Jane Holtz Kay

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.

Railroad Reawakening

"Thank God, men cannot as yet fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth," wrote Henry David Thoreau.

Little did he know what the future held. Though wary of the locomotive, the bard of "Walden" had no idea that flying and driving would not only lay waste to soil and sky but plunder the nation's pocketbook.

Certainly, his heirs do. With airlines now in the red and road warriors stuck on jammed and crumbling highways, many are sounding the anthem for a renaissance in rail. Evidence of that resurgence is at hand. Amtrak ridership rose four percent last month while domestic airlines went down 14 percent. Light rail lines are getting longer. And both light and heavy rail lines grow from coast to coast.

Passenger rail's promise is reflected in the success of the Acela train in the Northeast and high speed rail initiatives across the country. Likewise, the streetcar -- its lighter, more urban peer -- records mounting numbers on Los Angeles' greenline, charts construction advances on Minneapolis' Hiawatha line, and accomplishes city-building in Denver and Dallas. New transit-oriented developments in Sacramento, Portland, and other cities are centering around trolley lines that run through the heart of shopping, office, and residential districts to counteract the auto-centric, sprawl-inducing approach that decimated post-war urban America.

No city can thrive or even survive without these Great Connectors. Indeed, no true city has surfaced anywhere in America since the Auto Age began to dismantle the nation's streetcars and urban cores.

Rail could reverse that. Rail is the linchpin that allows for urban proximity. It is the environmental panacea that sustains our lives and landscapes and promotes walkability, stopping the spread that destroys l.2 million acres of farmland and 60,000 acres of wetland per year. Without civilized rail, we are stuck in traffic, circling in terminals, and breathing bad air.

Unfortunately, the brake is being applied to all this energy. A report this month by the pro-highway, pro-privatizing Amtrak Reform Council - - a federal study commission -- calls for dismantling the so-called "money-losing" system. That dispersal would deprive hundreds of cities and hundreds of thousands of passengers from being served by trains.

The council's biased rendering was anticipated. But it comes at a bad time. Despite the fact that Amtrak has affected a resurgence in rail, a five-year-old federal law dictates that it has only until next December to make itself solvent or disband -- a state of financial balance demanded of no other government or transportation agency.

That bottomline bromide is a misreading of both linguistics and politics. "Money-losing" is the prefix applied to rail, struggling to survive on the government's paltry $520 million annual appropriation. No such financial epithet applies to petrol-swilling, road-based forms of mobility -- planes, cars, and trucks -- which secure $46 billion dollars yearly from the federal trough and consume 60 percent of the nearly 20 million barrels of oil that Americans use every day.

To be sure, creative thinking doesn't always come easy to the U.S. rail operator, whose lines have grown weedy with neglect. Amtrak's service and promptness are mixed, its coffers low. Still, the east coast's "quiet car," a divine zone that silences cell phones; plus fresh air and stretching room throughout make the space for "getting there" fit for human habitation.

To be sure, too, the lack of tracks to carry more people as well as goods creates problems. "Amtrak trains are tenants of freight railroads that probably aren't compensated nearly enough for hosting them, and that they have little control over," complains William Vantuano, editor of Passenger Rail, the industry trade publication.

Despite such criticism, Amtrak is not yet dead. Even as the nation's passenger rail begins to cut staffers to meet its fiscal obligations, the trend has turned. "The best-kept secret is that Amtrak is making money," said Michael Dukakis, acting chairman of its board, noting the $l80 million profit on the Acela line. In fact, even President Bush provided room for intercity passenger trains in his February budget proposal.

The states, too, have begun to step in where Washington wimps out. Local governments are mindful of high-speed rail's swelling ridership in Chicago and the far west, and Acela's success in the east, with a new rail spur from Boston to Maine. They see scrubbed-up terminals across the country and the forthcoming showpiece in a new Penn Station in New York.

In fact, most of us mere mortals are far ahead of the Washington mindset. As long waits and fear of flying combine with the logic of rail, awareness grows. With half the trips from airports a mere 400 to 500 miles -- and a quarter under 200 miles -- an easy rail trip could replace many of the scary air shuttles.

In light of September 11, the time has come to rethink the Third World status of U.S. trains. In l902, our newly-industrialized nation laid 6,000 miles of track across the continent to link its citizenry. A century later, we should measure up to those ancestors -- if not Thoreau, then the everyday heroes who hammered out a united nation.

Jane Holtz Kay, the architecture/planning critic for the Nation and the author of "Asphalt Nation," and "Lost Boston," is currently working on "Last Chance Landscape." She wrote this article for the Elm Street Writer's Group, a project of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach her at JHoltzKay@aol.com. I>

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