I’m intrigued by a piece in last week’s New York Times about a planned community in Arizona that features a working farm in the midst of a residential development. The development is called, perhaps a bit too adorably, “Agritopia.”
On its face, this seems a pretty interesting concept. The development contains about 450 single-family homes surrounding 16 acres devoted to certified organic farmland. The self-sustaining farm and related operations – a coffee shop, a farm-to-table restaurant and a produce stand – are, as the article describes, the “hub” of the community. Residents can participate in a CSA program for $100/month, and the farm’s produce is also sold through a neighborhood stand, at local markets, and to area restaurants.
Apparently there are dozens of similar communities operating or in development all over the United States. Part of me finds this concept quite appealing; a farm seems like a much more practical and sustainable centerpiece for a development than a golf course. An “agrihood” teaches families about sustainable food systems, gives residents access to good nutrition, and encourages relationships among residents and farm workers, all of which seem like good things. Still – there’s something about the cookie cutter design of this particular place that rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it’s just that the name is a bit too precious, or that the uniformity of the houses feels incongruous for a community with agriculture at its center (nature is not often neat or easily contained). Or perhaps it feels strange to me to have a farm at the center of a community where residents don’t actively participate in the growing process. But perhaps the ideal of truly participatory shared labor is too idealistic, and in turn unrealistic. I know plenty of people who profess their love for natural food systems but who really don’t want to get their hands dirty.
The “agrihood” concept could well be the root (I know, painful pun, sorry) of an interesting and good trend in development and design. I can easily imagine support for cooperative community agriculture in which residents exchange farm shares for some amount of shared labor, or educational work, or other investment. I live in a semi-rural area outside Boston, and our town cherishes the farms in our community. One local family farm has legions of loyal supporters, and I know that we all think of a little bit of the place as our own.
Disneyfication aside, I’m encouraged to see this kind of re-imagining of the way that agriculture can support a community. I want to believe that developments like Agritopia are part of a long-term appreciation for food systems and not just part of a passing trend. If we can find a way to put agriculture at the center of truly affordable housing, then perhaps there’s some real hope.