Urban Agriculture or Urban Legend?
By Garreth Bloor
A significant constraint to affordable housing is a notion of farmland preservation for ‘food sustainability’ based on dominant urban planning assumptions of required farmlands. Debates in states such as Oregon have been intense in the United States, as well as in Canada and beyond.
Urban planning mechanisms to preserve actual and potential agricultural land drive up housing prices, a phenomenon making it especially difficult for younger families to enter the housing market in large cities across the world, while commuting times rise.
Master planning in urban design, is the most prominent school of thought in the field. It suffers the same shortcomings of central planning at the local level as it does at a federal scale. Master planning does not account for innovation and local knowledge, since too much planning rests with city planners, not with everyday people and the millions of deliberate decisions that constitute innovative economies.
Part of those decisions involve the innovation in food production that is going global, leaving master planning behind. In Toronto, for example, The Dunya Project has pioneered ‘growing food anywhere’. Instead of fertile production in a small window, food (all organic in this case) is grown year-round on small plots of land-use space, regardless of zoning.
Increasing densities in cities has even offered opportunities for more space: witness the literal rise of urban food production in Singapore.
Land use assumptions for agriculture and food security are a constraint to proceeding with much needed urban housing at a time when many are struggling to enter the housing market. It is not the amount of space required, but the assumptions behind the planning that must be closely evaluated.
Beyond artificially high home prices, Professor Randall G. Holcombe goes so far as to argue the following in his case against overly prescriptive urban planning regimes:
If left to its own devices, development will occur in a decentralized manner, which will usually lead different types of activities to be conveniently located in relation to one another. Decentralized growth will provide nodes of development. People can live close to the node where they work, allowing a more efficient pattern of two-way traffic as people travel between nodes. Decentralized development keeps commuting distances short but allows the amenities of suburban living for those who want them.
More free market measures at the local level do not mean doing away with regulations or even planning itself. It simply means recognizing we are all planners. The nature of planning changes and so does the prevalence of innovation and the ability to adopt it.
It is a core aspect of classical liberal thought which renders command-and-control assumptions in city planning economically costly in unrealized gains. Such planning also takes a social toll on the ability of new entrants to enter the housing market at a time when too many feel they are years away from getting the same opportunity their parents had when it comes to buying a new home.
Garreth Bloor is a vice president of the IRR, the oldest classical liberal think tank in South Africa. He served as a former executive politician in the country and is the founder of a venture capital firm. Bloor currently resides in Toronto.