Politicians be warned: Urban agriculture is here to stay

Politicians are learning the hard way that resisting urban farming is a no-win strategy. Food security is marching up the priority list in cities around the world.

Growing more food in our cities harms no one, and spins off myriad benefits: better diet, lower health care costs, beautification, safer neighbourhoods, safer food, inter-cultural and inter-generational integration, increased food security, exercise, increased property values near community gardens, less hunger, and, yes, commercial enterprises.

The commercial potential is greatest in desperate, shrinking cities like Detroit, but that isn’t stopping cities everywhere from promoting urban farming any way they can. New York just passed legislation that will, like Seattle, exempt rooftop greenhouses from height limits. New York is also making data about whether city-owned property is suitable for urban agriculture publicly available, and it’s mandating city jails and health centres to buy more locally grown food. Urban farming in New York is growing at what one city councilor there described as “an astounding rate”.

Citizens, schools, community centres, seniors’ centres, hospitals and neighbourhood groups, architects, planners and a new breed of commercial urban farmers are jumping into local food growing with a vengeance. Politicians should be making this good work easier, and respecting it in every way possible.

Dirk Becker in his garden in Lantzville, B.C.

 

Fighting this tide could land you in the mud. While Victoria has joined a growing list of cities that allow commercial sales of produce grown on city lots, Lantzville, near Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, has attracted international outrage for persecuting urban farmers. Lantzville resident Dirk Becker and his partner Nicole Shaw live on a 2.5-acre residentially-zoned lot and make $20,000 a year at farmers’ markets selling produce grown on their property. While Becker has lovingly restored the property by piling up sawdust and compost to replace the original soil that was mined and sold by the previous owner, his neighbour prefers the manicured estate look of the golf course that abuts both their properties. The neighbour has the ear of the local council, which last fall ordered Becker and Shaw to “remove all piles of soil and manure” from their property and boulevard and “cease all agricultural activities”. The order was based on a bylaw that says, vaguely, that residentially-zoned properties cannot “grow crops”.

Becker’s case has drawn hundreds of his supporters to public meetings and attracted international attention, positioning Lantzville as a gross aberration of a sustainable town, where petty partisan process trumps common sense. Why would a town on an island where 95% of food is imported not do everything possible to encourage local food production?

The mayor counters that he and his council are concerned about manure and woodchip deliveries to the property, encroachment on the neighbour’s property, traffic and water supply contamination—all non-issues from what I can tell. The dispute is, unbelievably, headed for the courts.

 

Dirk Becker's garden (left) vs. neighbour's different approach to rural residential living (right)

 

I drove down the dead end road to Becker’s semi-rural property in August, and found it to be neatly kept, odourless, and totally alive with squash, beans, chard, raspberries, carrots, potatoes and myriad other foods. To consider it a blight on the neighbourhood would require a massive stretch of the imagination and an unhealthy sprinkling of bad blood between neighbours.

Politicians everywhere should be wary of the lessons from Lantzville. Attacking urban agriculture these days is a mug’s game.

“Most of us in the well-fed world give little thought to where our food comes from or how it is grown,” writes Charles Siebert in the July, 2011 issue of National Geographic. “We steer our shopping carts down supermarket aisles without realizing that the apparent bounty is a shiny stage set held up by increasingly shaky scaffolding.”

People are responding by growing more, not less, food in cities everywhere. Successful politicians will be out in front of this parade.

This column originally appeared in the Sept. 20, 2011 issue of Business in Vancouver, www.biv.com

Peter Ladner’s book, The Urban Food Revolution, Changing the Way We Feed Cities, appears in bookstores Nov. 1, 2011, published by New Society, www.newsociety.com. Advance orders here.

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