Transforming the Built Environment with Food

by Dec 7, 2017Agrihoods, Land Use Planning

“Empowering people through education to transform the built environment for long term sustainability.” Wow!, Northwest Ecobuilding Guild’s powerful words set the tone for our presentation at the Guild’s annual “Slam and Summit,” the northwest’s pre-eminent green building conference. Founded in 1993, the Guild’s conference and other education opportunities bring together design professionals, sustainable development leaders, builders, suppliers, homeowners, and partners dedicated to ecologically sound building and development practices in the Pacific Northwest. This year’s annual summit convened the first weekend in November and included an evening of project sharing, a full day of educational sessions, and was capped with a visit to GROW on Bainbridge Island, an acclaimed and more-forward thinking development in the region. The Summit’s intent is to share best practices and explore new green building techniques and strategies.

Mother and son bonding in the garden

MetroAG Strategies was honored and pleased to be asked to kick off the Community Track at this year’s Summit. Our presentation focused on what it takes to develop connections and intentions for creating and sustaining neighborhoods and, perhaps, a sense of common purpose in where we live. We know that by including food growing where people live (more commonly described as a real estate development project), a sense of shared purpose and community is created. Rather than just using the conventional “talking head” slideshow presentation to a darkened room, we vowed to create an interactive session, where the audience was invited to share its own creativity.

The Agricultural-Residential Context

To set the stage, we flew virtually across the country in a brief presentation, highlighting more than a dozen different residential developments with agricultural components. Serenbe in suburban Atlanta, Prairie Crossing outside of Chicago, and Agritopia in Phoenix are classic agricultural-residential neighborhoods, also known as agri-hoods. Each of these successful agri-hoods all include a sustainable farm operation as part of a master-planned community. Serenbe Farms is an incubator farm where newer farmers learn their trade on a piece of farm ground for a few years before moving to their own property. Their products are sold to area restaurants and through an on-site farmers market. Prairie Crossing is home to a 100-acre organic farm. Agritopia has both a commercial on-site farm operation and garden plots available for residents.   

In an urban setting, Capitol Hill Urban Co-Housing located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood has a roof-top garden that grows fresh produce for the resident families and a local restaurant. Aria Denver built a community for diverse families and seniors with a range of housing choices—all centered around a large community garden. The first phase of GROW on Bainbridge is interspersed with raised beds among the individual homes. With these flavorful examples tying food growing and agriculture together with a residential community, we presented a creative exercise to the audience where agriculture would be an element of a new community.

What If? Creating an Agri-Hood

Take a four-acre property currently slated for cottage development in south King County. Today a community garden thrives on one-acre of the site to be lost with the development. With foresight and intentionality, the garden and the community it builds can thrive. Since the EcoBuilding Summit session provided only 20 minutes for creative exploration, we gave the audience a simplified version of an existing land use plan and very few site planning limitations –merely that no existing on-site structures could be removed. Three people returned their sketch ideas to us and we agreed to share them with a wider community through our blog.

Heart of the Home

The “Heart of the Site” sketch envisions a centrally located, aesthetically pleasing, and functional stormwater pond. The water feature would be a gathering area creating a focus and organizing element for the entire site. More cottage homes, larger garden beds, and several greenhouse structures are strategically located throughout the property. Automobile storage is relegated to the south edge of the cottage development parcel, so future homeowners interact with each other as they walk to their home. Attached rowhouse homes frame the site’s south and western property edges.

Incorporating a Farm into the Community

A second visionary approach features a dramatic loop road and assumes new, “taller structure[s]” would be built rather than typical single or two-story homes.  Much of the existing paved area and multiple driveways to the existing buildings would be removed. The site plan envisions establishing a pedestrian network with several pedestrian bridges over the loop road.  A large, centrally located garden becomes the community focus with productive landscape and a centerpiece car-free zone. Low impact development strategies including facilities to manage stormwater and removing pavement are key project elements.  

Bringing the Farm to Community

The third conceptual site development plan is a more rural concept, featuring a place for crop rows, an orchard and chickens. It emphasizes solar access, avoids conflicts with surrounding land uses, and recaptures lawn space among the existing structures with vegetable gardens, a berry patch and a row of fruiting trees along the north edge of the site. Special attention is given to the location for rearing chickens, specifically away from the cottages. This designer stressed that chicken feed attracts rodents, and should therefore be far away from dwellings.Each concept sketch focuses on building community by feeding the soul through food growing. Imagine if each of these design experts were given an opportunity to incorporate agriculture in their projects how much more nourishing our real estate projects could be.

In addition to our design experts ideas, we at MetroAG Strategies know that productive, edible landscaping needs to be counted towards any landscaping requirements in development code review of a project by a jurisdiction. Further, when hiring property managers and landscape maintenance contractors it is important to consider how growing food on the property will change how a property is used and maintained. In some communities, homeowners may not want to garden or farm or rake leaves or pick up fallen fruit.

Including agriculture and food growing is good for building community and filling the belly and it gets our juices flowing!


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Kathryn Gardow
Kathryn Gardow
Chief Operating OfficerMetroAG Strategies
Kathryn Gardow, PE, is a local food advocate and land use expert dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food! © Kathryn Gardow