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Urban Farming Grows Up

Green-thumbed city dwellers used to be on their own. Now housing developments are building agriculture into their designs from the get-go.


Berkeley's Garden Village.

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The future site of a farming and housing development in Santa Clara.

Rendering: Courtesy of OpenScope Studio

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Mission Crossings in Hayward.

Rendering: Courtesy of KTGY Architecture + Planning

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Editor’s Note: This is one of several stories about the future of our metropolis, which San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the April 2017 Urban Design Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

Urban agriculture—mixing farms right in with housing—used to mean adapting empty lots or running community gardens in existing public spaces. It’s a great way to grow a tomato, but what if the agricultural uses were built into the design from the very beginning? That’s exactly what architects and developers are doing in new projects across the Bay Area, from high-end homes in the burbs to student and affordable housing in the downtowns. Here’s how they’re doing it.

Put Somebody in Charge
Some gardens are open to the public; others are run by private farms. Then there are those that fall in the middle, including the urban farm at the Patterson Ranch homes in Fremont. The 15 acres of parks and open space there, which include a working farm, garden, and orchard, will be run by the developer before being turned over to the homeowners’ association with a ready-to-go packet of regulations. Sounds boring, but it lets residents get back to their turnips as quickly as possible.

Embrace Social Justice
Former Black Panther Elaine Brown’s West Oakland Farms, which employs former convicts and disadvantaged youth, has been a groundbreaking example of how urban farms can serve social justice. Lara Hermanson, who designs urban ag projects across the Bay Area, has made a point of hiring locally in West Oakland, providing 30 new jobs in the past eight years. Even affordable housing developers are getting into the game, with Mercy Housing exploring agricultural uses at its project in Colma.

Provide Common Space
Many new urban ag developments have built-in common areas geared toward farming. “The old cookie cutter would be a pool, a clubhouse, and a workout room,” says Charles McKeag, president of MLC Holdings, a subsidiary of Meritage Homes Corporation, which is developing Mission Crossings in Hayward: 140 townhomes and a 93-room hotel. “In this climate, people want experiences richer than hanging out by the pool and not using the workout room.”

Be Innovative
Farming may be as old as, well, civilization, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t new tricks. Drip irrigation costs more initially, but it saves big on water bills down the line. And biochar—carbon-rich charcoal—is being used at Berkeley’s Garden Village not only to sequester carbon but also to fertilize crops.

Honor What Came Before
A long-gestating project to develop a six-acre site in Santa Clara that once housed the University of California agricultural R&D station notched community support after developers at the Core Companies embraced what they call the agrihood, set to break ground in 2017. One and a half acres of the site, which will include 359 units of housing, will be devoted to farming.

Raise the Roof
At Berkeley’s Garden Village, a five-story student housing project in the city’s center, architect Stanley Saitowitz superimposed a farm on top of the housing: It’s on the roof. An independent operation, Top Leaf Farms, leases the space, which is filled with raised planter boxes for lettuce, chard, arugula, and kale that it sells to restaurants including Pizzaiolo and Juhu Beach Club. The biggest challenge? Managing the elevator so students headed to class don’t have to fight for space with farmers toting soil and tools.

Know Your Micro-Climate
What grows in one Bay Area microhood could wither in another. For her work on the Mission Crossings project in Hayward, Hermanson customized a mix of fruit trees including Fuyu and Hachiya persimmons, Granny Smith and Fuji apples, golden nugget mandarins, Cara Cara oranges, burgundy plums, double jewel peaches, Moro blood oranges, kumquats, Meyer lemons, and white nectarines. (No pears, thanks to worries about disease and fire blight.) A project in, say, Alameda would have a much different spread.


Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco 

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