Best of Both Worlds: Preserving Agriculture on the Urban Fringe

February 4, 2014 | 6:58 pm
Eric Christianson

Growing up the son of a corn and bean farmer in northern Illinois, I remember my parents talking jealously about a neighbor who received a generous offer from a developer for his farmland. It seemed a great fortune to me for farmers to be able to profit so handsomely from the expansion of cities.

It was not until years later while working with rural farmers in Morocco that I noticed the effect that low-density residential sprawl was having on some of the most productive agricultural lands in the country. I saw with horror that millennia-old olive orchards were slated for the latest American-style suburban development. Considering that Morocco in some years imports half of its basic foods, I was struck by the shortsightedness of this kind of landscape conversion. A desire to study this intersection between city planning and agriculture brought me to Iowa State University where I’m pursuing a master’s degree in Sustainable Agriculture and Community and Regional Planning.


Maintaining a green lawn is practically synonymous with neighborliness but at what environmental cost? (Image Credit: Eric Christianson)

Maintaining a green lawn is practically synonymous with neighborliness but at what environmental cost? (Image Credit: Eric Christianson)

The suburbs make an easy target for criticism. From best selling albums to popular books, the suburbs are often portrayed as dull, homogeneous expanses from another era. More damning still is how damaging to the environment low-density, car-dependent development is. The need to change the way that we use the land surrounding our core metropolitan areas is a common refrain among planning circles. The seemingly endless sprawl radiating out from all but a few of our largest cities has been blamed for a myriad of societal problems ranging from overconsumption of energy, social isolation, and destruction of natural and agricultural landscapes, to an increase in obesity and other noncommunicable diseases.

For those of us who acknowledge the importance of robust regional food systems, the loss of prime farmland near major population centers is particularly alarming. Although development has shown declines after the 2008 housing crash, between 2002 and 2007 we lost 4,080,300 acres (an area larger than Connecticut) of farmland to development in the United States alone. This is bad news, even when the farms being replaced are poorly managed monocultures. In fact, suburban lawns are on average more heavily irrigated and sprayed with fertilizer and insecticides than crop fields acre for acre, depleting resources and polluting watersheds.

Possibilities for change

Fortunately, finding better ways to deal with the rural-urban interface has long been a concern, and we are not lacking in good ideas and positive examples. Potential policy fixes include greenbelts, urban growth boundaries, increasing density, zoning that protects agriculture, and even permanently removing swaths of land from potential development. These strategies and others like them can help keep some green space accessible to the city while protecting the surrounding countryside. Both small-scale vegetable production and conventional row crop production can benefit by a proximity to high-value markets and the diversification offered by opportunities like agrotourism.

Land Management

A simple change in the zoning code can turn a productive landscape into strip mall (Image Credit: Bob Nichols, USDA NRCS)

At the same time, the metropolitan area as a whole can benefit from a more robust food system including local seasonal vegetables and other amenities offered by nearby rural areas. The US economy could save more than $17 billion dollars a year if Americans were to follow USDA recommendations for fruit and vegetable consumption. While the strategies for change are never in short supply, finding the political will for reform is the perennial challenge. A general lack of political tools for regional coordination combined with a strong tradition of private property rights makes centrally planned interventions in land use decisions very difficult to enforce.

Making it work

Still, there are success stories to be found. My current research focuses on the newly incorporated city of Chattahoochee Hills, GA, a community located southwest of Atlanta. The residents of this area, seeing that the suburbs were on their way, voted on a comprehensive plan to preserve at least 60 percent of their 40,000 acres for agriculture and green space. By mandating more compact and dense development, these land use changes will allow similar numbers of people to live in the area in smaller walkable nodes.

My goals as a researcher and an activist go hand in hand. Through my research, I work to increase our understanding of the ways that reform has succeeded in those communities who have adopted innovative land protections. At the same time, I am an advocate for similar change in my own community. Even here in the Midwest, with its seemingly endless expanses of farmland, I no longer see conversion of farms to developments as the boon I once did. As we work to create healthy farms on the landscape, we need innovative thinking (and planning) to best integrate the natural, urban, and agricultural areas upon which we all depend.