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The Village Genius
Image: © Mark Peterman

There's a village in the East Valley of Phoenix that beckons as a little slice of Eden. Rows of perky sunflowers, trees hanging heavy with olives and dates, and raspberry bushes greet you as you walk down a tree-lined sidewalk. There's a Christian school and a church, a pool, plenty of parks, and a restaurant that serves burgers made of natural, local beef and organic greens grown on the property. And at the center of this Eden is a tree—well, lots of trees, and bushes, and pastures that feed the village and the people beyond it with food for belly and spirit alike.

This Eden is called Agritopia, and the man who calls it very good is Joe Johnston. A Stanford-trained engineer, Johnston has turned his family's decades-old farm into a thriving mixed-use community at the center of Gilbert, a southeast suburb of Phoenix. Since construction began in 2001, Agritopia has become one of the best-known "New Ruralism" projects in the United States, placing commercial, civic, and residential plots close together and a 15-acre working farm at the center of it all. "We didn't want to build a sea of houses," says Johnston. "We wanted to preserve the agricultural heritage of Gilbert in a way that serves a suburban community." The 1,500 residents of Agritopia can pick from crops like citrus fruits, beets, herbs, lettuce, carrots, and tomatoes directly, buy them at on-site stands, or grow their own crops at the 42-plot community garden.

Residents also have ample opportunity to grow community. Every aspect of Agritopia is intended to frustrate the isolationist: Homes are built close to the sidewalk so neighbors can easily interact from their porches. Each of the 450 home plots includes space for a bungalow for extended family or home businesses. And, most unusual for the suburbs, Agritopia is designed so that a construction worker and CEO can live next door to each other: The homes range from $180,000 to $950,000 in price and from 1,600 to 5,000 square feet in size, yet all are designed to look the same size from the outside.

"People tend to be segregated by income level and station in life," says Johnston. "That's okay, but it's not a vibrant neighborhood. We wanted to create 'village life'—the kind of life people had in biblical times and in European villages. God is concerned about people, so we wanted this design to be about people."

Johnston's passion for serving people began long before Agritopia. In 1989, he and a church friend founded Coffee Plantation, which grew to four coffee shops and 150 employees, but eventually Johnston felt, "I was just dealing with employees. " In 1995, on sabbatical, he joined Life on Purpose Ministries, which helped the fashionable restaurateur discern his gift as a visionary. Three years later, the Johnstons met with land planners and architects to design a neighborhood "to honor God and the area's agricultural heritage." Johnston drafted "Agritopia's foundational principles," which began, "We, the Johnston brothers, are Christians who believe the Bible is the unchanging and perfect Word of God …. [W]e believe that biblical principles applied to the design of the physical infrastructure will have a positive impact on all residents."

Johnston later removed the explicit Christian language after complaints. But the commitments to "reduce physical [and] social/economic barriers to relationships," "promote sharing," and "promote a simpler life" remain at Agritopia's heart. Construction on a senior living center will begin this year, and a business village of shops, lofts, and professional offices will open in October 2013.

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The Village Genius