Photo by mama loo from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
Cities can, should, and may need to start producing much of their own food. Four panellists—a farmer, an historian, an architect, and an activist—collectively presented a vision of cities as centres of agriculture at the From the Ground Up lecture, held Wednesday night at the Gardiner Museum. Urban agriculture provides, according to these speakers, a raft of environmental, social, and economic benefits, and ought to be taken far more seriously than it has been thus far.
Urban agriculture—the practice of producing food in a city—has been a feature of life in Toronto since it was the town of York. What is new is the growing chorus of voices calling for its expansion and intensification: not just growing a few tomatoes in your backyard, but building food-producing green roofs and replacing lawns with substantial vegetable gardens. The majority of the world’s population now lives in cities. Combined with the increasing scarcity of arable farmland, a global crisis in food security, and concern about the environmental impacts of industrial agriculture, this means that there is both need and opportunity for city-dwellers to move towards a more participatory role in their food production.
Keynote speaker Michael Ableman—one of the most prominent figures in the sustainable food movement—argued that urban residents need to accept more responsibility for tending to their own needs. Moreover, as food prices continue to rise around the world, equipping people with at least some security in their ability to access fresh, healthy food is a matter of not just environmental but social responsibility. And lest you think this is all a pipe dream—that urban farming is pretty window-dressing that cannot make a substantial dent in meeting a city’s needs—he cited the fascinating example of Cuba: Havana produces 40% of its own food, and in the country as a whole an estimated 220,000 people are employed in urban agriculture.
Ableman went on to outline a series of proposals that filled in the details of his vision. Among them: develop centres for urban farming in every city in North America that house real working models of everything from rooftop greenhouses to small-scale urban farms; implement a 5 year phase-out of lawns, replacing them with food-producing gardens; distribute property tax credits for food production initiatives; reintroduce a home economics curriculum in primary and secondary schools, teaching children how to garden, cook, and preserve food; impose regulations that mandate that all new developments, both residential and commercial, include an urban agriculture component.
Missing from Ableman’s rather compelling presentation: an honest discussion of the political viability of these proposals. Even if you were to accept that they are sound ideas (and many of them are), there is very little room for them in our current political landscape. How do we get there? His essential point was that we now need to back up a fairly widespread attitudinal shift in our thoughts on food (there is general agreement that a food crisis is looming) with substantial changes in practice. All well and good, but the means by which these changes can be brought about need to be addressed in more detail. Some of the proposals are too far from the mainstream and don’t have a hope of gaining traction anytime soon: banning pesticides in Toronto was tough enough; the prospects for banning lawns are non-existent. But many of the proposals could be implemented relatively easily and quickly if the will to do so could be found. A more nuanced discussion of some of the pragmatic issues would have been welcome. What role might progressive or charitably minded businesses play? What funding mechanisms would need to be established? Which of the proposals are worth tackling first?
Panellists Elizabeth Driver, Steven Teeple, and Debbie Field followed up Ableman’s address with some Toronto-specific presentations. Culinary historian Elizabeth Driver gave a brief overview of food-oriented gardening in Toronto, highlighting the significance of kitchen and victory gardens, as well as the influence of various immigrant groups in developing a local food-production culture. Architect Steven Teeple described the building that will be going up at 60 Richmond Street East, a housing cooperative and case study in sustainable design. The structure will include growing spaces that will be supported by an on-site rainwater cistern and composting facility. Finally, Debbie Field, executive director of FoodShare, convincingly cast urban farming as a tool for community renewal, using many of FoodShare’s existing projects as illustrations of the socio-economic benefits of urban farming.
Michael Ableman said, during his talk, that “farming is not a spectator sport.” All in all, the speakers did their job: they made a convincing case for urban farming as a feasible and necessary tool for both environmental and social advancement. What remains is to see whether the audience members who were convinced—and based on the cheering, there were many—do theirs.
Bottom photo by Hamutal Dotan.