Dispatches from Graduate School–Part 38

Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University. In this post, she discusses a new urban initiative she is working with called “Agritopia.” For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF [Used by permission The Way of Improvement Leads Home]

For nearly 40 years James and Virginia Johnston and their three sons farmed 171 acres of land situated 25 miles southeast of Phoenix. What once supported cotton, alfalfa, and a humble homestead now contains over 500 single family homes, an elementary school, two eating establishments (including Joe’s Farm Grill of Food Network fame) 15 acres of urban farmland, a community garden, a farm stand, and site plans for both a senior-living community and vast commercial/retail development. The Johnston’s acquired the farmland in 1961, but in 1998, the family and local developer Scott Homes entered into an agreement to begin the design of a special sort of community they would call “Agritopia.”

Agritopia planners offered potential residents 176 home design variations ranging from 1300 to 4500 square feet, allowing people with a broad range of needs and resources to find a home in Agritopia. When designing the homes, the team committed to eight design principles: to reduce physical barriers to relationship; to reduce social/economic barriers to relationship; to promote sharing; to promote a simpler life; to promote the foundation of a true neighborhood; to choose style and beauty over size and sizzle; to honor agriculture; and to create a balanced project. These design principles served as the foundation for all decisions regarding architectural style and land use for the urban farm community.

Agritopia must be understood within a larger social context. The Johnston’s vision for their unique community is not the first to emerge from the desert southwest. For hundreds of years people have attempted to redefine community life and to create alternatives to the troubling urban conditions that have evolved in many sprawling Sunbelt cities. Phoenix itself is on the verge of urban crisis.

Two questions loom large in the coming years: One, how will Phoenicians, in creative and sustainable ways, respond to the growing concern over food access and local food production? Secondly, how will Phoenix residents create viable correctives to what some consider the aggressive, monotonous, and isolating postwar suburban development in the Salt River Valley? Agritopia, in a morass of tile and stucco, provides its own answer. The planners created a “middle ground”—one that incorporates urban living and agricultural production—reflecting a commitment to satisfying the human need for community, and also to meet the very physical needs of its residents by providing locally produced food and opportunities for residents to grow their own food in community gardens.

By looking at Agritopia—its successes and its failures, its novelty and its tradition—we can learn about the ways in which people are thinking innovatively about organizing urban life in Phoenix. Perhaps Agritopia can provide a blueprint for other valley neighborhoods that must build vibrant and healthy communities in order to prevent the erosion of agriculture and kinship in a state founded on both.

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