Saturday, March 14, 2015

Thinking About Lexington's Urban Public Spaces

I spent some time this morning participating in an exercise identifying elements of downtown living for the Gehl Studio and DDA.

About 30 of us first discussed what we thought were distinctive parts of images from around the world. Photos of all types, taken of generally urban scenes, can give subtle clues to what people like (or dislike) about public spaces. By identifying which of these desirable parts we like, they can then be compared to those sites in Lexington which have them or really need them.

It did not strike me as odd that the common activity areas were delineated, nor that these will probably be surveyed further for more detailed responses. What was missing was the failure to question why other parts of our city may lack what we apparently desire. In other words, how do we direct street activity, both retail and pedestrian, to the “dead zones” of urbanity.

In my mind, such urban dead zones can be the usual surface parking which has commonly replaced the former fabric of downtown structures lost to neglect. They may also be the missing civic elements of neighborhoods where vast swaths of nearly identical housing limit the availability of many desirable elements identified above. If desirable elements attract activity, how can the encourage them where they are lacking?

I hope that much more can come out of this and that there is more community involvement in the coming months. I will be keeping an eye on the progress.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Can We Get A Farming Community Subdivision?

Anybody know what an “agrihood” is?

If you do, would you expect to see on in Lexington any time soon?

It has long been known that the best place to build a subdivision is also the best location for farming but seldom have the two uses successfully coexisted, much less symbiotically, in American cities. In Central Kentucky, the historical trend has been to clear an agricultural property of all vestiges of its previous use, then name the development for what used to be there. To do otherwise goes against all rules of subdivision design and development. Agrihoods bend those rules into the symbiotic relationship of pioneer days.

They seem to be a growing item in other parts of the country. One of the latest agrihoods, Willowsford, is being planned in northern Virginia and will include about 2,130 units plus 2,000 acres of open space. 300 of those open space acres will be reserved for the cultivation of fruit, vegetables, chickens, and goats.

You could look at this as similar to a subdivision built around a golf course. Think Andover or Griffin Gate, where the links were built first and the prime housing units looked out onto the fairway or the 18th green. In this case, the view over the back fence is of a tilled field in the community farm. Instead of golf, the amenity which draws these homeowners is the benefit of fresh food within walking distance. Their own CSA or farmers market in the backyard where they can participate or not.

Developers are counting on fresh veggies to tempt retired baby boomers looking to eat local and parents intent on nurturing children on organic meals. DMB has integrated produce fields and edible gardens into their projects in Arizona, California, and Hawaii. I cannot see Ball Homes doing such a concept here, but why not build our community one farm at a time?

Agrihoods have been around since the 1980s with the 359-home Prairie Crossing development being a widely acclaimed conservation community in Grayslake, Illinois outside Chicago. The Prairie Crossing Farm with its working organic farm, was one of the first parts of the community to be established and remains at its heart. 

Will agrihoods be affordable housing for the Millennial who is looking for the walkable, vibrant city life that we generally of as downtown? Maybe not. Willowsford’s farm, in northern Virginia, runs at a deficit for now but is expected to break even by about 2018 as more residents, local restaurants, and markets purchase its food. Housing units are running about $6K+ at this time and only about 500 are built. This can still be considered sprawl despite having two community centers with demonstration kitchens for wine tastings, culinary classes or pop-up restaurants.

Do you ever wonder just how many of the residents actually join to play golf at those country club type communities? My personal feeling is that the number is not that high. I find the thought of living adjacent to a working farm, with its aromas and activities, far more alluring than being on a golf course with its errant projectiles and chemical grooming methods. Establishing and maintaining a community farm can run about 20% as much as doing the same with a golf course.

The key to correctly maintaining a good golf community is finding and retaining a qualified golf professional. Likewise, having a knowledgeable farmer, willing to assist the community's residents and follow sustainable farming practices, will go a long away toward success. I suppose that an agrihood could be branded as a ”Kentucky Proud” community just as well as a golf course community on a PGA Tour.