Beyond Urban Agriculture

[Here's the next installment in the ongoing series that I am contributing to the Sustainable Cities Canada site. It plays on some of the same issues that Afton mentioned in her earlier post.  But I wanted to push the accepted boundaries of what we discuss under the heading "urban agriculture" and make the case that the new interest in growing food in cities can also energize broader regional food strategies.]

Growing food in cities has become sexy. Sexy to a degree that I would never have predicted even a few years ago. The internet is overrun with pictures of futuristic farmscrapers and creatives in Manhattan are growing hydroponic lettuce in their loft windows. In parts of Montreal heirloom tomatoes are as much of a status symbol as purebred pets.

But underneath this glossy skin there is a potentially profound change in how we think about cities. Largely seen as places of consumption, more and more people are beginning to open their eyes to the productive potential of urban spaces. Spurred by concerns over food security, climate change, or just plain nutritional value, urban agriculture is maturing into an established part of cities across Canada and around the world. But its true impact is still to come. Continue reading @ SSC or...


The next step is to link the energy behind the movement to a broader vision of the place of the cities (and municipal policies) in our food systems at the regional – not just the urban – scale.

Coming of Age
Urban agriculture in North America came of age over the past decade. Two big projects during those years showed that it could be more than a weekend pastime. First, working with some of the poorest neighbourhoods of Milwaukee and Chicago Growing Power – a non-profit started by ex-basketball player Will Allen – transformed vacant and industrial land into highly productive urban farms.

The farms yield thousands of kilos of fresh produce a year, and that produce is sold and distributed within the communities that help produce it. These communities had previously been “food deserts”: they had plenty of fast-food joints but suffered from a crippling lack of access to fresh fruit and vegetables. Allen (who has since been awarded a McArthur Genius Grant) saw an opportunity to use urban agriculture to create a holistic solution to linked problems of urban blight, malnutrition, and poverty.

The second big win for urban agriculture was the opening of Lufa Farms' first roof-top greenhouse in Montreal in 2011. The 32,000 square-foot greenhouse is the first installation of its kind in the world. Using an advanced hydroponic system Lufa is producing high yields year round, all while increasing the building's energy efficiency. Lufa, which has partnered with an industrial developer to expand to new sites, proved that commercial scale urban farming was more than science fiction.

These two projects are inspiring signposts in a landscape that is filling with related efforts both big and small.

Beyond City Limits
But cities will never meet their food production needs within their own boundaries. If we are serious about engaging with agriculture from an urban point of view, we need to widen our gaze to the regions that surround the places most of us call home.

Preserving the agricultural land that circles many of our urban centers is a key place to start. Paving over prime farm fields is a bad idea. But balancing the pressure of growth against the need to protect farmland is no easy task. The nearly 40 year history of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) in the Vancouver region shows that it is possible, but only when municipal and regional governments and citizens take an active role in the process.

Maintaining access to land is only one part of this larger puzzle though. Equally important is ensuring the viability of our peri-urban farms. Fruit producers in the Niagara region, for example, have been hit hard by the closure of processing and distribution plants that they relied on to get their produce to market.

More collaborative and grassroots processing and distribution models like farmer's coops and community-supported agriculture (CSAs) are one response. In the case of CSAs they also directly link urbanites and farmers, and in some cases help ease the transition years as farms work towards certified organic status. But municipal and provincial governments also have a key part to play in attracting and retaining the larger scale processors that allow local produce to reach regional and export markets.

Is that really urban agriculture?
Land reserves, CSAs, and fruit canneries? Is that really urban agriculture? That depends.

If you think that the city stops at a line on a map then no. But a city is more than a place. It's also a web of relationships and influences that push out well beyond its boundaries. Looking at cities that way opens up a broader vision of what counts as part of the urban agriculture movement. Rather than just seeing cities as productive places, they become productive players at the heart of larger sustainable regional food systems. If we really want to increase food security or reduce food-miles that is the direction we need to be headed. And with more and more people becoming interested in urban agriculture, this is a great time to use that energy to push our engagement one step further.

image: “Dragonfly Farm NYC” via inhabitat

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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.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.