Monday, July 26, 2010

Agricultural Urbanism and the Eastern Shore

Earlier this week, Grist posted an article on an evolving phenomenon that goes by the name ‘Agricultural Urbanism’. If your head just cocked to the side trying to understand how that isn’t an oxymoron – you aren’t alone. That’s how I responded when I first heard the term. I also reacted with quite a bit of skepticism. Take a look with me at some images from the articles. This is what passes for some type of urbanism:

Prairie Crossing

Natural Resources Defense Council

In my next post I’ll talk about why I use the term ‘urbanism’ and why it’s relevant here. In the meantime, suffice it to say that I’m talking about the characteristics of buildings that are not only suitable for small towns, but those which characteristics of the great parts of towns that we love, right here on the Eastern Shore.

Source: ESLC

A quick look at Prairie Crossing’s site plan and photos will tell you this development would be better described as Agricultural SubUrbanism. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; ecologically and economically speaking isn’t it better to have fields of food or energy crops replacing turfgrass? Probably, but that’s a small and weak step toward integrating agriculture and urbanism without plainly sacrificing either.

By maintaining significant areas of contiguous farmland sustain a more vibrant agriculture economy. The very nature of integrating farmland into suburbia (and vice versa) takes land away from farming and contributes to less viability of the concerned farmland. Does that mean we should discourage farming that is integrated into the built environment? Not necessarily.

In theory, using in-town land for farming or building new projects with agriculture integrated simply spreads out the footprint of the town, village or city. If our goal is to have vibrant, walkable, sustainable towns, spreading out the development footprint is a no-go. A possible exception, both to the integration of agriculture into towns and the need for large tracts of rural land to sustain farming, is the high-value produce or value-added products like grapes for viticulture. Community gardens and vacant land reclamation (excellent example: GTECH Strategies’ Larimer site) are other opportunities to integrate agriculture into the town landscape.

GTECH Strategies

The question is: how? Look again at the Prairie Crossing plans. Are their true opportunities for the average resident to walk or bike to everything they need? Is there any potential to replicate this project elsewhere? Is there a wise use of the land on the site? Compare this to a recent proposal from Charlottesville-area planner Daniel Nairn. Daniel has drafted up a ‘model block’ for Agricultural Urbanism. It might not work in every community – it was designed for a Richmond, Virginia neighborhood – but elements are not at all dissimilar from blocks in Cambridge, Denton, Easton, Chestertown and elsewhere.

Discovering Urbanism

Let’s think for a moment about why this block might have applicable lessons for Agricultural Urbanism on the Eastern Shore.

Street Wall

There is both a presumption and a legal framework that reinforce huge and unnecessary setbacks for buildings. These setbacks provide no benefits for human safety or welfare and only serve to erode the quality of streets as public spaces. Daniel’s block keeps buildings relatively close to the street (even with small front yards). This is a condition that exists in the heart of virtually every single town on the Eastern Shore from Betterton to Vienna.

Mixed Use

Mixed use does not mean having one huge swath of an enormous development devoted to commercial and another swath devoted to residential use (look again at the Prairie Crossing site plan). This does nothing more than encourage short-distance driving. Daniel’s proposal includes a corner market on the block (retail) and the integration of agriculture provides the opportunity for jobs within the block.

Use of Ancillary Space

Rather than use the block interior simply for parking or recreational space, Daniel proposes the block interior be primarily (and significantly) devoted to crops. There is little wasted space. As one commenter on Daniel’s post notes – an alleyway or structure for alleyways would be a nice addition, but I think there are obvious ways an alley could be integrated.


One of the issues I have with the block – for its application here – is the block size. The dimensions aren’t articulated in the post, but if we imagine that the block is something like 600’ x 600’, I would think a rectangular block (say 600’ x 300’ might be better suited to an Eastern Shore town – and to walkability. That said, it is the size of the block’s interior that makes it so potentially successful as a model of urban agriculture.

Building Height

At 3 stories, the tallest building in this block would be short or comfortable in any town on the Eastern Shore – with very few exceptions. The employment of architectural details that draw from the local vernacular would make the building even more likely to fit in.


This proposal offers 15 dwelling units per acre – which could easily be increased or decreased with any number of design adaptations. If, for example, the yellow or red (presumably brick) houses depicted in Daniel’s block were to replace the gray-blue apartments, the density would drop to 9 dwelling units per acre. That density might be more appropriate for smaller towns like Queen Anne or Millington.

The potential applicability for our towns is very interesting. Obviously, agriculture must not be a gimmick used to sell an unwalkable, unlivable places, but that where strategically implemented, Agricultural Urbanism on the Eastern Shore should be both comprised of productive agriculture and real urbanism.

For a more in-depth analysis of this proposal, check out Daniel’s web site or NRDC’s Kaid Benfield’s (always insightful) analysis here.

Jake Day is Town Planning Manager at Eastern Shore Land Conservancy. He plans to be a regular contributor to ESLC’s blog on design, development, community and towns.