A smart city is a city that prepares for the future. It can be defined as a city that adopts the principles of New Urbanism and New Agrarianism in its design and organization. The charter and canons of New Urbanism are presented and described, as is the working tool of the transect. An important aspect of New Urbanism and the smart city is walkability, with accompanying population density and mixed use. Food is fundamental to all forms of human life and is a principal organizing principle of the smart city. Key to the success of the smart city is Urban Agrarianism: the production, processing, preparation, and distribution of food within the city, including the use of the periphery for meat and dairy, while focusing fruit and vegetables within more densely populated inner transect sectors. The smart city is the food secure and relatively diverse city that follows nature as guide, organizing itself by ecological principles which support diversity and variety and which encourage interaction of the population with one another and with their surroundings. While successfully combining new forms of urbanism and new forms of agrarianism, the smart city builds on older time-tested forms of urban and rural life. The smart city is a necessary answer to the twin challenges of energy dependency and climate change in a carbon-constrained world. Such a city ever seeks to redefine the edge of possible.
KeywordsSmart city New Urbanism Urban Agrarianism Transects Urban agriculture Food security Sustainability Decentralization
Having or showing intelligence, bright
Canny and shrewd in dealings with others
Capable of making adjustments
Showing sound judgment and rationality
Mentally alert, bright, knowledgeable, and shrewd
Very good at learning or thinking about things
What is a smart city? Applying the definition above, a smart city is one that is sufficiently intelligent and wise that it prepares for the future and for the future realities which will govern the success or failure of the city. A city exists first and foremost to serve the needs and enrich the lives of its inhabitants. A city’s underlying purpose is not to serve its state, province, nation, or the world. It can, of course, do all of those things, but not without first serving its own population and, through that population, its broader surroundings. It engages in this service with a particular eye on its hinterland , which is to say its foodshed and watershed, with which it is interdependent. I am native to a very large city, New York City . Simultaneously, I am native to a very small town, the neighborhood within New York City in which I was raised and in which my forebears lived for at least a century: Woodside, Queens, just across the East River from midtown Manhattan. Today, I see that neighborhood, and that great city, as gradually, but slowly, becoming a smart city. It appears to be moving in the right direction, but perhaps not rapidly enough, given the circumstances of food, energy, climate change , and the social needs in which it functions.
So, then, what makes a city “smart”? Sustainability , which means to sustain life, society, and culture, causing it to survive into the indefinite but far-off future, is an important part of the answer. Sustainability has been defined as economic development activity that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987). For sustainability to occur, all necessary resources, including food, fuel, materials, energy, and the economic means to obtain them, are required. But sustainability also requires a mindset that is relational, indeed ecological. Material resources alone are not sufficient, as they are not operable without communitarian resources, and without genuine respect for our interdependent relationship with one another as well as with all that is. Thus, New York, among other places, is becoming a smart city by favoring the bicyclist and the pedestrian. It is also becoming a smart city by favoring public transit over individually owned motor vehicles and increasing community space while reducing space devoted to the private vehicle. By supporting its wide array of farmers markets and direct linkages to many farms in its foodshed, this city is additionally smart, and a growing sense of community is resulting. Strong community means a strong town, a strong city. Enough such strong places make a strong nation.
The New Challenge of the Coasts and Climate
For some decades, the US coastal regions have experienced greater levels of population growth and economic development than has the continental interior, sometimes denigrated as “flyover country.” But coastal regions now face particularly strong challenges to their well-being, economic and otherwise, from sea level rise. As if this challenge, with its consequent flooding and storm damage, were not serious enough, we are now coming to witness the phenomenon of both saltwater intrusion into fresh groundwater aquifers upon which our cities and towns depend and the still lesser-known phenomenon of seawater pressure against fresh groundwater aquifers, which are causing those groundwater aquifers to rise to the land surface and create flooding challenges of their own. As a result of these phenomena, population (and development) may again move at least somewhat more inland from the exposed coasts. Inability to obtain (or afford) storm and flood insurance will undoubtedly hasten a retreat from the coasts.
For some time into the future, for both coast and inland, climate change adaptation and mitigation as well as the associated need for resilience in organization and design will become a central organizing principle for our cities and towns. We likely have little choice in the matter. And in our climate-altered future, food production and access to food will always be our central need.
The How and Why of the Smart City
The word “smart” carries a positive connotation. Presumably, the smart city is more desirable than the not-so-smart city. With this bias in mind, I will define the smart city and illustrate the path to making cities smart. I will then approach the “why” question to reinforce the importance of shifting cities in the direction of smart, regardless of how difficult the shift may prove.
The How of the Smart City
A smart city looks to nature as a teacher and guide, embracing nature’s example as a fundamental tenet of ecology that we ignore only at our peril.
A smart city recognizes the need for vital production of food both near and within the city. For such a city, local food production carries an importance equivalent to a municipal water service and is perhaps the biggest single key to the idea of a smart city’s sustainability. To the extent that a city can reduce its dependency on food from away, particularly from far away, the city is, by definition, more sustainable, not to mention more secure. This is Agrarian Urbanism, and improved human health is a byproduct.
A smart city features a high degree of walkability , the ability of its residents to fulfill their most basic needs on foot and to enjoy doing so. Like Urban Agrarianism, walkability can only result in improved health – physical, mental, and spiritual.
A smart city accommodates the need for human beings to fulfill their curiosity about other human beings (particularly those of similar age), while simultaneously maintaining a necessary standard of privacy. According to urban planner William Whyte, what attracts people most is other people.
In addition to providing avenues for socialization, a smart city also offers intellectual stimulation, which human beings as a species both require and thrive upon.
The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU)
Perhaps the best example of sustainability applied to cities and human communities is the charter and canons of the new urbanist movement as put forth by the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and as applied to city- and town-building as well as to suburban repair. The terms city- and town-building here do not refer to construction of new cities or towns in the countryside, but rather the rebuilding of existing towns and cities in their existing population centers. But the makeover prescribed by New Urbanism is so fundamentally different from still prevailing twentieth-century ideas that these centers acquire such adjectives as “new” and, indeed, “smart.” They are smart because they adequately respond to the new realities regarding food, fuel, environment, ways of living, ways of working, ways of transit, and ways of human and spiritual fulfillment. These are happy places that are made for happy people. The New Urbanism of the CNU is an appropriate response to the question, “What is the smart city?”
Given the interrelationship between living space and human behavior, those who design buildings, neighborhoods, public spaces and cities ought to draw on the various disciplines which help us to understand peoples’ thought processes, symbolic language, and ways of acting. It is not enough to seek the beauty of design …[I]t is important that the different parts of a city be well integrated and that those who live there have a sense of the whole, rather than being confined to one neighborhood and failing to see the larger city as space which they share with others. (Carroll 2016, 64)
In his encyclical, Pope Francis further rejected the centrality of the car, prioritizing public transit not only for environmental and energy reasons but because of his conviction that cars destroy community. It is important to oppose that which destroys community and to support that which builds community.
Significantly, each of the pope’s points outlined above synchronizes remarkably with the goals of New Urbanism and therefore with the essence of the smart city. We may conclude that Pope Francis is a proponent of New Urbanism and a visionary when it comes to smart cities.
The local food and farming movement, a movement of revolutionary proportions in the northeastern United States and other parts of the country, is currently attempting to scale up in order to meet the large-scale corporate needs of the institutionalized food system, which has been in place for the past half century or more. And yet, with respect to both New Urbanism and urban agriculture , to ask the question “How can we scale up?” is to ask the wrong question. The right question is: “How can we scale down?” We should not be asking, “How can we further centralize the system?” but rather, “How can we decentralize the system?” While scaling up may be tempting, especially if we speak of food provision to larger institutions (chain supermarkets, large schools, and other institutions), such “scaling up” is to force the philosophy of local food into a countervailing philosophy, the philosophy of bigness, of corporatization, and of centralization – it just won’t work. Local food, by definition, is decentralized and therefore inherently small scale. New Urbanism and true sustainability – indeed, most forms of urban agriculture – argue for local (in food as well as in all other goods and services) in every local place, a model of decentralization of which both philosopher E. F. Schumacher and esteemed agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry would be proud. The existing large-scale corporatism to which we have become accustomed runs deeply counter to New Urbanism since New Urbanism embraces a neighborhood scaling in order to honor the precept of walkability . Reorganizing our society to adapt to new energy and environmental realities starts with reorganizing the way we think. Everyone knows you can’t force a square peg into a round hole. Similarly, you can’t put localization, which is small scale by its very nature, into corporate thinking, which is inherently large scale. The two are in perennial opposition to one another.
What Constitutes the Smart City?
The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) has given us three tools with which to build the smart city: the Charter and the Canons, which constitute the philosophy and governance of New Urbanism, and the transect . Examining these short, simple, and clear documents will help us see the contrast New Urbanism represents to our nation’s approach to housing design as well as town- and city-building over the past half-century.
Stands for the restoration of existing urban centers and towns, the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of thriving neighborhoods and diverse districts
Recognizes that physical solutions can only be applied with economic vitality, community stability, and environmental health
Advocates for public policy that supports neighborhood diversity in both use and population, design favoring the pedestrian and transit over the car, the shaping quality of physically defined and universally acceptable public spaces and community institutions, and an architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, tradition, and ecological reality
Represents a broad-based constituency committed to reestablishing the relationship between the art of building and the making of community
Dedicates itself to urban reclamation from the city and suburbs, from homes, blocks, and streets to parks, neighborhoods, districts, towns, cities, regions, and environments
To carry this out, New Urbanism asserts the following principles for urban planning and design.
Components of the Smart City and Town: By the Numbers
The finite nature of the physical environment and the multiple centers of the metropolis, each with its own identifiable center, must be recognized.
The metropolitan region as a single fundamental economic unit must be recognized, and policy must reflect that reality.
The metropolis has a necessary and fragile relationship to its agrarian hinterland and natural landscapes: farmland and nature are equally important to the metropolis as the garden is to the house.
Infill development must be favored over peripheral expansion. Development patterns should not blur or eradicate the edges of the metropolis, and infill development conserves environmental resources as well as economic investment and social fabric.
New, contiguous developments should become neighborhoods and districts, while non-contiguous development should be organized as towns and villages of their own with their own edges (and planned for a jobs-housing balance and not as bedroom suburbs).
All development and redevelopment should respect historical patterns.
Cities and towns should bring into proximity a broad spectrum of public and private uses to support a regional economy, including affordable housing, to benefit people of all incomes and avoid concentrations of poverty.
A variety of transportation modes and infrastructure should be available: public transit, pedestrian, and bicycle.
Revenues and resources should be shared cooperatively and destructive competition avoided.
The neighborhood, the district, and the corridor are the essential elements of development and redevelopment.
Neighborhoods need to be compact, pedestrian friendly, and mixed use.
A variety of daily living activities should occur within walking distance, offering residents independence.
Within neighborhoods, there need to be a broad range of housing types and price levels, ensuring diversity of population and strengthening both personal and civic bonds.
Transit corridors can help organize metropolitan structure, the opposite of highway corridors which displace investment from and damage existing centers.
Buildings should be within walking distance of transit stops, making public transit a viable alternative to the car.
Concentrations of a mixture of civic, institutional, and commercial activity should be embedded in neighborhoods and districts, never isolated in “single-use complexes.” As an example, every school should be within walking and biking distance of all students.
Graphics of urban design codes are important so that users/residents can envision them.
A range of large, small, and very small parks should be well distributed within neighborhoods, with larger open space defining and connecting different neighborhoods and districts.
The physical definition of streets and public spaces should always signify shared use.
All architecture should seamlessly link to its surroundings.
The design of streets and buildings should reinforce safe environments, but not at the expense of accessibility and openness.
The accommodation of cars should respect the pedestrian and the form of public space.
Streets and squares should have visual interest and encourage walking, enabling neighbors to get to know each other.
Architecture and landscape design should be developed based on local climate, topography, history, and building practice (as Seaside, Florida, the first new urbanist community in the United States, has done).
Civic buildings and public spaces should reinforce community identity and the culture of democracy.
All buildings should rely on natural methods of heating and cooling.
Preservation and renewal of historic buildings, districts, and landscapes should be given high priority.
The Canons of Sustainable Architecture and Urbanism stand as a companion to the Charter of the New Urbanism and reflect a further evolution of the Charter.
A worsening of the environmental situation globally, as evidenced notably through climate change and habitat destruction, has caused new urbanists and the Congress for the New Urbanism to add to the Charter a set of Canons designed to recognize and address the deteriorating environmental situation we face. The Canons make clear, as Pope Francis has likewise articulated, that environmental solutions must address poverty, health, and underdevelopment, while simultaneously addressing environmental concerns. The CNU’s proposed solution integrates (1) smart growth, (2) green building, and (3) New Urbanism. These Canons harken to a higher level of sustainability and seek to provide a set of operating principles for, in their own words, “addressing the stewardship of all land and the full range of human settlement: water, food, shelter and energy,” with a simultaneous engagement of urbanism, infrastructure, architecture, landscape design, construction practice, and resource conservation.
Design and financing must be refocused on long life and permanence rather than transience, enabling reuse as well as long-term use.
While recognizing the need to address both climate change and affordability, investors should be rewarded by greater returns over the long term.
Indigenous urban, architectural, and landscape patterns are necessary to any truly sustainable design.
Design must achieve ecological and resource conservation goals, including provision of local food, protection of local watersheds, preservation of clean air, and conservation of natural habitat and biodiversity.
Human settlements must be recognized as part of the earth’s ecosystems.
The rural to urban transect, a transect drawn across the rural-urban divide which delineates zones of agrarian and urban characteristics, is the essential framework for the organization of the natural, the agricultural, and the urban realms.
Social interaction, economic and cultural activity, spiritual development, energy, creativity, and time are all to be maximized by buildings, neighborhoods, towns, and regions.
The fabric and infrastructure of the city must enable reuse, accommodating growth, change and long-term use.
Patient investors seeking long-term rather than short-term return should be encouraged, particularly in responding to the long-term impacts of climate change and increasing affordability.
Sustainable design must be rooted in adaptations to the local natural and cultural heritage.
Design must preserve the proximate relationships between urbanized and adjacent rural areas so as to ensure local food production, watershed and water supply protection, and protection of local natural resources, ecosystems, and biodiversity.
Human settlements are part of the earth’s ecosystem, not separate.
The rural-to-urban transect developed by the architectural firm DPZ and the CNU provides the design framework.
All components will maximize social interaction, economic and cultural activity, spiritual development, energy, creativity, and time.
These Canons then provide a prescription for buildings and infrastructure.
The objective of building design is to create a culture of permanence in structures of enduring quality (longevity is promoted, as is stewardship of land and buildings).
Architecture and landscape design derived from local natural, historic, and cultural conditions.
Exterior building shells must be designed to be enduring, while interiors must be designed to be flexible and adaptable.
Preservation and renewal of historic buildings saves embodied energy as well as cultural continuity.
Buildings shall conserve and produce renewable energy wherever possible to reduce demand for fossil fuels.
Building design and configuration must reduce energy usage and promote walkability, both vertically and horizontally.
Renewable energy sources shall be used to reduce carbon and other greenhouse gases.
Water shall be stored and reused on-site and let it percolate into local aquifers.
Water uses shall be minimized and conserved through landscape strategies, including emphasis on native vegetation.
Building materials shall be locally sourced and recycled and contain low embodied energy – or chosen for durability and exceptional longevity, taking advantage of thermal mass to reduce energy usage.
Building materials shall be nontoxic and noncarcinogenic.
Food production of all kinds should be encouraged in and around all buildings to promote the values of decentralization, self-sufficiency, and reduced transportation.
Street design shall encourage the shaping of a positive public realm, always encouraging shared pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicular use.
The pattern of blocks and streets shall be compact and well-connected for walkability and minimize material and utility infrastructure.
The shaping of the public realm shall focus on creating thermally comfortable spaces.
All design of streets, blocks, etc. shall be configured for reduced overall energy usage.
Roadway materials shall be nontoxic and provide for water reuse through percolation and retention while maintaining street connectivity.
The supply of parking shall be constricted in order to induce less driving and create more human-scaled public space.
The balance of jobs, shopping, schools, recreation, civic uses, institutions, housing, and food production shall all be at the neighborhood scale and within easy walking distance of one another or of public transit.
All new development shall be on underutilized, poorly designed, or already developed land (i.e., urban infill or urban adjacent).
Prime and unique farmland shall be protected and conserved, and additional agriculture shall be promoted on already urbanized/underutilized land.
Neighborhoods, towns, and cities shall be as compact as possible, promoting lively mixed urban places.
Renewable energy shall be produced at the scale of neighborhood and town, as well as individual buildings, in order to maximize energy decentralization.
Brownfields shall be redeveloped.
Wetlands shall be protected and recharge of aquifers should be restored.
Natural places shall be within easy walking distance of everyone.
Within neighborhoods there need to be a broad range of housing types, sizes, and price levels in order to create diversity, self-sufficiency, and social sustainability.
Nearby rural agricultural settlements shall be promoted to preserve local foods and food culture, to ensure a wide range of locally raised foods within a short distance, enable food self-sufficiency, and cap the overall size of neighborhoods.
Light pollution and noise pollution should be minimized.
Neighborhood design should use natural topography and avoid the import and export of fill.
The finite boundaries of the region shall be governed by natural features.
Whole regions shall strive for self-sustainability in food, goods and services, employment, renewable energy, and water supplies.
The region’s physical organization shall promote transit, pedestrian, and bicycle systems while reducing dependence on cars and trucks.
Development shall be primarily organized around transit lines and hubs, enabling a spatial balance of jobs and housing.
The siting of new development shall prefer already urbanized land, with rural undeveloped land development allowable only under stringent circumstances.
Sensitive habitats and prime farmlands shall be conserved and protected, and projects to regenerate and recreate additional agricultural areas and habitats shall be promoted.
Wetlands and water bodies shall be protected.
Development shall be avoided in locations that disrupt natural weather systems and induce heat islands, flooding, fires, or storms.
Rather than defined by technology (“smart” or otherwise), smart cities take their shape around questions of design that lead to specific ends. Walkability is central among those ends and flows into the desired goals of variety in streetscapes designed to hold visual interest and facilitate the mixing of interesting people. Also central among those ends are nearness to all necessary goods and services, thriving cultural opportunity amidst an equally thriving street culture, and proximity to plenty of good food. Such design offers opportunity to avoid investing in car ownership and sets limits on private vehicular traffic, emphasizing its alternatives: walking, bicycling, and public transit, along with the option of seriously reducing the necessity of travel itself. And, most comfortingly, such design is fundamental to security. These are the characteristics of the smart city, especially descriptive of the smart city as seen through the eyes of millennials, those adults under 40 who now constitute the largest single segment of the population. Thus, these characteristics are descriptive of the future.
“Rear Window Ethics” and Human Desire
Film director Alfred Hitchcock introduced us to the notion of “rear window ethics,” raising questions about the natural voyeuristic tendencies of all humans to want to know what is going on in the life of fellow humans. New Urbanism, which emphasizes dense centers where humans live side-by-side in order to enjoy a greater variety of necessary services in a sustainable and less car-dependent manner, presents certain challenges in this regard. But New Urbanism founder Andres Duany sees this as an asset. He believes there is nothing human beings are more interested in, or more curious about, than other human beings, particularly people of the same generation – our peers. The need to satisfy this natural curiosity is well answered by the very nature of New Urbanism, from high walkability to street-facing porches and vegetable gardens, not to mention the large amount of public space interspersed with living space. Such characteristic features not only contribute significantly to a higher quality of life for those who live in new urbanist communities and neighborhoods, but they also make for an infinitely more interesting life. What are our neighbors wearing? What are they eating? What are they doing? What are they thinking? How are they coping with life, and what can we learn from them? And so, while fulfilling this curiosity toward our fellow human creatures, the new urbanist approach designs privacy options into its enhanced public space.
A Step Further: The Case for the Agrarian Urbanism of Andres Duany
Out of the unlikely subtropical urban environment of South Florida, and from the mind of an urban planner of world renown, comes the unlikely and seemingly contradictory idea of Agrarian Urbanism. As he would be quick to tell you, the idea wasn’t born with Andres Duany, a contrarian of sorts with an interest in agriculture. Rather, it was born out of the creativity of an early twentieth-century planner trying to find an inspiring antidote to the tired and depressed spirit of time-worn towns in industrial England. I refer to the Englishman Ebenezer Howard and his idea of garden cities. Howard was responding to the need for a better way to live at the beginning of the twentieth century. Duany is responding to a necessary way to live in the early stage of the twenty-first century. He charismatically refers to the garden city as a model of equilibrium and the only way to think about cities. Such cities, he claims, also represent a form of adaptation to zero-carbon living and thus to resolution, or at least amelioration, of the effects of climate change. To better understand Agrarian Urbanism, one must understand the basic tool of the Charter and the Canons, the transect.
Pioneered by Andres Duany and inspired by examples from nature, the transect is a tool for translating the Charter and the Canons into practical expressions, bringing these documents to life. Drawn from ecological reality itself, the transect is a way of envisioning, using nature as our teacher and guide. Working with nature and never Against nature, the transect merges ecological thought with city-building. The designed and built city, in this way, reflects nature – a wise goal.
The transect recognizes a progression of essential habitats that make up the transition from one natural ecosystem to another (e.g., from field to forest, land to sea). Ecologists use the term “ecotone” to describe the intermediate steps in this progression. In Duany’s CNU model of city- or town-building, the transect ranges from T-1 (the natural environment of the rural countryside), through T-2, T-3, T-4, T-5, (various stages of suburbia through a progressively more densely settled urban habitat), to T-6 (the urban core, also called the center city, the central business district, or, variously, downtown – and, in larger urban agglomerations, midtown or uptown).
In the Transect
T-1 (outer periphery) has high natural diversity and is a polyculture (i.e., many cultures of diversity which is, in fact, ecological), a reflection of ecological reality.
T-6 (inner core) has high social diversity and is also a polyculture (and hence ecological, in spite of its developmental density).
T-3 (in between), the core of suburbia, essentially lacks diversity and, according to Duany, is therefore a social and natural monoculture (i.e., a uniform single culture, which is anti-ecological in that it does not reflect nature).
T-4: General urban
T-5: Urban center
T-6: Urban core
Such a tool as the transect can serve as a guide to the direction and development of each segment of the new city or new town (Duany).
The Transect Zones
T-1 – Natural zone consists of lands approximating or reverting to a wilderness condition, especially where unsuitable for settlement due to topography, hydrology, or vegetation. Natural diversity. A polyculture.
T-2 – Rural zone consists of sparsely settled lands in open or cultivated conditions. These include woodland, farmland , grassland, and irrigable desert. Typical buildings are farmhouses, agricultural buildings, cabins, and villas. Roads and trails are common.
T-3 – Suburban zone consists of low-density residential areas and some retail at corners. Home occupations and outbuildings are present throughout. Planting is naturalistic, and building setbacks are relatively deep. Blocks may be large and the road pattern irregular to accommodate natural conditions. No diversity. A social and natural monoculture.
T-4 – General urban zone consists of mixed use but primarily residential areas. It includes a wide range of building types: shops, houses, row houses, and small apartment buildings. Setbacks and landscaping are variable. Streets with raised curbs and sidewalks define medium-sized blocks.
T-5 – Urban center zone consists of higher-density, mixed-use buildings, with shops, offices, row houses, and apartments. Streets have raised curbs, wide sidewalks, steady tree planting, and buildings with short setbacks.
T-6 – Urban core zone consists of the greatest density and building height, most being mixed use. This is the setting for civic buildings of regional importance. Blocks may be large to accommodate parking within. Streets have steady tree plantings and buildings set close to the wide sidewalks. Only large towns and cities have urban core zones. High social diversity. A polyculture.
According to Duany, agrarian urban theory correctly retains the New Urbanism’s high natural diversity of T-1 (natural) and the high social diversity of T-6 (urban core), but it also radically improves the performance of T-3 (suburban). How so? By integrating it technically into a green regime of which agrarianism is the most thorough manifestation.
Duany thus credits his theory of Agrarian Urbanism as equalizing environmental performance along the transect while at the same time retaining lifestyle choice, a positive market benefit. In fact, he sees lifestyle choice as improving the combined diversity of all T zones. In other words, “The New Urbanist Theory performs better by valuing both the natural and social diversity at T1 and T6, while correctly but problematically de-valuing the suburban point of T3, which has the lowest indices of both. Agrarian Urbanism mitigates T3 Sub-Urban so that all transect zones are equalized” (Duany, 74). This is in sync with ecological thought (i.e., nature chooses polyculture/diversity and always abhors monoculture/lack of diversity). It also saves the suburbs by offering them a positive image, as the suburban house of T-3 can become a locus of both food and energy production, as well as of composting and recycling.
Duany differentiates Agrarian Urbanism from Agricultural Urbanism, seeing Agrarian Urbanism as a conceptually more complete version of the two since it transcends mere production of food to incorporate processing, value added, and preparation, providing a “social condenser,” which food and a farm alone cannot provide.
As a business proposition, an agrarian program in a residential development functions as an amenity, and it counts as a “green development.” Such amenities cost less to build and are easier to phase in for the developer. “Is there a future for this?,” Duany asks. Yes, he responds: “This kind of development 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” (Duany, 79). He further reflects, “If this conclusion seems early, remember that urbanism operates on the time frame of decades. The present is a distortion field that should be examined skeptically” (Duany, 79).
A further incentive to Agrarian Urbanism is planning approvals that are otherwise difficult to secure. For example, in my state of New Hampshire , we now have the incentive of the new state statute “Granite State Farm to Plate ” (RSA 425:2-a), which encourages but does not require planning boards and other municipal entities, as well as all state agencies and the courts, to both support and promote local food and farming in their decision-making. The statute is designed to make the path easier. Easier planning approvals would be one way to make the path smoother. And since Agrarian Urbanism is part of the solution, not part of the problem, “It brings along the moral authority of much of the environmental agenda” (Duany, 80). Regarding acceptability, Duany importantly claims that “… Agrarian Urbanism can be presented to a financial institution as conventional” for “a house with a yard, a townhouse (skip the description of the roof garden), or an apartment building next to a public park (don’t necessarily call it the community garden) are not difficult to explain” (Duany, 80).
Regarding health, Agrarian Urbanism provides recreational and productive physical activity; fresh humanely raised food; control over food supply and quality; and it preserves open space.
Environmentally, with Agrarian Urbanism there is less pollution of water and soil; closed cycles of food-to-waste-to-food; retention and restoration of marginal agricultural land; an intensification of crop yields; and less energy applied to, and pollution resulting from, food transportation.
Economically, Agrarian Urbanism efficiently delivers to a variety of emerging economic realities; it positions recreational time as productive rather than consumptive; it saves cost in waste disposal, fertilizers and herbicides; it allows maintenance budgets to be reduced; and it appeals to a large and growing market.
Socially, Agrarian Urbanism supplies social gathering places enriched by utility; provides training in a useful craft, meaningful jobs for some, and participation for all, including children and seniors; it fosters cultural traditions based on mutual reliance; and it aggregates individual effort to the level of an economic system – not just amateur performance. (Duany, 81)
One might conclude, in other words, that we should embrace Agrarian Urbanism because there are few better ideas around.
The Rationale for Agrarian Urbanism
The Internet, which provides both basic knowledge and social connectivity. These components are especially valuable to the farming/gardening population in T-1, the periphery.
The value of the system as a “social condenser.”
The transfer of funds from landscaping to agrarian pursuits.
The property owners’ association or co-op as a management framework.
The diversity and vigor of the market for Agrarian Urbanism.
Duany has written that the Internet shores up Agrarian Urbanism today as a viable possibility. The Internet provides cover for four of the perennial disadvantages of life in more remote places, as it offers surrogates for (1) limited social networks, (2) scant entertainment, (3) threadbare shopping, and (4) the absence of “medical diagnostics” (Duany, 46). With the Internet, agrarian life becomes much more acceptable to many. Prospective agrarian residents are willing to sign off on certain lifestyle obligations necessary for successful food production that are not otherwise acceptable.
In Agrarian Urbanism , “the market square is the locus of agricultural processing as well as the social and commercial center of the community. Socializing takes place around food and its consumption rather than being based on recreational shopping” (Duany, 55). The market square is thus the “primary social condenser of Agrarian Urbanism.” And the community garden can also serve as an important agrarian condenser.
As Duany further notes, today we expend much land, money, and labor on ornamental landscaping. This investment includes nothing less than (1) the voluntary work of private gardeners; (2) hired help that performs maintenance tasks; (3) money for tools, pesticides, fertilizers, etc.; (4) municipal budgets for public areas; and (5) high fees collected for semipublic landscaping of suburban developments. Agrarian Urbanism reassigns these public, semipublic, and private funds away from ornamental planting to the more demanding aspects of agriculture and food production. Resources now spent on lawns and exotic plants requiring constant attention are redirected much more efficiently to edible landscapes. Thus, the more demanding, not to mention more boring aspects of agriculture, are handled by contract workers who are compensated with redirected monies, while the more satisfying and pleasant tasks are undertaken by willing residents in their spare time.
Duany and others articulate a variety of motivations with which people come to gardening. Duany writes that “[G]ardening has become the most popular hobby among Anglo-Americans. It is more than a niche and it is growing” (Duany, 63). An indispensable tool enabling this development, Duany notes, is the property owners association or co-op. Three levels of personal commitment are involved: the decision to be a dues-paying resident in such a community, participation in a loosely organized gardening association, and the agreement to cooperate in plant-to-table activity.
Ethicists, because they believe it’s the right thing to do
Trendsetters, also known as the “cool greens”
Opportunists, the people who ask the question, “What’s in it for me?”
Survivalists, or those who “circle the wagons,” believing that security comes first (Duany, 66–69).
Michele Owens, author of Grow the Good Life: Why a Vegetable Garden Will Make You Happy, Healthy, Wealthy and Wise, articulates a somewhat different motivation: “Thanks to my garden, I can take a small stand against everything I find witless, lazy, and ugly in our civilization” (Duany, 70). (Wendell Berry took this a step further when he called gardening a revolutionary act.)
Dominique Browning, former Editor-in-Chief of House and Garden and a noted author of gardening books, sums up these motivations elegantly: “The vegetable garden, it turns out, is a ripening political force: the best response to the enemy crisis, the climate crisis, the obesity crisis, the family crisis, and the financial crisis. It will be no small irony, if suburbia becomes the locavore’s home of choice … and growing backyard veggies could be the answer to the crisis of disaffected suburban youth” (Duany, 82).
A Matter of Words
“Agricultural” is concerned with the technical aspects of growing food. “Agrarian” emphasizes the society involved with all aspects of food. “Agrarian Urbanism” addresses the problem of food production and the problem of sprawling communities simultaneously.
“The transformative power of food is absolute.”
Janine de la Salle and Mark Holland
Will Allen Has It Right
“The (food) revolution comes in breaking these long chains in the food system and in the minds of buyers and in building new tight webs around the centers of communities.”
Food and the Smart City
Author and new urbanist James Howard Kunstler has prophetically remarked, “Agriculture is going to come back to the center of the American life in a way that we couldn’t imagine” (Carroll 2008). This is precisely what has been happening over the past decade in towns and cities, including the largest cities, all over America. We are witnessing the rise of intown and inner-city food production from patch gardens to sizable acreage rooftops. And we’ve been witnessing a healthy growth in small-scale farming at the urban edge, with farmers markets and CSAs as the current method of choice for marketing farm product to hungry city and intown stomachs. Urban agriculture’s day has come, as Kunstler predicted in his statement that was once viewed as radical. And its growth shows no sign of abating. Food – local food locally produced, processed, and prepared – is the largest single component sustaining the smart city. And it is the one component that offers the city or town resident the opportunity to make a difference, to have a hand in the city’s direction and destiny. Local food locally produced is a near-perfect tool for achieving the character and promise of a truly smart city. Thus, Agrarian Urbanism becomes a reliable path to a smart city.
Agrarian Urbanism tells us that the production of food is coming home. But are we ready? And what does “home” mean? Does it mean a return of agriculture to the regions it feeds? Yes, it means that. But, importantly, it means a return of agriculture, including small-scale backyard farming and market gardening, within view of the mouths to be fed. It means rooftop gardening, vest pocket gardening (also known as small patch gardening), and vertical gardening on walls – gardening wherever sunlight shines and water is available and where the mouths to be fed are located, at home, at work, or at play. In short, agriculture’s return home means Urban Agriculture and, more specifically, Agrarian Urbanism, the practice of urban planning with food production in mind. When Urban Agrarianism is achieved, it is lodged in the mindset of city dwellers who routinely apply it to their use of land, exercise, health, recreation, and pleasure. Indeed, Urban Agrarianism is a form of lean urbanism (town planning that makes do with what is naturally and cheaply available) and of lean agrarianism (which likewise makes do with the land, water, sunshine, and human will present on the scene).
Andres Duany has outlined a path to Agrarian Urbanism. Starting with “agrarian retention,” that is, simply saving existing farmland, one moves to the increasingly popular production level of “urban agriculture” in its many forms but simply described as food production within the city. The progression continues to “Agricultural Urbanism,” or settlements equipped with a working farm economically connected to the community’s residents. Finally, one arrives at the truest form, agrarianism, wherein settlements are involved with food in all its aspects (production, processing, preparation and distribution), and where the physical pattern of the settlement supports the working of an intentional agrarian society. Ever concerned about sufficiency of urban population density, Duany writes, “As the primacy of shopping necessarily wanes, agrarian activity can provide a surrogate urban condenser” (Duany, 35). And he gives us the image: “Agrarian sociability is based on the organizing, growing, processing, exchanging, cooking, and eating of food – much of it taking place around a market square” (Duany, 35). Such squares then become indispensable as third places for social interaction, supplementing those of home and workplace.
Convinced that the smart city is a city of high social interaction, Duany comments on the discomfort of people exposing themselves in acts of leisure, but the relative comfort that people in our society feel in being seen in the act (or pretense) of working.
The requirements of local food and farming routinely lead to extended social networks, for “All ages can work together to accomplish many of the tasks required to make preserves, flash-freeze vegetables, fill boxes for CSAs, or administer a farmers market” (Duany, 36). And planting, tending and harvesting, he notes, impose a routine of great activity akin to a considerable amount of walking, resulting in a higher level of walkability in the community. Such hand-tended crops have the added benefits of being less toxic (or nontoxic), lowering the carbon footprint, and offering higher-quality flavor since they need not be travel-resistant or have a long shelf life. And food production in the community can include energy production along with recycling and composting, all of which activities are additional social condensers leading to those same extended social networks.
The Insight of Andres Duany
Andres Duany tells us that a neo-agrarian way of life should be made available to as many as possible because of its mitigating effect on climate change – in other words, for ethical reasons no less than for practical ones. But, as the following ideas from his book, Garden Cities: Theory and Practice of Agrarian Urbanism, testify, Duany’s arguments do not lack the practical side as well:
“Agrarian Urbanism 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.”
“By bringing most ordinary daily activities within walking distance, those who do not drive (usually the young, the old, the poor and the principled) gain independence ... The possibility of not owning an automobile provides a virtual subsidy that can be applied to housing costs. There is no more organic way to increase affordability.”
“The financial model of agrarian urbanism also includes the subsidy that is transferred from the debit column of landscape maintenance.”
“Agrarian activity provides a surrogate urban condenser to the primacy of shopping.”
“The traditional village was a machine to grow food.”
“Agricultural urbanism is a new kind of real estate. Growing food is a very good way to sell real estate.”
“Development structured on useful and productive activity that supports the common health and wealth is a compelling vision not least for the marketing of real estate.”
Agrarian urbanism should become a “normative real estate product.”
“Agriculture is the new golf.”
“Garden frontage generates social contact and well-being. Gardening is fantastically sociable – even more than the porch. There's nothing that generates conversation more than vegetables.”
“Agrarian sociability is based on a foundation of organizing, growing, processing, exchanging, cooking and eating of food - much of it around a market square.”
“A tomato plant may be a vector of conversation no less effective than a baby in a pram or a cute dog on a leash.”
“The village of yore was essentially an apparatus to grow, process and distribute food.”
From the point of view of expense and investment, “The barn is cheaper than the clubhouse, community gardens more incremental than fairways – so the barn and gardens can be spread over time, thus sealing the case for community farms over golf courses.”
Ultimately, for local food production to scale up, to become much more common, Duany believes that it must engage the same market-oriented system “that so efficiently delivered conventional suburban development during the recently concluded century” (Duany, 45).
“If you build a garden, you believe in the future.”
Urban agriculture, including urban gardening, forces one away from exclusively thinking of and interacting with fellow humans and reorients one toward nature and its systems. It moves one “out of the ruts which an exclusive association with the human animal produces in the mind of man” (Grunwald, 208).
Stapleton/Denver and Making the Local Foodshed Independent
The high plains and prairie grasslands of interior North America bespeak food and agriculture, whether grass into meat and dairy or grass into grain and mixed farming. Stapleton , Colorado , established on the land of a former international airport and positioned within the largest city on the high plains of North America, Denver , offers a model with high potential. In the shadow of the majestic Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, Stapleton is well situated to feed itself in virtually all food categories. Its proximity to Denver makes it a potentially vibrant player in the Denver foodshed, both as a producer and trader in vegetables and fruit, and even more so as a producer of meat, dairy, and grain production – all on a scale to feed the local community, creating a truly independent local foodshed. The newer northern sector of Stapleton is particularly well suited to meat, dairy, and grain production, while both portions of the former airport, including the older southerly and more urbanized portion, are suited for vegetable and fruit production. Stapleton could serve as a beacon when it comes to providing food security to a large urban population far removed from other large urban conurbations.
Shortening the supply chain is perhaps the single most important step toward ensuring food security . Positive byproducts of a shortened food chain are many: meaningful local work, opportunities for recreation and pleasure, enhanced human health due to the availability of more highly nutritional food, and a reduced carbon footprint.
A Progression of Urban Food
The power of gardens
The place of backyard farming
The place of protein at the periphery
These three subheadings represent a progression along the transect from T-1 to T-6. Gardens can be created anywhere along the transect, even in the densest downtown development of transect 6. Backyard farming represents an intermediate stage of food development within the middle of the transect (T-3, T-4, and beyond). Dairy and meat production, because they involve larger animals, is logically restricted to the outer zones of the transect (T-1 and T-2). Thus, within the transect, most food needs of the city’s population are accommodated.
The Smart City in Relation to Its Periphery and Hinterland
All cities and towns depend upon their hinterland for food, water, energy, and many other goods and services. The hinterland of a city may consist simply of its watershed, whether large or small, or it may constitute a sizable portion of a continent. Because of technology, a hinterland may even be thought of as the globe, a broader but much less secure area from which food and other goods are procured.
In contrast to cities with sprawling hinterlands, the smart city focuses on its immediate periphery (T-1 T-2), which has the capacity to provide food to the city’s residents. This peripheral area can also supply needed space for recreation and, respite to the city’s population, sometimes providing food and recreation simultaneously.
Protein in the Smart City
A particular food value of the urban periphery relates to its capacity to provide meat and dairy, basic proteins, and, to some extent, grains – all necessary food products that are somewhat more difficult to produce within the densely populated areas (T-5 and T-6). Thanks to intensive rotational grazing , also known as management intensive grazing , virtually all meat and dairy needs of the urban population can be provided for within close proximity of mouths to be fed. Additionally, meat and dairy production along the immediate periphery of the city supplies employment, recreation, and a higher quality of life for the urban residents.
Grass-based animal production for meat and dairy can be accomplished on relatively small acreages at the urban-rural interface (the periphery) in a manner that provides open access to the city’s residents, facilitating a sense of connection to food sources and, to the extent desired, opportunities to participate in food production and preparation.
For ecological reasons as well as for human and animal health, all meat and dairy production should be grass-based and not, as is so often the case, grain-based. Grass-based represents sustainability for the land, for animals, and for people. This approach represents, along with the factor of scale, the epitome of sustainable agriculture. When it comes to animal production, the focus is on cows, sheep, and goats – all three for both meat and dairy. Pigs, poultry (including chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese), and smaller animals such as rabbits can be added to the mix to enable an ecologically secure interspecies mix of dependency. As we have seen, nature requires diversity, abhorring monoculture and embracing polyculture, so following this principle of nature is a sound recommendation for both ecological health and economic production.
Intensive rotational grazing is the design mechanism best suited for providing meat and dairy (and thus protein) to town and city populations (Carroll 2008). This technique, which takes its cue from centuries-old agricultural models and ultimately from ecological principles, finds its basis on newly available but well-tested lightweight electric fencing. In addition to delivering meat and dairy product to the urban core, intensive rotational grazing serves as an important source of fertility for the production of fruit and vegetables within the city core and all adjacent transects. By mimicking nature, this method represents the epitome of sustainability and food security, while helping to meet an urban population’s need for open space, access to nature, physical exercise, meaningful employment, and mental as well as spiritual health.
While land needs are minimal in this system, management of both the land and the animals is intensive. Consequently, this approach requires not only close observation of the land and the development of a deeper, more intimate relationship with the ecosystem but also more eyes to acres and more hands to acres than we now witness in food production. The community enjoying the food becomes connected to the systems that sustain them, involved in the production, processing, and preparation of its food. Involvement on the part of the recipient of food is a key to sustainability. Sustainable food systems such as this do not require the participation of all, only of those who desire involvement. In fact, a relatively small percentage of the population (perhaps around 15%) is needed, and at varying stages of intensity. (See my four books on these topics, available to the public for free See references.)
Livestock in Town
To most people, the image of a farmstead is a homestead in the countryside. But traditional German and some other Central European farmsteads paint a different picture. In Germany and other Central European countries , farmsteads are often located right in town, as can still be seen today in farm villages. These were (and, in some cases, still are) integrated animal operations featuring cattle and other livestock at ground level or lower, and farm living quarters above, benefiting from the rising heat of the animals. Although not the agrarian design mode of today, this remains an outstanding example of safely maintaining farm animals in an urban setting. Many ancient civilizations on all continents evolved the same kind of integrated living and farming systems. It is obvious today that small livestock (poultry, rabbits, goats) can be kept in close quarters and integrated with vegetable and fruit production, but few realize that large animals have historically been kept in this way as well. While I do not necessarily advocate a return to this system of agriculture, it is quite obvious that large and small livestock, whether for meat or dairy, can at least be raised at the immediate edge of settlement, close enough to provide a rounded as well as secure diet.
A Pattern Language
As would any ecologist, Alexander tells us that patterns are alive and evolving and that there are as many pattern languages as there are people, creating a sense of fragmentation. “The (pattern) languages which people have today are so brutal, and so fragmented, that most people no longer have any (pattern) language to speak of at all – and what they do have is not based on human, or natural, considerations” (Alexander, xvi).
No thing is an isolated entity. And a pattern language teaches that no pattern itself is an isolated entity. Each pattern can exist in the world only to the extent that it is supported by other patterns: the larger patterns in which it is embedded, the patterns of the same size that surround it, and the smaller patterns which are embedded in it. This is a fundamental (and fundamentally ecological) view of the world. It says that when you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation but must also repair the world around it and within it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent and more whole; and the thing which you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it. (Alexander, xiii)
The highly ecological concept of “pattern language” is directly applicable to urban planning. According to Alexander, neighborhoods need boundaries. Agrarian Urbanism can help to set those boundaries. Alexander writes, “People need green open places to go to; when they are close, they use them. But if the greens are more than three minutes away, the distance overwhelms the need” (Alexander, 305). He advises, “Build one open public green within three minutes walk – about 750 feet – of every house and workplace. This means that the greens need to be uniformly scattered at 1,500 foot intervals, throughout the city. Make the greens at least 150 feet across, and at least 60,000 square feet in area” (Alexander 308–309). Such “greens” could easily be gardens of various sorts including pocket gardens and gardens with walking paths. And rainwater can easily be collected from the roof gutters of buildings to keep the needed gardens watered. In spite of their compact size, Alexander’s “greens” can be significant food producers.
Alexander offers advice on public squares, asserting, “A town needs public squares; they are the largest most public rooms that the town has. But when they are too large, they look and feel deserted” (Alexander, 311). He advises, “Make a public square much smaller than you would at first imagine; usually no more than 45 to 60 feet across, never more than 70 feet across. This applies only to its width in the short direction. In the long direction it can certainly be longer” (Alexander, 313). Such public squares can also usefully accommodate public and community vegetable gardens as well as fruit trees. Public squares with community gardens would most certainly neither look nor feel deserted, and the presence of food production in such a prominent local place would serve to raise interest in both the food produced and the craft of gardening itself. The addition of poultry or rabbits would not only provide fertility but add significant interest.
Regarding the importance of the public square and shared land, Alexander further asserts, “Without common land no social system can survive (Alexander, 337). Therefore, he says, “Give over 25% of the land in house clusters to common land which touches, or is very, very near the homes which share it” (Alexander, 340). He further cautions, “Be wary of the automobile; on no account let it dominate this land.” It is not unusual for common land to be used for gardening and food production. This should be encouraged for food security as well as many other reasons.
With respect to children and the need for play space, Alexander writes, “Lay out common land, paths, gardens and bridges so that groups of at least 64 households are connected by a swath of land that does not cross traffic. Establish this land as the connected play space for the children in their households” (Alexander, 346–347). This recommendation recognizes the connectivity between gardens and play, for supervised gardening can be considered play (and important play) for children.
With respect to the need for animals in our lives, farm animals count! Alexander writes, “Animals are as important a part of nature as the trees and grass and flowers. There is some evidence, in addition, which suggests that contact with animals may play a vital role in a child’s emotional development” (Alexander, 372). Securing ready access for children to common farm animals, including poultry, pigs, sheep, cows, and goats, can well fulfill children’s need for contact with animals. Because of the benefit to children, keeping farm animals beyond their obvious food and fertility value is preferable. Alexander advises, “Make legal provisions which allow people to keep any animals on their private lots or in private stables. Create a piece of fenced and protected common land, where animals are free to graze, with grass, trees and water in it. Make at least one system of movement in the neighborhood which is entirely asphalt-free – where dung can fall freely without needing to be cleaned up” (Alexander, 373–374).
Since, as Alexander reminds us, “The nuclear family is not by itself a viable social form,” we need to embrace a communitarian approach that finds family in community” (Alexander, 377). Thus, community-building through gardens and other measures is always vital. Further, a true community approach nurtures opportunity for learning through apprenticeship, particularly in gardening, in food production, and in food preparation. As Alexander states, “The fundamental learning situation is one in which a person learns by helping someone who really knows what he is doing” (Alexander, 413). Alexander asks us to “Treat every piece of work as an opportunity for learning. To this end, organize work around a tradition of masters and apprentices…” (Alexander, 414).
On farmers markets , Alexander writes, “The simple social intercourse created when people rub shoulders in public is one of the most essential kinds of social ‘glue’ in society” (Alexander, 489).
On placing gardens, Alexander writes “If a garden is too close to the street, people won’t use it because it isn’t private enough. But if it is too far from the street, then it won’t be used either, because it is too isolated” (Alexander, 545). Half-hidden is thus ideal, albeit fully hidden will, I believe, work, if the gardens in question are serious food production gardens, also known as market gardens. And a courtyard or plaza can be brought to life socially and psychologically, as well as become biologically organic, by placement of food-producing gardens within.
Gardens do not offer enough relief from noise unless they are well protected, so an enclosure is needed. In a very small garden, Alexander tells us, the enclosure should be formed of buildings or walls. Because an enclosure around garden space gives the garden the feeling of a room, the gardened outdoor space can become a special outdoor room, increasing its psychological value and thus its desirability as a place in which to spend time. Because orchards give the land a special, almost magical quality, so gardens should include fruit trees, as should streetscapes.
“A garden which grows true to its own laws is not a wilderness, yet not entirely artificial either” (Alexander, 802).
A greenhouse/glass house efficiently traps heat and turns it into the production of energy in vegetation, while at the same time providing a space to live in and enjoy. The value of the garden can be much enhanced with seating – an important place to both enjoy and commune with nature. “In a healthy town every family can grow vegetables for itself. The time is past to think of this as a hobby for enthusiasts; it is a fundamental part of human life” (Alexander, 819). “Set aside one piece of land either in the private garden or on common land as a vegetable garden. About one-tenth of an acre is needed for each family of four” (Alexander, 821). “Arrange all toilets over a dry composting chamber. Lead organic garbage chutes to the same chamber, and use the combined products for fertilizer” (Alexander, 826). Alexander warns that we must not waste this good fertility source, and we should not poison bodies of water with its excess.
Two Concepts: Small Is Beautiful and Limits to Growth
There are two seminal books on the topic of growth and decentralization. In his 1973 book, Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered , E. F. Schumacher forges another path to New Urbanism. An important champion of small-scale agriculture and the central importance of soil in human life, Schumacher was a successful industrial economist who criticized large-scale economic systems. He was perhaps the leading thinker in our time when it comes to decentralization, and decentralization is key to the idea of the smart city. For decades now, North America and Europe have witnessed the decline and shrinkage of large-scale industrial systems (Detroit being an outstanding, if extreme, example).
The infamous 1972 study, Limits to Growth by Meadows et al., a team out of MIT, whose long-criticized (and even rejected) work is now being vindicated, foresaw the decline of large-scale industrial agriculture. The decline of faith in large-scale systems in both Europe and North America and, in some locales, a rise in libertarianism, may be a further consequence. And in planning (whether regional, city, or town), we see a further expression of such thinking, with both New Urbanism and Agrarian Urbanism emerging as responses to these circumstances.
I would take the concepts of decentralization and limits to growth one step further by embracing lean agrarianism, as necessitated by peak oil and other energy realities. (The term peak oil refers to the global peak in global production and demand and the resultant end of cheap and easy-to-obtain oil.) Also necessitating lean agrarianism are climate change and human response generated by fear of the consequences of these events and fear of a future likely more fundamentally different than has been experienced by humans in many centuries. It appears that the lives of our children and grandchildren will not simply be a continued evolution of our own lives and times, as has long been the case since the start of the Industrial Revolution three centuries ago. Our descendants will face a brave new world where survival will be a challenge and there won’t be a lot of guidance from the generations preceding them. The adoption of “small is beautiful” as a controlling philosophical tenet, expressed in New Urbanism and in other ecological approaches to the future, is becoming necessary.
Institutionalizing Local Farmers Markets
Institutionalizing local farmers markets at a local scale, borrowing from models in Santa Fe, New Mexico ; Woodstock , Vermont ; and other places, will prove critical to the flow of local food as a key component of Agrarian Urbanism. The Santa Fe Farmers’ Market Institute may be the gold standard when it comes to building and supporting a year-round indoor/outdoor farmers market in a small city or large town. This Institute had the wisdom to locate in the Santa Fe Railyard District, a location with a very attractive feature for the new reality: passenger rail transportation across the region. (The “Rail Runner” trains, which actually enter the farmers market, serve Albuquerque , the state’s largest city, and other points south of Santa Fe.) The market’s location in this district is as much a symbol for the younger generation as the market itself, making an important statement about the future, when affordable ecologically desirable transportation will be increasingly in order.
Boston Urban Agriculture and Article 89
As articulated in Article 89 of the municipal zoning code , Boston , Massachusetts, the largest city in New England, believes that all city residents who wish to grow their own food should have access to appropriate space to do so. This means access to clean soil and water within walking distance of homes. With the increase in urban agriculture likely to result, more residents will likely also want access to more farmers markets and local food in neighborhood stores. Gardening, including chickens, bees, rabbits, etc., will become openly available to everyone, either in their own space or as a community flock, herd, or garden. No formal goals or targets have yet been set for the Boston urban agriculture effort, but the primary themes are (1) inclusion of biodiversity, (2) determining what is the economic viability of urban agriculture for “for profits,” (3) the needs of community gardening in Boston, and (4) youth involvement and intergenerational engagement. The Massachusetts Commercial Food Waste Ban is resulting in increased compost for city residents. The local Kendall Foundation estimates that community gardening displaces $1 million per year in retail food purchases. And since transport of food accounts for about 80% of congestion on city streets, Article 89 will likely lower this statistic. Boston’s urban agriculture plan offers many benefits beyond food production and is essentially an economic as well as a social plan designed to keep capital invested at home in the city.
Two Positive Trade-Offs
The higher population density associated with the New Urbanism frees up much land on the town periphery and beyond, which can be kept natural and provide ecological services (including storm water containment, flood alleviation, water and air purification, and nature protection for human recreation, edification and enjoyment). Likewise, urban agriculture at the city core, where the people are, means less food needs to be produced on farmland beyond the cities and towns, likewise freeing up that land for the protection of ecological services . And both New Urbanism and urban agriculture equate to a reduced carbon footprint, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and thus action against climate change.
Powerful Economic Development
Every molecule of food consumed from a local source displaces a molecule of food from away. Local food, then, is an inherently powerful form of economic development. This frees vast acreages of land now devoted to large-scale food production, whether in California, Florida, Iowa, or overseas, some of which can be returned to its natural state, providing important ecological services. Locally sourced food also means that people living closely together experience a higher quality of living, opening the possibility of releasing more land in rural and suburban zones to its natural state and freeing it to produce the many rich ecological services of which it is capable. This model helps return people and land resources to the natural equilibrium they enjoyed over hundreds of thousands of years.
“[T]he grounds for hope are in the shadows, in the people who are inventing the world while no one looks” (Solnit, 164).
Lean Urbanism Is All About Making Small Possible
Because I agree with my mentor, E. F. Schumacher, that small is beautiful, I must then believe that anything which makes small possible is also beautiful. Therefore, “lean urbanism,” which helps to make small possible, must also be beautiful. It is also practical, timely, appropriate, and, in the present economic reality, necessary.
Conclusion: City- and Town-Building in a Carbon-Constrained World
Planners and politicians will be severely constrained by reality in plotting their future course. And that reality includes living in and coping with a carbon-constrained world, a world which will permit significantly less carbon emission than we have been accustomed to enjoying. Such a world requires locally produced food rather than food from away. It means significantly less dependence on the personal motor vehicle. And it will look like significantly less access to aviation, indeed, less mobility in general, whether for goods or people. For these reasons, our cities and towns will come to bear a more significant resemblance to their history than we might imagine, albeit with the combination of more sophisticated but less carbon-dependent technology. New Urbanism, with its detailed charter and its detailed canons, offers a clear path to this future and will, in its way, become an organizing principle for society, focused, as we must be, on the local. For this reason, models of New Urbanism, and especially those with an agrarian (i.e., local food) component, will be particularly valuable. The twin challenges of oil volatility in the era of peak oil and the necessities of adaptation to climate change realities (i.e., reduction in carbon, methane, and other greenhouse gas emissions) lead directly to models of life and societal organization akin to the model organized by the designers, planners, and architects of the New Urbanism.
New Urbanism forms the “smart city,” and it will emerge, I believe, whether by choice or necessity. Smart cities will be among the first cities to embrace the New Urbanism, and especially so in its agrarian form.
From its inception in the early 1980s, New Urbanism has been a movement of choice for those attracted to it. But today, in the second decade of a new millennium, while it remains a choice for some, it has become for everyone a necessity. (Of course, all may not see it that way yet.) It has become a necessity because it is the only way of organizing our society, our settlements, and our towns and cities, in such a manner as to reflect the realities of two of our greatest societal challenges: climate change and energy uncertainty. The effects of climate change are becoming more evident every day, with record-breaking increases in temperatures, violent storms of many kinds, heavy precipitation, extreme drought, rising sea levels, intense forest and grassland fires, and flooding on a massive scale – all well beyond established climate records. The evidence abounds. Simultaneously, we face energy circumstances in our fossil fuel-dependent society of a kind unknown in nearly a century: the volatility and unpredictability of oil prices and perhaps soon of oil availability.
Our awareness of both peak oil and of the meaning and magnitude of climate change has emerged simultaneously, forcing us to adapt and build resilience in support of our very survival – economically, socially, and physically. Our survival necessarily requires fundamental change in our values and way of life, not only for the moral reasons about which Pope Francis regularly reminds us but also for reasons of physical necessity. To be sensitive to intergenerational justice and equity, I believe, is a serious moral and spiritual obligation. But, given the rapidity of events, both environmental and social, we may be upended by what we increasingly know we must accomplish if there is to be any livable society or livable planet to pass on to those future generations.
This is where New Urbanism enters the picture. This model is an entirely new tool in city and town planning that borrows from the past (even the distant past of ancient civilizations), but which upends if not outright repudiates the post-World War II love affair with automobile-driven sprawl and with zoning designed to separate rather than join. The New Urbanism approach embraces decentralization. And it is coming into its own just in time to pragmatically address the two realities of peak oil and climate change.
How does New Urbanism accomplish such a critical task? It does it through the force of decentralization, championing what Schumacher referred to by his phrase, “Small is beautiful.” While some may prefer the benefits and costs of centralization, and others prefer the benefits and costs of decentralization, we appear to have passed the point where we have the luxury of choosing. All signs now point to smaller-scale systems and decentralization as an imperative. Increased self-sufficiency at the community level is a necessity. Our circumstances point in one direction: decentralization, for such is the path to resilience and adaptation and very possibly the path to survival itself.
Because they represent our flourishing, if not our survival itself, we need a clear understanding of the terms “New Urbanism,” “smart city,” and “agrarianism.” Wendell Berry and other agrarians have written that agrarianism, in many respects the compatriot of urbanism, is a practice before it is a theory – that the theory of agrarianism can only be understood as a result of practice and not study. I suggest the same holds for urbanism. To conduct that practice, we need many more smart cities and smart towns. And we must redefine the edge of the possible.
The Spirit of Sustainability
Transitioning a Local Energy System to Sustainability Through Community Engagement
Sustainable Living in the City
Smart Cities for a Flourishing Life
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