Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Architecture & Agriculture: One of a Kind

William Levitt
How did an unknown developer, William Levitt, land on the cover of the July 3, 1950 edition of Time magazine? Strange as it sounds, it can largely be traced to a series of interesting connections between architecture and agriculture. These associations began to connect with me after attending a recent presentation on Sustainable Farming, given by Justinn Overton of the Alabama Chapter of the USGBC. Justinn explained that most of the food that we consume today is grown in monocultures.  That is to say, large areas of farmland dedicated to the production of just one crop.  While this may be efficient and results in high yields, it is not the way crops are naturally grown. Crops are naturally grown in self sustaining permacultures. A permaculture contains a diversity of crops that are interspersed or grown in close proximity to each other. It mimics what we find in nature.

Monoculture experimentation began in the mid (20th) century and revolutionized agriculture. Man had "triumphed" over nature.  Crop yields and efficiency increased dramatically, which allowed farmers to grow more with less capital.  Food became cheaper and farming (at least for those that adapted) became big business.  Small farms were absorbed as the farming monocultures flourished.  Local , state, and national politics promoted and subsidized this type of agriculture.  Although it has been extremely productive for decades, agricultural experts are concerned that current agribusiness is economically and environmentally unsustainable.

Potato Fields
Variety of Crops

As I was listening to to Justinn discuss the agricultural transition from permacultures to monocultures, I began to consider the architectural transition from permacultures to monocultures.  Housing in America has typically been either rural (closely associated with the farm) or urban (closely associated with commerce). My wife and I visited Woodstock, NY a couple of years ago.  It is a classic American town.  The town center contains a variety of street level shops and businesses, as well as limited residential development over the shops.  Extending outward from the edge of the town center is the town green, used for a wide variety of community activities. It is flanked by housing on either side. Density lessens as one moves away from town center. Much of America's neighborhood design was based on this and similar models, at least up until the end of World War II.  Industry had been heavily focused on the war effort and, as a result, housing starts had slowed to a trickle.  The result was a severe housing shortage by the time the soldiers returned from the war. Enter Levitt. His experimentation in neighborhood design, Levittown, began a revolution.  To keep land costs down he located his development on an expansive potato field, well away from established urban areas.  The lots were small and accessed only from the street - no alleys.  The houses were fabricated from kits of parts (made in a factory) and erected on concrete slabs.  Housing units were small (about 1000 square feet) and inexpensive (about $8,000). They sold like hotcakes. Houses sold faster than they could be built, and they were built at the rate of thirty units per day!  The "success" of his development landed Levitt on the cover of Time magazine and caused developers across the county to change the way they developed neighborhoods. Zoning and political incentives accelerated the pace of development. Permaculture gives way to monoculture and suburban sprawl is unleashed. Despite the prevalence of the suburb, few experts think that this type of development is economically or environmentally sustainable.

Woodstock, NY
town center
Leviitown, NY

Woodstock, NY
residential street view
Levittown, NY
residential street view

Just as we must rethink the way we grow and distribute food, we must also rethink the way we design  and construct our neighborhoods. Is a simple return to permaculture / traditional design the solution? Perhaps completely new solutions are in order. Maybe the solution lies somewhere between the two.  We'll look more closely at these questions in the next post.....TND or Not TND.