About Urban Farming

Adapted from my paper: Urban Agriculture in Vancouver

There is a lot of talk these days about urban agriculture. Cuba has become famous for its organic urban food production since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s; cities the world over are developing new urban food policies and food policy councils, and in Vancouver city council is celebrating its 2010 new garden plots by 2010 initiative to promote the 2010 Winter Olympics. But we must be careful to not blindly label these acts as progress. Havana adopted urban food production for local consumption out of necessity due to a shortage of chemical fertilizers and petroleum for transportation; food policy councils in North America have yet to prove their efficacy by eradicating hunger in their respective jurisdictions; and Vancouver’s 2010 gardens by 2010 initiative leaves me wondering: with real estate still being the city’s hottest commodity, how many of these garden plots will we have in 2012?

At the surface, urban agriculture can be simply defined as:

The growing, processing, and distributing of food and other products through intensive plant cultivation and animal husbandry in and around cities.

But urban agriculture is more than this definition gives it credit for because it does more than just simply produce food. It may also:

-Utilize wasted or neglected urban space and resources

-Employ organic, permaculture, or other sustainable food growing techniques

-Result in local food distribution and consumption

-Help build community

-Allow individuals the chance to produce their own food, empowering them and reconnecting them to their food.

-And most importantly, much of today’s urban agriculture is a subversion of the dominant production-based agricultural paradigm. Tired of mainstream food choices, or rather lack of choice, many urban dwellers are simply taking matters into their own hands.

Many people (especially young people) have started to realize the extent to which they have been disconnected from their food, some more disconnected than others, and urban agriculture has become a way to get reconnected with the land that they lost touch with not-so-long ago. A garden participant at Chicago’s Interfaith House sums up the severity of this disconnect best:

You mean, all this time I have been hungry and have sometimes had to go without food, and now I find out food grows in the ground?

While at the surface such a statement sounds almost unbelievable to me, these could have been my own words only fifteen years ago.

Urban agriculture is by no means a new concept – it has existed as long as cities. Indeed, it has had to. It was agriculture that allowed humans to shift from nomadic hunting and gathering to established settlements over 10,000 years ago. As agriculture grew so did human populations – and thus did cities. Over time, and presently with the increasing value of land within cities, especially in more developed countries, agriculture has moved further and further away from the city. Or rather, as is the case with Vancouver, the city was moved further and further into agricultural land (much of which was, in fact, forested land before becoming agricultural land) causing food production to be displaced elsewhere. We can see this trend in Vancouver by comparing aerial photos of Metro Vancouver from 1930 to those from 2002. Most of the land to the South and South East of Vancouver City has shifted from mostly agricultural land to mostly urban sprawl, with only relatively a few patches of agriculture still occurring.

But even as agriculture has become dissociated with the city, urban agriculture has managed to keep itself alive. From the Victory Gardens planted in Canada, the US, the UK, and Australia during the first and second World Wars to supplement food production (freeing up more food for soldiers abroad) – to the backyard vegetable gardens and allotment gardens of today, food production has long been a part of the urban lifestyle…and much to the benefit of urban dwellers, as the Handbook of the Victory Garden Committee (1944) suggests:

Not only have people had more food as a result of this home effort, but also they have learned lessons of food selection and preparation, of food values, of human nutrition and its dependence upon proper food selection, which would never have been taught so well in any other way.

Our modern-day backyard gardens can serve a similar purpose (regardless of the need to free up food production for soldiers overseas), and allotment gardens are abound in cities all over North America. In Vancouver there are currently dozens of community allotment gardens housing over 1200 individual growing plots, with more to come in the near future.

In modern times, we can look at urban agriculture evolving in three ways. First, as urban sprawl encroaches on agricultural land and surrounds it, what once was rural production becomes urban production. This is certainly the case at Fairview Gardens in Goleta, California, made famous by Michael Ableman, where the city has completely engulfed the farm. It is now surrounded by middle-class homes with swimming pools, driveways, and 2.4 kids.

A local example of urban encroachment is, of course, at UBC Farm in Vancouver. Threatened by the city from the East and limited by the ocean to the West, UBC farm is now at great risk of becoming another addition to the urban sprawl that is Metro Vancouver. Although buffered from the city by Pacific Spirit National Park, it is actually University-driven development that threatens UBC Farm – much like a miniature version of what happened to Fairview Gardens. The UBC Board of Governors has recently committed to protecting all 24 hectares of UBC Farm, a decision that has made a lot of UBC Farm advocates very happy. But considering the current economic slump, and a likely lull in development, it might be suggested that the Board of Governors decision had little to do with the farm itself. We will only be able to tell this when the economy starts making a recovery and developers become greedy for more land, and the university greedy for more money.

The second way that urban agriculture develops is by sprouting up within the city. While backyard gardens have long been a part of cities, modern urban agriculture is sprouting up in many new ways. Much of this new urban agriculture is in response to current modes of food production, and also perhaps, much like the sprouting of Victory Gardens, due to the current state of the world. Urban Farmers are learning to utilize their own yards, others’ yards, neglected public land and park space, empty lots, rooftops, and even their cupboards (where they can grow sprouts).

In Vancouver, My Own Backyard (MOBY) sprouted up under the Skytrain just off Commercial Drive; La Cosecha (The Harvest) germinated in a vacant lot at Broadway and Clark, one of the city’s busier intersections; the Hastings Folk Garden pushed its way up between two buildings in the Downtown Eastside, Canada’s poorest postal code. My own garden project, the inspiration behind this paper, was propagated on the University Endowment Lands, one of the more affluent neighbourhoods in the city.

The third way that urban agriculture develops is what is seemingly the most obvious, but likely the rarest – that is, by design. Urban agriculture can easily be designed into new urban landscapes and can also help with the revitalization of existing cityscapes.

New developments, whether within the city limits, or as part of continued urban sprawl, offer great opportunities for the expansion of urban agriculture. In Vancouver, bylaws now require that any new residential building, four stories or taller, must have garden beds designed into their landscape (Christopher, 2008). Of course, simply designing garden beds into landscapes does not mean that the gardens be well utilized or actually produce any food.

Urban agriculture can also be a part of the redesign of a city, exemplified in Vancouver with the City’s Green Streets program. This program:

…offers Vancouver’s residents an opportunity to become volunteer street gardeners in their neighbourhoods by sponsoring a traffic circle or corner bulge garden. This creates not only a more colourful and interesting street and a more personalized neighbourhood, but also encourages and promotes a sense of community pride and ownership which ultimately benefits the entire city.

The strength in this program is that it allows city residents to shape and contribute to their own neighbourhoods. Although the city does have guidelines for planting these gardens and “would prefer that street gardens not be used for growing vegetables.”, I am personally of the opinion that any garden intentionally planted so as to enhance the quality and beauty of a neighbourhood by using carefully selected, appropriate plantings and managed in an ecologically responsible manner can fall under the title of urban agriculture.

Vancouver city council has also just recently passed a new bylaw allowing Vancouver residents to keep hens on their property.

In Victoria, BC, a new bylaw has made it legal to operate an agricultural business from one’s home. This had been a controversial issue due in part to a residence in Oak Bay, Victoria (one of Canada’s wealthiest postal codes) that was claiming agricultural status due to the amount of “agricultural products” the property was producing, and thus receiving a hefty tax break. This new bylaw could help propel urban agriculture into mainstream thinking and perhaps inspire more people to replace their lawns with gardens.


3 thoughts on “About Urban Farming

  1. Hi Chris,
    Just wondering if you are still looking for a part time urban farmer co-worker who is also into the humanure approach to toilets?

    Happy growing, Louise

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