Toronto Star column – published February 2, 2013
“Of all the underlying forces working toward emancipation of the city dweller, the most important is the gradual reawakening of the primitive instincts of the agrarian.” Frank Lloyd Wright.
Indulge me for a moment and imagine a new residential development of quality homes surrounding an 18 hole, championship golf course. A well-designed community of semis, towns, and fully detached homes are knit together by winding, well-treed streets. Every garage has a golf cart in it and every golf cart has two large garden trugs in the back.
Say what? Ok, change that ‘golf course’ to a farm. And not just any old farm, the latest ‘urban’ farm where half of the green space normally devoted to the golf course is a huge garden that produces food for the immediate community. Fresh greens and produce are sold to local green grocers and restaurants. People travel long distances to see this place. And local residents only travel a few blocks to pick up their groceries, fresh from the land.
The other ‘half’ of the farm is carved into one and a half acre plots for part time urban farmers. These are co-op farms where the farmers share equipment and trade produce [“I am long on cucumbers – can I trade you for some of your beans?”]. These same farmers make their living through C.S.A.- Community Supported Agriculture. Clients, like you, sign on for a season worth of produce and, for a fixed monthly fee, receive a basket of food fresh from the land: whatever is ready for harvest is distributed to the subscribers. You can have it delivered for a small fee, or come and pick it up in your golf cart.
A portion of the ‘farm’ is partitioned into ‘community gardens’ for local residents who want to grow their own food and share the experience of gardening with other people.
When you get up in the morning, rather than check for tee times, you use your computer to go online and check what produce is available and fresh on the community farm that day. You will also check the calendar of events at the local barn/community centre where courses on gardening, harvesting, preserving, food freezing, and cooking are offered daily.
While this may sound like a pipe dream, it is anything but. Every one of the ideas that I have presented above already exist in one form or another.
The idea that cities can feed themselves is gaining traction more than ever. In Burlington, the capital city of Vermont, more than 8% of the food consumed by the residents is produced within city limits. Not bad for a city of almost 50,000 people!
According to Peter Ladner, the author of ‘The Urban Food Revolution, Changing the way that we feed cities’, we are relearning how to farm and applying that knowledge in a most interesting of ways. As he puts it, we are learning “how to pick up what we dropped beside the road to globalization, and how to take it down another road that combines the best of ancient farming wisdom with modern technology.”
I am fascinated by many of the concepts that are reviewed in the book. Many of these concepts remind me of activities that can be found in Toronto right now, we just have not learned how to organize ourselves in such a way as to take full advantage of this knowledge. It is like having many pockets of wisdom and valuable activity without knitting them together in a more meaningful way.
Food in Green Spaces
Take our green spaces for example. City people value green spaces to picnic, walk, ride a bike, walk the dog, and gaze upon. There are wide tracts of land in our cities that are quite suitable for agriculture, but not for development. Why not leave the valley lands to the conservationists, the table land to thoughtful development and the in between real estate [like the 100 year flood plain] to the urban farmers?
Here in Toronto, The STOP Community Food Centre [http://www.thestop.org/] provides resources that help people in high-risk areas access gardening and cooking education, places to grow their own food and to network with other gardeners [including many from other countries]. My question is, why limit the experience to high-risk neighbourhoods? Doesn’t every resident of this city deserve to have access to fresh, homegrown food that has not been strip mined in California or some other foreign place? Why can’t we walk into our ‘backyard’ and ‘shake the hand of the farmer that feeds us’ as Michael Pollan is fond of saying?
Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that we need to reprioritize a good idea, making sure that wealthy people get first dibs. Rather, why not take the concept of urban farming in the broadest sense and apply it to every segment of urban society? Let’s give condo owners, social housing residents, and the owners of ‘monster homes’ equal access to locally grown, healthy food. Why not share it so that all can benefit? Would not all of us become more ‘wealthy’ as a result?
If you are not inclined to grow your own food, would you appreciate access to local food that is literally in your backyard? Would you enjoy living in a house that backs on to ‘green space’ where your food is growing, neighbours are gathering, children are playing in the apple orchard, and everyone is learning new skills in the art of growing plants and food preparation?
If you do live on a piece of real estate that is suitable for food production, would you be interested in learning more about how you can grow your own? The TorontoBotanical Garden, which is located in the geographic centre of our city, would be the perfect place to start a centre of edible landscaping courses for people like you. In fact, they already exist. Go to www.torontobotanicalgarden.com for details.
Could a neighbourhood be a full-time celebration of the very best things in life? Not just food, but social interaction, education, and fun: community building blocks that are the sweet elixir of a model city.
Experience tells us, according to Ladner, that local food reduces our dependency on oil. A Canadian study on “food miles” estimated that sourcing 58 food items locally or regionally rather than globally could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 50,000 tons annually. That is the equivalent of removing almost 17,000 vehicles from the road.
The new ‘urban farming community’ as envisioned here gets people out of their cars, encourages social interaction, the consumption of better quality [and less processed] food, boosts local employment and provides, according to Ladner, “a feast of spinoff health, community-building, exercise, green space, community safety, recreational and educational benefits.” I will add this important point: real estate values are enhanced when they are within close proximity of urban farming establishments [as long as odour issues associated with livestock are addressed. No one likes living next to a pig farm.]
Give this some thought before next Saturday, when I will offer more information on this subject. I will answer questions like, ‘who will pay for all of this urban farming?’ and ‘don’t farmers markets provide all of the local produce that we need?’
The following week I will take you to the heartland of urban decay, Detroit. I will expose a plan to revive that urban wasteland into a fresh food centre of the universe. Then I will invite your response to all of this. Stay tuned.
Question of the Week
Q/ I bought a small Norfolk Island Pine as a small Christmas tree. How do I take care of this tree?
A/ Norfolk Island Pines can be grown indoors. Place near a bright window, turning the pot 1/4 turn every time you water. Allow the top 2″ of soil to dry between watering.