Agritopia

Suburban Phoenix, in the Sonoran desert, shows a repetitive development pattern: clusters of townhomes or detached homes, each cluster architecturally uniform, often walled or gated, strung out along wide, straight arterial streets.  Many through streets are generously planted with a variety of desert trees, but they’re motor vehicle routes all the same; the opportunity to escape into a pathway or laneway is rare, and many of the quieter side streets end in cul-de-sacs.

In the 1990s a landowning family in the municipality of Gilbert decided to try something slightly different: a development of diverse housing types and workplaces arranged around a small organic farm and a Christian school.  They boldly named it “Agritopia.” The 450 homes are now completed and occupied, and the farm produces food for the family-owned diner that attracts customers from across the region, and for other nearby cafes and markets.

The website Terrain.org has a  lengthy profile of Agritopia, one of a series of North American case studies grouped under the heading “Unsprawl.”

Residential streets here are prettier and greener than most in the region; many houses face pedestrian walkways, and the rest offer old-fashioned curbside boulevards to match the 1920s-to-1950s mishmash of American architectural influences.  As a package, it suggests a slower-paced, more face-to-face mode of life than is common across most of Metro Phoenix.

But there’s a Truman Show feel to Agritopia: the desert and the freeways lurk on the horizon, or just out of sight.  The hoped-for job creation has not materialized, other than the school, the diner, a small flooring business and a yoga studio.  This may be partly due to  competition from conventional strip development in the area.

Is this “unsprawl”?  Ten or 15 per cent of the original farm is still operating; the owners gave up the rest to build an automobile-dependent tract of detached homes.  (In Fraseropolis, which is sprawly enough, the entire farm would likely have been kept in reserve for agriculture.) The nearest bus route is more than a mile away.

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