Published Jul 3 2009 by Energy Bulletin
Archived Jul 3 2009

Housing & urban design - July 3

by Staff

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Urban retrofits

Michael Fitzgerald,

How to make a city green -- without tearing it down

As the world warms, it’s also getting more urban - more than half the world’s population now lives in and around cities. So when it comes to sustainable living, cities pose a growing challenge.

In one sense, cities have a lot going for them - good public transit, efficient power distribution, and a density that means you often don’t need cars to get around. Plus, living and working in tall buildings rather than spread-out exurbs saves a huge amount of energy per person. But cities also have one big problem: they’re already built. We can invent all the green technologies we like, but we can’t tear down blocks full of drafty old structures and start from scratch - to say nothing of the networks of streets lined with wiring, pipes, and tunnels that might be decades, even centuries old. The problem is especially acute in older cities such as Boston.

So how to improve the cities we’ve got? The answer: retrofitting. In the past several years, engineers, urban planners, and entrepreneurs have come up with imaginative new ways to take what we now know about living more energy-efficiently, and grafting that technology onto cities without clearing away what’s already there. Here are some ideas already being tried, including some that might work in Boston.
(28 June 2009)

Organic Farms as Subdivision Amenities

Alec Applebaum, New York Times

The bewildered Iowan who converted his farm into a ballpark in “Field of Dreams” in 1989 might reverse the move today. From Vermont to central California, developers are creating subdivisions around organic farms to attract buyers. If you plant it, these developers believe, they will buy.

Increasingly, subdivisions, usually master-planned developments at which buyers buy home sites or raw land, have been treating farms as an amenity. “There are currently at least 200 projects that include agriculture as a key community component,” said Ed McMahon, a senior fellow with the Urban Land Institute.

...“Open space improves the return for a developer,” Mr. McMahon said. “We have 16,000 subdivisions around golf courses, where developers found they could charge a lot premium of 25 to 50 percent over comparable tract subdivision. But most people who live on golf courses do not play golf.”

The latest variation on this is blending in working agriculture, Mr. McMahon said. Living with a farm, he noted, can bring a buyer permanent views, wholesome activities for children, access to walking and riding trails and inclusion in an epicurean club.

Here in South Burlington, David Scheuer, a developer, runs a firm called Retrovest that specializes in pedestrian-friendly subdivisions. He is adapting the Prairie Crossing model with a 220-acre project called South Village, where he eventually hopes to sell 334 homes at prices of $200,000 to nearly $700,000.

A 16-acre segment of the property, which was not previously used for farming, is now producing lettuce, garlic and other crops, which are harvested for sale to homeowners and others from the area who have joined a local community-supported agriculture group. “Agriculture can be the caboose on the train,” Mr. Scheuer said, “and housing can be the engine.” Once he is selling 20 homes a year, he said, he hopes to pay the salary of a full-time farmer.
(1 July 2009)
Sent in by EB contributor "thorn".

The Farmer and the Lawn

Jane Black, Washington Post

Ex-CIA Man Stakes New Career on a Few Acres

Set among the rolling green hills of Loudoun County, Jim Dunlap's farm hasn't changed much since the 1780s. The original fieldstone farmhouse, designed by William Penn, is still there, albeit larger after two additions. So is the stone smokehouse and a spring house. There are peach trees, raspberry bushes and vegetables. If Isaac James, a former owner and the great-grandfather of outlaw Jesse, were to visit, he would see just one real difference: SnowBear Farm is now the only farm in sight. The property is surrounded by huge suburban mansions with wide, empty lawns.

...Since 2007, Dunlap has planted three acres with fruit trees, berry bushes and vegetables including peas, radishes, tomatoes, cabbages, garlic, soup beans, green beans, several kinds of lettuce, potatoes, summer and winter squashes, even artichokes. He uses no chemical pesticides or fertilizers, and all of his produce is certified "naturally grown," an alternative to the "organic" certification that is tailored to small farmers using natural methods. Dunlap also goes to great lengths to keep his farm looking tidy. Where farms still do exist in the suburbs and exurbs, clashes are not uncommon between farming and non-farming neighbors who want to protect their pastoral views.

"Jim is a small, small guy on a small amount of acreage who is going to make his living by farming," said Robin Shuster, who organizes the Bloomingdale farmers market in the District, one place where Dunlap sells. "He's a terrific model for young farmers."

Indeed, Dunlap is growing his business with new farmers in mind. He, unlike many just starting out, has money in the bank and good credit. But he hasn't splurged on pricey mechanized equipment. Over the past three years, he has invested about $10,000 in his farm. He has yet to pay himself a salary.

..."I don't think it's possible to start from scratch, as it were, in Loudoun County," said Chip Planck, who bought property in Loudoun in 1973. "The money that yields demand for all these vegetables is the same money that drives up the price of land."

Planck and his wife, Susan, have long tried to solve those problems for young farmers at their Wheatland Vegetable Farms. They lease small parcels to experienced but cash-poor farmers. Tree and Leaf and Greenstone Fields, both of which sell at local farmers markets, rent land, equipment and housing from the Plancks. Wheatland also hires seasonal workers who live on the farm.

Planck believes that if urbanites want to continue to have access to local food, it's essential to think about how suburban and exurban land can be put to better use. Beginning farmers don't need huge tracts of land, Planck says. Like Dunlap, he is frustrated that acres of rich soil have been transformed into suburban lawns.
(1 July 2009)
Also suggested by thorn.