Inventing the Suburban Farm

An open challenge to rethink suburbia put forth by Dwell and inhabitat.com a few months ago got me thinking about the possibilities of suburban farming. Urban farming helped renew the inner city. Suburban farming can revise sprawl.

I came to this conclusion after driving around the Birmingham, Alabama suburbs. I live and practice architecture in the city. It is a typical American industrial city with vast suburbs and a sparsely populated downtown. An urban renewal effort underway here for years propelled by a number of private initiatives, most notably a successful urban farm, has begun to make noticeable differences in downtown.

As I was driving through some of the older suburbs developed after the 1960’s, I noticed the same kind of sparseness and abandonment that has plagued Birmingham’s downtown. Out-of-favor, abandoned shopping malls and big box retail developments have reached a critical mass and have become noticeable. As I drove further outside into the periphery, fresh developments full of trendier brand name retail establishments had just been built.

What really got my attention were the many empty grocery stores. Three regional grocery chains had been forced to close their doors. Families were still living in the neighborhood. But, their grocery store, their market, a traditional center of community, was empty.

The hollowing out of older suburbs and the growing suburban periphery continues in most cities. These growing areas of vacancy between the newer, trendier suburbs and urban areas offer opportunities to mend cities. I believe suburban farming, like urban farming before it, can begin to bring back a more civic, sustainable economy. After urban renewal we need a suburban revision, where responsible production of food and energy moderates the consumptive nature of suburbia.

It seems to me that suburban farming can be implemented on a much larger scale than urban farming. Abandoned retail’s huge expanses of parking lots, large big box spaces, and lower real estate prices point to an opportunity to reclaim the productive pastoral atmosphere of the land before sprawl. The original promise of suburbia, refuge from the industrial city in the productive countryside, is still achievable.

My proposal, which you can see partially from the suburban farm image here, reverses the function of a big box grocery store, from retailer of food – food detached from processes from which it came to be – to producer and preparer of food. The parking lot becomes a park-farm. The inside of the big box becomes a greenhouse and restaurant. Asphalt farming techniques allow for layering of soil and compost in containers on top of asphalt. The big box store’s roof is partially replaced with a greenhouse roof. Other details, such as the reversal of parking lot light poles into solar trees that hold photovoltaics can be implemented.

One can imagine pushing a shopping cart through this suburban farm and picking your produce right from the vine, with the option to bring your harvest to the restaurant chef for preparation. While waiting for your dinner you look out over the farm with a holistic understanding. Food cultivation, processing, preparation, and consumption integrate into a local, transparent process.

A certain type of economy has defined the suburban landscape as we know it now. The typical models of retail and housing have proven themselves to be unsustainable. Other economic or business models can have an opposite effect. I see suburban farming as a potential sustainable business model, where a premium might be paid for the most intimate, organic food experience. For me, a sustainable economy starts with innovative business models that challenge the typical production, distribution, and retail practices.

You can see full coverage of this entry and other winning entries of the Reburbia competition in the upcoming December/Janurary edition of Dwell.

13 thoughts on “Inventing the Suburban Farm

  1. forrest, this sounds like a blog i have written in my head over and over. the waste and sadness of empty storefronts and lots makes me wonder what it is in our psyche that has allowed us to give up? this raging and determined culture we once had has deteriorated to a mass of struggling masses of people just getting to the end of the day. where did we lose our steam?

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  3. Great piece. Converting Mall-ish and big box spaces to farming has been on my mind lately. And I don’t live in the suburbs and this problem is not exclusive to them. I live in a mid-sized outstate city in Minnesota, where old strip malls are replaced by new pretty regularly and ginormous car dealerships that went belly up sit empty and deserted. The best case may be our already huge Walmart Store that was abandoned for the newer SuperWalmart on town’s edge. One business after another has tried to occupy the building and enormous lot, with no success. Meanwhile, all but one local grocer within 25 miles has gone out of business thanks to regional and national superstores (not only Walmart, but Cub Foods, SuperOne, etc. My dream is for a reclamation of that space for something local and sustainable. Your suburban farm idea sounds just right!

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  5. I love this idea and I have a version of it going on right now in rural KY. I am from the city and now I own 30 acres that I have turned into a organic farming/picking/future restuarant adventure. I love the idea of picking your food, watching it be prepared and then eating it! I want my kids to think of this process as normal, rather than waiting in line at McDonalds to eat non-fresh, very unhealthy, salty, greasy stuff in a bag. In my organic farm, I have 23 raised vegetable boxes with 30 different produce items. If I can do this, I sure hope other people will catch this disease of organic, healthy eating.

  6. Just some thoughts. Could’nt you subdivide the old big-box spaces for use by several businesses? Are animals included in these plans, for eggs, dairy, meat and the much needed manure? Arent these parcels of unused retail often somebody’s precious tax write-off? Looking foward to this issue of Dwell.

  7. Won’t the real estate be too expensive for a farm to support? If people couldn’t afford $2.00/lb tomatoes in the store that closed they won’t be able to pay any more to the parking lot farm. Even as large as a big box parking lot is, it is still pretty small to be profitable.

    But! Force the land back into public hands and organize grower co-ops and you might be on to sometin’. Put small businesses and people to work tearing up the black top, making improvements then the people who do the growing will have jobs too.

  8. Thanks for those comments. I think Peter is right about some kind of public-private venture. That would depend on making a great case to a municipality about the greater good. I think the co-op is a great suggestion too. I am hoping to work out some of the pragmatic issues mentioned here soon. Hope to make progress and keep everyone updated. I’d love to get more advice from anyone who has experience with these issues.

  9. I hate to see wasted space, but if urban or suburban farming goes mainstream, I worry about the use of fertilizers and pesticides being used by untrained people. These gardens won’t be organic. When people start getting frustrated by low yields or too much being eaten by bugs they will turn to chemicals to help. Your local golf course has more run-off than a well managed farm. That will soon be coming to your city block.

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  12. There is a growing realization of what our “needs” are.

    Many of us believe that we “need” a large car. (or a car of any kind).
    Many of us also believe that we “need” to eat meat on a regular basis.

    If we were to challenge both the “needs” for 1) privately owned vehicles and for 2) the steady consumption of factory farm-raised beef and chicken,we might find ourselves as humans to be far healthier (physically,spiritually and emotionally). Certainly the rest of our co-habitants on this globe would also reap the benefits of these “sacrifices” Furthermore, we wouldn’t continually find ourselves in such a dire position vis a vis the over-consumption of the earth’s limited resources.
    The suburban mall as organic farm concept represents the fulfillment of a beautiful dream- a dream of ‘healing’ and nurturing many of our most defiled man-made landscapes!

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