May 25, 2020

How can suburban land developers ensure food security in a pandemic?

Resilient Communities

Article By

“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" is divided 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 how to ensure 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 key outlines 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 clearly exacerbated food security issues faced by millions of people worldwide, the following questions to mind:

  • What are some of the 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?

In recent years, I have observed many land developers embracing 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 of course, the end-users or customers. This means that the role of a land developer is to balance environmental, commercial/fiscal and community/social goals.

Many of us can agree that 2019 was an important milestone for the green movement (thanks to advocates like Greta Thunberg) addressing environmental issues on a catastrophic note. We also continue to learn how climate change has a direct influence on our food supply and the way we source our food and nutrition within our communities.

Twenty-nineteen was also a reminder of the fragility of our populations where pandemic-related issues within the global food supply chain are of concern, including the decrease in demand for produce due to restaurant closures; shortage of migrant workers due to closed borders and inadequate housing and working conditions; and closures of meat plants due to widespread virus transmission could affect meat prices, to name a few.

Moreover, worldwide panic has people "buying and hoarding food and seeds, leaving others without enough." Situations like these are very similar, or worse, in many nations across the world. All of a sudden, community gardens and farmer's markets are declared essential services, and the spotlight converges on urban farming initiatives and community concepts centred on urban farming.

The concept of an urban farming centred-community or an agrihood provides an ideal opportunity for a more compact and vibrant selection of food source. 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.

In a report by the Urban Land Institute'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. Inspired by the growing trend of agrihoods that can produce multiple benefits for individuals and communities while enhancing real-estate performance.

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:

  • Agrihoods present a competitive edge.
  • Agrihoods promote health and social interaction.
  • Agrihoods can support an attractive return on investment.
  • Agrihoods can provide environmental benefits.
  • Agrihoods create jobs and support the local economy.
  • Agrihoods are growing.

Using examples of actual projects, the report 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.

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 and 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 common vision for agrihood development.
  • Form partnerships to address health, sustainability, and social equity challenges through agrihood development and operations.

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

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.

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. Not to mention, 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 is also planned adjacent to the CRC.

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

Agrihoods are also starting to trend in Canada, like Creekside Mills at Cultus Lake that features 129 homes and almost 10 acres of fruit orchards, berry patches and vegetable garden. According to the sales director at Frosst 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."


One can conclude that planning and operating a food production-based community is scalable and can incorporate a variety of technological innovations. More relevant in a post-COVID-19 world, there is a larger trend occurring across the globe in which people are redefining their lifestyles to integrate a mix of residential, commercial, transit, and agriculture.

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.

Our very own Rebecca Henderson, in her article about green roofs, has also touched on the potential of roof-top urban farms to provide food and nutrition, as well as increase recreational opportunities and build social capital.

Meanwhile, our practising philosophy to "Design for A Better World" is what drives all of us to provide efficiency, value and innovation in our four practice areas: Innovative Housing Solutions, Green Infrastructure, Public Space and Land Art, and Resilient Communities. This ultimately reinforces our belief that by understanding and application of best practice tools like those mentioned in this article, we can help our clients to create places that contribute to healthier, thriving communities.

Food security will continue to play an essential role in ensuring sustainable food supply and nutrition, as well as urban resilience to climate change, global pandemics and the most basic of public health and well-being.