This is my last day here at CNU in Atlanta. My flight leaves mid-afternoon and so I am only attending the morning sessions today. I opted to continue with the agriculture discussion I ended the day with yesterday so I am here this morning in Agricultural Urbanism, Part II.
In my vein of contingency planning - the Black Swan preparation - there are a couple of alarming facts presented here. First, and I did not realize this but it sounds accurate, we have three days of food supply generally on store shelves. That works so long as the trucks keep moving. If there is some disturbance in that system, we really don't have a lot of backup. We also don't have a lot of people that know how to gather or produce food.
Second, our grain supply is down to two months (and I think we historically have had six months worth of reserves, although set me straight if that is wrong), which might not seem like a big deal but let me give that some context. For oil, we have the Strategic Petroleum Reserve where we have stockpiled an emergency supply of oil. Our current store would give us 34 days worth of oil. We can cut back on oil and, for the most part, make things work. Food? Not so easy, especially with the way our systems are currently set up.
The call here is to shrink, or localize, the food supply chain. If on one end you have production and the other end you have consumption, in the middle you have distribution, warehousing/storage, market, wholesale. Right now we do these in a corporate, large-scale manner. Not only does this cut the local farmer and community out of the value-added part of the chain, but it leaves the entire supply chain vulnerable to shocks.
Having local production, processing, warehousing and sale of agriculture has a whole litany of benefits. So why doesn't it happen? The idea posited here is that, much like rules on size, scale and facilities have changed how we build schools (the campus and not the local school), our "nanny-state" regulations have centralized the value-added part of the food supply chain. There were no specific example of this given, but I can envision the inspections, building codes, etc...
Now, changing these may be difficult. After all, they are in place to keep the food supply safe, which is a strong constituency. It all depends on how one defines safety though. As already noted, from a contingency standpoint, our system does not have a lot of redundancy. It is more like a mainframe server than an Internet.
For a salmonella outbreak today we recall products in wide swaths of the country. With localized agriculture, not only would we know where our food came from, we would know the people producing it.
I think there is a lot here to think about. From an economic standpoint, many of our small towns have been destroyed by the current approach to agriculture. Instead of propping them up with all kinds of subsidies (transactions of decline), building local capacity for value-added could be a powerful strategy.
The session contained an amazing presentation by Jean-Francois LeJeune showing the hundreds of towns in Spain built on an agricultural urbanism model. They were all built in modern times - post-WW II during the dictator Franco's regime. The photos were enchanting because the towns were beautiful. The architecture was amazing, the design was brilliant and the entire thing works. The towns are viable today, not just for the local economy but as a method of producing agricultural products.
The presentation was based on a book by LeJeune called Modern Architecture and the Mediterranean.
After the LeJeune presentation, Duany noted that our architecture schools today could not produce people that could build towns like these upon graduation, yet this was standard back in the 1940's. And, according to Duany, they do not suffer from the effects of "a single hand". He also framed the discussion by pointing out how we are incapable, in America, of building this type of place on a large scale and suggests that we should question the absolute primacy of the bottom-up approach to building places in terms of efficiency.
(Funny note: I often sit in the front row because I hate wearing my glasses while I type - I am already nearsighted and wearing my glasses while I type is only going to make that worse. I can sit here in front and see the screen well and still type. Well, Duany has seen a lot of me and has actually been sitting right next to me during this presentation. He asked what I was so "insiduously" typing and I let him read my last paragraph on his comments. He suggested a couple of edits, which I have incorporated in. I'm now going to promote the STB as being "edited by Andres Duany". I gave him my card and so hopefully he reads this and, if so, knows I am kidding.)
All of this talk on Agrarian Urbanism has rekindled an idea that I have had in my head for quite some time, to rehab one of our old, dying towns along these same principles. I've worked with so many towns that believe they are a federal or state grant away from prosperity, but of course it never works that way. Many of the towns in my home state, especially in western Minnesota, were built on a framework that would lend itself well to transformation. Here is also the trick - the housing is old, solidly built and really, really cheap. Brutally cheap - like $20k-$30k for a house. And the infrastructure is all there, thanks to Uncle Sam. All it needs is people.
So here is my proposal....buy a town, or at least the majority of a town, and then retrofit it to provide these value added opportunities locally and then sell/market the entire lifestyle to people. You would need the agricultural land around the town as well, but Minnesota's laws regarding incorporation and annexation would allow you to accomplish this all quite well on a reasonable investment. Not only could this build a better world, but it could generate a very nice profit for a developer. So if there is a developer out there interested in agrarian urbanism and would like to investigate opportunities in rural Minnesota, get a hold of me and we will talk.
Thank you to everyone that has followed the Strong Towns Blog throughout CNU, especially my friends at NextGen who invited me to speak Thursday morning. It has been a tremendous experience. I hope you all continue to hang with us, put Strong Towns on your radar, bookmark our blog and podcast, join us on Facebook and Twitter. And tell your friends about us.
Most of all, we hope you check out our work and see the value in adding a rigorous financial analysis to our public investments, particularly as a way to bring more people into the fold of good urban design. Strong Towns are well-designed towns, places we love. Our towns and neighborhood need good design to become financially sustainable. That provides a powerful opportunity for New Urbanism to become the dominant style of development of the 21st Century.