Rescuing the Rural Edge — It Takes a Village

New planning initiatives protect agriculture and nature, while still accommodating growth.
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New planning initiatives protect agriculture and nature, while still accommodating growth.

Where suburbia merges into countryside typically looks peaceful enough, with lawns giving way to forests and fields. But in most places, this is a zone of conflict and dysfunction. The steady loss of farmland and natural habitat to sprawl-pattern development endangers food supplies and other resources, as well as the health, wealth and survival prospects of individuals and even whole communities.

Take California's fifth-largest city, Fresno, located in one of the most productive areas on Earth, the San Joaquin Valley. Agriculture is the principal industry in Fresno County — generating more than $5 billion annually — with table grapes, stone fruits, nuts, vegetables, cotton, dairy and livestock among its important products.

Vast, industrialized agribusiness operations may be the dominant image of California farming, and they're present here. But the majority of Fresno County's farms are relatively small and family-run, and nearly half of those are minority-operated. In 2007, more than half the county's farms had gross sales of less than $50,000.

But Fresno could be the poster child for sprawl as easily as bigger exemplars, such as Atlanta or Los Angeles. Efforts to create growth boundaries and encourage compact land-use practices have not prevented new developments from leapfrogging into the countryside.

It's a place "built on flat land, with no real limits to growth in a lot of directions," says the city's planning director, John Dugan, "like almost every place you could see in the Midwest or South." He points to "new malls approved in the last couple of years — million-plus, 2 million-plus-square-foot malls eight, 10 miles from the central city," and plans for "a 3,000-unit retirement community plunked out in the middle of nowhere," 10 miles beyond the city limits.

Never mind, for the moment, the aesthetics of this development pattern; the momentum of suburban expansion is also a threat to Fresno County agriculture. Between 1990 and 2004, more than 21,000 acres in Fresno County became urbanized. About three-quarters of that new development consumed agricultural land, more than half of which was considered high-quality. The American Farmland Trust has estimated that if conventional growth patterns continue, by 2040 the county could lose another 135,000 acres of farmland, out of a total of about 2.25 million acres.


But a new approach to regional planning could help turn that pattern around in Fresno and elsewhere. At scales ranging from a few hundred to many thousands of acres, the approach aims to protect unspoiled and working landscapes while allowing development to accommodate expanding populations.

A paradox?

An impossibility?

Not if that development takes a form radically different from conventional suburban sprawl.

Forget large-lot, single-family, cul-de-sac subdivisions accessed by traffic arteries lined with fast-food and big-box outlets. Future development would be densely clustered or channeled into towns and villages on sites less valuable for farming and conservation or where infrastructure already exists. Besides homes, these growth centers would include shops, workplaces, schools, pedestrian amenities and transit.

This kind of development, known as new urbanism, is already increasingly familiar. What's new is its integration with efforts to protect working and natural landscapes.

Such a plan now under consideration for Fresno, called SEGA (for Southeast Growth Area), focuses on a 9,000-acre swath along the city's southeastern edge. This land, while not currently inside the city limits, lies within Fresno's defined "sphere of influence" and so is destined for annexation and development. Small farms occupy much of this area, though subdivisions have begun to encroach; there are about 700 single-family homes within the boundaries, nearly all recently built. To the east, in unincorporated Fresno County, the land remains overwhelmingly agricultural.

The plan would apply the principles of new urbanism at much greater intensity. There would be as many as 20 predominantly residential neighborhoods, each centered on an elementary school and some "convenience" retail, such as dry cleaners, coffee shops or neighborhood groceries.

Seven larger "community centers" would have denser housing and more significant commercial and job presence, while a downtown-like "regional center," served by regional rapid transit, would be the primary employment, shopping and cultural destination. Throughout SEGA, parks, bike trails and conservation areas, transit routes and narrow streets with sidewalks would all encourage physical activity and discourage automobile use.

All together, a mix of single- and multi-family housing types would accommodate 45,000 households. By contrast, if the 9,000 acres were developed under existing regulations and in typical suburban mode, it could eventually have about 18,000 homes.

Even under SEGA, that's an average of five units per acre — still pretty spacious, compared to many cities — in place of the two per acre deliverable by conventional development. The plan also calculates that there would be 37,000 jobs within the growth area by the time it is built out.

Small-scale agriculture is an important dimension of the plan. Community and school gardens and orchards would be located throughout. Small commercial farming operations, along with much of the land destined for conservation, would be concentrated along the eastern edge, providing a transition and buffer between the newly urbanized SEGA and the overwhelmingly agricultural countryside beyond it.

Fully 20 percent of Fresno's expected population growth between now and 2050 could be absorbed into SEGA, with a commensurate easing of the pressure to convert outlying farmland into suburbs. To provide for the same number of new households using conventional suburban development patterns would sacrifice an additional 9,300 acres of farmland beyond the growth area's 9,000.

More than 3,000 Fresno citizens participated enthusiastically in public meetings when the concept was first being discussed, and "the City Council, at the time, funded the plan so far, based a lot on that public input," Dugan says. Now it's in draft form but meeting some resistance.

Two members of the seven-member Fresno City Council, with the support of a third, issued a report in February seeking to halt the project. It led to a contentious council meeting shortly after, but no action has been taken since.

With the economic downturn slowing growth, some now feel it may be too visionary — looking too far into the future — and will require too much public investment to be sustainable. There are developers who are simply resistant to changing how they build.

Plus, Fresno "has been so deeply impacted by fragmented infrastructure and fragmented development," says Joe DiStefano of Calthorpe Associates, the plan's principal author, "sidewalks that just end, no cohesive infrastructure investment program to drive development in any kind of organized way, that it's left so much bad feeling about development in general."

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The SEGA plan is intriguing because of its ambitious scale and fine-grained detail, and because Fresno County lies within such an important agricultural region. But it's only one of many plans that address the suburban-rural edge with the goal of protecting land while permitting growth.

Though the particulars differ, they all share the basic approach of building compact towns or villages as a way to avoid consuming undeveloped land. This kind of planning is equally applicable to protecting places where agriculture is not present, such as desert or wetland environments. But it directly addresses today's concerns over the sources and security of our food. These new villages would offer ready markets for adjacent farmers — especially small producers. Residents' access to fresh food, and involvement in producing it, would be further encouraged by designing space for gardens, small farming operations and farm markets.

Many greenfield residential projects coming from new-urbanist architects and builders now incorporate, at the least, community gardens and a small farm. Buyers pay a premium to live in these communities for many reasons. Among those are worries about the environmental and health costs of industrialized agriculture, and the desire for — and perhaps, too, the romance of — an intimate relationship with the people and land that produce their food.

Some such plans are for individual subdivisions of just a few hundred acres. At Hampstead, a development on former farmland outside Montgomery, Ala., nearly a third of the 416 acres will remain unbuilt greenspace. There are garden plots for residents' use. A nonprofit associated with the community operates a 3-acre farm that supplies a natural-foods store and several restaurants, runs food- and farming-oriented workshops for schools and community groups, and has established a second farming plot in a downtown redevelopment area. Hampstead might not directly contribute to the preservation of the agricultural land beyond its perimeter, but it does begin to address the desire for healthful, locally sourced food.

A more intense concept for an agriculturally oriented subdivision is The Farmstead, planned for a site near Charlotte, N.C. It is designed to accommodate 275 units of housing on 128 acres. Fifty-two acres will remain permanently undeveloped, including an 11.5-acre commercial farm. In addition to the usual community garden plots, many larger homesites there are conceived as "steward farms" that owners could either work themselves or contract with the commercial farmer to manage.

On a larger scale still is a plan for 2,300 acres at Pingree Grove, about 50 miles northwest of Chicago, where conventional suburbanization exploded the population from fewer than 150 in 2000 to more than 4,000 today.

"We decided to tap into their agricultural heritage," says Brian Wright of the Town Planning and Urban Design Collaborative, which devised a scheme to manage growth while protecting — and leveraging — the rural character of the place. The plan includes a working farm, community garden spaces (including vegetable gardens enclosed within courtyard apartment blocks) and window-box gardens. "Even in the main town square, we've got some garden plots," he says. The plan calls for a farmers market, a sustainable-agriculture education center, and inns and farm-to-table restaurants that can attract weekend and daytripping agritourists.

Included is a proposal to create the municipal position of "town farmer" to manage the working farm and community garden programs. About 700 residential units will be built along with commercial and office space. Efforts are being made to restore service at an unused local stop on an existing regional rail line connecting Pingree Grove to Chicago.

"It has a real economic development focus," Wright says. "It's overtly agricultural in nature, in the process creating their new downtown."

An inversion of that idea is the plan adopted for the Middle Green Valley of Solano County, Calif. It will locate several dense, mixed-use new neighborhoods in a now mostly fallow 1,400-acre area. The idea is to get agriculture going again and interdict the sprawl closing in from three directions. A nonprofit conservancy, partially funded by a levy on the sale of each building lot, will be established to encourage, or perhaps manage, farming operations and to steward conservation land. It will also play an educational and community-building role, according to its mission statement, "fostering an appreciation and understanding of the environment, the connection to regional food systems and a healthy lifestyle."

Sibella Kraus, president of the SAGE Center, a think tank focused on urban-edge agriculture, consulted on the plan. "We often just look at agriculture as the green land, but sometimes," she says, "agriculture really could be better defined as a rural town and the lands around it. The vitality of the agricultural lands is very much interdependent with that little town. Often, what [farmers] need are things that need to be in a town, like housing for workers, a distribution site and amenities for agritourism."

Many of these new plans mention locating other kinds of farm support in the new towns, such as equipment-sharing co-ops, produce-processing facilities and agricultural research stations.

Curiously, despite how much of this kind of planning is going on, there's no commonly accepted name for it.

"Conservation planning" and "agricultural planning" are already in use for protecting, respectively, natural lands and farmlands — but many use those terms to mean conservation that excludes development all together. The concept of the "urban growth boundary," which forces dense development and limits sprawl, is related to these plans but doesn't, by itself, promote agriculture and conservation. The buzz phrases "smart growth" and "sustainable development" are too general, and perhaps debased, to be useful. Some new-urbanists say "agricultural urbanism" or "agrarian urbanism." Quint Redmond, whose TSR Group master-planned The Farmstead, calls his projects "agriburbia." Kraus likes "new ruralism."

Whatever it's called, new-urbanist thinking is essential because it provides the tools for creating places for growth that are not only dense but desirable. (Desirability equals price. It is well documented that real estate values are higher in places that have the attributes of new-urbanist planning compared to properties that are otherwise similar.)

Central among those new-urbanist tools is the "form-based code." Like other kinds of building codes, form-based codes regulate the appearance and shape of the built environment. But where preservation codes, for example, might restrict anachronistic alterations to historic facades, and conventional zoning codes prevent residential and commercial activities in the same place, form-based codes establish the spatial and visual coherence that gives anywhere a sense of being somewhere and can make that somewhere feel good to be in. They address, for example, the dimensions of streets and sidewalks, the relationships between building facades and the public realm, and the height and massing of buildings. How wide will streets be? Will there be on-street parking? A planted strip between street and sidewalk? Garages facing the street, or only accessed via back alleys? Can buildings be taller at major intersections than on secondary streets?

These codes are based on relationships distilled from the analysis of historic cities and are often influenced as well by the architectural and town-building traditions of the locale for which they are devised. This is the underpinning of new-urbanist planning — at least as important in new urbanism's effectiveness, if perhaps less obviously so, as any architectural style. Most of these new agriculturally oriented plans call for form-based coding. At the same time, this agriculturally oriented approach to planning the suburban edge signals a maturation of new urbanism itself. And it may just finally lay to rest a persistent criticism.

New-urbanists are responsible for many infill projects in urban areas. These include redevelopment of dozens of moribund small-town downtowns and the concept for the federal HOPE VI program. HOPE VI has replaced more than 100,000 units of distressed and dangerous public housing across the country with mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhoods providing a greater number of units, half of them accessible to very-low-income households. Still, the highest profile new-urbanist developments have been in resort and exurban greenfield locations. And they are expensive.

So the movement has been derided for creating isolated bubbles of walkability, urbanist in form and even urbane in feel but disconnected from any "urb" — elite oases where residents can stroll out to a concert on the village green, but still must (or choose to) come and go by car like suburbanites everywhere. However, new developments at the urban-rural interface, integrated into and energizing of adjacent working landscapes, can hardly be called isolated bubbles.

The success of these plans will depend not only on their urban design and agricultural connections. For one thing, it remains to be seen whether there is a truly mass market for new-urbanist living. How tenacious is the common desire for a stand-alone house? In a place such as Fresno, where it's blisteringly hot in summer, and chilly and foggy in winter, how willing will people really be to walk and use transit?

These plans must also actually protect land for conservation and farming. Accommodating more people on less land reduces the pressure. But by itself, that does not prevent building in the adjacent countryside. Under U.S. law, ownership of land carries with it the right to develop. So what can stop the farmer across the road from your appealing, densely built, mixed-use village from parking his tractor, subdividing his acreage, putting up McMansions on 5-acre lots and harvesting money instead of crops?

Many of these plans rely on a legal mechanism called transfer of development rights (TDR). Simply put, under a transfer program devised to protect rural land, an area facing potential development is divided into "sending areas," meant to remain unbuilt, and "receiving areas," designated for growth. The distinction is determined based on the relative quality of a given plot of land for agricultural use; the configuration of wetlands and other natural features; the presence of historic sites deserving of preservation; and where settlement and infrastructure, such as roads and water systems, already exist. The sending areas will be relatively large, the receiving areas compact.

Suppose an area under consideration is 2,000 acres, and its current zoning allows one dwelling unit per acre. A landowner in a sending area who owns 500 acres can sell the right to develop 500 units, or 500 transfer "credits." His acreage is placed under a permanent easement; an existing home can remain, and the land can be farmed or held in conservation, or even abandoned, but it cannot be further developed.

The landowner benefits by getting some cash based on the land's market value but without carving it up. Who buys these credits? Usually a developer — or a nonprofit, municipality or specially created land bank, which would then sell them to a developer — who has the right to build those 500 units in a receiving area.

The same total number of dwellings — 2,000, in this hypothetical example — might be built, but they would be concentrated rather than spread out. Some transfer programs add a bonus, so that the total acreage might absorb an even greater population than it could under existing zoning, while still preserving land.

While versions of TDR are common, they're not without problems. One of those is establishing a market value for the rights, since all the open acreage is not necessarily equally useful for agricultural or conventional development. Another is the touchy matter of making the transfers mandatory. The SEGA plan, for one, which has vocal opposition, only goes as far as saying that some such mechanism will have to be elaborated.

"The only way SEGA can be successful is to be either a TDR scheme or have some kind of transfer of development benefits," DiStefano says, "to balance the windfalls that occur."

Keith Bergthold, Fresno's assistant director of planning and development, calls SEGA "a paradigm change for the valley and Fresno. But every time we have implementation discussions, people pick on that, rather than getting into this concept of urban form. ... If we can get this concept, then we can give them a menu of 'hows.'"

The transfer of development rights certainly can work. A 1997 master plan for Chesterfield Township, N.J., with an area of about 14,000 acres, established a voluntary TDR program and defined sending and receiving areas. Nearly 15 years later, development rights to some 7,000 acres have been transferred. Newly built Old York Village, which will eventually have about 1,200 homes and was sited to make use of existing sewer infrastructure, is well on the way to completion. It has a school, retail and office presence, a tight street grid, and ample parks and trails. Predating today's concern for local and sustainable agriculture, it includes no organic farm or community gardens.

Still, since 1997, "not one conventional development has been approved" for the township, which remains predominantly rural, says Lisa Specca of Clarke Caton Hintz, the village's planners.

It is probably no accident that the grandest of all these planning initiatives are for places where extinguishing landowners' development rights is not an issue. One of those, the East Edisto Smart Code, covers 78,000 acres near Charleston, S.C. But the tract has a single owner, forest products giant MeadWestvaco, which devised the plan because it sees a future there of both population growth and diminishing forestry.

Another, the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, applies to 7.6 million acres in an arc encircling metropolitan Toronto. But under Canadian law, landowners do not automatically have the right to develop. There, development can occur only where allowed by government. That is the typical situation in Europe, too, where similarly scaled regional planning to keep growth compact and preserve agriculture is commonplace.

Given the inevitability of population growth, plans like that for Fresno's SEGA are essential for preserving unbuilt and working landscapes at the suburban edge. But plans only go so far, and no one is more aware of that than the people drawing them up.

Last June's Congress for the New Urbanism focused on integrating agriculture with development, and the questions ranged far beyond the usual concerns of architects and planners. What about public acceptance? People may love fresh, local food but object to living downwind from the noise of tractors and the smell of manure, or reject sacrificing lawns and ornamental gardens for unaesthetic vegetable plots. What about the paucity of local and regional food processing and distribution systems, which once existed but were lost in the shift to centralized industrial agriculture? What about colder or drier regions, where conditions limit production?

Even in bountiful places, how much of a population's food supply can realistically be locally sourced? The current planning initiatives don't have all the answers. But they can preserve the farmland. Without that, such questions are pointless.

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