The New Ruralism

By Rick Wartzman, New America Foundation

Artwork at Agritopia hails from tractor parts and other agricultural equipment.

Artwork at Agritopia hails from tractor parts and other agricultural equipment.
Photo by Simmons Buntin.

 
  

Cities across the United States and around the globe increasingly are championing agriculture and forging beneficial bonds between urban and rural locales. These links can take many forms, some more commonplace than others: bustling farmers’ markets, “buy locally grown” campaigns, urban-to-ag water recycling programs, agricultural greenbelts and parks nestled in and around densely populated areas, city educational and recreational initiatives that regard the farm as a valuable asset. In each case, the key to success is getting people to recognize that the places furnishing our fruits, vegetables, milk, and meat are not separate from the regional metropolitan framework but, rather, an integral piece of it.

“It’s really important that cities begin to embrace the countryside because that’s what they’re based upon,” says Sibella Kraus, director of Berkeley, California’s Program for Agriculture at the Metropolitan Edge, which is exploring ways to encourage urban planners to incorporate farmland into their blueprints. “The food system is the base of civilization.”
 
In effect, this nascent movement marks the bridging of two trends that many know by the buzzwords “smart growth” and “sustainable agriculture.” The former involves organizing cities around compact neighborhoods with a lively array of residential, retail, and leisure-time choices. The latter refers to cultivating food in a way that, without sacrificing profitability, promotes environmental health and socioeconomic equity.

Put them together and you have what Kraus calls “New Ruralism”—a model beginning to generate considerable interest from a variety of quarters. Early last month, more than 200 people gathered on the Berkeley campus for a two-day symposium on the subject, and it wasn’t just academics, farmers, and foodies who attended. City planners, developers, architects, and others who have the ability to literally reshape our landscape are beginning to take heed of New Ruralism’s precepts.

Gilbert Christian Schools, view from a pedestrian path through pastures.
  Gilbert Christian Schools, view from a pedestrian path through pastures and arbors.
Photo by Simmons Buntin.
  

Previously, “a master-planned community would be put in, and it would just swallow up all the agricultural land right up to the farm on the other side of the fence,” says Renée Robin, a land-use attorney in San Francisco. “Now, people are asking, ‘Why not have the farm be on our side of the fence?’ It makes the whole community more desirable.”

In some ways, the basic notion behind New Ruralism is quite old. In his 1898 book, To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, Ebenezer Howard called for seamlessly merging urban and rural environs into what he termed the Garden City. “There are in reality not only, as is so constantly assumed, two alternatives—town life and country life—but a third alternative,” he wrote. This is one “in which all the advantages of the most energetic and active town life, with all the beauty and delight of the country, may be secured in perfect combination.” Howard’s aim was to counteract the poverty, squalor, and overcrowding of 19th century urban England.

These days, different drivers are at work: a focus on eating things that are fresh and good for us (and, in the wake of a recent string of E. coli outbreaks, not mass produced); a desire to be conscientious stewards of the land by, in part, endorsing small-scale agriculture as opposed to factory farming; and a push to alter the ways we grow, process, and transport our food so that they’re more energy efficient.

As with many young movements, it’s easy to get caught up in the promise of this one and forget that the various concepts falling under the rubric of New Ruralism probably strike most people as utterly foreign—even a little wacky. So although it may seem as if everybody you know in the Bay Area would just as soon slit their wrists as feed their kids a piece of fruit that has been sprayed with pesticides, keep in mind that as of 2005—the most recent data available—a mere 0.5 percent of all U.S. farmland was organic. Likewise, some 4,300 farmers’ markets may have sprung up around the nation, but that pales in comparison with nearly 14,000 McDonald’s. The golden French fry still reigns over the purple potato.

As you peel back these challenges, most come down to one thing: scale. How can New Ruralism achieve enough momentum so that farmers who’d like to be closer to the city are able to find an ample amount of good, reasonably priced land? When will consumers curious to try out seasonal, locally produced, organic fare find cheap and plentiful offerings? How can devotees of New Ruralism ever truly compete with Monsanto Co. and other corporate giants touting genetically modified crops—food grown in a way that’s anathema to those in the movement?

Cottage rooftops viewed over citrus orchards.

Cottage rooftops viewed over citrus orchards.
Photo by Simmons Buntin.

 
  

“What we need is a huge proliferation of farms to ring our urban areas,” says Joseph McIntyre, executive director of Ag Innovations Network, a nonprofit group that is trying to help foster a sustainable food system. But at least at this point, he concedes, “there’s not the political will for it or the social demand for it.” Similarly, while ever more progressives in the real-estate industry are becoming conversant with the ideas of New Ruralism, the vast majority “don’t think about these things,” says Michael Dieden, a principal at Creative Housing Associates, a development firm that has worked with Kraus on a farmers’ market project in downtown Santa Rosa, California. “All they care about it is how many units can I get onto the property and how much money I can make.”

And yet for all of this, James and others sense that a genuine transformation is under way—that more city folks are starting to think about where their food comes from and what goes into it. “Attitudes are steadily changing,” James says, especially in the past five years. And, indeed, as much of a mistake as it is to be Pollyannaish about New Ruralism, it’s equally foolish to dismiss it as totally pie-in-the-sky. There’s too much happening out there to ignore.

Source: “Can the City Save the Farm? New Ruralism—an eclectic outgrowth of farmers and urban planners—wants to remarry town and country” by Rick Wartzman, California, May/June 2007; provided courtesy New America Foundation via Creative Commons license.