Charles Waldheim's Brief History of Agrarian Urbanism


Broadacre City. Frank Lloyd Wright, 1950-1955. [Image via urbannebula.nl.]

The politics and planning of our food system is a big topic these days, with urban farming being all the rage. In Design Observer, Charles Waldheim, Chair of the Department of Landcape Architecture at Harvard, looks back at earlier approaches to merging agriculture and urbanity, at the way that urban farming might affect urban form. He writes:

The categories of agrarian and urban are usually understood as distinct. Across many disciplines, and for centuries, the country and the city have been defined in opposition to one another. But today, in striking contrast, design culture and discourse abound with claims for the potential for urban agriculture. As environmental literacy among designers and scholars has grown, so too has enthusiasm for agricultural production in and around cities. Fueling this trend is rising public interest in food and its production and distribution in a globalized world.

Frank Lloyd Wright was convinced that the automobile would cause the city to decentralize, and envisioned Broadacre City, a mix of urbanity and agriculture connected by the car.


credit Alamo.edu

Waldheim writes:

Broadacre City offered American audiences the clearest crystallization of Wright's damning critique of the modern industrial city; it posited an indigenous organic model for North American settlement across an essentially boundless plain of cultivated landscape. Eschewing traditional European distinctions between city and countryside, Broadacre proposed a network of transportation and communication infrastructures, with the Jeffersonian grid as its principal ordering system.

With ownership of one acre of land per person as a birthright, residents of Broadacre (or Usonia, as Wright would later call it) would enjoy modern houses sited amid ample subsistence gardens and small-scale farms. This basic pattern of variously scaled housing and landscape types was interspersed with light industry, small commercial centers and markets, civic buildings and, of course, the ubiquitous highway.


Daniel Nairn at Sustainable Cities Collective thinks Waldheim is way off base, and concludes:

Frank Lloyd Wright conjured up Broadacre City during the Great Depression, when widespread automobile ownership was just starting to take hold. Perhaps he can be excused for forgetting to draw the acres of parking lots his ubiquitous highways would necessitate, or for undercounting the hard limits, in terms of land and energy resources, his spread-out settlements would run up against. But those of us with the benefit of hindsight should think twice before dusting off the old Broadacre City.

Worth reading the whole thing at Design Observer
More on urban farming:
Urban Farm Prototypes Reveal the Future of Urban Agriculture (Slideshow)
Food Justice, Security and Sovereignty Through Urban Farming (Video)
Carrot City Exhibit on Urban Farming Comes To New York

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