urban agriculture

City as Facilitator: The Challenge of Urban Agriculture Planning

Urban agriculture’s place in future cityscapes

Imagine yourself as a city planner, given unlimited resources and money to build a city with fully-integrated food production and distribution systems. That is (mostly) a fantasy. Now invert the situation: imagine planning for a city that already exists, that has already overstretched its resources and exhausted its infrastructure; now pile more and more people into that city each day, people who demand and deserve access to clean, healthy food. That is closer to the reality facing every city on earth, and it forms the basis of the challenge for urban agriculture planners across the world.

The challenges are clear to see: in the last few decades, the world’s population centers have ramped up the speed of growth- it has evolved into a race toward the 100-million city, as highlighted in a recent article by the Guardian. Quoting from a number of projections, the author identified several cities in the developing world which could quintuple their population by the end of this century; for a place like Kinshasa, in the DRC, that means that an already overstretched city could exceed 80 million people. What urban agriculture implementation looks like for Kinshasa is wildly different from how it will progress in Copenhagen, where the population growth is much slower.

Urban agriculture planning includes:

  • Community engagement and social acceptance
  • Environmental impact assessment
  • Inventorying and evaluating current resources and laws
  • Revising zoning standards
  • Implementing and regulating land use for urban agriculture initiatives
  • Creating financing tools that incentivize the growth of UA
  • Social uplift

Each city will have its own completely unique network of systems for producing and distributing food. In order to get a better grasp on just how difficult urban agriculture planning is, I spoke with Michael Granzow, PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Alberta, who has a special interest in urban agriculture:

This depends on how you understand the role and value of urban agriculture. For example, if you see urban agriculture as a key piece in the fight against local food insecurity, optimal planning may involve developing infrastructure and policy to link urban agriculture initiatives (such as peri-urban farms, vertical farms, etc.) to the network of food banks and other organizations that distribute food to people in need. If, on the other hand, you see the main value of urban agriculture in its contribution to the environmental sustainability of a city, optimal planning will look quite different. In other words, urban agriculture is not one thing and optimal planning will depend on the goals that a city is aiming to achieve through the implementation of an urban agriculture strategy. Relatedly, the meaning and value of urban agriculture will depend largely on place. This is true even within Canada, let alone between countries.”

In reality, the city itself is the great facilitator- a forward-thinking city will identify what its people need and react accordingly, given the resources it has available.

Edmonton: a city that is facilitating the growth of urban agriculture

As these problems become more pressing, certain cities are responding in kind. Edmonton, where the University of Alberta is located, is one place that is taking food production to heart- the city is now in year five of a high-level strategy called fresh, whose mission is to implement “a resilient food and agriculture system that contributes to the local economy and the overall cultural, financial, social and environmental sustainability of the city.” Approved by the City Council in November 2012, the strategy has taken on a number of initiatives including:

  • Vacant lot cultivation
  • Surplus food redistribution
  • Edible placemaking
  • Local food purchasing
  • Urban beekeeping

It is interesting to note that vertical farming and gardening are mentioned not just in passing, but as an integral part of the strategy:

New growing techniques and technologies that allow food to be grown almost anywhere are also helping to drive this change…vertical growing systems, among other methods are becoming more available as production alternatives…Building on this new interest, the City of Edmonton could play a significant role in encouraging the practice of food growing in urban areas in safe and effective ways, through guidelines, regulations and permitting.”

As discussed in one of my previous articles, the urban agriculture industry is pushed forward in part by forming the right partnerships between companies, research institutes and food producers. The City of Edmonton sees itself as a facilitator, “brokering partnerships, removing barriers and creating opportunities for businesses, providing initial operational and material support to organizations, and leading by example with initiatives such as edible landscaping.

Urban agriculture’s citizen-up approach

Five years on and the momentum is still there- Edmonton’s urban agriculture scene has become a model for other places in North America. Vertical farming businesses have taken advantage of this grand opportunity: places like Reclaim Urban Farm have emerged as leading lights in a handful of now firmly established businesses growing greens in Edmonton. Fresh, and the companies that have benefited from it, would not have come about in a city full of people that didn’t care about food; it was manifested by its citizens and by a savvy city council who listened to the concerns of its people. Granzow identified an important link between the people and the city:

Yes, I think both the food movement and the environmental movement provided the foundation for urban agriculture in cities across the world. Urban agriculture on its own will certainly not solve the current crises around food and the environment, but it is an important expression of people’s increasing desire for new ways of thinking about the relationship between, not only food and the city, but between humans and the natural environment.

The importance of a cohesive strategy in urban agriculture planning

Edmonton realized many years ago that the time is now to get serious about addressing the pressures facing food production in a rapidly growing city. It responded with fresh, knowing that it could not possibly answer all of Edmonton’s urban food supply questions. Instead, it represents the first stepthe framework necessary to move and grow into an uncertain future. It is worth asking: does my city have a food and urban agriculture strategy? If not, when? Perhaps the most important contribution of fresh is to provide a forum for public conversation, helping to keep the fire alive and fresh in people’s minds. With Edmonton, we see the city as facilitator, a consortium of stakeholders who are working together to secure a more sustainable future for their food production. This is a model to be applauded and expanded upon.


Edmonton fresh: https://www.edmonton.ca/city_government/initiatives_innovation/food-and-urban-agriculture.aspx

Reclaim Urban Farm: http://www.reclaimurbanfarm.com/

Guardian article: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/mar/19/urban-explosion-kinshasa-el-alto-growth-mexico-city-bangalore-lagos

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