Theory and Practice of Agrarian Urbanism: Book Review

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    One of the more familiar tenants of the “New Urbanist” development paradigm is the use of compact development patterns which utilize high densities as a means to contain suburban development in order to preserve the pastoral and idyllic conditions often destroyed by sprawl. Within this scheme, New Urbanist have sought to use the centralization of urban development as a means to ensure that farmland was available for years to come. In new title, Theory and Practice of Agrarian Urbanism, Andrés Duany and his firm Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ) venture away from the standard methods of separating urban growth from agricultural lands to flesh out a complementary model that incorporates the urban agriculture and “food to table” movements that have become so prevalent today.

    Written as a project for the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, Theory and Practice of Agrarian Urbanism is a beautifully illustrated, clearly articulated explanation as to how the urban environment can come to exist in harmony with the agrarian environment. Rather than attempting to protect agricultural area through distinct patterns of separation, Duany and DPZ embark on a quest to show how urban environments can be centered around and scaled to agriculture. Duany remains forthright about the practical implications of the ideas presented including dramatic shifts in both the regulatory and economic climate surrounding land development practices. In essence the title is an 85 page exploration in how agriculture can become an integral part to the places that we live.

    Image from http://newurbannetwork.com/images/15044/market-square

    Theory and Practice of Agrarian Urbanism examines agriculture as a new amenity to be explored within the urban context. Making heavy use of the transect as a means for scaling the intensity of agricultural uses, Duany presents an alternative to conventional suburban approaches that integrates agriculture across the development density spectrum (so for instance small urban squares can be used for hand-tended agricultural plots while larger acreage can ensure the presence of a sort of quaint scenery along the urban periphery). What makes this book truly remarkable is the way that it envisions agricultural scalability that connects to conceptions of place. Conventional agriculture transitions from the geographic fringe to converge with the urban context while urban agriculture transitions from the social fringe to become part of the mainstream urban experience.

    Duany and DPZ present something that is truly visionary, but is it practical? That remains to be seen as many of the proposed changes hinge on continued social evolution regarding food politics. The ideas are truly a compromise that allow New Urbanist principles to be intertwined with the developing food to table movement. Scholars have acknowledged that density is the key to sustainability and we have begun to value the connection between individuals and their food sources as a society. As we proceed into the future, we need to find a way to make land uses compatible rather than falling back on the long-revered compartmentalization of traditional zoning. The ideas presented in Theory and Practice of Agrarian Urbanism may remain a little beyond the horizon, but they’re presented in with such attractive nuance that the book serves to be an inspiration for thinking outside the box. At $20 it’s a pricey addition (for the amount of actual information it contains) to your bookshelf, but the illustrations are worth it. This is a title that I will return to in the future in order see how I can change regulations that I administer to be foster the integrated setting that Duany advocates.

    Check out the speech by Andrés Duany below for a preview of the ideas presented in the book.

    Josh O’Conner is a Planner/Zoning Administrator in Asheville, North Carolina. You can find him on the web at triggerhippie.com, localplan.org, or twitter.com/joshoconner. Contact Josh via e-mail (josh -at-localplan.org). He was provided a copy of the book by the publisher for review.  This post was originally featured on LocalPlan.org