Policy brief: How Toronto can leverage the benefits of urban agriculture

I researched, wrote and designed this policy brief as part of an assignment for a course at Ryerson University , “Community Development and Food Security,” in Spring 2020.

Executive Summary:

Toronto’s underutilized public-owned spaces and many vacant lots present an opportunity for the city to capitalize on the widespread benefits of urban agriculture. Urban farming and gardening offer economic, health, community development and environmental benefits to cities and their residents. However, in order to facilitate these activities, Toronto City Council must evaluate available land and remove existing barriers to urban agriculture in the city’s Official Plan, by-laws and zoning.

Recommendations:

  • • Endorse urban agriculture in the Official Plan
  • • Conduct an inventory of city-owned and private-owned land that could be used for agriculture 
  • • Conduct analysis of impact of potential tax incentives to encourage urban agriculture
  • • Amend by-laws and zoning to legitimize non-profit and for-profit urban agriculture

Nestled among the high-rises in Toronto’s St. James Town neighbourhood lie vibrant community gardens – splashes of greenery where community members congregate to nurture the land and reap its rewards. In this dense neighbourhood, where 40% live in poverty and 90% of households are renters, urban agriculture increases access to fresh produce and nature, and builds community. 

This type of success story could be replicated throughout Toronto on a much wider scale – rather than an ad hoc basis – were the City to put legislative measures in place to encourage and enable it. Urban agriculture’s economic, community and environmental benefits render it an invaluable tool for municipalities to improve residents’ lives. In order to leverage urban agriculture most effectively, it is essential for Toronto City Council to prioritize urban agriculture in city planning and ensure underused land can be used for this purpose. And there is land available. A 2010 study found that for Toronto to produce 10% of its fresh vegetables requirements, it would need 2,317 hectares of food production area. About 25% of the rooftops suitable for greening in Toronto would provide over 1,200 hectares alone, with lands currently zoned for food production and industrial uses, small plots, land in hydro corridors and institutional lands making up the difference.

We urge council to capitalize on this potential by supporting, through legislation, food production on temporarily vacant private land and public land wherever possible.

Benefits of urban agriculture

There are myriad advantages of using public land and vacant private lots for agricultural purposes. These include economic, environmental and community benefits. 

Economic benefits

Agricultural activities on both public-owned and temporarily vacant private land can reduce costs for the city. When public landed is maintained by gardeners and farmers, the city’s maintenance costs go down. Vacant private land used for agriculture will no longer rely on city resources to police and maintain. 

Urban agriculture can also bolster incomes, create jobs and encourage skills development. Urban farming creates jobs in growing, producing and selling food. Community groups and businesses can generate income selling produce through farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture and mobile produce carts, for instance, as well as to restaurants. Research shows that a $1 investment in urban agriculture generates $6 in fresh produce. Researchers in Ohio have estimated that – with the right crops and growing techniques – urban farmers can gross up to $90,000 per acre. Furthermore, urban agriculture can have a multiplier effect, attracting industries and creating jobs in areas such as agriculture equipment, processing facilities, markets, landscaping and green roof construction.  Volunteers engaged in urban farming and gardening also benefit through the development of transferable skills such as food preparation, sales, business management and teamwork.

Environmental benefits

Urban agriculture helps beautify cities by filling in vacant lots or neglected plots of land with productive greenery. This can help residents feel more connected to the environment around them, which may encourage them to take more action to preserve and protect it. Urban farming can increase local food distribution, thus displacing produce previously imported by truck from places such as Florida and California, which helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (Urban-produced produced should not be used to supplant fruits and vegetables cultivated just outside of urban bounds, as this provides little advantage in terms of greenhouse gase reductions and can harm the regional or provincial economy.) Urban agriculture also presents an opportunity for municipalities to make more efficient use of organic waste, by composting it and making it available to urban farmers and gardeners.

Community benefits

One of the primary benefits of urban agriculture is that it can help increase access to healthy food, especially among lower-income people living in areas that are under-served by food retail. It helps alleviate hunger and enhance nutrition, while improving health through the greening of the environment. When urban agriculture is paired with educational programming, children and adults can learn about nutrition, food preparation, agriculture and food systems, which can have positive effects on health and well-being. 

Furthermore, urban agriculture can also help strengthen and revitalize communities. It can imbue residents with a sense of pride and belonging, while also attracting new people to the community. Additionally, productive green spaces give people an opportunity to come together to work toward a common goal, which can help break down barriers. 

How municipal policy can support urban agriculture

The City of Toronto should take a strong position to endorse urban agriculture in order to reap its benefits. The first step toward this should be to strengthen the language in the City’s Official Plan to enthusiastically highlight urban agriculture as a key element of the city’s growth and development, and as a crucial contributor to a vibrant and healthy urban environment. The power of an official declaration of support can be seen in the case of Detroit (see p. 2). Toronto City Council should also consider the following policy actions. 

Land inventory

It is difficult to understand the full potential of urban agriculture in Toronto without a clear picture of the spaces where it could take place. An urban land inventory could identify city-owned plots of land and temporarily vacant private lots and rooftops. As identified by GrowTO, “Such an inventory would not only provide a clear picture of the city’s food-growing potential, but it would also provide an enormously valuable resource for community groups and commercial ventures alike to help them identify suitable spaces for food growing.” A land inventory could inform the development of a land bank used to connect people wishing to farm or garden with available land.

Tax incentives

To encourage urban agriculture by private enterprise, the city could allow vacant lots to be taxed at a lower rate if they are repurposed for agricultural purposes. This would encourage development, bolster local industry and result in a more food being produced within the city. However, preferential taxation does risk enabling “land grabbing” and could be exploited by businesses if regulations do not prevent it. The city should also take care to ensure that businesses are not prioritized over community groups or non-profits, which provide an additional public good. 

Bylaws and zoning

To accommodate urban agriculture, Toronto may need to amend any restrictive by-laws relating to soil (e.g. compost); water (e.g. sewers, access to); structures and sites (e.g. fences, signs); trees (e.g. planting, removal); parks; animals; and noise. Care must be taken to ensure that urban agriculture activities do not negatively affect nearby residents, but also that bylaws do not impede gardens and farms that are maintained respectfully.

The City may also need to evaluate and update zoning by-laws to legitimize urban agriculture activities. This can be accomplished by defining urban agriculture in zoning as a distinct form of use permitted in all zones, or at least a wider array of zones. Zoning permitting urban agriculture will also need to specify that food production and related activities are permitted for both commercial and non-commercial purposes. These updates are important because they encourage urban agriculture and offer guidelines to municipal staff and city residents about which agricultural land uses are permitted. 

Detroit makes way for greener future

In 2013, Detroit’s city council passed its urban agriculture ordinance, paving the way for expansion of a movement that had already taken root in the city. In a city with tens of thousands of vacant and unmaintained lots, as well as 75,000 abandoned residential structures, this municipal directive was transformative. The ordinance protects urban farming and gardening, and allows both small-scale and large-scale farmers to sell their harvest. Detroit has even seen proposals such ambitious undertakings as proposals for intensive vertical farms and fish farms. As of fall 2019, the city was home to nearly 1,400 community gardens and farms.

The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI), a volunteer-driven, non-profit organization, is an example of urban agriculture’s transformative power in Detroit. This three-acre farm has earned the neighbourhood the designation of an “agrihood” – a national development designation. While some agrihoods are geared toward wealthier residents, MUFI is focused on alleviating food insecurity. Its urban garden provides free, fresh produce to about 2,000 nearby households; community members can come to the garden to harvest on Saturday mornings. MUFI also engages the community other ways. It has organized neighbourhood cleanups, invites children to interact with nature through its Sensory Garden and is developing a Community Resource Center that will offer educational programming and meeting spaces. Its projects have drawn corporate partnerships, highlighting the ability of urban agriculture to drive neighbourhood investment and transformation. 

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