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The Ring - CCxA

Round Table

Urban spaces that feed us

From community gardens to agriburbs

Moderated by Nadja Pausch, OALA, CSLA


Karen Landman had a passion for gardening from a young age, which led to her academic interests and a career in Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, and eventually to graduate work in Planning and Geography. She became a full-time Landscape Architecture faculty member at the University of Guelph in 2002; she conducts research on green infrastructure which includes urban agriculture. With Bryan McPherson, Karen recently published an article on urban agriculture design guidelines in the African Journal of Landscape Architecture: www.ajlajournal.org/issue/edible-landscapes. In 2021 Karen received the OALA Honorary Member award.

Ron Koudys, OALA, FCSLA, is president of Ron Koudys Landscape Architects Inc. with Ontario offices in London and Windsor. After a 31-year career as a professor of Landscape Design at Fanshawe College Ron retired to continue his focus on private practice and community service. A son of Dutch immigrants, he grew up on a farm and started working in the family landscape business when he was nine years old.

Melana Roberts is a federal and municipal food policy strategist and food justice advocate based in Toronto, with experience in local procurement, student nutrition, urban agriculture and emergency food planning. She has been a member of the Toronto Food Policy Council, former Chair of the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council, and serves as Chair of Food Secure Canada. Melana is a founding member of the Black Food Sovereignty Alliance, has participated on the Farmers For Climate Solutions’ Task Force, and sits on the Leaders Table of the national Food Communities Network.

Nadja Pausch, OALA, CSLA, is a Ground Editorial Board Member and Chair. Nadja Works as a landscape architect at a multidisciplinary design office in Toronto.

Guelph Centre for Urban Organic Farming, University of Guelph. IMAGE/ Karen Landman

Nadja Pausch: Our guiding topic is the role urban areas have to produce food. Design skills, analytical land-based experience, and spatial knowledge should position landscape architects for pivotal roles in urban agriculture. What is the current role of landscape architects in urban food production, how should it evolve, and what would it take to get us there?

Melana Roberts: The first thing that strikes me is the idea urban spaces themselves have agency. We should start with the people in the context, versus the idea urban settings should be or look a certain way. In most places landscape architects are developing, there are people. Understanding the relationship between people and their current environment, their needs, how food plays into that, those are important questions in rural contexts as well, and understanding the interplay between rural and urban is one of the greatest opportunities when thinking about roles of landscape architects. Because that’s often the scope of what needs to be considered when developing a place from a food systems perspective. It’s often a challenge because you’re only thinking about that immediate environment and the interplay between the rural and urban context as it relates to food.

One of the biggest opportunities to create more climate informed, integrated, and sustainable environments, is building that connection, understanding how we’re creating procurement flows, how people are moving, what job markets look like in those spaces, and how food can be a driver and facilitator. The opportunity for landscape architects is about how we create landscapes for humans, for employment, and for all those other good things people are going to do in spaces. Connecting people in an immediate environment, but also ensuring the places we’re building are responsive and sustainable.

When you create environments like that, you’re setting up the tools for people to have access to food, information, and resources, and allowing them to be adaptive over time and respond to the frequently shifting food needs of a particular place.

Urban chicken farm in Toronto. IMAGE/ Chickens in the Six / Michael T. Photography & Design Inc.

Karen Landman: Landscape architects can think about landscapes at different scales and imagine the connections between, say, the Greenbelt, or Holland Marsh and the food production there, to the City of Toronto. As Melana says, stepping away from the peri-urban into the urban and what is appropriate in those landscapes for food production.

Of course, whether you’re an urban, peri-urban, or rural farmer, you’ve got to make a living, so is the farmer being supported as well as the food production? That’s a critical piece. Peri-urban landscapes can really alter the work environment for a farmer, to the point where it’s difficult to produce food—whether it’s crazy traffic coming through the Holland Marsh when the 400 highway shuts down, the loss of suppliers, veterinarians, whatever it might be.

That’s at a bigger scale. At the local scale, think about the resources we have, but also what should be conserved for the purpose of food. Don’t make food production an afterthought, patching it in wherever you can. Think of it as one of the amenities of an urban environment, and design it so it’s a positive, productive, culturally appropriate space that makes good use of soil resources, and understand the microclimate and the cultural context, because that can vary immensely from neighbourhood to neighbourhood.

Vegetable gardens near Juan Gualberto Gómez Airport, Cuba. IMAGE/ Ron Koudys

Ron Koudys: Landscape architects work at a whole variety of scales. I think about some of the community gardens we developed as a part of parkland, or a residential development high-rise apartment building. We do a lot of rooftop work, a lot of seniors care work—using growing food as part of therapy, especially for those with dementia, is an important thing. We do a lot of work in resorts looking at food sustainability and tourism, and developing gardens that grow crops to be used for the resort.

One of the interesting things I’ve been working on at a larger scale, which deals with zoning issues and how we define our cities today, is the agriburb. A friend of mine is working on one in North Carolina right now, where smaller, rural communities with infrastructure in place, that are failing because people have migrated to the city, start looking at developing land as new, sustainable, off-grid type housing, and marrying it with the agricultural community. You end up with contracts with homeowners where food is delivered to them that has been grown in their backyard. Rather than expecting people to have the skills necessary to grow food, it can be done around them. But when you look at zoning permits, when we design our communities we say, ‘where will the roads go, the sewers, the high-rise, high-density housing?’ The bits and pieces of green space left aren’t integrated into our thinking. The green world should have as much priority as the other colours on the zoning map, and has to be integrated early on. The CSLA conference in Cuba was interesting because they were converting their parks to market gardens, because of proximity to the market, getting away from mowed lawns and beginning to integrate more productive types of land use. That’s what the agriburbs are envisioning: where you’re living in your food source.

Urban food production in Havana, Cuba. IMAGE/ Karen Landman

MR: The increased capacity to have more local resilience in food producti n is something landscape architects can play a role in, in terms of how we plan neighborhoods. Also, having urban agriculture zoning as a standard and landscape architects championing how it can benefit different planning initiatives is key.

I lived in a Toronto neighbourhood called Regent Park: this huge social housing neighborhood which is still under redevelopment. One of the changes was the integration of fruit trees throughout the large park space there. Every summer, you would see local communities in that area of various ethnicities accessing culturally-appropriate fruits growing on those trees and harvesting them. Whether that was directly responding to food insecurity, or just a community initiative, it’s an important way to get people out in their environment, connecting with local parks and amenities.

RK: If we’re going to feed the world, we’ve got to think at a bigger scale. Little backyard gardens have a role to play, but you have to remember we’re a winter environment and people have to eat all year round. In Montreal, the world’s largest greenhouse is on the roof of an industrial building. These are the kinds of things we’ve got to think about when we’re adding three billion people to the world soon, with all of us living on two per cent of the Earth’s land area.

I grew up on a farm and we grew most of our food. I had a chicken coop, we raised rabbits, had a huge vegetable garden, my mother was always canning and freezing, but it was part of our culture. People today, especially in urban sites, are not culturally adept, they don’t know how to grow food. Community gardens tend to be more about community than gardening, and if we’re going to really be serious about feeding the world, we have to work at scale.

Fresh City Farms, Downsview Park, Toronto. IMAGE/ Karen Landman

NP: Whether urban agriculture is a corporate, individual, or collective enterprise, what is the policy framework and planning required to support local food production?

KL: It’s important to have policy at the municipal level that not only enables but mandates space for urban food production. I had a project helping a neighbourhood in Hamilton envision what kind of urban farm they wanted on a seven-acre plot of land that was a runway during the Second World War for training pilots. For over sixty years, the only person on it was the guy on the lawn mower. The people around that space were new immigrants: they came from rural areas and knew how to farm. They weren’t familiar with the climate or soil, but they wanted an opportunity to grow food there.

We ran a workshop, brought in staff from the City and a team from Guelph who knew a lot about food production. One of the outcomes was the Director of Planning at the time saying they needed to establish policy for the entire city, not just for this site, to enable and mandate urban agriculture production. It doesn’t mean urban agriculture is going to happen, but there’s no roadblock at City Hall. Also, thinking about real food production, as Ron said, it’s not just some cool hobby where you produce a few scruffy carrots, you want people who have the skills and knowledge to really produce food. So we suggested to the City they needed a Chief Farmer, just like a Chief of Police. They invested in someone who was very skilled at growing food, who was there on a part-time basis and also had a farm outside of town. The food production there is phenomenal, and farmers come from outside the city to learn what they’re doing there. They have a wonderful microclimate and it was an excellent pocket of soil with no issues in terms of contamination.

MR: The idea that scale is what’s going to solve food insecurity is a common misconception. Canada is one of the largest agricultural economies, we are a net importer/exporter, and predominantly made up of small-scale farmers. The amount of production from small-scale is enough to respond to local needs, but one of the largest challenges for farmers today is our infrastructure is not set up to allow them to serve local markets. That’s because, at a provincial level, we don’t have the right infrastructure to support that: whether that’s mass storage and distribution centers, or processing plants, we haven’t made those types of investments. It’s actually a lot easier to export for these smaller farmers than it is to serve local populations.

RK: One of the most efficient ways to convert organic material to protein is through chickens, and yet so many of our municipalities ban chickens in your backyard.

MR: I was actually part of developing the backyard hen pilot in Toronto, and I think it’s an incredible opportunity: it’s supporting soil production, and reconnecting people with their food.

Urban chicken farm in Toronto. IMAGE/ Chickens in the Six / Michael T. Photography & Design Inc.

KL: Guelph has had a chicken bylaw since its founding. They have a bylaw about the care of chickens. But if I had 10 chickens I wanted to slaughter to eat, it’s difficult because it’s illegal for me to slaughter them myself in my backyard. So where can I take my chickens? Are there people able to handle that? There’s an abattior in Guelph, but you’re not going to take 10 chickens to a big place like that. There’s a difference in scale there.

NP: One of the opportunities within urban areas is the ability to increase diversity and layer food systems. Farming doesn’t have to be a monoculture: how much diversity of produce can we bring to these spaces? How do we start to weave in reconciliation and decolonization, diversity, equity, accessibility, and climate resilience into the food conversation, especially in the urban realm?

RK: The issue of equity is about affordability: who can afford to eat well. Right now, when you look at the diet of people living marginal lifestyles, it’s not healthy. In order to eat fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, what’s a loaf of bread cost? Whole grain bread is like five times the amount of white. How do we provide access to quality foods for everybody?

I’m working with a client who’s exploring freeze drying as a way of preservation. Freeze dryers are inexpensive, and you can preserve the taste, nutrients, vitamins, and such. Governments could collaborate with communities and provide the resources necessary to preserve food so it can then be distributed to people when they need it, especially in winter.

McQuesten Urban Farm, Hamilton. IMAGE/ Karen Landman

KL: I used to can something like 100 jars of tomatoes every fall, and if I had access to a community kitchen, I could probably get it done in half the time, and potentially train other people on how, so that knowledge base is shared and quadrupled. It’s very difficult to maintain community kitchens because of all the public health requirements. It can put it out of reach in terms of affordability. But I think it’s important to come together to do these things.

MR: Often the simplest approaches are not centered in how we integrate some of the important concepts and commitments around reconciliation, equity, decolonization, and affordability. It’s really about bringing those principles and values in at the beginning, centering them instead of adding them as an afterthought, and co-design is an important way to do that. One of the challenges in working in communities that are marginalized or disenfranchised is we have a deficit approach of ‘what’s missing, what needs to be fixed, what are the challenges?’ But asking ‘what are the strengths, what’s working here, what have you built, what do we want to preserve,’ to build a common vision is important.

Also, particularly when we’re thinking about food and how we center those issues, 100 per cent, the main cause of food insecurity is a lack of access to income. Community gardens, where we build grocery stores, land access, capacity... all those things are important. But, really, it’s about access to income and improving affordability. Food in Canada is not that expensive. People aren’t earning adequate incomes to support themselves and live with dignity.

Urban chicken farm in Toronto. IMAGE/ Chickens in the Six / Michael T. Photography & Design Inc.

RK: I was just at the Chelsea Flower Show in London and met a group there whose focus was on green cities and sustainability. One of the feature gardens they had was produced by an agency that deals with homelessness in London, and they would provide shelter for homeless people on the condition they would get up in the morning and work in the garden. They could do as much or little as they were able, they just had to show up. They were taught about soil, growth, insects, disease, management, and growing food. It built a bridge between their life today and the life they might have. At the same time, they’re getting counseling, and healthcare advice.

I was amazed at the results, because a lot of the people who got up in the morning had purpose, their lives began to turn around, and they found jobs in the landscape industry because they loved being outside. It infused them with purpose. At the same time, it was a nurturing and caring environment that respected them.

NP: So many of the problems we see—especially issues like mental health and addiction—really come from a lack of community care and connection to the land. If we’re divorced from nature, we forget we’re natural beings, that we have evolved within community, we’ve evolved with the land.

MR: Having had the privilege of working with many urban Indigenous peoples, that’s something I’ve heard time and again: how integral land is to their culture and how they practice their traditions and teachings, and the divorce from that being a deficit contributing to the deterioration of their mental health or wellbeing. I don’t believe that’s unique to Indigenous peoples.

KL: Years ago, I did an urban agriculture road tour of Canada. At large-scale community gardens, I repeatedly saw gardeners had their own plots, but also grew food in communal plots that would go to food banks. Food banks are not a solution to hunger, but when you need food, they’re necessary. I also saw programming that dealt with, for example, at-risk youth. Bringing programming to community gardens is one way of dealing with the issue of access, diversity, and equity. Often that’s a stepping stone. Community gardens provide an opportunity to connect with services, or help people looking for culturally appropriate foods most people don’t know how to grow, let alone find in the store.

Urban chicken farm in Toronto. IMAGES/ Chickens in the Six / Michael T. Photography & Design Inc.

NP: Urban agriculture can be daunting for someone who doesn’t already understand what’s necessary to design these spaces. How much knowledge is required for landscape architects to design these spaces, or is it more about co-design with people who are already experts?

RK: I can’t think of a single university program at a school of landscape architecture that talks about this. I know people are graduating from university, never taking a plant ID course, let alone understanding botany or biology.

KL: At Guelph, we still do plant ID. It’s limited to the campus. We’re not studying the plants of Singapore, for example. You’re learning how to do plant ID, not learning a list of plants you’ll use forever. We do have on-campus connections. Landscape architecture at Guelph is within the Ontario Agricultural College because it was historically connected to horticulture, so there’s opportunity for students to learn. With my master’s students’ thesis projects, we brought in people from different departments with expertise. We have people studying how to grow food on Mars; it’s a closed-systems production, which can be beneficial in the urban environment, the Northern environment, or places without proper soil for in-ground production.

There are students who are really driven in this area of design. It’s important for landscape architects to have humility, and align themselves with soil scientists, microclimatologists or meteorologists who work in crop science. We can learn a lot from them. It’s important to connect with people who can give you help, advise, and critique your work.

MR: The idea of humility is spot on. You don’t need to have all the answers. It’s also the people who inhabit a place, or will, or are in need, who are also experts. Many Indigenous peoples, Black people, immigrants in those areas, are at the front line of those issues, so they truly understand them.

RK: I sat on the federal board of Sustainable Development Technology of Canada for eight years, and we invested a little over $2 billion on emerging clean technologies. One of the areas I encouraged focus on was carbon sequestration and sustainable practices in agriculture, and came across an interesting statistic: if we increase the carbon in the soil through tilling practices and putting organic material back, and the soil increased in organic content by one per cent, we would meet all of our Paris and Kyoto protocol requirements. Forget electric cars and everything else. We’re such a small population on such a huge land base that if we just focus on the 93 million square acres of agriculture we have, we could have a huge impact on global systems, just through the way we manage our agriculture.

Thanks to Nadja Pausch for coordinating this round table.