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Aaron Newton on sustainable land use planning and infill agriculture
Published 29 August 2008 by Post Carbon Cities

In his work as a land planner in North Carolina, Aaron Newton works to create sustainable places. But it's not just his job: awareness of peak oil has led him to promote relocalization close to home, and led to coauthoring a new book that expands the definition of agricultural land.

Published 29 August 2008 by Post Carbon Cities,

Post Carbon Cities: As a planner you've worked on the ways that peak oil and new environmental issues might change land use patterns. Tell us a bit about that aspect of your work, and what you've found.

Aaron Newton: The history of land use planning shows that during the second half of the last century we changed the way we create communities. We developed a single use mindset, formalized by the single use zoning requirements of most of the municipalities across America in which different uses are physically separated with people living nowhere near where they work or play or shop or worship or attend school.

"Without a diverse transportation network that includes lower energy options, we’re stuck miles from where we need to be without any other way to get there that isn’t economically expensive."

This was made possible in part by the cheap energy available during that period because we could easily drive all over the place to meet our daily needs. The result was that we fostered a dependency on the automobile and cheap gas to run it. Peak Oil means the era of cheap energy is over. Without a diverse transportation network that includes lower energy options, we’re stuck miles from where we need to be without any other way to get there that isn’t economically expensive.

And it has become more ecologically expensive too. Climate change is caused by burning fossil fuels including all the gasoline we use to drive great distances to meet our daily needs. We’re going to have to reduce our emissions. It became apparent to me that land use planning would have to change in response to peak oil and climate change. I’ve been working on strategies to reduce energy and resource demand both in the planning of new developments and the retrofitting of existing developments. It’s fascinating work.

PCC: You're working on a book about food, suburban land use and peak oil. Tell us about your "infill farming" idea. What is it? Why is this something local government leaders should support? What can local planners do to help make it happen?

AN: I think the coming trend in land use development will be towards communities that are more self-sufficient. When the long distance transportation of food, water, clothing and other needs becomes more expensive, local communities will find themselves scrambling to meet their own needs. A great example of a past failure of land use development to meet the needs of citizens is the disregard for agriculture in the process of planning. I coauthored A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil with Sharon Astyk. It’s due out from New Society Publishers in the spring of 2009. In it we argue that food production will relocalize. One of the necessary responses to peak oil and climate change will be many more people getting involved in agriculture. In fact, we are already seeing this happen with farmers markets representing the fastest growing sector of the food economy. To participate, new gardeners and farmers need places to grow food locally and these farming efforts are taking many new forms.

"Local governments can help pave the way by eliminating conventional ordinances that prohibit agricultural activities in town and cities such as having hens or growing gardens in the front yard."

For decades we’ve been building suburban residential communities on the formerly farmland surrounding cities all over the US. The soil is still there and can be reclaimed for food production. We also have plenty of rooftops and other forms of impervious surfaces for catching irrigation water. In Garden Agriculture: A revolution in efficient water use, David Holmgren notes that "Australian suburbs are no more densely populated than the world’s most densely populated agricultural regions." American suburbs are populated in roughly the same way. There is no reason we can't relocalize food production by paying attention to it as we design new communities and retrofit existing neighborhoods. Urban and suburban lots that are vacant can become part of a network of multi-sized Infill Farms serving the needs of nearby residents. Local governments can help pave the way by eliminating conventional ordinances that prohibit agricultural activities in town and cities such as having hens or growing gardens in the front yard. They can also support the growth of local agriculture by working with planners who want to include agriculture in community development by being open to new ideas.

Land planners developing new communities shouldn’t just be thinking about how the future residents will get their water, natural gas and electricity. They should be considering how those residents will be getting their food as well. For the past few decades we’ve thought of vegetable gardening as recreation but for many it will become an occupation or at least a larger part of their life at home. Setting aside land for food production and organizing networks of impervious surfaces for the capture and containment of water are important considerations if you’re designing a community to be more food secure.

"There is no reason we can’t relocalize food production by paying attention to it as we design new communities and retrofit existing neighborhoods."

And these amenities can be beautiful. Imagine ponds and lakes in the landscape with gardens and areas of pasture for certain types of animals. Imagine landscape contractors building raised beds, rainwater cisterns and composting facilities for food production as part of the process of landscaping a home. Community gardening efforts is an example of a program that could be fostered with support from local governments but they can also use carrot and stick measures to make sure that communities are planned with appropriate considerations for food and that existing agricultural acreage isn’t lost to other types of development.

PCC: You were part of a team that recently won a design competition to redevelop a former corporate headquarters campus into a huge mixed-use, sustainability-focused transit-oriented development. How did your team address peak oil and future energy constraints in this project?

AN: The Crosland Greens Sustainable Placemaking Design Challenge was a local design competition. I joined a diverse team of professionals and helped create a plan for the redevelopment of a 33 acre site in the Southend of Charlotte, North Carolina. From the beginning we considered future energy constraints among other issues. Everyone wants to talk about how much more it might cost to "go green." The problem is that they’re using the cost of energy and other resources in today’s dollars. Peak oil, the need to reduce carbon emissions to address climate change and the coming era of resource scarcity will mean a considerable increase in the cost of land development and the cost of powering our communities. Successful development means taking this into account. To do so you need a collaborative design process- you need everyone who has a stake in the project in the room from day one: land owners, land planners, architects, engineers, energy specialists, agriculturalists, transportation and water specialists, representatives of local government, financiers, appraisers, sales and marketing, future residents, and maybe more.

This holistic approach was the key to our success. We used an expanded idea of value to create a list of Critical Factors, set Goals for each factor and identified Strategies for reaching our Goals. For example, one of our Critical Factors was Transportation. One of our Goals for Transportation was to reduce the Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) of all the resident of the community by 70%. One of the Strategies we used to help us meet this goal was the inclusion of vegetable gardens so that more of the food for the community could be grown within walking distance. Another was the inclusion of Complete Streets that include designated lanes for mass transit, automobiles, pedestrians and cyclists. There are many, many strategies we can employ in the U.S. to reduce the amount of energy we use and the quantity of other resources we consume. The difficulty lies in figuring out which strategies make the most sense on a particular project. The holistic team approach solves that problem by proving a comprehensive look at the project from the beginning.

We can’t respond to peak oil and climate change by designing our communities differently if we’re using a conventional process with economics as our only measure of value. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when a community is created in such a way that makes it is more efficient and self-sufficient, it embodies a real sense of place that supports other measures of value and in the process makes the project more profitable.

PCC: How do you see land use planning and real estate development changing as we move into the post- peak oil era?

AN: In The Commitment to Going Green and Sustainable Development: A Guide for the Practicing Attorney, Attorney Larry L. Ostema says,

The next decade is shaping up to be a period in which real estate will become all about carbon, carbon, carbon… As the end user of electricity and fossil fuels, buildings in the United States cause the emission of approximately 39% of the country’s aggregate GHG emissions. Transportation accounts for an additional 27% of US GHG emissions.

This means that 2/3 of the energy we use in this country is embodied in our built environment and consumed by the way we move through. The logical response of the 21st century to peak oil and climate change is to build better buildings closer together and offer a flexible and diverse transportation network to connect these buildings, including areas set aside so local communities meet local needs. A new standard of construction will develop within a new planning process that emphasizes mixed use communities and meeting the basic needs of citizens from within their own communities. And it’s going to happen much faster than most of us think.

Aaron Newton is the Director of Environmental Programs at Outdoor Living DPM in Concord, North Carolina. He is coauthor, with Sharon Astyk, of the forthcoming book, A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil, due out in the spring of 2009 from New Society Publishers. He is a contributing editor at Hen and Harvest & Groovy Green. Contact him at aaron AT henandharvest DOT com.

Photo credit: Tavis / ItzaFineDay

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