How to grow a Garden City

A book by Andres Duany offers a blueprint for what he calls the development tool of the future: Agrarian Urbanism.

  • Market Square

    Market Square

    This Market Square is the primary social condenser of Agrarian Urbanism. In close proximity are: the farmyard, for agricultural operations; the barn, which is also the meeting house; administrative offices and instruction rooms; processing areas; grocery store, dining hall; farmer's market; shops with dwellings above; and residential buildings. Courtesy of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company.

Review by Robert Steuteville
New Urban Network

Garden Cities: Theory & Practice of Agrarian Urbanism. A book by Andres Duany. The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, 2011, 94 pp., $20 paperback.

Four years ago, Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ) was hired to create a plan to develop an “agricultural community” on a 528-acre farm site near Vancouver, British Columbia. Andres Duany and his team worked with master farmer Michael Ableman and other experts: This creative fertilization produced a plan to build a town of 2,000 housing units on one-third of the site’s acreage while tripling the value of the land’s agricultural production.

The as-yet-unbuilt project, called Southlands, was unique in that it sought to integrate agriculture and urbanism at all levels, from high-density units with window boxes to medium-sized farms. Duany has since refined his thinking on the subject, designed a series of projects, and now calls this approach “agrarian urbanism.”

Duany explains the name: “rather than ‘agricultural,’ which is concerned with the technical aspects of growing food, the term ‘agrarian’ emphasizes the society involved with all aspects of food. Not long after Southlands, Duany declared that “agriculture is the new golf.” In other words, access to locally grown food and the culture by which it is grown and processed is an amenity that people will pay for.

Now, Duany has produced Garden City: Theory & Practice of Agrarian Urbanism, a little book that thoroughly explains the use of urban design to promote food and farming culture. The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, funded by Prince Charles, an early supporter of both traditional town planning and organic farming, is the publisher. The book is well illustrated by DPZ projects — most of them recent, but some dating back as far as 1994.

“As Michael Pollan argues, our food production must change; and as Leon Krier argues, so must our sprawling communities,” Duany explains. “Agrarian urbanism addresses these two great concerns simultaneously.”

Duany is a master theorizer, and this book explains four models of agriculture-related urban planning.

• Agricultural retention deploys an array of techniques to save existing farms, including farmland trusts, greenbelts, and transfer of development rights. One gem from this book is the insight that farmers “usually expect to subdivide lots only along their frontage roads, connecting to the utilities that run alongside.” Full development of a farm “requires costly infrastructure” and large debt, Duany writes. “Thus only the frontage of the farms need be purchased by the land trust, with the rest remaining in agriculture as a condition.” This insight is probably most useful today, when isolated houses can be built as sprawl but large developments likely will fail.

• Urban agriculture cultivates land within existing cities and suburbs, sometimes using parcels in depopulated sectors. “The format includes community gardens and even small farms overlaid onto vacant blocks,” Duany says. “Where there is no surplus land, gardens may be installed in private yards or on rooftops. ... The food produced is supported by distribution and processing systems such as farmers’ markets, community kitchens, food cooperatives and contracted restaurants.”

• Agricultural urbanism “refers to settlements equipped with a working farm. The agriculture is economically associated with the communities’ residents and businesses, but it is not physically or socially integrated. Anyone may visit, volunteer, and learn from the farm, but few of the residents participate in the productive activities.” A number of modern developments — some new urban in design — fall into this category, including Village Homes in Davis, California, Prairie Crossing outside Chicago, Serenbe near Atlanta, and New Town at St. Charles, Missouri. Farms are managed as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

• Agrarian urbanism applies to settlements where “society is involved with food in all its aspects: organizing, growing, processing, distributing, cooking and eating it. … Agrarian urbanism is a complex pattern that transforms lawn-mowing, food-importing suburbanites into settlers whose hands, minds, surplus time and discretionary entertainment budgets are available for food production and its local consumption.” The concept is based on the English Garden City, Israeli kibbutz, 1960s commune, and US master-planned golf course community.

The latter is important, because Duany describes a modern community with modern housing and middle class inhabitants who would not necessarily work in the farming or food processing business for a living. The agrarian activity would be the social center of the community — an amenity with health and environmental benefits.

Unlike historic agrarian societies, these communities would have paid employees do the hardest work. While running an agrarian community would not be cheap, Duany says the expense and labor would be comparable to that of golf course communities, which employ greenskeepers. Beyond the golf course, master-planned communities spend a lot of money on landscaping. Redirect these funds toward food growing, add garden clubs and a CSA, shift some municipal landscaping dollars toward food-producing plants, attract avid gardeners and foodies as residents, and plug in food processing entrepreneurship — voila, there’s agrarian urbanism.

The indispensable tool for agrarian urbanism, Duany says,“is the property owner’s association or co-op — an administrative arrangement similar to that of any community that has a common facility like a lobby, parking lot, golf course, marina, pool, or security guard to maintain.”

The book presents a fascinating vision of a new real estate development tool, one that Duany says “is all about the future. Sustainability to the point of self-sufficiency is where the market is going, especially if it becomes apparent that the campaign to mitigate climate change is being lost.”

Garden Cities mixes pragmatism — e.g., the use of homeowners’ associations and co-ops to fund the management — and visionary idealism with a splash of pessimism (Kunstler’s The Long Emergency is mentioned as a critical resource).

For all of its attractive social, health, and environmental features, agrarian urbanism is not going to be easy to pull off: “To make a difference in the campaign against climate change, agrarian urbanism must succeed in being profitable, popular and reproducible — with no downsides if possible,” says Duany. That may be a hard row to hoe.

The first printing, called Theory & Practice of Agrarian Urbanism, will be available in mid-July through The second printing, reviewed here and retitled Garden Cities: Theory & Practice of Agrarian Urbanism, is expected to be available in August from Amazon. The price is $20 for the 94-page paperback.