single-family, cul-de-sac subdivisions accessed by traffic arteries lined with fast-food and big-box outlets. Future development would be densely clustered or channeled into towns and villages on sites less valuable for farming and conservation or where infrastructure already exists. Besides homes, these growth centers would include shops, workplaces, schools, pedestrian amenities and transit.

This kind of development, known as new urbanism, is already increasingly familiar. What’s new is its integration with efforts to protect working and natural landscapes.

Such a plan now under consideration for Fresno, called SEGA (for Southeast Growth Area), focuses on a 9,000-acre swath along the city’s southeastern edge. This land, while not currently inside the city limits, lies within Fresno’s defined “sphere of influence” and so is destined for annexation and development. Small farms occupy much of this area, though subdivisions have begun to encroach; there are about 700 single-family homes within the boundaries, nearly all recently built. To the east, in unincorporated Fresno County, the land remains overwhelmingly agricultural.

The plan would apply the principles of new urbanism at much greater intensity. There would be as many as 20 predominantly residential neighborhoods, each centered on an elementary school and some “convenience” retail, such as dry cleaners, coffee shops or neighborhood groceries.

Seven larger “community centers” would have denser housing and more significant commercial and job presence, while a downtown-like “regional center,” served by regional rapid transit, would be the primary employment, shopping and cultural destination. Throughout SEGA, parks, bike trails and conservation areas, transit routes and narrow streets with sidewalks would all encourage physical activity and discourage automobile use.

All together, a mix of single- and multi-family housing types would accommodate 45,000 households. By contrast, if the 9,000 acres were developed under existing regulations and in typical suburban mode, it could eventually have about 18,000 homes.

Even under SEGA, that’s an average of five units per acre — still pretty spacious, compared to many cities — in place of the two per acre deliverable by conventional development. The plan also calculates that there would be 37,000 jobs within the growth area by the time it is built out.

Small-scale agriculture is an important dimension of the plan. Community and school gardens and orchards would be located throughout. Small commercial farming operations, along with much of the land destined for conservation, would be concentrated along the eastern edge, providing a transition and buffer between the newly urbanized SEGA and the overwhelmingly agricultural countryside beyond it.

Fully 20 percent of Fresno’s expected population growth between now and 2050 could be absorbed into SEGA, with a commensurate easing of the pressure to convert outlying farmland into suburbs. To provide for the same number of new households using conventional suburban development patterns would sacrifice an additional 9,300 acres of farmland beyond the growth area’s 9,000.

More than 3,000 Fresno citizens participated enthusiastically in public meetings when the concept was first being discussed, and “the City Council, at the time, funded the plan so far, based a lot on that public input,” Dugan says. Now it’s in draft form but meeting some resistance.

Two members of the seven-member Fresno City Council, with the support of a third, issued a report in February seeking to halt the project. It led to a contentious council meeting shortly after, but no action has been taken since.

With the economic downturn slowing growth, some now feel it may be too visionary — looking too far into the future — and will require too much public investment to be sustainable. There are developers who are simply resistant to changing how they build.

Plus, Fresno “has been so deeply impacted by fragmented infrastructure and fragmented development,” says Joe DiStefano of Calthorpe Associates, the plan’s principal author, “sidewalks that just end, no cohesive infrastructure investment program to drive development in any kind of organized way, that it’s left so much bad feeling about development in general.”

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The SEGA plan is intriguing because of its ambitious scale and fine-grained detail, and because Fresno County lies within such an important agricultural region. But it’s only one of many plans that address the suburban-rural edge with the goal of protecting land while permitting growth.

Though the particulars differ, they all share the basic approach of building compact towns or villages as a way to avoid consuming undeveloped land. This kind of planning is equally applicable to protecting places where agriculture is not present, such as desert or wetland environments. But it directly addresses today’s concerns over the sources and security of our food. These new villages would offer ready markets for adjacent farmers — especially small producers. Residents’ access to fresh food, and involvement in producing it, would be further encouraged by designing space for gardens, small farming operations and farm markets.

Many greenfield residential projects coming from new-urbanist architects and builders now incorporate, at the least, community gardens and a small farm. Buyers pay a premium to live in these communities for many reasons. Among those are worries about the environmental and health costs of industrialized agriculture, and the desire for — and perhaps, too, the romance of — an intimate relationship with the people and land that produce their food.

Some such plans are for individual subdivisions of just a few hundred acres. At Hampstead, a development on former farmland outside Montgomery, Ala., nearly a third of the 416 acres will remain unbuilt greenspace. There are garden plots for residents’ use. A nonprofit associated with the community operates a 3-acre farm that supplies a natural-foods store and several restaurants, runs food- and farming-oriented workshops for schools and community groups, and has established a second farming plot in a downtown redevelopment area. Hampstead might not directly contribute to the preservation of the agricultural land beyond its perimeter, but it does begin to address the desire for healthful, locally sourced food.

A more intense concept for an agriculturally oriented subdivision is The Farmstead, planned for a site near Charlotte, N.C. It is designed to accommodate 275 units of housing on 128 acres. Fifty-two acres will remain permanently undeveloped, including an 11.5-acre commercial farm. In addition to the usual community garden plots, many larger homesites there are conceived as “steward farms” that owners could either work themselves or contract with the commercial farmer to manage.

On a larger scale still is a plan for 2,300 acres at Pingree Grove, about 50 miles northwest of Chicago, where conventional suburbanization exploded the population from fewer than 150 in 2000 to more than 4,000 today.

“We decided to tap into their agricultural heritage,” says Brian Wright of the Town Planning and Urban Design Collaborative, which devised a scheme to manage growth while protecting — and leveraging — the rural character of the place. The plan includes a working farm, community garden spaces (including vegetable gardens enclosed within courtyard apartment blocks) and window-box gardens. “Even in the main town square, we’ve got some garden plots,” he says. The plan calls for a farmers market, a sustainable-agriculture education center, and inns and farm-to-table restaurants that can attract weekend and daytripping agritourists.

Included is a proposal to create the municipal position of “town farmer” to manage the working farm and community garden programs. About 700 residential units will be built along with commercial and office space. Efforts are being made to restore service at an unused local stop on an existing regional rail line connecting Pingree Grove to Chicago.

“It has a real economic development focus,” Wright says. “It’s overtly agricultural in nature, in the process creating their new downtown.”

An inversion of that idea is the plan adopted for the Middle Green Valley of Solano County, Calif. It will locate several dense, mixed-use new neighborhoods in a now mostly fallow 1,400-acre area. The idea is to get agriculture going again and interdict the sprawl closing in from three directions. A nonprofit conservancy, partially funded by a levy on the sale of each building lot, will be established to encourage, or perhaps manage, farming operations and to steward conservation land. It will also play an educational and community-building role, according to its mission statement, “fostering an appreciation and understanding of the environment, the connection to regional food systems and a healthy lifestyle.”

Sibella Kraus, president of the SAGE Center, a think tank focused on urban-edge agriculture, consulted on the plan. “We often just look at agriculture as the green land, but sometimes,” she says, “agriculture really could be better defined as a rural town and the lands around it. The vitality of the agricultural lands is very much interdependent with that little town. Often, what [farmers] need are things that need to be in a town, like housing for workers, a distribution site and amenities for agritourism.”

Many of these new plans mention locating other kinds of farm support in the new towns, such as equipment-sharing co-ops, produce-processing facilities and agricultural research stations.

Curiously, despite how much of this kind of planning is going on, there’s no commonly accepted name for it.

“Conservation planning” and “agricultural planning” are already in use for protecting, respectively, natural lands and farmlands — but many use those terms to mean conservation that excludes development all together. The concept of the “urban growth boundary,” which forces dense development and limits sprawl, is related to these plans but doesn’t, by itself, promote agriculture and conservation. The buzz phrases “smart growth” and “sustainable development” are too general, and perhaps debased, to be useful. Some new-urbanists say “agricultural urbanism” or “agrarian urbanism.” Quint Redmond, whose TSR Group master-planned The Farmstead, calls his projects “agriburbia.” Kraus likes “new ruralism.”

Whatever it’s called, new-urbanist thinking is essential because it provides the tools for creating places for growth that are not only dense but desirable. (Desirability equals price. It is well documented that real estate values are higher in places that have the attributes of new-urbanist planning compared to properties that are otherwise similar.)

Central among those new-urbanist tools is the “form-based code.” Like other kinds of building codes, form-based codes regulate the appearance and shape of the built environment. But where preservation codes, for example, might restrict anachronistic alterations to historic facades, and conventional zoning codes prevent residential and commercial activities in the same place, form-based codes establish the spatial and visual coherence that gives anywhere a sense of being somewhere and can make that somewhere feel good to be in. They address, for example, the dimensions of streets and sidewalks, the relationships between building facades and the public realm, and the height and massing of buildings. How wide will streets be? Will there be on-street parking? A planted strip between street and sidewalk? Garages facing the street, or only accessed via back alleys? Can buildings be taller at major intersections than on secondary streets?

These codes are based on relationships distilled from the analysis of historic cities and are often influenced as well by the architectural and town-building traditions of the locale for which they are devised. This is the underpinning of new-urbanist planning — at least as important in new urbanism’s effectiveness, if perhaps less obviously so, as any architectural style. Most of these new agriculturally oriented plans call for form-based coding. At the same time, this agriculturally oriented approach to planning the suburban edge signals a maturation of new urbanism itself. And it may just finally lay to rest a persistent criticism.

New-urbanists are responsible for many infill projects in urban areas. These include redevelopment of dozens of moribund small-town downtowns and the concept for the federal HOPE VI program. HOPE VI has replaced more than 100,000 units of distressed and dangerous public housing across the country with mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhoods providing a greater number of units, half of them accessible to very-low-income households. Still, the highest profile new-urbanist developments have been in resort and exurban greenfield locations. And they are expensive.

So the movement has been derided for creating isolated bubbles of walkability, urbanist in form and even urbane in feel but disconnected from any “urb” — elite oases where residents can stroll out to a concert on the village green, but still must (or choose to) come and go by car like suburbanites everywhere. However, new developments at the urban-rural interface, integrated into and energizing of adjacent working landscapes, can hardly be called isolated bubbles.

The success of these plans will depend not only on their urban design and agricultural connections. For one thing, it remains to be seen whether there is a truly mass market for new-urbanist living. How tenacious is the common desire for a stand-alone house? In a place such as Fresno, where it’s blisteringly hot in summer, and chilly and foggy in winter, how willing will people really be to walk and use transit?

These plans must also actually protect land for conservation and farming. Accommodating more people on less land reduces the pressure. But by itself, that does not prevent building in the adjacent countryside. Under U.S. law, ownership of land carries with it the right to develop. So what can stop the farmer across the road from your appealing, densely built, mixed-use village from parking his tractor, subdividing his acreage, putting up McMansions on 5-acre lots and harvesting money instead of crops?

Many of these plans rely on a legal mechanism called transfer of development rights (TDR). Simply put, under a transfer program devised to protect rural land, an area facing potential development is divided into “sending areas,” meant to remain unbuilt, and “receiving areas,” designated for growth. The distinction is determined based on the relative quality of a given plot of land for agricultural use; the configuration of wetlands and other natural features; the presence of historic sites deserving of preservation; and where settlement and infrastructure, such as roads and water systems, already exist. The sending areas will be relatively large, the receiving areas compact.

Suppose an area under consideration is 2,000 acres, and its current zoning allows one dwelling unit per acre. A landowner in a sending area who owns 500 acres can sell the right to develop 500 units, or 500 transfer “credits.” His acreage is placed under a permanent easement; an existing home can remain, and the land can be farmed or held in conservation, or even abandoned, but it cannot be further developed.

The landowner benefits by getting some cash based on the land’s market value but without carving it up. Who buys these credits? Usually a developer — or a nonprofit, municipality or specially created land bank, which would then sell them to a developer — who has the right to build those 500 units in a receiving area.

The same total number of dwellings — 2,000, in this hypothetical example — might be built, but they would be concentrated rather than spread out. Some transfer programs add a bonus, so that the total acreage might absorb an even greater population than it could under existing zoning, while still preserving land.

While versions of TDR are common, they’re not without problems. One of those is establishing a market value for the rights, since all the open acreage is not necessarily equally useful for agricultural or conventional development. Another is the touchy matter of making the transfers mandatory. The SEGA plan, for one, which has vocal opposition, only goes as far as saying that some such mechanism will have to be elaborated.

“The only way SEGA can be successful is to be either a TDR scheme or have some kind of transfer of development benefits,” DiStefano says, “to balance the windfalls that occur.”

Keith Bergthold, Fresno’s assistant director of planning and development, calls SEGA “a paradigm change for the valley and Fresno. But every time we have implementation discussions, people pick on that, rather than getting into this concept of urban form. … If we can get this concept, then we can give them a menu of ‘hows.’”

The transfer of development rights certainly can work. A 1997 master plan for Chesterfield Township, N.J., with an area of about 14,000 acres, established a voluntary TDR program and defined sending and receiving areas. Nearly 15 years later, development rights to some 7,000 acres have been transferred. Newly built Old York Village, which will eventually have about 1,200 homes and was sited to make use of existing sewer infrastructure, is well on the way to completion. It has a school, retail and office presence, a tight street grid, and ample parks and trails. Predating today’s concern for local and sustainable agriculture, it includes no organic farm or community gardens.

Still, since 1997, “not one conventional development has been approved” for the township, which remains predominantly rural, says Lisa Specca of Clarke Caton Hintz, the village’s planners.

It is probably no accident that the grandest of all these planning initiatives are for places where extinguishing landowners’ development rights is not an issue. One of those, the East Edisto Smart Code, covers 78,000 acres near Charleston, S.C. But the tract has a single owner, forest products giant MeadWestvaco, which devised the plan because it sees a future there of both population growth and diminishing forestry.

Another, the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, applies to 7.6 million acres in an arc encircling metropolitan Toronto. But under Canadian law, landowners do not automatically have the right to develop. There, development can occur only where allowed by government. That is the typical situation in Europe, too, where similarly scaled regional planning to keep growth compact and preserve agriculture is commonplace.

Given the inevitability of population growth, plans like that for Fresno’s SEGA are essential for preserving unbuilt and working landscapes at the suburban edge. But plans only go so far, and no one is more aware of that than the people drawing them up.

Last June’s Congress for the New Urbanism focused on integrating agriculture with development, and the questions ranged far beyond the usual concerns of architects and planners. What about public acceptance? People may love fresh, local food but object to living downwind from the noise of tractors and the smell of manure, or reject sacrificing lawns and ornamental gardens for unaesthetic vegetable plots. What about the paucity of local and regional food processing and distribution systems, which once existed but were lost in the shift to centralized industrial agriculture? What about colder or drier regions, where conditions limit production?

Even in bountiful places, how much of a population’s food supply can realistically be locally sourced? The current planning initiatives don’t have all the answers. But they can preserve the farmland. Without that, such questions are pointless.

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