Most North American cities today are struggling to meet the demand for housing as the realities of demographics, economics, and global population trends converge in a now mostly urban world.
Debates rage in many cities about how to achieve greater land-use efficiency; these are mostly focused in inner-city neighbourhoods and the first-ring suburban areas around them. What we haven’t heard a lot of talk about are the opportunities that exist beyond those first-ring suburbs. These suburbs can repair bad urbanism and create more and diverse housing supply, while at the same time reinvigorating local, human-scale agricultural production that advances food security and reconnects people with food and agriculture.
These are the fundamentals of a planning theory called Agricultural Urbanism that is now in practice. By reconnecting communities with locally-grown food, Agricultural Urbanism organically contains urban sprawl beyond the current metropolitan edge in a real way. This planning theory started emerging nearly 30 years ago in response to the threat of continued urban sprawl that often consumes agriculturally-viable land.
Today, residential neighbourhoods that exist at the urban-meets-rural edge usually have low-density settlement patterns. These consist of large residential lots with expensive, single-detached homes located some distance from shops, commercial services, and workplaces—meaning residents are very automobile-dependent. If any farming is taking place next to these neighbourhoods, it is often on land owned by speculators who hope that one day their property will be developed.
Often, the land is being farmed by tenant farmers with short-term tenure, which makes it difficult for them to invest in proper soil management and infrastructure. They might grow one or two varieties of commodity crops at an industrial scale that can be easily managed and harvested mechanically. This type of farming rarely produces crops sold directly to consumers. Often, residents living next to this type of farming turn their backs to it with deep yards surrounded by high fences. Farming is anything but part of the neighbourhood’s character or the local area’s culture.
Agricultural Urbanism emerged in response to this, and is based on trading economic value across the line between the suburban and the rural. Century Group’s Southlands in Tsawwassen was the birthplace of this theory about 20 years ago. Southlands is an agrihood developed on 535 acres of land that remained from a generations-old dairy and potato farm.
By embracing the principles of Agricultural Urbanism, communities have the opportunity to not only address housing shortages and urban sprawl, but also to foster a deeper connection between residents and the land. If we reimagine the urban-rural edge as a space for sustainable agriculture and vibrant community life, we can create environments where people thrive alongside nature; where local food production enhances food security; and where the cultural fabric is blended with the natural patterns of the land. As we look to the future of urban planning, it is imperative that we prioritize approaches like Agricultural Urbanism, recognizing the potential they hold to shape more resilient, inclusive, and harmonious cities for generations to come.