Finding Common Ground for Cities and Farms

City mouse, country mouse, no matter. City-dwellers and field-tenders alike suffer from the building spree that swallows 1.2 million acres of farm land and countless acres of open space each year.

In rural America, developers grabbing land for Monopoly-board subdivisions hurt the farm economy and sense of place in tandem. In urban quarters, the reel plays in reverse. Lack of open space to relieve hard-packed pavement and gap-toothed Main Streets drained by malls and sprawl sap the life from downtown.

Recently, however, academic and political interest has grown in knitting together the citizens of this great geographical divide. Last summer, for one instance, the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology in Ames, Iowa, published a hefty report showing how the soul of the city and the spirit of the farm can -- and should -- create companions, not constituencies "pitted against one another."

The authors of the report, "Urban and Agricultural Communities: Opportunities for Common Ground," noted how a city-country alliance benefits the ecology and life of both rural and urban populations. Thus united, urbanites get healthy homegrown food and intact ecosystems to insure environmental health; while farmers get funds from downtown markets to stop agricultural attrition. This local agro-ecosystem mends the earth, and benefits growers, buyers, and consumers, they concluded.

This alliance with a farm "next door" also cuts down the costs of polluting, oil-consuming food traveling from afar. The University of Iowa added its support to this reasonable but rarely practiced conclusion in a recent report that found that grapes and lettuce travel an average of 2,143 and 2,055 miles, respectively, from field to market. Shipping food such distance, the study concluded, adds four to 17 percent extra in costs compared to growing and selling food regionally.

Beyond personal food costs in travel, another Colorado study related by the American Farmland Trust noted that preserving farm and rural land sustains more wildlife habit, supports fresh local food, and conserves water -- saving $82 million in tax dollars over 25 years compared to allowing sprawl to chew up farmland. All told, some 1,200 land trusts address this issue. "You're not only buying a field. You're buying a view. You're buying clean water for your community," says Betsy Garside of the American Farmland Trust.

The surge of construction in the 1990's -- dismal ranchettes insinuating themselves on the mountains of Wyoming, tract housing invading farm fields in Ohio -- has enlisted a new constituency for change. America's embrace of the city-country alliance is told in a spate of land-saving measures to preserve threatened turf. In the 2001 election, voters in 72 percent of 553 cities, states and towns said "yes" to ballot initiatives to stop sprawl, save the countryside, protect farmland, and enhance city-development with new rail lines, says Ernest Cook who helps organize them for the Trust for Public Land.

The city-country linkages also appear in innovative farm projects that manage to make a profit. Plot by plot, community gardens and farmers markets expand, improving the quality of city life as well as supporting outlying farms. Short-distance, city-fringe farm operations, like the innovative Westport Wineries in Massachusetts, not only grow grapes for fine wine and champagne, but serve as a supplier of splendid scenery, inviting city visitors to bucolic feasts and fêtes.

Like the urban Victory Gardens of World War II, which supplied 44 percent of the nation's produce, Manhattan's five boroughs tally some 600 gardens on private property and city-owned land. Some operate under names like Green Guerillas; others are sustained by more formal institutions like the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and New York City's GreenThumb program. Boston boasts 200 such community gardens and Chicago a substantial 400, bringing relief and produce to gritty urban environs.

To be sure, this common land concept is tough going. Montgomery County, Maryland, is widely viewed as a standout in the Smart Growth movement. But its model zoning doesn't guarantee a workable farm landscape. A recent visit revealed such hardly pastoral views as a massive faux Tara-esque chateau covering 50 acres of "preserved" turf and not a glimpse of farming. A colonial home, as large as a clubhouse, perched atop yet another 25-acre plot, its three horses adding little to rural life. Meanwhile, real farmers fight against a massive outer beltway that would still more suburban sprawl.

Such battles about development, plus the new goal to strengthen the alliance between the city and the country, indicate a nation ready to rally to merge and save rural and urban amenities. Those endorsing these values are beginning to understand the need for plans and zoning to put them in practice, and the politics to do so. As these plans come off the drawing board and into practice, we draw closer to the goal of stopping sprawl, creating sustainable farms, and reviving our urban neighborhoods. The shared concept of conservation and planning can promote this ideal: to secure an urban Athens with an agricultural Eden.

Jane Holtz Kay is an author and journalist. She is the author of "Asphalt Nation" and is working on a new book, "Last Chance Landscape: Taking the Earth in for Repairs." This article was originally published by the Elm Street Writers Group, September 2002.

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