Green Democracy and Urban Agriculture in Montreal

We are all still trying to figure out what a sustainable city is. Yes, we've got some good ideas.  But to go beyond marginal changes and begin retrofitting, or building, cities in a way that truly responds to the challenges ahead requires ambitious changes.

What type of neighbourhoods do we live in? How do we get around? Where does our energy come from? How about our food?  For questions like that, no one has all the answers.

Tackling them means starting broad-based open conversations that help us determine the course for our collective futures. This week, making use of a new bylaw on public consultations, a coalition of community and environmental groups in Montreal has shown one face of what that process might look like.

In 2010 Montreal passed a bylaw, which allows anyone to trigger a public consultation process on any subject – provided that they can collect at least 15,000 signatures in support. Urban Agriculture was the focus of the first campaign under the new law. Led by a working group composed of 50 different local organizations, the campaign collected a staggering 25,000 signatures. They were presented to the city earlier this week, and city-wide consultations are expected to begin next year.

Montreal has recently established itself as a hot-house for innovation when it comes to growing food in the city. NGOs and community groups have led the successful transformation of sections of local university campuses into food gardens and established a network of rooftop gardens that supplies produce for a meals-on-wheels program. The city is also home to two of the world's largest commercial rooftop farming operations. I've been to see these projects, and they truly are impressive. But overall the city – like most cities – has yet to produce any overall urban agriculture strategy.

Urban Conversations
As a representative of the city's Urban Ecology Centre explained on CBC earlier this week, there are many open questions that need to be addressed. Should Montreal follow cities like Portland and Vancouver that now allow citizens to raise small numbers of poultry and livestock? How should urban agriculture stack-up against other residential or commercial uses in areas still open for development? Is urban agriculture limited to balconies and community gardens? Or can it be part of larger strategies to increase food-security and reduce food-miles by protecting productive agricultural land in and around the city?

Walk through a city and you are walking through a conversation. Streetscapes, zoning, architectural styles ... all are the outward signs of many different opinions about what a city is, and what it should be, jostling up against each other. Since the horrendous failures of top-down neighbourhood clearance and social housing of the 1960s, there has been a concerted effort to make sure that citizens – and not just planners, politicians, and developers – have a voice in that conversation.

Democratic Innovations
Over the past half century, participatory urbanism has taken on many forms, some successful others not. By giving citizens the power to determine the issues that merit consultation, Montreal's new law makes an interesting addition to that search for better ways to run our cities. Urban agriculture is a particularly fitting way to begin that new democratic experiment.

We are used to talking about the kinds of changes that green cities will mean for infrastructure and technology, at least in general terms (think public transit, or renewable energy). But sustainable city-building requires democratic innovations just as much as technical ones. The far-reaching changes involved in reshaping our cities go well beyond what our existing ones are accustomed to dealing with. Putting in place effective collective decision making processes is necessary if we are going to find the innovative solutions we need in a way that is both just and democratic.

Consultation is, of course, only a first step. But it will be interesting to see what Montrealers have to say about urban agriculture – and what they and the city then do with that vision.

Photo: Montreal Gazette


1 Response to "Green Democracy and Urban Agriculture in Montreal"

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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