Inside the movement to turn residential communities into farming collectives

The rise of the “agrihood” could be a boon for more sustainable eating.

Illustration by Dewey Saunders
A Green New World

For most Americans, by the time a piece of fruit or vegetable lands on your counter or in your refrigerator, it has traveled about 1,500 miles. For residents of Detroit's North End community, it’s a matter of a couple of city blocks.

About a decade ago, Tyson Gersh and a crew of students from the University of Michigan started the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI), part of a growing trend of urban farms that were cropping up around the city. The all-volunteer effort set down stakes in a two-square-block area of the North End neighborhood and built up its campus with the goal of reducing food insecurity by making production-scale farming within the community itself. By 2016, the group had built the country’s first sustainable urban agricultural neighborhood — also known as an agrihood.

In the years since it launched, MUFI has become a model for a neighborhood that centers around community farming. More than 10,000 volunteers have offered up more than 100,000 hours of support and service to the project, which has yielded over 50,000 pounds of produce, including 300 different types of vegetables. That food has been distributed to more than 2,000 households located within a 2-square-mile radius of the MUFI campus, as well as local churches and food pantries. Community members pay what they can.

Image of the urban farm located in Detroit, Michigan and operated by the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative.

Michigan Urban Farming Initiative

“We’ve grown from an urban garden that provides fresh produce for our residents to a diverse, agricultural campus that has helped sustain the neighborhood and attracted new residents and area investment,” Gersh said in 2016.

MUFI has its foot in the door on two separate but growing movements: urban farming, which has taken hold in Detroit in particular but is making its way across the county, and the agrihood trend. Both efforts seek to build communities around agriculture, but agrihoods are rethinking planned neighborhoods and land usage in a more wholesale way — driven largely by millennials who want to make more of their green space.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, as the population of United States boomed, developers started building neighborhoods around amenities that appealed to the young adults of the era. At the time, golf courses were a centerpiece of planned communities; at one point, 1 in 4 golf courses built in the U.S. were created as part of a real estate development. That arrangement worked at the time, but has fallen out of favor for a number of reasons — not least of which is the fact that homes in these communities come at a premium, pricing out younger buyers who both have less to spend than previous generations and, frankly, couldn’t care less about golf.

Instead of fairways and greens — which are a deeply wasteful use of land, by the way the new generation of homeowners seeks sustainability, healthier lifestyles, and a sense of contributing to social good. Hence, the agrihood.

The concept isn’t new, exactly; community gardens and urban agriculture projects were once quite popular during the Great Depression. But it has been newly formalized among housing development projects. In 2016, the Urban Land Institute provided a definition of an agrihood: a master-planned housing community with food-based amenities like working farms. Currently, there are about 200 agrihoods located in 28 states across the U.S., with more planned by developers looking to attract younger homebuyers.

A silo at the village farm at the Harvest Green agrihood outside of Houston, Texas.

Harvest Green

Like any neighborhood, agrihoods can take on a variety of shapes, as they’re often tailored to their surroundings and needs of the community they serve. Dennis Durban, an industry adviser who came to work with agrihoods through his food businesses, points to winery-focused agrihoods popping up in the West, like the Mesilla Vineyard Estates in New Mexico, which grows and sells local grapes and offers bottles at a discount to the community. Durban says he’s seen agrihoods comprised of as small as 20 homes to as large as 500 crop up in recent years, all centralizing around the agriculture that makes sense for their region.

Brett Coleman, the owner and founder of Agrihood Living, has perhaps seen more of these living arrangements up close than anyone. Over the course of several months in 2018, Coleman and his family visited 21 different agrihoods in 10 states. During that time, Coleman met people who weren’t just prioritizing sustainability with food, but also with relationships.

“You can live in a neighborhood for 10, 15 years and say ‘hi’ to your neighbors once or twice. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a good close relationship with maybe one or two neighbors,” Coleman tells Mic. “With these neighborhoods, they bring everybody together.” That was a major draw for Coleman and his wife, who wanted to see their son, now 7 years old, grow up in a place that instilled a sense of community. After touring agrihoods across the country, they settled into one themselves.

The scale of participation in the farming project for agrihood residents can vary. Often, it’s less about the work itself and more about the connection it gives you, both with the land and the people, Coleman says. “It gets you visiting with your neighbor, being outside and communicating,” he explains.

The scale of these communities is often small, but the impact that they can have on the households involved is significant. Agrihoods offer farm-to-table living, with freshly grown produce readily available. That can be hard to come by in many neighborhoods. For produce to be good produce — not just in taste, but in actual nutritional value — it has to be pretty fresh; just one week from harvest, some foods can lose 30% of their nutrients. Having fruit and vegetables grown nearby allows the community to eat better, and in a period of supply chain problems and increased delays in shipping, it also negates some concerns of food shortages. Plus, it shortens that 1,500 miles of travel for produce to almost zero, which means far fewer emissions that harm the planet.

Many of these agrihoods might have the feel of a rural farm community. That’s by design. These projects are in part intended to appeal to millennials and Gen Zers looking to get out of the city — but not too far, as many are located just on the outskirts of major metropolitan areas like Atlanta and Phoenix.

Explicitly urban arrangements, like MUFI in Detroit, are a bit rarer. Developers can’t build these from scratch the way they can with agrihoods in suburban or rural environments, so instead these projects typically repurpose parts of cities that have been neglected. It makes them explicitly well suited to help people who have historically been underserved — but it also means they can be harmful if not created with intentionality. Agrihoods often focus on appealing to home buyers, but that is an increasingly exclusive category among younger generations, particularly for people of color, who can’t afford to buy into a major metropolitan area. In a place like Detroit, an agrihood project runs the risk of gentrifying a community and pushing out long-time residents as the development grows.

Agrihoods offer the opportunity to not just organize ourselves around fresh, sustainable food, but also around each other. They deliver the aesthetic appeal of farm life while also emanating a sense of working toward the greater good. Keeping that front of mind is essential — particularly as developers and marketers look at the trending concept with a different kind of green in mind.