Tuesday, October 27, 2009


How about converting the suburbs and their lawns into self-sufficient places? How about replacing the American lawn with fields of organically grown sustainable food? Without getting too far ahead of myself I'm tempted to say, "Sign me up!"

The Denver Post reported a couple of days ago on "Agriburbia" (pic at right courtesy of The Denver Post):

[Matthew] Redmond, co-founder of the Golden-based design firm TSR Group, travels the country preaching his urban farming and development idea. He envisions a future where the nation's 31 million acres of lawn are converted to food production. He sees golf-course greens redefined with herbs; sand traps as "kale traps." He sees retirement homes engulfed by farms and office buildings where workers escape cubicles on farming breaks.

Redmond, along with his born-on- a-farm biologist turned planner wife, Jennifer, sees an urban landscape like none before.

"This is where we are all going to go. We need this," said Redmond. "Everyone thinks they are so smart by crafting a 2030 plan for the future. I say we need a $180-a-barrel plan, on how our communities can be self-sufficient when oil becomes too expensive to ship food across the country."

Self-sufficient. Sustainable. Locally produced. Agriburbia incorporates all three concepts.

In another article on the Northern Colorado Business Report website, Redmond says, "Up till now, developers just focused on shelter," he said. "We want to address the human need of food the best we can. We believe agriculture is part of the infrastructure of a development." With the price of oil going up and the total unsustainability of our current industrial food system, we can face this very practically. Consider that what we need for personal security: air, water, soil, food, shelter, and other people for community (unless you are a very rare hermitish person). At the most basic level, our living spaces ought to reflect those real needs as well as they can. Currently, they do not because they are propped up by cheap but increasingly expensive oil. Oil that has fueled the transportation and provided fuel, fertilizer, and pesticides for our industrial agricultural sector. With good planning and thoughtful use - sustainable use that thinks about security in and across our places and through time - we could have these agriburbias work. In some sense they are modernized villages from the pre-industrial centuries.

But that wasn't something they deliberately tried to do.

I called "Quint" Redmond at his office to ask him a few questions. He's a friendly and very well-spoken person apparently versed in our emerging "green" dialect. But more than that, he seems to be doing what Wendell Berry calls, "solving for pattern." In short, "A good solution is good because it is in harmony with those larger patterns – and this harmony will, I think, be found to have a nature of analogy. A bad solution acts within the larger pattern the way a disease or addiction acts within the body. A good solution acts within the larger pattern the way a healthy organ acts within the body." Agriburbia appears to be a settlement that lives within its region and its integrated in such a way that it fosters total health.

As Redmond said, "It's the intersection of real estate, development, and agriculture." All of this is being done in ways to reduce a community's footprint in food, housing, and transportation what he calls the carbon triangle because the majority of our daily communal carbon emissions come from those three areas.

He believes that the prospects for retrofitting suburbia are huge. "The inefficient use of that [suburban] land is really the problem. Suburban density is fine." But the problems emerge from poor land use and infrastructure. "It's a design thing."

If you think about a community as a huge consumer of calories - whether in food or fuel - then you might start to see suburbia much the way you look at a couch potato just sitting there doing little, consuming huge numbers of calories of potato chips, TV electricity, and home heat or air conditioning while expending few in production. But if we take that couch potato and design his living space such that he can readily dig up the potatoes himself, possibly with his neighbors, and give and share that resources in his community or region, you have changed the equation. Where a lawn sat idle, acting as a passive receptacle for water, sun, and chemical fertilizer that people groom for no instrumental purpose, you might have gardens, fields, orchards, or vineyards that sustain ecological, communal, and economic viability.

The learning possibilities are incredible. "We don't have one these projects that doesn't have an educational partner." People learn lessons about the world they live in when they are active in a community like this. The real cost of food comes to the fore. But people see that they can feed themselves, their neighbors, and people who live in densely populated cities. "The great irony is that that the industrial farmer has said that we can't feed everyone this way but you can."

After years of outsourcing our food production to others, Redmond thinks that there is the chance for some awakening in this. Maybe there will even be a reshuffling of social status. In the end, "Farmers will be right up there next to doctors and lawyers."

If you think about the industrial fractures of American life and our disconnection from those things that sustain us like air, water, and food or even our means of locomotion, a community like Agriburbia seems a step in the right direction. It evokes in urban planning what E.O. Wilson calls "biophilia" because it brings humans and nature together in a more symbiotic relatioship. "You get something that is hugely good and everyone wants to live in."
[Hat tip to Mike R.]

1 comment:

  1. This could be a good way to redeem the last 60 to 70 years of suburbanization. The total amount of farm land available would obviously increase enormously, only a fraction of which would probably be necessary to adequately feed us all.