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Lisa Jackson Headshot

How to Build Better Suburbs

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I grew up on a tree-starved street in the suburbs of Toronto.

It was a newer residential development with cookie-cutter houses, in-ground pools, and pristine lawns. Preserving wilderness or promoting "community" were afterthoughts. Houses were crammed together, separated by thin alleys, and the indoor mall was the local hangout. Here, urban sprawl dominated, anointing the car as king and public transit a mere minion. Later on, a nearby marsh land was bulldozed to accommodate a new subdivision, demolishing my playground for spotting frogs, fish and critters.

After graduation, I fled the 'burbs and never looked back.

My recent visit to Gilbert, Arizona has me thinking twice, especially with housing costs sky rocketing across many Canadian cities. Just outside Phoenix, there's Agritopia -- a suburb with an organic urban farm at the centre. It reflects a growing trend of the "agrihood" -- a residential development where a farm is a shared amenity, much like a pool, gym, or parking garage.

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"There's only a dozen or so in the country," says Joe Johnston, visionary for the project and now a resident of Agritopia. "It's a place where the locals can live, grow, and eat."

In the early 1900s, Gilbert was a small town of dirt roads and farms, once dubbed the "Hay Capitol." The Johnston family settled here in the 1960s, growing cotton and other crops. But in the late 1990s, two things changed -- cotton became less profitable and Gilbert's population boomed. Agricultural land shrunk as residential developments burgeoned across the region. After nearly 40 years as agriculturalists, the Johnston family needed a game plan before their farm was surrounded by subdivisions.

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(Above: Joe Johnston, visionary for Agritopia)

"It started with a tiny idea," says Johnston. "To build a residential neighborhood designed around an urban organic farm, instead of golf courses."

Working with a land planner, landscape architects and others in the development community, Johnston developed a land use plan that preserved urban agriculture, as well as promoted walkability and interaction between residents.

"Agritopia is big enough to be a village, but small enough to be a community," says Johnston.

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Today, Agritopia is thriving as a model for urban planning, with approximately 450 houses and a 160-acre urban farm that yields about 200 crops per year. Parcels were carved out and converted to create permanent urban farming plots. Residents can rent garden space and grow their own crops -- an option that's so high in demand that there's a waiting list for plots. Luckily, there are other opportunities for residents to enjoy Agritopia's bounty.

"There's also a Good Food Box program," says Johnston. "On a six-week cycle, you get kale, dates, turnips -- all kinds of produce."

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Wearing a straw hat, Johnston leads me through the fields on a tour. Plots sprout leafy greens and sometimes sport cute signage ("Criter Family Garden, Grown with Love"). Johnston pauses briefly to wave to a woman on a bicycle -- front basket bushy with lettuce and carrots -- before guiding me into the orchard. Oranges, peaches and apples dangle from the trees, and the shade is a welcome reprieve from the scorching desert sun.

"This is the biblical garden," Johnston says, caressing a branch. "We grow olives, figs, dates, using a lot of Israeli agricultural techniques because of the desert."

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Nearby, I hear clucking and caws, and as we approach, I see chickens roaming free on the grass. As Johnston explains, even the livestock pull their weight on the farm.

"We don't use chemical fertilizers," says Johnston. "If the chickens were in the coop, they wouldn't be eating the bugs or green stuff. Instead of adding nitrogen, the chickens eat and poop it out. We use compost, chicken manure and the natural insect population, minimizing pesticides."

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Going green is at the heart of Agritopia but for Johnston, promoting community is an equally important concept. The agrihood is overseen by a homeowner's association, which not only concerns itself with governance issues but also organizing social events for the neighbourhood. There's a "wine and weeding" club, as well as fun happenings like salsa-making competitions.

"Developers aren't really concerned about creating community," Johnston says. "So suburbs tend to be isolated. But for me, an ideal community involves village life -- with multi-generations and people from all walks of life."

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It's not just residents that congregate in Agritopia. Adjacent to the fields, the outdoor food court attracts locals and tourists alike, eager to dine on farm fresh food, sip on lattes, and buy produce from the 24/7 grocery stand that functions on the honour system. On Wednesdays, food trucks dock onsite to feed hungry hordes. But the biggest draw is the farm to fork eatery, recently featured on the Food Network.

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"I wanted to build a restaurant that uses produce from the farm," says Johnston.

At Joe's Farm Grill, ingredients are plucked from the fields and whipped into comfort food faves, such as onion rings fried in rosemary-dill panko crumbs.

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Also popular is the fontina burger, a hearty beef patty stacked with roasted red pepper, grilled mushrooms, field greens, homemade pecan pesto and fontina cheese. If for some absurd reason you're still hungry, go to the café and order a cupcake topped with a swirl of pink icing for dessert.

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This is not the suburbia that I knew as a child, but it's one that I would welcome as an adult. Agritopia is living proof that subdivisions need not be designed like concrete jungles. Neighbourhoods can be vibrant, innovative, walkable, green, and a hub for social life -- and located on the outskirts of urban centres.

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Agrihoods can also be potentially profitable, partly by attracting buyers and appreciating property values. Agritopia is not only self-sustaining, but actually generates revenue by selling produce to upscale restaurants and chefs.

So I suppose the old saying is true -- if you build it, they will come. Of course, this is just the beginning for Agritopia, Johnston already has plans for future expansion.

"A beer garden is in the works."

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All photos courtesy of Lisa Jackson.

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