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?

Can new suburban developments be sustainable?

A long-proposed big suburban project north of Los Angeles aims to be sustainable:

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The company’s proposals promise a reprieve from California’s existential crisis about its way of life, suggesting that the environmental consequences of the state’s notorious sprawl can be reformed with rooftop solar panels, induction cooktops, electric cars, and careful bookkeeping. The threat of wildfires can be held at bay by stricter building codes. These proposals preserve the idea that, although the climate may be changing, the California dream of sunshine, a single-family home, and a two-car garage needn’t change at all.

But the debate it intense about whether the sustainable features of the development offsets what suburbia brings:

Cheap fossil fuels, the supremacy of private-property rights, and the maximization of shareholder value have, for decades, dictated the patterns of land use in America. People need homes, and, in Southern California and other growing metropolitan areas, those homes get built in areas far from the centers of cities. Disasters that follow this approach are attributed to natural causes or climate change, rather than to the avoidable flaws of poor planning. Consider the Marshall fire that burned a thousand homes last December, including all of a hundred and seventy-one properties in a nineteen-nineties-era subdivision built on the outskirts of Boulder County, Colorado—or the disappearance of water from exurbs constructed in the two-thousands in the Rio Verde Foothills, outside of Scottsdale, Arizona. Even reasonable predictions on a twenty-year event horizon are seen as fussy impediments to construction…

California has a severe housing shortage; a recent state assessment called for more than a million new units in Southern California to meet demand. Barry Zoeller, an executive at the Tejon Ranch Company, told me, “That’s going to have to take, in our estimation, a combination of both infill development in urban areas and also new master-planned communities of sufficient scale that can also meet climate-change criteria.” But many environmentalists argue that the imbalance between jobs and housing in Los Angeles can not be solved by building houses that are a thirty-minute drive from the city’s outermost suburbs. “Aren’t there better places to build?” Pincetl asked. “Yes, but you don’t own the land, so no.” She added, “If we’re turning over the provision of housing and the land markets to private entities, their motivation is not to house people. Why are private-equity firms coming into the real-estate market? Tell me. Not to provide housing.”…

I used my phone to scan QR codes and open the self-entry locks on a handful of model homes by Lennar, KB Home, and Toll Brothers, among others. The houses were built close together. They were large and well appointed, with gray laminate floors, giant appliances, many bathrooms, and cold air-conditioning. Some stoves at Valencia were electric, but many were still gas ranges—the era of banning natural-gas hookups hadn’t arrived when this development was approved. Some of the planned homes were already sold out, and a steady stream of racially diverse prospective buyers in luxury cars made their way around the neighborhoods-to-be. It looked like every other subdivision I’ve ever been in: paved-over farmland with a few transplanted trees, an island in a landscape hostile to pedestrian life. Maybe I just wasn’t seeing it with new eyes. The wind blew hot and the sun beat over the newly built homes, and from far away came the faint screams of people riding the roller coasters at Magic Mountain.

This is a decades-long issue as suburbs, first found in the United States in the 1800s, exploded in popularity and policy in the 1900s. With the expansion of driving and highways, the postwar suburbs sprawled in all directions from big cities and have not stopped since. All of this comes at an environmental cost: all of the materials used, the pollution from all of the driving, the inefficiencies of single-family homes, and the loss of land and habitat.

There are numerous ways to make suburbs more sustainable. This includes the moves suggested above as well as increased suburban densities, mass transit options or walkability or other transit options so that driving is not the only options, and better locations nearer population centers and jobs and away from important land and habitats.

So, where exactly is the line where suburbs might be “sustainable enough”? The article above suggests this line is in flux as communities, states, and other interested actors negotiate and set regulations for new development. It is unlikely that all suburban development will be banned or limited and it is unlikely that all suburban development will just happen without any questions about the environmental costs. This line can also vary across contexts as the local concerns are different outside of Los Angeles than they might be outside Columbus, Ohio or Jacksonville, Florida.

Doctors connecting health and land use policies

A recent document from the American Medical Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges asks doctors to address health inequities by prioritizing structural conditions. Here is one example involving land use which first asks the conventional question and then highlights a health equity perspective:

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How can we promote healthy behavior?

How can we democratize land use policies through greater public participation to ensure healthy living conditions?

The second perspective highlights a structural perspective in two ways.

  1. Healthy behavior leans more toward an individualistic perspective. A person who has health concerns should adapt their behavior in order to be more healthy. In contrast, healthy living conditions suggests there is a broader context for the individual’s health. Healthy living conditions can help lead to healthier individuals.
  2. With healthy living conditions in mind, the new question highlights two ways that healthy living conditions come about: land use policies and greater public participation. This likely refers to research and experiences certain communities have with decisions made about where to locate land uses – ranging from coal power plants to landfills to manufacturing facilities with toxic output and more – that then affect health. Such decisions involve power, race/ethnicity, and social class as well as decision-making processes.

More broadly, land use in the United States is often determined by zoning and profit-seeking. Zoning often has the goal of protecting single-family homes. Land and location can be turned into money. Health is not a primary concern in all of these decisions even as it can lead to better health outcomes for some compared to others.

h/t Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic.

Itasca the second suburb to reject an addiction treatment facility – where might it end up?

Last night, leaders of the suburb of Itasca unanimously voted against a proposal to convert a hotel to an addiction treatment facility:

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After more than 35 public hearings devoted to the Haymarket project, the decision seemed almost anticlimactic. It took barely 15 minutes for board members to cast their vote. Haymarket President and CEO Dan Lustig said he wasn’t surprised by the board’s verdict.

Only Pruyn and Trustee Ellen Leahy explained their opposition, framing the decision in mostly fiscal terms. Both agreed with opponents that the scale of the proposed treatment center was too much for a town of less than 10,000 people to absorb. “A facility this large belongs at the county seat or affiliated with a hospital where appropriate emergency medical services can be provided,” Leahy said.

However, the same organization already tried to open the facility in the county seat:

From nearly the start, Haymarket faced an uphill battle in its second attempt at offering treatment services within DuPage to help combat the scourge of opioid addiction. The county last year reported 112 opioid overdoses, a record high.

Almost four years ago, Haymarket, a Chicago-based nonprofit provider, was denied a bid to start a 16-bed satellite program in Wheaton.

Neither of these decisions are unusual in that suburbs often prefer land uses that they feel will enhance the single-family home character of the community. Other land uses, whether industrial and commercial properties or religious buildings or less desirable properties, need to be sufficiently far from homeowners.

While such decisions may be common, the larger effect is problematic. What DuPage County community would permit this land use? When there is a need to address opioid use, where could struggling local residents and families turn?

If each suburb follows in a similar logic, this contributes to uneven development patterns. Communities with resources and organized political movements can regularly keep less desirable land uses away from them. Other communities may not be able to do the same thing or feel like they have to take advantage of any opportunity that comes their way.

Where will this treatment facility end up? At this point, any effort to locate in DuPage County may be doomed as local residents have developed multiple successful lines of argument against the facility.

(See earlier posts on this saga including suburban opposition to drug treatment facilities and a march against the facility in Itasca.)

Taking extra time to make a decision in Itasca on controversial proposal

I have followed the proposal to convert a suburban hotel to a treatment center from an earlier iteration in Wheaton, a march against the proposal in Itasca, and the ongoing discussion. The process is still ongoing and the final vote was recently delayed:

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Itasca’s plan commission on Wednesday unanimously agreed to recommend the village board deny Haymarket’s proposal. The Chicago-based nonprofit group is seeking permission to convert a former hotel along Irving Park Road into a 240-bed facility for adult patients with drug and alcohol use disorders.

The final decision rests with the village board. But trustees don’t want to rush their decision.

On Thursday, Mayor Jeff Pruyn said the village board plans to have at least two special meetings beginning in the middle of October. The first would allow public comment about the proposal. Haymarket representatives would make their case before the village board during the second.

As a result, the village board will not vote on the proposal until late October or early November.

Making a hasty decision may be in no one’s best interest. Particularly given the controversy surrounding the proposal, making sure everyone has a chance to voice their opinion and the board has all the time to make up their mind seems reasonable.

At the same time, what would change between now and then that would have a big effect on how the board members are viewing the situation? The proposal has been under discussion from some time and community members have made their voices heard.

This is not an easy decision for a smaller community to make. There could be consequences for life in the community and future development. Either way, some people will be upset. The village board decision will either agree with the plan commission or go the other direction (and the board is able to choose either option).

Yet, a decision needs to be made. I will be interested to see what happens: how will Itasca respond? Will Haymarket look for another suburban location? More broadly, what suburban communities might welcome land uses like these that are needed in metropolitan regions?

The answer Canada may not want: lean in completely to American-style sprawl to get more housing

There is not enough developed land around Canadian cities for what Canadian buyers want:

The world’s second biggest country by landmass is effectively running out of space, and that has Canada on course for a reckoning. The dream of a detached home and a piece of land, which generations of Canadians have taken for granted, and which continues to entice new immigrants, may soon be out of reach in the places where people want to live. That could force an expansion of the idea of home to include condos and rentals, potentially transforming how the middle class does everything from raising families to saving for retirement…

In Canada, buying a home has long been seen as the surest path to middle class security. Canadians on average live in some of the biggest houses in the world, and post higher rates of homeownership than in the U.K., or France, or even the U.S. The pandemic has put an even bigger premium on backyards and extra space…

Still, developers don’t seem to be responding. Though construction started on a record number of new homes in Canada’s metro areas in March, the percentage that were single family-detached actually fell to 19% from 24% the previous year, according to government data. While this ratio improved in April, new home starts slowed that month overall…

It comes down to land. While Canada boasts a total area of about 10 million square kilometers (3.9 million square miles), roughly 40 times the area of the U.K., most Canadians are clustered in a handful of major cities not far from the U.S. border. That’s where the jobs are. And while the work-from-home era has expanded that radius for some, turning quiet farming communities and weekend-getaway spots into the hottest real estate markets in the country, the possibility of returning to the office even a few days a week has kept most workers from striking out too far afield.

The proposed solution in the article is more condos, apartments, and townhouses. These would have provide denser populations and expand the housing options. But, this is not what all Canadians want: like in the United States, the idea of a single-family home is both popular as an ideal and investment.

Here is a different answer from Canada’s southern neighbor: sprawl. More and more sprawl. The article says Canada is out of land; this is not quite true. Keep building suburban areas out from cities. Take advantage of the work from home days of COVID-19. Build on the interest of some Canadians to have their own home and land. Give in more to car culture. Go thirty, forty, fifty miles out like the biggest American cities. There will still be plenty of land in the middle of the country for farms and up north for open space.

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This may not be a welcomed answer. This all leads to more driving, more dependence on roads. It means less energy efficiency, perhaps particularly during cold winters. It might introduce the same problems that plague sprawling American metropolitan areas.

But, if Canadians do not adjust to living in smaller units in closer proximity, sprawl is one option. The emphasis on homeownership and vehicles is already there. It could be a different kind of sprawl, maybe denser than the American version or more community oriented. Perhaps some lessons could be learned from the mistakes made in the United States. At the least, it could relieve some housing pressure, provide jobs for builders and developers, and set up new subdivisions and future communities for decades to come.

The largest business park in the United States is over 160 square miles

Reading through a 2019 article in Wired about new fault line research on the West Coast, I noticed this paragraph about the biggest business park in America:

Eriksen’s offices are located in the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center, the country’s largest business park. TRIC covers more than 160 square miles—three San Franciscos’ worth—of sculpted valleys and rocky hills. Its tenants include Google, Switch, and Tesla, along with 2,000 protected wild horses. TRIC is as sure a sign as any that the Reno area is reinventing itself, aiming to attract younger residents who come not for strippers and slot machines but for lucrative jobs and easy access to the great outdoors. Lance Gilman, the bolo-tie-wearing, larger-than-life businessman behind the development, told me that on his first tour of the land he saw a bird’s nest just sitting there on the ground, catching the light. He took it as a good omen, a sign of Reno’s impending transition from has-been gambling den in the mountains to tech-centric boomtown. (Still, this is Nevada: At one point during the planning phase, Gilman had to assume management of the nearby Mustang Ranch brothel—the first ever licensed in the state—to stop a biker gang from moving in and marring his glorious vision.)

One of Gilman’s employees, a project manager named Kris Thompson, agreed to take me on a tour of the site. We started at Tesla’s Gigafactory, which the company claims will be the largest building on the planet when completed. (“It put us on the world stage overnight,” Gilman told me.) Although still under construction, the Gigafactory was already so colossal that I could not make out its scale against the mountains beyond. As we drove on, Thompson directed my attention to the huge stone pads on which TRIC’s industrial structures are being erected. “We do not cut corners,” he said. “These pads have no subsidence. We have granite-basalt bedrock. For tech companies, that’s great.” (Eriksen seems to agree with this assessment: He and his colleagues have done nothing further to insulate their offices against quakes.) “The lack of a seismic threat in this area is one of our strengths,” Thompson continued.

But, of course, there is a seismic threat. According to Faulds, it’s about the same as what I already live with in California. The San Andreas may be closer to the breaking point, but the Walker Lane could see a major earthquake at any time.

Thompson and I returned to TRIC’s central office, where Gilman, now walled in by paperwork, was gearing himself up for several hours of new business calls. Last year, a company called Blockchains scooped up 67,000 acres of TRIC land to build a libertarian “smart city.” With that sale, the development had all but sold out. It was time, Gilman told me, to pursue new opportunities. “We’re in the path of growth,” he said, as heavy trucks boomed by on the highway, shaking the earth.

This four paragraph section is an interesting aside in the larger discussion of the Walker Lane Fault. But, it is a fascinating aside as office parks and industrial parks are not unique in the United States. Thousands of communities, ranging suburbs to exurban areas to more rural areas, have blocks of land set aside for commercial and industrial use. But, how many places have anything near 160 square miles set aside?

What makes this business park unique alongside the size is the relative location to other place, the particular setting, and the time the land became available. First, a location outside Reno puts the business park within roughly 4 hours of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area. That is not an easy commute but it can be done in a day or for a short trip. Second, the city of Reno and the state of Nevada have some features that are attractive to some companies. Third, having all of this land available now and in recent years means that some momentum can build regarding who is interested in the space (such as Tesla and libertarian-oriented firms). Take away one of these factors and the particular success of a business park of this size might be different or there might be a very different mix of interested companies. More broadly, numerous business facilities and stores sit vacant at desirable locations throughout the United States yet this business park attracts attention.

When communities resist and protest COVID-19 testing and treatment sites

NIMBY attitudes can be present even – or maybe especially – during pandemics:

Last week, residents in Darien, Connecticut, a tony exurb of New York City, successfully lobbied to shut down plans for a coronavirus testing site, despite surging demand. The reason? Complaints from neighbors. As it turns out, the “Not In My Backyard” impulse to block new development — which has been implicated in the severe affordability crisis affecting cities from coast to coast — translates far too neatly into blocking certain measures needed to stop the spread of the virus.

In a similar case in Ewing, New Jersey, a local landlord issued a cease-and-desist letter to the operator of a coronavirus testing center amid complaints about congestion in the parking lot. As The Trentonian reported, one resident who wanted to be tested in order to protect his three-year-old child wasn’t subtle about how he felt about the decision: “It blows my f**king mind.”

Community resistance from neighbors of testing sites is a rerun of the fierce NIMBY reaction to potential coronavirus quarantine sites. Back in February, California began looking for a place to shelter Americans returning from abroad with the virus and settled on an isolated medical campus in Costa Mesa. But after local residents complained, city officials sought and received a court injunction to stop the project.

As the need for quarantine sites expanded, so did the NIMBY backlash. Finding sites that won’t suffer the same fate has proven to be a major hurdle as the federal government attempts to manage the crisis. Back when the focus was still on returning cruise ship passengers, officials in Alabama went to the mat to keep passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship out of a local FEMA facility, eventually forcing the federal government to scrap the plan altogether. Similar fights have played out from Seattle to San Antonio, potentially undercutting the response to the coronavirus at key early stages. As a result, the federal government largely shifted quarantining efforts to military bases, where complaining neighbors hold less sway…

At first glance, it might seem like efforts to block potentially life-saving public health screenings and complaints about community character have little in common. But in both cases, the formula is the same: Whether out of an understandable fear of the unknown or a selfish desire to shift the burden elsewhere, local impulses are given veto power over broader social needs. Under normal conditions, the inability to constructively manage this means higher rents. In a public health emergency, it could be lethal.

In addition to what is in the last paragraph quoted above, I am struck by the resistance to facilities and sites that would be home to temporary concerns. It is one thing to object to a long-term health facility (see recent posts about a drug treatment facility in the western suburbs of the Chicago area here and here) but another to resist something that is needed now and presumably not permanent. Of course, this could be part of the fear: if a site treats COVID-19, could it then later be turned into a more permanent fixture in the community?

The logical extension of the NIMBY claims would be to push COVID-19 treatment sites or testing facilities to communities that could not resist it. When this plays out in areas like housing or unwanted land uses, this means that communities with less wealth and political power tend to become home to land uses that wealthier communities refuse. If such a pattern occurs here (and there is evidence that health differs dramatically by location in the United States), it could be evidence that pandemics further locational and health inequalities.

Looking for productive ways to use the campuses of closed colleges

When college campuses close, what happens to the land and buildings?

Saint Joseph is one of several small private liberal arts colleges across the country to have suffered that fate in recent years. In many of those cases, leaders are left wondering what to do with the shuttered campus. Under the wrong circumstances, buildings can remain locked and quads can lie fallow for years as banks try to recoup unpaid debts or brokers seek buyers who are willing to invest in land filled with outdated or dilapidated buildings…

Conversations between community and state leaders led to a search for partners interested in working with the college. That brought Vermont Works, an investment firm, and Vermont Innovation Commons, a benefit corporation that is a project of Vermont Works, into the picture.

Ideas grew for trying to offer education to a wide range of students, keep Vermonters in the state and attract new residents, Scott said. The direct path from high school through college to employment isn’t necessarily what employers or students want anymore. Professional skills, technical skills and experience are being emphasized much more today than they were in the recent past…

Across the country, the idea of repurposing closed or closing colleges is a critical planning problem, according to experts. College leaders need to be considering their prospects for the future and whether different models can help them fulfill their institutions’ missions, said Nicholas Santilli, senior director for learning strategy at the Society for College and University Planning.

Redeveloping large properties is not an easy task: see shopping malls, big box stores and large retail stores, and office parks. College campuses present their own unique challenges given how the land is used. Simply plopping a new organization into the same set of buildings is likely to be difficult. Location will matter as well; the story above used the example of a more rural college where there is limited demand for land.

As the story hints, it would be great to be able to use the property for an ongoing educational purpose to keep the mission of the college going. If that does not work, perhaps the land could be used for community purposes. Ultimately, simply turning the property back to the free market for commercial, industrial, or residential uses – which could generate more money and taxes for local communities – seems like it could be a loss. Given the predicted fate of numerous colleges and universities, perhaps we will have a landscape in a few decades where it will be hard to know that the land formerly housed a thriving higher education institution.

I wonder if there is a way for college campuses to head off the problem long before they need to close their doors. Would having more permeable membranes between the campus and the community better connect all the land uses? is the impulse to have a controlled campus a bad idea in the long run for communities?

Chicago suburbs without property taxes – but perhaps not for much longer

In a region known for high property taxes, at least a few suburbs outside Chicago have no property taxes:

A town of about 40,000, Carol Stream managed to avoid a property tax even when another outlier, Schaumburg — a village with a much larger retail base — took the leap during the Great Recession.

But officials say Carol Stream is facing significant budget pressures from rising pension costs. If it maintains the status quo, projections also show the village would exhaust capital reserves during the third year of a five-year plan for roadwork and infrastructure projects…

In Oak Brook, another town that doesn’t charge a property tax, candidates in the last mayoral race took stock of the financial challenges from flat sales tax revenues. Carol Stream also saw a 2.4% drop in sales tax dollars — the village’s largest revenue source — from calendar years 2017 to 2018.

Suburbs have multiple ways to reduce or eliminate residential property taxes. Sales tax revenue can come from shopping malls, big box stores, and other retail options. Schaumburg and Oak Brook have sizable shopping malls surrounded by many more retailers. Communities can also seek out industry; Carol Stream founder Jay Stream intentionally set aside much land for industrial parks (which are still there). Some suburbs would not like this as industry could conflict with an ideal of quiet neighborhoods of single-family homes.

The article suggests these suburbs with no property taxes will have to reconsider because of declining sales tax revenues and rising pension costs. Given the fate of shopping malls and the problems facing retailers, even in successful malls in wealthy areas like in Oak Brook and Schaumburg, communities need additional revenue.

Suburbs typically do not have the ability to quickly counter declining sales tax revenues. In order to not have property taxes in the first place, certain decisions had to be made long ago. Then, later decisions build within a framework of no property taxes. Making changes to land use takes time for study, approval, development, and then reaping benefits. A suburb cannot say it wants to bring in more sales tax revenue and line up a set of retailers operating within a year.

The fate of these suburbs will be worth checking in five years to see whether they can hold on against levying property taxes.

(Reminder: this does not mean residents in these communities do not pay any property taxes. Rather, their suburbs do not collect property taxes even as school districts and other taxing bodies do.)