Suburban Ag

Land use planning and housing development can bring farming and food production closer to (sub)urban citizens. Similar to trends in the Netherlands, suburban agriculture is taking form in new developments projects. There are two pathways. First, development organised by citizens in co-housing projects such as the Ecovillage in Ithaca. Co-housing projects often involve the creation of an ‘intentional community’ of people who have chosen to live and work together in a lifestyle that reflects their shared core values. Projects often include a community owned and operated farm.

Intentional communities rebel against two dominant American features; individualism and property rights/ownership. Both features are reflected in the overall perspective on land use planning and housing development here. In order to understand it, Dutch assumptions on land use planning need to be left behind.  In most places, state and county legislators refrain from ‘interfering’ with land ownership. Without zoning or specific designations, any land, no matter how far from an urban centre, represents a bundle of rights. For example water rights (see blog), and more importantly ‘development rights’. Development takes place where developer and landowner agree. Around cities, this causes a large ring of ‘urban sprawl’; fragmentation of land and a random patchwork of malls, offices, agricultural land, housing and roads without any visible coherence. Although farmers, who farm in the middle of this, oppose to the developments, they oppose to land use planning at the same time; nobody wants to give up their right to sell their rights.

A second type of suburban agriculture, therefore, is often led by private or public land trusts.  This means that land use planning is applied on the coherent whole of land owned by the trust on a certain location. Some parts are developed for housing, other parts for farming and other parts for nature conservation. A good example of this is Prairie Crossings, set up in 1987 by a group of citizens. This can only take place if development rights are taken off the land even though it is not used for building (‘easement’) to prevent future unwanted development. Rights are taken off by conservation easements in two ways; by being sold or being donated to the trust (the latter for receiving advantagous tax breaks). Whereas until 10 years ago, easements were only for nature conservation, nowadays there are agricultural easements possible too now environmentally sustainable farming is becoming a practice.

It is remarkable how absent the state is in land use planning. Planning in the Netherlands, such as Reconstruction Law land use planning, including the movement of entire farms for preserving natural habitats, equals to an unthinkable intrusion of property rights here.