Monday, June 28

A garden block proposal

It looks like one of the main take-aways from the CNU 18 conference is something being labeled agrarian urbanism. Fast Company is calling it the "new new urbanism" and Treehugger has described the notion as the next phase in the evolution of this 30-year old movement. Andres Duany, in particular, has been pushing pretty hard in this direction for the last couple of years. Briefly, the idea is that walkable neighborhoods could be intentionally structured so that food production is integrated into the physical form and the lifestyle of the inhabitants. In other words, it is a synthesis between urban and rural.

Of course, this new new urbanism is really no newer than the old new urbanism was (but that's fine). One of the primary motivations behind Ebenezer Howard's Garden City was to connect working class households with a viable food supply to relieve some of their financial stress. He landed on the number twelve dwelling units per acre as the magic density for self-sufficiency with affordability, and he worked out a form of common land ownership to help it along. Christopher Alexander thought that something more like a tenth of an acre was necessary to supply vegetables to a family of four. He had plenty of practical, timeless advice for arranging an urban living space accordingly. More recently, some architects have been using the word rurbalization to describe this sort of synthesis. Having recently passed through the grad school circuit myself, I can attest to a strong interest in food systems among new graduates.

I think these are good trends. Local food systems should inform urban design and vice versa, but I'm not sure the new developments being modeled have been able to find this synthesis without swallowing one side with the other - specifically, subsuming the urbanism into the bucolic landscape. This seems to be the case with Southlands in British Columbia and Serenbe in the exurbs of Atlanta. Kaid Benfield has this to say about these "farming is the new golf" developments,

"In theory, these "new towns" are great - self-contained entities providing walkability, efficiency, and all the services of a community within the development.  So, their proponents (nearly all of whom profit from them, one way or another) claim, it is a good thing to build them almost anywhere.  In practice, though, the nearby once-remote locations soon become filled with sprawl, in no small part because of the initial development, and the theoretical self-contained transportation efficiency never comes.  They become commuter suburbs, just with a more appealing internal design than that of their neighbors."
So can this vision work? Or is building agrarian urbanism like serving a glass of hot cold water? I'd like to play with this a little and consider what it would look like if we followed Duany's vision but flipped it on its head. Instead of embedding hamlets within a rural landscape, the garden block embeds pockets of agriculture within the urban landscape. It is not a stand-alone community but just another gene sequence to be spliced into the DNA of existing inner suburbs and cities.

Start with the standard grid. It can be found all over North America, but the following sketch is based on the 340' by 340' block in the Fan neighborhood of Richmond. Cobble together property ownership for the whole block into something like a community land trust. Households would own their home individually but share ownership of the land with the other 38, in this case, units on the block. Certain commitments to planting and maintaining the garden, either personally or through payment, would be built into an HOA contract.

The exterior of the block functions as in any other urban area. The public streets are activated by the fronts of the buildings and streetscape features, and the full range of transportation access to the rest of the city is available. The interior, on the other hand, is devoted to the more constrained social scale of the block community, and the structures serve as a wall protecting this garden area. Enclosure is necessary to provide a degree of privacy, to protect produce from theft and vandalism, and to keep animals from wandering.

By the numbers, this block allows a density of 15 DUA while keeping 28% of all land for growing produce. This is not food self-sufficiency, but I'm personally not too worried about these kinds of absolutes.

Here are some of the pieces:

Mix of Housing Types. One might expect retirees and young families alike to be attracted to growing their own food, but there is a broad range in housing needs between these two groups. Allowing a range of housing types could facilitate lifecycle diversity, as well as allowing those from different income levels to share the same space. The larger homes include their own growing plot delineated by a short fence.

Shared Resources. The shady northern side of the condo buildings is a place for the utilitarian functions. Gardening requires many resources that can be shared by the whole block. A tool shed is accessed from the side by the glass elevator. A water cistern collects and stores runoff from the buildings above. Chicken coops are lined up against the building. Although chickens need sunlight, some shade could benefit them as well. Maybe they could be on wheels. The composting bins are directly in front of the block's dumpster, so households can deposit their organic waste while taking out the trash.

Childrens' Area -  The playground and "kindergarten" is in full view of the whole grounds. Children have their own 24' by 31' plot to grow whatever they choose. A row of fruit trees creates a sound barrier for the adjacent rowhouses. Being within the enclosed communal area allows parents a certain assurance of safety.

Green Roof. I know these things are expensive for now, but in this case it's integral to the whole concept. Connected directly to the rest of the grounds by an outdoor elevator, it expands the growing area measurably.  Less tangibly, the views to north into the block help create a sense of internal  cohesion, and the southern views to the rest of the city a sense of external connection. 

Greenhouse and Car Sharing. A greenhouse is one of the most efficient uses of solar energy, and it's  necessary in most climates for extending the growing season. A single 4100 sq. ft. greenhouse should be sufficient to meet the needs for the whole block. There is off-street parking available at a rate of roughly one space per three units. The relative paucity of spaces may be compensated for by car-sharing. For areas with greater transit accessibility, this lot could be substituted with two homes.

Corner Store. The corner store is the public interface of the block and a neighborhood shopping hub. Possibly, excess produce and supplies from the garden could be sold here. The upper floors could be leased out to offices or any other reasonably compatible use.


Eric Orozco said...

Nice proposal. It certainly has the feel of a Fan District block.

I like the fact that you value the private realm. Few urban designers are keyed in to this critical need in cities. People really do value it. For one, privacy is important to help retain middle-class families in urban areas. Certainly this is one of the important facets of the Fan District.

My main quibble is why not allow some internal alleys? Farming spaces could be well-served by interstitial (but private) circulation streets. I don't see how the use could be well-served without it. This too is an important attribute of the Fan District blocks. It helps the service function better and allows the block to "breathe" with what Jane Jacobs called "fluidity of use". In addition, it relieves the block perimeter from secondary loading functions. If the interstitial alleys connect with adjacent blocks, even better. One of the things urban designers need to learn about working with the grid is the importance of preserving humble interstitial (interior block) access and circulation. We should be very careful not to remove this critical resource from the city.

Daniel Nairn said...

Good quibble, Eric. I had trouble with this too, and I think you're right that some internal access really should be made a priority. The more I think of it, this may be even more the case for gardening - trucks to deliver top soil, etc.

There is a little pull-in behind the corner store that I hoped would meet the trash pick-up needs, but I'm not sure if that would be enough for the whole block. Maybe one of the paths could be widened to function as an alley.

Eric Orozco said...

Hey Congrats on graduating!

Kaid @ NRDC said...

really good, creative post. This 'agricultural urbanism' thing is catching on, and it will be critical that it be implemented in a way that complements rather than displaces traditional urban density and fabric. I like Eric's addition of alleys to the mix, too.

Diane said...

This looks like a wonderfully livable design. I'd move there in a flash!
One small concern is the parking area. It appears to be lined by a blank wall and an intermittently used greenhouse. Many years ago I read about a housing project that placed the parking at the end of each row of houses so it wouldn't interfere with the views. The result was a great deal of vandalism and car theft. Sadly, parking should be well overlooked at all hours. I think some planners favor on-street parking as a safety buffer for pedestrians so maybe that's the solution.

urbandata said...

Fantastic post. Thank you!

David Sucher said...

Have you heard the term "transaction cost?" I am sure you do and I think it's good to dwell on the term when you blithely (?) throw out "cobbling" together

"property ownership for the whole block into something like a community land trust. Households would own their home individually but share ownership of the land with the other 38, in this case, units on the block. Certain commitments to planting and maintaining the garden, either personally or through payment, would be built into an HOA contract."

Thirty eight people to pool their houses?I don't think it's possible.

The Loosh said...

This is an amazing proposal, but I think it's a little unrealistic at present, for a couple of reasons. (I realize this is a proposal for an ideal future, so obviously what's realistic will change as we become more attuned to good urbanism, however.)

My biggest issue with it is parking. I am absolutely against cars - I don't own one, and if I could get away with it, I would never use one. Public transit is the future. Sadly, I (and the readers of this blog) am part of maybe 3% of the American population that understands that. As an architect that has sat through City Council meetings, people are obsessed with it. Cincinnati is considered extremely progressive in lowering its parking requirement to 1 per unit downtown due to the development of its new streetcar. Even in the middle of Chicago, parking requirements are 1.5 or so per unit. Obviously, these ratios are absolutely unnecessary for true urban and modern life. 0.33 as proposed here is totally viable in a well-transit connected city. However, convincing a car-obsessed country of this is likely to be the hardest selling point of this design. You could bury the cars under the central farm/garden area - but that would make the cost skyrocket and make the houses only affordable by the insanely wealthy.

Daniel Nairn said...

David, I was thinking that all of these properties would be acquired by a single entity for redevelopment, like it might currently happen for any condo development. Then the units would be sold off individually with the HOA covenant attached. I'm sure there will be transaction costs throughout the process, but I don't see how it would be much more complicated/expensive than any condo building or cohousing project.

Loosh, yeah parking is probably a little slim to be realistic. There would be on-street spaces throughout, and it would be nice to think that would suffice, but in most cities probably not yet. I suppose parking could be added at the expense of a few units or growing space if it had to be (and always taken back out again if ever not needed).

Johan said...

Really nice proposal, but yeah...a bit utopian.

For people interested in the schism of farming and urbanity check out this Amsterdam based project, which takes the point of departure in existing urban agriculture projects situated in between the urban fabric. Its called The project supports the empowerment of urban farming communities and the development of local food economies. A key element of the project is, an online tool mapping, advicing and describing a wide range of food commerce, food innovation and food community initiatives. Another aspect of the project is create better infrastuctural channels that can connect urban farmers with consumers in the city.

The Midland Agrarian said...

Interesting proposal...I am commenting very late to this post, but you are thinking creatively and I commend you.

There is nothing wrong with a bit of the utopian in a word full of fear of a dystopian future.

One thing worth exploring would be to connect the gardens to a restaurant rather than a store. I think some chefs would love to have that level of quality control.

Best Regards,

Richard Grossman

Ivonne Martinez said...

Hello, the article is fantastic and I will be using it for a research and presentation for a Urban Design class. I would like a little bit more information in regards to cost of building projects that combine agricultural urban ism attach to a community. Please email me

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