From the Design Quarterly: Sustainably growing food and community at Adams Crossing

February 20, 2018 Matt Shawaker

Energy harvesting is key to planning a Net Zero community around a farmers’ market and small-scale agriculture outside Denver


These days, it’s commonplace for us to want to know where our food comes from. We’re passionate about food and drink with a good story, especially when it’s local. Food is a natural generator of community all over the world. Recently, in Brighton, Colorado, we planned a new community where living, growing food, and respectful land use are harmonized. Food and place have a natural connection. 

An important question: How to make a new development in a Western boomtown stand out from a series of cookie-cutter developments? Our client looked to sustainable communities in Germany for inspiration. They came to us for our sustainability experience with the goal of developing a Net Zero community northeast of Denver. Net Zero water emerged as another goal. Providing enough space for agriculture to cover 50% of the community’s caloric needs emerged as another goal. Those became the principles for planning Adams Crossing, a community of single-family homes, townhomes and apartments, and micro-farms, breaking ground in 2018.



Many of the 1.5- to 8.5-acre farm-kit farms will grow to create value-added products (e.g. tomatoes become marinara sauce) and unique businesses, such as a daycare that harvests its own vegetables. The farms with value-added concepts give the community reason to come together around a hub, the plaza with a weekly farmers’ market, small grocery, shops and cafes, creating a vibrant place without dependence on traditional retail. We’re certain it’s a first for Colorado.

We’ve learned a few things about planning sustainable communities from Adams Crossing.


Solar structures shade sidewalks and solar arrays are used on the roofs of structures such as the farmers’ market, community tool shed, and bike garage that face the central community greenway.


It’s not the technology that’s innovative, it’s the combination of ideas

The energy technologies employed here aren’t new, and designing a Net Zero single-family home isn’t hard. What makes Adams Crossing unique is the combination of technology (photovoltaics and geothermal) and integration of small-scale agriculture in a food-culture-inspired community setting. A passion for local food ties into the perennial need new communities have for a third place.

Set big goals

We asked stakeholders; What do you want people to say about Adams Crossing in 20 years? The kick-off resulted in the ambitious goals for sustainability, energy use, and water management mentioned above and set the tone for the entire process. While our goals concern the context of the development itself—not transportation to and from—we envisioned a synergy between agriculture, development, and energy conservation that had few precedents. We designed a proposed district geothermal loop to run under the farms, the park, and loop into the communities, providing a stable air temperature to reduce energy required for home heating and cooling. Waste energy will go back into the farms and extend the growing season.


Make the numbers add up + turn challenges into opportunities

To compensate for the developer’s investment in geothermal, PV systems, and water management in the neighborhood, we needed to save money elsewhere. We dramatically reduced infrastructure needs, even removing streets and the costs associated with road, curb, and gutter installation. We took out as much infrastructure as possible so we can treat water where it falls and educate residents about water consumption on site.

We did this strategically and created a linear park. We decided on a building type that’s rear-loaded, so it can be accessed from an alley. And we developed greenways that run north and south through the site, physically and visually connecting residents to nature.


Adams Crossing features a network of solar panels in parking areas and on roofs (pictured in blue) as well as a geothermal field with distribution loops (in red).


Partner with experts

This project wouldn’t have gotten far without Agriburbia, a consultant and professional farming firm. At Adams Crossing, each farm kit includes a farm area and a house with an industrial component for preparing those ready-for-market products. You can farm it yourself or have Agriburbia farm it for you. Either way, Agriburbia will develop a farm plan, teach you how to farm, and connect you to buyers.

Partner with the City

Much of the developer’s acreage falls within a 100-year floodplain that can’t be developed. So, farming is a solution that acts as an economic driver for the project and adds value from that which would otherwise be a burden on the project economics. We approached the stream corridor running through the neighborhood as something to be protected. Second Creek is slated to become a regional greenway with access to regional bike trails that make it easy to access the farmers’ market from other communities or for residents to commute car-free to Denver.


Tap into the local history

Historically, Brighton has been a vegetable farming town, so the idea of residents growing their own broccoli, tomatoes, and squash has roots. Ultimately, we met our local agriculture planning goal and then some. Based on USDA research of crops historically grown in Brighton, the 62 acres of farmland can produce 77 million calories per year—twice the residents’ nutritional requirements from vegetables.

Set it up to become more sustainable over time

As the community grows and the remaining area is developed, we intend to refine these energy-saving features and design. The locally-grown food and dining options here will also make more sense when a new civic government building opens nearby, bringing the bustle of thousands of workers and neighbors to the area every day. Someday, long-range regional public transit will connect to this community, making a true low-carbon lifestyle possible. In the meantime, we can evaluate the first phase of Adams Crossing and see the potential of a food-centered development that embodies a higher standard for sustainable community.

For more stories that showcase thoughtful, forward-looking approaches to design that build community, visit the Design Quarterly online.


About the Author

Matt Shawaker

Matt Shawaker's experience as both a design consultant and developer has given him a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of great landscape architecture and urban design. He applies that knowledge to the development process and in the evolution of great communities.

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