Developing Gardens Instead of Golf Courses
by April Thompson
For thousands of homeowners in “agrihoods” across the U.S., homegrown is a way of life. Planned developments in corporating neighborhood agriculture are sprouting up in record numbers, according to Ed McMahon, a senior resident fellow specializing in sustainability with the Urban Land Institute. He estimates there are a few hundred agrihoods nationwide, in all regions and at all price points. “The trend is the convergence of several things, including a growing interest in local business, local food, healthy lifestyles and the foodie culture,” says McMahon.
He adds, “Today’s developers have to differentiate their properties to survive, and farms have become the new golf course of real estate development.” Agriculture is a far lower-cost amenity that can even return modest profit by selling its harvest to the community.
Beyond food, agrihoods grow community, a huge draw for those living in isolating suburbia. In 2014, Abby and Michael Wheatfill moved their family to Agritopia, a planned community in Gilbert, Arizona, near Phoenix. Billed as an urban farm, the central feature of Agritopia’s 166 acres, knitting together commercial, agricultural and open space with 450 residential homes, is a working farm, with roving pigs, lambs and chickens, a citrus grove and rows of heirloom vegetables.
Farm, family and community life are interwoven. The Wheatfills lease a plot in an on-site community garden. Other residents buy shares in the community supported agriculture project or purchase produce or eggs from the community farm on the honor system.
“We especially love the narrow tree-lined streets and wide porches, and that we can walk or bike to fun, locally sourced restaurants,” says Michael, a technology consultant. Private backyards are small in favor of community space, nudging residents to meet each other, Abby says.
The Cannery, in Davis, California, is one of the newest agrihoods and also one of the few that redeveloped an industrial tract. This 100-acre development, still under construction, will feature 547 new homes on the former site of a tomato processing facility, in addition to affordable rentals for low-income families. Its heart and soul is also a working farm that will feed the community’s households and supply its restaurants. The Cannery is a pioneer in clean green energy, with solar-powered homes, connections for electric cars, and many other energy-conserving features. Thirsty homeowner lawns are prohibited in most of The Cannery’s mini-neighborhoods, but no home is more than 300 feet from public green space.
Samrina and Mylon Marshall, both physicians in their mid-50s, will be among the first residents to move in this spring. “We like that it’s a green energy community featuring multigenerational living. We’re also big on eating locally and seasonally, so the urban farm was a key draw,” says Mylon.
North Atlanta family Gil and Jeny Mathis and their two daughters, 12 and 14 years old, discovered Serenbe, a planned community in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia, two years ago. Now it’s literally their second home. “It provides a different life for our children on weekends they couldn’t otherwise have. The community aspect has penetrated our lives in a way that we couldn’t have predicted,” says Gil.
Both girls love it, and the younger one is lobbying to relocate there full-time. The family likes the people Serenbe draws and the opportunities to engage with them, the consistent access to natural and organic food and its artist-in-residence program.
Agrihoods aren’t solely for agriburbs. Creative public housing developers are bringing agriculture to high-density neighborhoods. The smoke-free Healthy High-Rise Arbor House, a 124-unit, low-income apartment in the Bronx, in New York City, features a 10,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse and a living lobby wall that grows organic vegetables for the community year-round. Residents can obtain a discounted share from the farm using SNAP benefits (food stamps) and take free classes in cooking fresh. Arbor House also allocates 40 percent of its rooftop crop harvests for the larger community.
Agrihoods can take many forms, including those involving gardens cropping up in schools, parks and hospitals nationwide, as well as informal, guerilla gardens in vacant lots. Many cities, including Falls Church, Virginia, and Takoma Park, Maryland, have even changed local zoning laws for residents to keep chickens and bees in their backyards for eggs and honey, according to McMahon.
“The era of the 2,000-mile Caesar salad has come to an end,” said McMahon, citing high transport food costs that make locally sourced food good for businesses and consumers alike. “The trend of growing food closer to home – in some cases at home – is here to stay,” said McMahon.
Connect with April Thompson, of Washington, D.C., at AprilWrites.com.