Why agrihoods should be on every developer's mind

Article By:

Senior Associate | Urban Designer

Agrihoods have a significant role to play in ensuring food security. By facilitating food production at the community level, agrihoods integrate agriculture into a residential neighbourhood, providing fresh, local food for members.

Urban garden with plant boxes and fresh veggies
Urban Garden in Italy
“福” Fu – Good fortune, wealth and good luck

The Chinese word for "Good fortune, wealth and good luck" consists of God's blessing of the farmland, where the "田" or "farm" splits into four parts that refer to the four directions and four elements, reflecting the relationship between food security and thriving communities.

In my 2018 article on ensuring food security with sustainable design, I raised a question on how we can make informed design decisions that promote healthier lifestyles at home and in our communities. The essential takeaways of the article included:

  • Tackling the problem of food deserts and nutritional needs in suburban sprawl.
  • Establishing an integrated approach like the Food-Sensitive Planning and Urban Design Framework in Australia.
  • Looking at innovative urban farming solutions in land-scarce countries, such as Singapore and Tokyo.
  • Exploring the concept of an off-grid eco-village and eco-home designs with innovative methods in food production.
  • Looking at by-laws and community groups to encourage edible gardens in households.

Reflecting on my 2018 article in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated food security issues faced by millions of people worldwide, the following questions to mind:

  • What are some of the pieces of evidence of a mutually beneficial relationship between food-based amenities and real estate?
  • Why is it increasingly crucial for suburban developers to put food at the centre of development?
  • Most importantly, what does the COVID-19 pandemic teach us about food security?

URBAN RESILIENCE

In recent years, I have observed many countries enhancing their policies on food supply and improving their food production to be more sustainable and resilient.

I touched on three threats in a previous article about urban resilience: climate change, natural disasters and terrorism, and the urgent need for cities to function as highly complex adaptive systems. The resulting goal is for city planners and community developers to look at various best practices and coping strategies to build urban resilience, citing Japan's social soundness by cultivating better food planning and practices in their cities.

Climate change directly influences our food supply and how we produce and manage our crops. One effective solution is crop diversity, which ensures food and nutrition security, adapts to climate change and reduces environmental degradation.

AGRIHOOD'S ROLE IN FOOD SECURITY

The concept of an urban farming centred community or an agrihood provides an ideal opportunity for a more compact and vibrant selection of food sources. Crop diversity also helps to ensure better biodiversity through the genetic diversity among the crop species, protecting against crop failure and economic impacts, and ensuring that the world's human population works in harmony with mother nature.

ULI's report sharing best practices for agrihoods
ULI's Report on Agrihoods

Many land developers have embraced food-based amenities within mixed-use projects, such as town centres and transit-oriented developments. Thanks to industry bodies and advocates, such as the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and the Charter of the New Urbanism (CNU), there is a myriad of studies and evidence that developments centred around urban farming and food establishments can have a positive effect on human health, environmental sustainability, and sustained real estate values.

The realm of land development is complex and intertwined with the public sector (approving authority), competition (industry market) and the end-users or customers. This process means that the role of a land developer is to balance environmental, commercial/fiscal and community/social goals.

In a report by the ULI's Center for Sustainability and Economic Performance, titled Agrihoods – Cultivating Best Practices, ULI defines agrihoods as single-family, multifamily, or mixed-use communities built with a working farm or community garden as a focus.

Multiple benefits for individuals and communities while enhancing real-estate performance has inspired the growing trend of agrihoods.

This report highlights best practices to help developers in planning, creating and operating projects with food-production zones. Some of the benefits of Agrihood Developments include:

  • Present a competitive edge.
  • Promote health and social interaction.
  • Can support an attractive return on investment.
  • Can provide environmental benefits.
  • Create jobs and support the local economy.
  • Are growing.

The report, using examples of actual projects, presents best practices in planning and operational considerations under eight key topic areas:

Land

  • Preserve natural lands and existing farmland by allocating space for agriculture, food production, and natural features in development.
  • Create a land plan that optimizes farm productivity and opportunities for residents to engage with the farm.

Food

  • Maximize food production and distribution methods.
  • Align food production and distribution procedures with health, sustainability, social equity, and financial goals.

Finance

  • Understand unique considerations related to agrihood financial models. Explore the agrihood "business case" at all stages of development.
  • Implement programming.
  • Position farms as community social hubs and settings for events.
  • Engage residents and other stakeholders to ensure that on-site programs are inclusive and locally, culturally relevant.

Communications

  • Focus on the farm in communications to generate broad community support and drive project success.
  • Be intentional about crafting communications materials that include everyone and tell the "whole story."

Housing and Design

  • Create housing and mixed-use development that leverage the advantages of farm-adjacent locations.
  • Use innovative design and policy solutions to promote housing affordability and community social interaction.

People

  • Understand the range of necessary skills for community farmers and make decisions about hiring and management accordingly.
  • Invest in homes for farmers and other farm employees.

Partnership

  • Collaborate with partners that share a similar vision for agrihood development.
  • Form partnerships to address health, sustainability, and social equity challenges through agrihood development and operations.

The ULI also maintains an agrihoods interactive map that provides information on various projects throughout the United States and Canada in different stages of development.

AGRIHOOD SUCCESSES

In 2016, the United States saw its first sustainable urban agrihood in a Detroit neighbourhood. Established under the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI), this innovative neighbourhood model features a two-acre urban garden, a 200-tree fruit orchard and a children's sensory garden.

Urban garden in Detroit. Agrihood with luscious greenery
Detroit Agrihood (Copyright Yes! Magazine)

The urban garden is easily accessible and provides produce that is organic, fresh and free to about 2,000 households within two square miles of the farm every year. Moreover, the average home prices in this neighbourhood are under $25,000, which puts to rest any preconception that agrihoods are for the super-rich.

According to MUFI president and co-founder Tyson Gersh, "Over the last four years, we've grown from an urban garden that provides fresh produce for our residents to a diverse, agricultural campus that has helped sustain the neighbourhood, attracted new residents and area investment."

In terms of community planning, the agrihood model brings together a global community of business innovators to create a 3,200 square-foot Community Resource Center (CRC) that will offer educational programs, event and meeting space and serve as the organization's new operational headquarters. A healthy food café will also arise adjacent to the CRC.

Since Detroit, many agriculture-based developments have emerged across the U.S., like the Prairie Crossing development in Illinois, which has 359 houses and a hundred acres of farmland and the Willowsford development in Virginia with 2,000 homes and 300 acres of farmland.

Agrihoods are also starting to trend in Canada, like Creekside Mills at Cultus Lake with 129 homes and almost 10 acres of fruit orchards, berry patches and vegetable gardens. According to the sales director at Frost Creek Development Co. Steven Van Geel, "We wanted to create an area where you can literally walk off the back deck of your property, pick an apple from the apple orchard behind your property, and go inside and make a pie from it."


WHAT ELSE ARE WE DOING TO ENSURE FOOD SECURITY?

Singapore

Growing up as an urbanite in land-scarce Singapore, we relied heavily on food imported from neighbouring agricultural countries. In times of global disasters, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, this small island nation of 5.5 million people could potentially face unprecedented challenges, including border restrictions, economic recessions and impacts on food security.

However, Singapore announced its 2030 vision in 2019 to include strategies for achieving greater stability in its food supply. One of the goals is a '30 by 30 strategy' whereby the government plans to raise the country's food self-production level from the current 10 per cent to 30 per cent of total food needs by 2030.

While 30 per cent may not seem like much, it would reduce the country's vulnerability, especially in times of crisis when trade borders shut due to global pandemics or political instability. Other goals for the vision also include:

  • Tapping technology, such as agri-food production in high-tech controlled environments, efficient water and energy use, smart systems, sustainable farming, etc.
  • Exploiting alternative spaces, such as vacant state buildings, rooftops and the deep sea.
  • Grooming experts in the field, including multi-disciplinary expertise in the sciences, engineering, information and communications, robotics and energy, and waste and business management.
  • Choosing homegrown produce, such as farmer's markets and advocacy for organic produce.

These suggest that planning for urban resilience should include land use planning that promotes better synergies among food science industries, agri-food production and design strategies in exploring adaptive reuse for urban farming and community infrastructure supporting farmer's markets.

Canada

In Canada, there is an alliance of organizations and individuals working together to advance food security and food sovereignty (we characterize food sovereignty as the right of people to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods and their right to define their food and agriculture systems.)

Known as Food Secure Canada (FSC), its role "has been to harness the power of the collective to build a food system that is more healthy, sustainable and just" while also addressing the deep inequities in our current system.

Food Secure Canada is an example of a regional/federal entity that provides community networking and resources for rural municipalities, community food centres and farmer's associations. I highly recommend checking out their webinar on using food policy for transformative change, entitled "Where is the momentum right now, and how can we use it to build a better food system in the long-term?"

One of the items on the webinar's agenda showcases the organization, Food for All New Brunwick, which is tackling the province’s low level of local (produce) supply, currently at eight per cent, and other food security issues. The organization accomplished this by investing in better collaborations among key players and improving food supply chains and farmer's markets.

This aspect and other issues such as public health, food systems and emergency responses can help the municipalities understand different practices and policies across provincial and grassroots levels.

The Nadi Group

At the Nadi Group, we have a long-standing track record of clients who are developers, rural municipality officers, crown corporations and others involved in the planning decision making process. For example, our work for the Rural Municipality of Rockwood included design aspirations such as community gardens centred within multifamily townhomes and apartments and commercial amenities placed strategically at accessible locations.

Aerial Rendering of Stony Mountain's Secondary Plan
Stony Mountain Secondary Plan Rendering

Throughout our relationship with Manitoba Housing Renewal Corporation as the master planner and architectural approving authority for Bridgwater Town Centre, our team has provided strong advocacy in ensuring high-quality food establishments and grocery stores that can sustain the mixed-use community.

In her article about the green roof, Rebecca Henderson touched on the potential of rooftop urban farms to provide food and nutrition, as well as increase recreational opportunities and build social capital.

"Design for A Better World" drives us to provide efficiency, value and innovation in our four practice areas: Manufactured Home Communities, RV Parks and Campgrounds, Mixed-use Development and Resilient Township Planning. This mentality ultimately reinforces our belief that by understanding and applying best practice tools like those mentioned in this article, we can help our clients to create places that contribute to healthier, thriving communities.

TO SUM IT UP

One can conclude that planning and operating a food production-based community is scalable and can incorporate a variety of technological innovations.

Food security will continue to play an essential role in ensuring sustainable food supply and nutrition and urban resilience to climate change, global pandemics and the most basic of public health and well-being. Practices like agrihoods contribute to more well-informed people, setting a better example for all.

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