Crossways Farm Village and the New Ruralism: new towns, old farms, 21st-century opportunities.
Old policies and new ideologies have plunged South Africa’s rural areas into a downward spiral towards economic disater. It doesn’t have to be like this, though – if we return to basic by reconnecting with our agricultural roots. ‘Agriculture,’ says Chris Mulder, ‘is the new golf.’
Dr Mulder – founder of CMAI, a multidisciplinary planning and design firm, and former horticulturist/farmer turned landscape architect, developer and urban designer behind three of Knysna’s most successful communities (Belvidere Estate, Pezula Private Estate and Thesen Islands) – has now turned his attention to Crossways Farm Village midway between Port Elizabeth and Jeffreys Bay.
CMAI Architects, as the company is known now, began applying for the development more than 10 years, Dr Mulder’s intention being to put into practice the things he’s learned about our connection to the land, and to the food and livelihoods – human and animal – that come from it.
Lost links to the land
When people first began aggregating into settled communities all over the world, we built hamlets that fed villages, and villages that fed towns – with agriculture at the core of their economies. Even as the size of these settlements grew, their physical centres remained within spitting distance of the farms (or forests, or oceans) that supplied their people with the nourishment that allowed them to thrive. But that’s no longer the case: most city dwellers today have no links to the land that feeds them.
The rise of mass transport had a lot to do with that, of course. But in South Africa, the Apartheid government’s habit of building townships many kilometres from urban centres – basically, dumping people miles out of town, and far away from meaningful economic opportunities – exacerbated the problem.
Cognisant of the plight of people in villages like Thornhill (a close neighbour of Crossways, but not of either Port Elizabeth or Jeffreys Bay, where Thornhillers might have looked for work), Dr Mulder turned to an idea first mooted by thinkers like the founder of the garden city movement, Ebenezer Howard, who advocated for utopian cities in which people live in harmony with nature.
‘This was known as the New Urbanism – but instead of urbanism, I became interested in the New Ruralism because of the opportunities it could create for South Africa.’
This interest was informed by his background: for his doctorate in environmental planning and urban design at Texas A&M University, Dr Mulder studied the difference in land use legislation between the states of Florida and Hawaii in order to understand the impact that land use legislation has on natural systems.
He said that land use can be divided really only into three categories: conservation, agriculture and human settlement (which latter category he calls ‘uitvalgrond’ – that is, land that’s suitable for human settlements because it isn’t required by or has to be preserved for conservation or agriculture).
Given this knowledge, Dr Mulder and CMAI spent years attempting to create New Rural developments close to Plettenberg Bay, Cape Town, Velddrif and Montagu – and the Apartheid-era villages situated within their jurisdictions. But he came up against the Subdivision of Agricultural Land Act and the phenomenon of ‘urban edges’, which, in the way it was applied in the Western Cape, prevented him from proceeding. The province’s regulations, he said, forbade the creation of mega, agricultural-based projects like large residential developments outside of described urban edges.
‘These regulations weren’t intended to have this effect, and Western Cape Premier Alan Winde has recently tasked his officials with finding a solution to the situation because it stands in the way of the national priorities for food security, rural development, poverty alleviation, and job creation and training.’
Nevertheless, the status quo sent Dr Mulder searching further afield – and he found his opportunity in the Eastern Cape when a successful dairy farm close to the Van Staden’s River Bridge (and on the old Apple Express narrow-gauge railway line) became available.
Crossways Farm Village
CMAI’s design ethos has always sought to build environmentally and economically sustainable communities by creating networks between people of different incomes, and by creating links between human settlement and the natural environment – so Crossways was always going to be a perfect fit.
The 520-hectare property had ‘strong rural-urban linkages, is close to an impoverished urban village with a high unemployment rate, while being in an area of great natural beauty.’
CMAI Architects, of which Dr Mulder is a director, studied the property in minute detail – analysing every aspect of the environment, testing the soils for compatibility with agricultural use, and learning and understanding the make-up of the landscape – before recommending which portions should be designated as ‘no-go’ areas (about 180ha of the farm now reserved strictly for conservation), ‘slow-go’ areas (167ha reserved for agriculture), and ‘go-go’ areas (173ha suitable for human settlement).
The design concept for Crossways Farm Village thus establishes a number of smaller ‘hamlets’ within the farm environment, with unimpeded access paths for the cattle (‘the members of our exclusive club, with their own clubhouse in the milking parlour’). There’s also a light industrial work area that faces the N2, and that has space for non-polluting businesses, as well as a visitor node that’s centered on an Apple Express train station (although the Apple Express’s locos and carriages have been restored, and have been seen in operation on non-scheduled services in the Port Elizabeth area, the line itself is to be restored in phases, so the train will only reach Crossways Farm Village within another year or two).
The interesting aspect of Crossways, though, is its management model. While all properties are sold freehold (stands range from 220 to 8,500 square metres in size), all buildings on the project must conform to strict design and environmental guidelines, with requirements for energy efficiency, water harvesting (depending on stand size), and sewage (which is fed into the farm’s own bio-scrubbing system that delivers clean water to a wetland that further purifies it into its organic, chemical-free, natural state).
As ‘South Africa’s first declared Rural New Town’, Crossways Farm Village’s HOA (which was constituted almost four years ago after the first two phases were sold out, and which is currently in sound financial condition) runs the development as a municipality of its own, buying its top-up electricity needs from Eskom, and its potable water from the municipality of Port Elizabeth, and selling them on to residents. It has also built its own wastewater treatment plant, and manages the public areas, including streetside vegetable gardens and the commercial dairy operation – with all its infrastructure – on behalf of the residents. (The farmland – the land on high-potential soils – has been registered under a separate title deed so that it will remain zoned for agriculture forever.)
‘Although Thornhill isn’t a direct neighbour, we have made provision for the people who live there – creating jobs as well as entrepreneurial opportunities that will benefit them directly,’ said Dr Mulder. This includes what he calls ‘embedded design’ or ‘labour-intensive design’, in which elements like, for example, lamp posts or bollards must be made by local workers from raw materials, and must conform to a high level of artistry.
‘In addition, we’ve created sustainability for the Thornhill Trust – which sees to the needs of Thornhill Village – by mandating a donation of 2.5% of the initial purchase price of each title deed as a donation to the Trust, and a further 0.5% of the resale value of each property in perpetuity.’ (This requirement is included in each title deed.)
Membership of the HOA is compulsory for all home owners, who are required to assent to, and sign, a raft of different documents, including the constitution, and environmental and architectural design bibles.
When you listen to him talk, you begin to understand why Chris Mulder has decided to move permanently from his home in Thesen Islands, Knysna, to Crossways, where he and his wife, Pat, will concentrate on making a success of Crossways Farm Village (where six phases, with about 100 erven each, are still awaiting development and sale).
But, given the fact that his concept is so far from that of the standard golf estate, you have to wonder why he thinks agriculture is the new golf – when in reality, agriculture looks more like the new future.