Does bringing agriculture to cities erase the distinctions between cities and rural areas?

Urban agriculture is a growing field. Does it blur the lines between cities and country?

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As more people pour into metropolises—urban populations are projected to double in the next three decades, according to the World Bank—scientists like Bousselot are investigating how designers and planners can ruralize cities, greening roofs, and empty lots. The concept is known as “rurbanization,” and it could have all kinds of knock-on benefits for ballooning populations, from beautifying blocks to producing food more locally. It dispenses with the “city versus country” binary and instead blends the two in deliberate, meaningful ways. “You don’t have to set this up as a dichotomy between urban and rural, really,” says Bousselot. “What we should probably focus on is resilience overall.”…

But while rurbanization has enticing benefits, it has some inherent challenges, namely the cost of building farms in cities—whether on rooftops or at ground level. Urban real estate is much more expensive than rural land, so community gardeners are up against investors trying to turn empty spaces into money—and even against affordable developments aimed at alleviating the severe housing crises in many cities. And while rooftop real estate is less competitive, you can’t just slap a bunch of crops on a roof—those projects require engineering to account for the extra weight and moisture of the soil.

But the beauty of rurbanization is that agriculture and buildings don’t have to compete for space. Urban land is limited, which means that high-yielding, fast-growing, space-efficient crops work great, says Anastasia Cole Plakias, cofounder and chief impact officer of Brooklyn Grange, which operates the world’s largest rooftop soil farms. “That said, we approach the design of our own urban farms, as well as those we build for clients, with the consideration of the unique character of the community in which we’re building it,” says Plakias. “Urban farms should nourish urban communities, and the properties valued by one community might vary from another even in the same city.”

The primary dividing line referenced here is the presence of agriculture: this happens in rural areas, not so in cities. Bring agriculture to denser population centers, and important lines are crossed.

Maybe? Adding agriculture may or may not affect some of the key features of cities and rural areas: population, population density, land use (not just agriculture), amenities, and ways of life.

Perhaps this is more of an experiment that is just starting up. What are the effects of introducing significant amounts of agriculture plots in major American cities?

The scale of agriculture in California

A story about recharging aquifers in California to help beat droughts and high water usage includes this summary of how much food California produces:

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The stakes are high: California grows more than a third of the vegetables and two-thirds of the fruits and nuts eaten in the United States, dominating production of artichokes, avocados, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, celery, dates, grapes, garlic, olives, plums, peaches, walnuts, pistachios, lemons, sweet rice, and lettuce. The Central Valley is America’s agricultural heartland, crucially important to the state’s economy and the groceries of the nation. More wine grapes are grown there than in California’s wine country, more almonds than anywhere else on earth. There are more than a quarter of a million acres devoted to tomatoes, which when plucked, weighed, canned, and shipped add up to around a third of all the processed tomato stuff eaten worldwide. And that’s not to mention all the region’s livestock—chickens, pigs, cows.

When I go to the grocery store, I am not thinking about what goes into all of the food there and instead just enjoy the many options I have within and across stores. When I have a little more time to consider the process, two thoughts come to mind:

  1. The amazing ability for humans to produce this amount of food from this amount of land. I know California is a big state and a lot of people live there and it is still astounding how much food is produced.
  2. The complexity to pull this all off plus the burden on the natural systems that make this all possible. If one piece gets out of whack or the climate changes or human patterns change, the whole system needs to adjust.

It will take significant work to keep the system going and the food growing. While many dystopian works hint at the trouble that would come when normal food systems are disrupted, there would be serious problems if California cannot produce food in the way it does now.

Brick and mortar success in selling chickens and other farming supplies to new “ruralpolitans”

The shift of Americans from cities to suburbs and rural areas helped boost the fortunes of retailer Tractor Supply:

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Such gangbusters growth is unlikely to continue, with the pandemic easing. But the rush to the country that underpins it is less an anomaly than a speeding up of a long-tern trend, as more people – notably millennials yearning to become homeowners – look to adopt quasi-rural lifestyles. Being priced out of urban living is one driving factor; interest in healthier and more sustainable diets, including homegrown vegetables and home-harvested eggs, is another. Whatever is motivating them, Tractor Supply sees an opportunity in these “ruralpolitans” – and the COVID-driven shift toward remote work will help sustain their numbers.

Lawton, who became CEO in early 2020 after two years as the No. 2 at Macy’s, says millennials’ willingness to move farther from city centers is a “game changer”: “We seeing a new kind of shopper in our stores,” he tells Fortune. Now Tractor Supply is adapting to cater to both its established customer base and these younger space-seekers, following a strategic road map with the folksy title “Life Out Here.”…

The fast-growing cohort that Tractor Supply is cultivating, she says, are “beginning to learn how to garden. They have this passion for poultry.” Call them the “country suburban” customers.

The company is strategic about where it meets these customers. Its stores are almost all located in mid-size or small towns – communities that are often too small to support a Home Depot, Petco, or Walmart.

The economic impact of COVID-19 has hit some businesses very hard while others, like Tractor Supply, have found opportunities. From the sound of this article, they had locations in numerous places that received new residents during COVID-19 and had the right mix of products and service that appealed to them.

I wonder about the class dynamics of all of this. How do the new “ruralpolitans” who want to raise chickens or have a small farm and have moved from the city compare to the other shoppers at Tractor Supply or to long-term residents in the community?

Another question to ask is whether these newer residents with these interests in food and farming are in it for the long haul or not. On one hand, if remote work is more viable than ever, perhaps people will stay in smaller communities outside cities and pursue this. On the other hand, if companies ask more workers to return or if small-scale agriculture and animal husbandry is not appealing in the long run, this may be more of a flash in the pan. Industry-wide shifts in agriculture could have an impact as well.

Finally, the move to a more rural life has implications for private lives and community life. Many Americans say they like the idea of living in a small town but this is different than actually living in one. What is the tipping point where an influx of new residents changes the character of the community (or is change somewhat inevitable)? How involved will these new residents be in local organizations, religious congregations, local government, and in local social affairs?

Changes in “countrypolitan,” exurban counties more than just political

The analysis of the 2020 election includes many analyses of suburban voters. But, there is more at stake here than just voting patterns as this look at Union County, North Carolina suggests:

Google Maps – Union County, North Carolina

Union County is what one scholar terms a “countrypolitan” place: Under federal government designations, it lies within a metropolitan area, but it also has a strong rural and agricultural history. For the most part, it doesn’t look like a cookie-cutter suburb, nor is it impoverished. In fact, Union is North Carolina’s wealthiest county, according to the Census Bureau. There are places like it around the United States. They are distinct from rural areas, which are mostly Republican, and cities, which are heavily Democratic; many voters in these places are neither die-hard Trump fans nor urban liberals. That makes them pivotal counties, in 2020 and in the future.

Everyone agrees that Union County is changing. The question is how it’s changing, and how fast. There’s no doubt that Republicans will carry the county up and down the ticket this year—Carter, ensconced at East Frank, was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win here, back in 1980—but the GOP’s overall success in the state will hinge largely on how big a margin it is able to run up in exurban counties such as this one. Democrats’ control of inner-ring suburbs continues to strengthen, and the future of the Republican Party nationally depends on keeping firm control over places like Union County…

The reason Union County is changing is simple math. When Helms was born, about 4,000 people lived in Monroe. Today, nearly 36,000 do. Since 1990, the overall county population has almost tripled, from about 84,000 to roughly 240,000. As I traveled around the county, I began to notice something peculiar: Virtually everyone I talked with was a transplant. Some of them had moved only recently, and others had been around for 10 years, or 20…

“Union County when Jesse was in the Senate was a very rural county,” Wrenn says. “Now it’s got a big chunk of suburban in it. If the long-term trends continue, the Republicans are going to have to find a way to compete in the suburbs. It can be done, but you just have to change your whole way of thinking.”

The temptation in such stories about suburban voters is to look at counties and communities and just see political change. And it sounds like Union County has had its share comparing before the Civil Rights Era, after, and today.

The basic explanation for this recent change is new residents. The population has grown and new residents, not as familiar with the ways of Union County, have moved in. What was once a small population with low density is now much larger and in bigger cities and towns.

But, is this all that has changed: new people moved in and they came with some new political views? I suspect there is more going on here that both contributes to the political change and also exists outside of it. Here are a few possible factors at play:

  1. The suburbs and the spread of metropolitan areas are not just about increasing populations and higher population densities. The suburbs come with a particular way of life. People who seek out such locations want single-family homes, middle-class opportunities and peace for their family, responsive local government, and the ability to live in a place they chose with people who look more like them. This is different than a more rural or working-class character in communities. This desire for the American suburbs does not easily line up with either political party on all the issues but it certainly is a different way of life.
  2. The decline of agriculture, particularly family-owned farms and opportunities, could be at play here. As farming becomes more difficult or less desirable for subsequent generations, the land can be sold off and be turned into subdivisions. This is a significant change in land use as well as who lives there: farmers and those connected to agriculture versus middle-class suburbanites.
  3. Connected to #2, the economic landscape has changed tremendously in the last half-century or so, moving away not just from agriculture but also manufacturing and moving more toward retail, services, and a knowledge economy. Union County and many other locations in the United States are still trying to adapt to these large shifts that affect employment, tax bases, and local businesses.
  4. Numerous local institutions have likely had to adjust in light of growing populations. Schools need more space for kids. Local governments need to provide more services (and they might now have larger tax bases to draw on) and local officials are addressing new issues. Established churches now compete with new congregations. In sum, the civic and social institutions that may have existed for decades in roughly the same form now need to adapt. This can present challenges in any community.

In sum, this is not just about politics. A shift toward a suburban lifestyle in Union County has many consequences and politics may just be one of them.

Farmers markets nearly dead in 1971; exploding in number today

A study looking at what motivates shopping at a farmers market includes figures on the number of farmers markets over time:

Farming is back, long after Jane Pyle, in true Population Bomb thinking of 1971, said farmers markets were “doomed by a changing society” in an editorial for The Geographical Review. At the time, there were about 340 farmers markets left in the United States and many were “populated by resellers, not farmers, and were on the verge of collapse,” Pyle wrote.

Yet like Ehrlich’s Population Bomb, Pyle could not have been more wrong…The number of farmers markets listed in the USDA National Farmers Markets increased from 3,706 in 2004 to 8,268 in 2014.

That is quite an increase. What is behind it?

“A growing number of communities have attempted to gain control of their own economies by encouraging civic engagement that supports investing in locally owned businesses instead of outside companies,” states the study.

But that requires wealthy elites. Local food markets (i.e., farmers markets, food co-ops, etc.) are far more likely to be located in cities and counties with higher income levels.

Here is my interpretation of the findings: as farming has become an industry with large corporations and selling food products has become dominated by big box stores (Walmart now has about 25% market share among grocery stores), the farmers market gives those with the resources an opportunity to retain control of where their money goes. Americans tend to like local control and this gives grocery buyers the ability to see more directly where their money goes (directly to producers, closer to where the purchasers actually like).

Wealthier communities are also likely to see farmers markets as desirable economic contributors. The markets don’t require that much space – they can even put underutilized parking lots to use – and don’t create trouble in terms of pollution or noise. The markets can attract higher-income residents who will then associate the nicer shopping option with a higher quality community as well as possibly spend more money elsewhere in the community. As an illustration of this, look where the 150+ farmers markets in the Chicago region are located.

From Chicago grain elevators to art/film space to potential spot for redevelopment

Urban properties can go through a series of changes and one set of grain elevators on Chicago’s Southwest Side have seen their share of uses:

Grain elevators’ histories are often marred with explosions (something about the dust mixed with oxygen), and one such spontaneous combustion on these 24 acres led to the current John Metcalf-designed “Damen Silos” property, formerly the Santa Fe Railroad Grain Elevator, built in 1906 at 2900 S Damen off the South Branch of the Chicago River. Keep in mind the staggering presence of 35 80-foot silos in the pre-skyscraper era. They churned out 400,000 bushels thanks to machines running on 1,500 horsepower (from steam and electricity). Unfortunately while users changed (Stratton Grain Co was up next), explosions continued…

The property’s been a fertile stomping ground for the street art and photography set for years. Brent Bandemer’s 2012 short film “Gone” documents the life of David “Gone” Brault, a 23-year-old suspended college student squatting at the Damen Silos to teach others how to survive when the apocalypse comes. (Understandable, given the silos’ arty End of Days vibe, and where Chicago apartment rents are headed.) As David’s favorite graffiti on the property says, “One day the whole city will be this beautiful.” In 2013 it was a filming location for Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction, whose special effects hit eerily close to home…

The state’s only remaining vacant land in Chicago, the property’s location (with Chicago River frontage and access to interstate travel) should be its biggest selling point, says the CMS spokeswoman, along with lots of land to play with for industrial redevelopment. Looking at other grain elevators around the world, you’ll find creative adaptive reuse strategies ranging from residential to office to data centers to artsy (they work well as both canvases and projection screens). A distributor who needs water and highway access would be more practical, though probably not as pretty.

Perhaps this exemplifies the shifts in the American economy in the last century or so: Chicago as an agricultural center taking in grain from all over the Midwest but then losing agricultural and manufacturing jobs as the country moved to a knowledge economy. The empty space then finds a second use as space for artists who can work with the postindustrial vibe. Now, the property offers some advantages for redevelopment with easy access to transportation (one of Chicago’s continued strengths).

At the least, this property offers some unique potential in a city known for its industrial and agricultural past.

Decrease the number of new McMansions to increase local food security

One farmer and activist suggests reaching local food security means stopping the construction of McMansions:

Salatin — a successful American farmer, former reporter and author of nine books on the food revolution — is able to produce far more food per acre than industrial-scale farms using techniques that make raising beef, chicken, eggs and even pigs palatable to the neighbours…

Putting fallow land around monster homes that are proliferating in the Agricultural Land Reserve back into production will be key to building local food security in B.C.“We call those McMansions,” he said. “It is a problem because that is agriculturally abandoned land. We can’t begin to feed ourselves with a local-centric system if we lock up land in royal manor models.”

Even urban dwellers need to consider how far their food has to travel and whether it will come at all if there are shortages, he suggested. The integrated approach he takes to food production on the farm can be applied at any scale, Salatin said.

There are a lot of things that people, even in well-established communities, can do themselves to become more food secure, said Salatin, giving examples such as keeping honeybees on rooftops, installing food-producing solariums in our homes, capturing rainwater for food production, container gardening and reclaiming some of the billions of potentially productive acres sequestered under lawns in North America.

It is rare to find a critique of McMansions that explicitly addresses food. Such homes are often criticized for being wasteful, using too much land and resources as well as providing more space than people need.

Yet, I suspect it is not quite as simple as suggesting new McMansions automatically mean less agricultural space. McMansions aren’t the only use of land. This argument seems to use McMansions as a shorthand for sprawl. The sprawl often associated with McMansion neighborhoods consumes green land and pushes farming and agriculture further and further away.

Would a middle ground be consistently using McMansion land for growing things and raising animals? I have yet to see a request from McMansion homeowners to allow chickens or livestock – though such lots could accommodate such activities. It probably comes down to property values…

 

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McMansions “bloom” in China

One fact about McMansions and one assertion: they are in China and they are “growing.”

In the Dianshan Lake region, less than 40 miles west of central Shanghai, the appetite for speculative real estate has driven developers into China’s most fertile land, the Yangtze Delta. Only about half of the luxury villas like those on the following pages, which can be as big as 6,300 square feet and sell for as much as $1.5 million, are occupied — mostly as second homes. The rest sit empty, as the housing sector staggers under a surplus. The photographer George Steinmetz, who visited the area last fall, describes the transition as converting “rice farms to high-end McMansions.” As that process plays out, the country’s domestic rice consumption is set to soon outpace rice production.

This highlights two small trends in reporting on McMansions:

1. People like to note the spread of McMansions around the world. I’ve seen articles talking about McMansions in China, Russia, and different parts of Europe, Africa, and Latin America. It is a unique American export that requires a supporting infrastructure of a wealthy upper middle-class, roads, power, and sewers, and space for large single-family homes. Outside of the United States, McMansions are most common in Australia and still limited elsewhere.

2. The idea of McMansions “growing” or “blooming” fits in with ideas about suburban sprawl as well as the land McMansions often replace. Critics of McMansions lament the loss of open land or fields, particularly when replaced by energy inefficient homes. At the same time, blooming might suggests McMansions are like flowers while some would prefer the comparison be made to weeds.

Anachronistic county fair in the midst of urbanized DuPage County?

The DuPage County Fair starts today and offers typical county fair activities:

For five days every July, DuPage County residents get a chance to step into a world dominated by monster trucks, bucking broncos and guys who like to smash their cars into other guys who like to smash their cars…

In addition to the animal exhibits, the carnival rides, the vendors and all sorts of food, this year’s fair offers shows each day, some of which require extra fees. A quick look at some of the best:

• Monster Truck shows at 2:30 and 6:30 p.m. Wednesday; free with admission;

• Michael Lynch from TV’s “The Voice” at 8 p.m. Thursday; free with admission;

• Rodeo at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Saturday; $8 admission;

• Demolition Derby at 1 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday; $8 admission.

DuPage County does have roots in farming and country living. First settled in the 1830s, the county was relatively unpopulated, the city of Chicago didn’t have that many people, and the railroad didn’t come until the late 1840s. But, much of the rural land disappeared after World War II as the population jumped from over 154,000 in 1950 to over 930,000 today. While the DuPage County Forest Preserve has been active in these decades acquiring land, much of this is green space, not agricultural land.

At the least, the DuPage County Fair reminds residents of the county’s roots even if the county now revolves more around white-collar businesses.

With diminishing water, privileging urban growth over farming in Arizona

If water supplies are dwindling, should cities or farmers get more of the water? One writer suggests Arizona has made a clear choice for cities:

The shift away from irrigated agriculture in Arizona hasn’t come without a fight. By some measures, farmers are still winning. According to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, more than two-thirds of Arizona’s water is still used to irrigate fields, down from a peak of 90 percent last century.

Decades ago, state officials in Arizona begin to plan for a future without water—and that meant sacrificing agriculture for future urban growth. A massive civil engineering project in the 1960s diverted part of the Colorado River to feed Phoenix and Tucson. Those cities could not exist in their current state without this unnatural influx of Rocky Mountain snowmelt. Now there’s tension across the region, as the realities of climate change and extreme weather catch up with the business-as-usual agricultural bedrock that laid the foundation for the economy here.

Hopefully, future dispatches in this series about water and drought in the Southwest will begin to address the normative questions: what is the proper ratio of water for cities and farmers? Is it necessarily bad if farmers can’t produce as much in Arizona and California (could more be produced elsewhere, do farmers need to shift to new crops, etc.)? Both farming and urban growth have changed the natural water patterns in the region but does one have a stronger claim to the water in the long run?