Who actually pays for empty storefronts such as this one which was once an Albertson's here in Garland on Hwy 78? The store was closed in early 2011, over four years ago. With the exception of its use as a once-a-year Halloween Costume shop, the building and its huge paved parking lot continue to deteriorate. It's a good question. Does the developer who built it pay for it? Does Albertson's who used it for years pay for it? Where does the responsibility rest?
Chain stores tend to be fair-weather friends. They are highly mobile and will abandon a location if profit margins do not meet their expectations. The worst case scenario is when a big box store builds on the edge of town, destroys the central business district, and, then a few years later, decides that it too will close its doors. The town is left with a dead Main Street and nothing to show for it. Nationwide, there are more than 300 empty Wal-Marts. [“The Portable Wal-Mart,” Sprawl-Busters Alert, April 1999]
Commercial and industrial developments for the past 40 years have primarily catered to a global market and to shareholders who don’t even live in the communities where these large shopping areas are established. This model, for the most part, has failed local populations all over the USA. Promotion of this model by local community leaders has destroyed the ecological balance and environment of local areas all over the USA and in many cases has even made local residents ill unto the point of death in the process.
The extent of the failure of this commercial and industrial land development model is staggering. As of February 27, 2014, there were 1322 Superfund sites on the National Priorities List in the United States. Furthermore, this situation is not past history. It continues to be an almost insurmountable problem as we move forward in the 21st century. Fifty-three additional sites have been proposed for entry on the list. [A Superfund site is an uncontrolled or abandoned place where hazardous waste is located, possibly affecting local ecosystems or people.]
Real Change in How Urban Properties Are Developed Is Needed
We need to seriously and deeply change the model and its rules that we have been following for the development of urban properties. This is not going to happen without the active involvement of local residents who are willing to work to develop more locally anchored businesses that cater to the local population—businesses that are owned by people who live in the places where their businesses are located. People have a higher vested interest in the quality of life and the ecology of the place they call home than they do in their investments that are managed halfway around the world.
A lot of arguments are put forth regarding the “value” of property in commercial areas being developed for commercial and not agricultural purposes. Unfortunately, the only “value” often considered is the immediate dollar value today for a few people and not the larger price tag paid by society as a whole.
For example, a retail shopping center built on a commercial site will likely generate more money for its owners and developers than an urban agricultural site—at least for the first 20 years or so of its life before it begins to go out of style. Cities all over the USA are filled with empty and near-empty malls like Collin Creek Mall whose designs have become dated and consumers have moved on to the latest “bright shiny object” which in our area for the moment is Firewheel Center (no longer fashionable to call it a “mall”).
They all seem to have about a 20 to 30 year life span. Instead of refurbishing the existing center, or even tearing it down and building on that site, here comes another developer who “goes into partnership” with taxpayers and builds another bigger and better shopping area some place else—often on undeveloped land that should be used for agricultural purposes.
In the meantime, the local environment is left with the skeletal remains of what was once fashionable and its acres of earth paved in asphalt. This development model is so wasteful and harmful to our environment that it should be against the law. No doubt the increasing decay of such a site also devalues the selling price of surrounding residences in the area—thus creating more hardships for local residents.
Urban agriculture can promote and protect the local ecology, economy and environment as it is intertwined within the social structure of local markets. Urban agricultural standards that follow a sustainable model can enrich the quality of life in urban areas while increasing the overall food security and food diversity in our nation.
Lack of imagination could be the largest stumbling block to developing urban agriculture into a commercially viable force that will help anchor a local economy and in general improve the quality of life for the local people.
We don’t really have a plethora of examples yet for urban agricultural models, but the good news is that we do have some and the number is increasing. Urban agricultural models should be designed to serve two primary purposes: to provide inviting green areas for the people who live nearby to visit; to produce plant material that can either be consumed as food by the local population and/or can be used in commercial production of a plant-based product.
These two purposes are intertwined with other social values as well. For example, urban farms can be places for learning and education where young people in the community can become acquainted with the source of their food. Urban farms can be training centers for people to learn how to grow some of their own edibles in their own back yards. Urban farms can be places where people come to relax in a natural setting.
In my ideal city, a small urban farm would be within walking distance of every resident in that city. In my ideal city there would be at least as many urban farms as parks.
Requirements for adequate green spaces and urban agriculture need to be built into the RFPs that our local government leaders issue to developers and builders. This is a starting point.
Decades of ecological and economic concessions to “attract business “ to local areas have resulted in empty storefronts on Main Street and over 1,000 Superfund sites in our nation. It’s time to stop developing urban land the way we have been developing it. Ultimately it is we on Main Street who are left holding the wet paper bag and paying for the damage done by outsiders to our local communities.
“Business friendly” should not be allowed to override “local people-friendly” and “local environment friendly” aspects of local economies. It’s time for Main Street to stop bending over and to start insisting on the inclusion of urban agriculture and more green space in developers’ proposals. After all, these developer are the ones making millions of dollars on the deal—not the people who live in the community and on Main Street.
Here are few urban agricultural models for consideration:
1. Distributed Urban Farming Initiative – Bryan Texas -
The Distributed Urban Farming Initiative (DUFi) has started to transform vacant lots in Bryan, Texas, demonstrating how urban farming can educate and inspire as much as it can produce healthy food to enjoy. The goal to sustaining the project is community, not only to build gardens in otherwise empty spaces, but also to inspire Bryan residents to eat healthy food and drive entrepreneurship and tourism. http://dufi.adventgx.com
2. Food Field in Detroit Michigan
Food Field is an urban farm on four acres in central Detroit. They have transformed an abandoned school site into a small-scale farm with organic produce, chickens and ducks, honeybees, a fruit orchard, aquaponics and more. The goal of Food Field is to create a sustainable business that’s economically viable while building the health of the land and community. http://www.foodfielddetroit.com
3. Sharing Backyards throughout Canada, The United States and New Zealand
Sharing Backyards offers a solution for people who lack land but want to grow their own food locally by linking them with people who have unused yard space. Through the initiative's website, those with unused property can post their approximate location, and those looking for space to grow food locally can search locations nearby at no cost. While Sharing Backyards already has yard-sharing programs set up throughout Canada, the United States, and New Zealand, anyone is encouraged to start their own local program. With the support of Sharing Backyards’ technology and staff, starting and maintaining a community garden can be more collaborative and easier than it seems at first. http://www.sharingbackyards.com