Victoria is growing up fast. Can we balance urban food production with housing?

by Trina McDonald

ON A CLEAR MORNING, a week before the winter solstice, slivers of light overtake trees and distant buildings, strike the frost-covered ground, and awaken microbial life in the soil from a cold slumber. It’s one of the rare mornings when Jessie Brown and Julia Ford of Mason Street Farm are not outside in the garden—it’s too cold to work the soil.

From inside the old house, the 30-something-year-old farmers, with perpetually tan skin and strong hands, look out over neat rows of frigid salad greens, greenhouses, and chicken coops. Speaking about farm life, Brown lights up. “One of the things I see most in strangers is a sense of awe that this exists in the middle of the city,” he says.

It’s true. If not for the clang of metal and roar of machinery across the road, you could forget the city around you. By February of 2019, the machines will be gone, but so will the rays of mid-winter sunshine now warming the furthest reaches of the farm, as the ironically named BlueSky Properties development will block the light.

Buildings are rising into Victoria’s skyline at an astonishing clip; new residential building permits have gone up almost 30 per cent since late 2015 and 58 per cent over the past seven years. You can see the rate of growth by glancing up from street level anywhere in downtown Victoria; the cranes and skeletons of new structures rise like towering creatures. A real-estate boom has lured large development firms that promise to improve the crisis of a 0.5 per cent vacancy rate (the lowest in the country) and serve Victoria’s expected population increase of 20,000 people (above the 85,000 current residents) in the next 30 years.

Simultaneously, another kind of development is taking off in Victoria. Urban farming sites are springing up in backyards, vacant lots, and on rooftops across the city. Urban food production and affordable housing are priorities to many of Victoria’s citizens and officials, but the task of balancing growth with community values is not straightforward—it happens one decision, one policy, and one relationship at a time.

Greens growing at Mason St in the sun with construction and a crane in the background.

North Park is one of Victoria’s oldest and most diverse neighbourhoods, encompassing about a square kilometre between Cook, Blanshard, and Bay streets and Pandora Avenue. At its heart, the section of Mason Street where the farm sits looks like a rural laneway: small, old houses and the farm on one side, a children’s park and, until recently, the St. Andrews school-field on the other. The street’s single direction deters traffic and emboldens cyclists and people pushing strollers and shopping carts to occupy its centre on their way downtown. BlueSky, a division of Bosa Properties, will change that ambulatory vibe. The giant crater where the school once stood will soon be occupied by a mid-rise mixed residential and commercial building. What some see as the efficient use of space that sat empty after the school moved in 2013, others mourn as the first of many losses to come.

Over the three years between Bosa’s first proposal in 2012 and the final decision in October 2015, the North Park Neighbourhood Association (NPNA) voiced fervent significant concerns in conversations with the developers and letters to the City of Victoria. The building’s single-mass lacked safe pathways and green space for the community. Houses on Mason Street and the park would be shaded out and traffic would increase along the bike- and pedestrian-friendly greenways of Mason Street and Vancouver Avenue. Bosa’s revisions included lowering the Mason Street side from six to three stories and providing courtyard gardening space for residents, as well as 11 units of below market-value rental housing. Still, the NPNA did not think its concerns were adequately addressed.

At the final hearing at city hall on Oct. 8, 2015, people stood shoulder-to-shoulder. Supporters of the development in suits and neatly coiffed hair murmured and shook hands, while opponents in jeans and colourful fabrics held squirming babies, hugged each other, and hoped for the best. The room buzzed with opposing viewpoints about the neighbourhood’s future. City councillors faced a difficult decision: choose a plan that many considered imperfect, or hold out for a better offer and risk the site sitting dormant. After hours of debate, and despite Mayor Helps’ final comments that the land-use process was “flawed” because it failed to support council in its strategic plan to “innovate and lead” and “engage and inspire community,” city council voted six to three in favour of BlueSky.

The development’s potential impacts on Mason Street Farm fuelled the opposition. From Victoria’s first intensive backyard chicken operation to its recently developed aquaponics system and internship program, the farm has influenced policy and opened eyes to urban farming since it opened in 1989. Mayor Helps—herself an urban food producer—and city councillors wanted to know the potential impacts. Those were difficult for owner and operations manager Jessie Brown to predict. Many variables determine how a site responds to new conditions. From shade castings, he knows large portions of the farm will be completely shaded out for a few months of the year. This has never happened before.

“The ground has always gotten sun,” says Brown. The loss of light will shorten the growing season and could impact the long-term viability of the business. Unfortunately, the farm’s lack of tenure or protective covenant means the landowner could sell or re-develop at any time, so the farm’s fate had little influence on the final decision.

According to City of Victoria senior planner Kristina Bouris, North Park is part of the urban core, an area that will house approximately half of the 20,000 people the city plans to accommodate over the next 30 years. Bouris says the vision for the city is to bring “people into downtown, to not just visit and work, but also to live.”

However, BlueSky could help displace some current residents. Regardless of how Mason Street Farm adapts to new conditions, Brown says his real concern is “gentrification.” He survives on his farmer’s income. “North Park is one of the last places that people can afford to live in Victoria,” he says, as the wood stove battles the draft from his single-pane windows. “People who are not making $60,000 a year or more.”

Bosa’s agreement to keep 198 units in the rental market for 10 years won over councillors. But for the 42 per cent of North Park residents who live below the poverty line, all 209 units (including those below market-value) will remain out of reach—as will the food growing in the courtyard garden. Neighbours spoke in favour of holding out for a development that would affordable housing directly address housing insecurity and social issues related to the site’s proximity to a planned supervised consumption site and Our Place, a drop-in centre for homeless people. “We want to help make the conditions better, as opposed to pushing people somewhere else,” says Jenny Farkas of the NPNA.

“North Park is one of the last places
that people can afford to live in Victoria.”

Meanwhile, not everyone appreciates North Park’s “gritty” character. There are different ways you can interpret what Bosa Properties senior vice president Daryl Simpson meant when he told the Times Colonist that the development “will act as a catalyst for the renewal of the neighbourhood.” Brown believes it means property values will rise, motivating landlords, including his, to sell.

THE FUTURE OF THE CITY

Victoria’s proliferating construction brings to mind science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s story about the planet Trantor. Urbanization covered the planet’s surface and forced its civilization to rely on outlying planets for food. A limited land-base puts Victoria in a similarly precarious situation. The many factors and viewpoints planners must consider when striking a balance between development and food make it easy to see how Trantor got it wrong.

Planning decisions centre around the Official Community Plan (OCP), updated in 2012, and 13 neighbourhood plans, 10 of which are under review. Bouris forays out of her office to hear the values and concerns of neighbourhood associations, First Nations, and stakeholders as she works on the updates. She has heard citizen support for urban food production “loud and clear.”

Even so, the OCP states, “Victoria will continue to rely on agricultural lands outside the city and the greater global food market to supply a large share of its food.” Though it seems to contradict support for urban farming, underlying this statement is the agricultural protection strategy of “densification.” Focusing development in the urban core, where schools, hospitals, jobs, and infrastructure like sewers and power stations already exist, preserves land. As a strategy for increasing the food supply, densifying is not enough. The rising cost of farmland, environmental impacts of industrial-scale agriculture, rampant development in farming regions, climate change’s effects on global food supplies, and the aging demographic of farmers complicate things.

For the City of Victoria, concedes Bouris, “there are no easy answers.”

Julia Ford suggests growing as much food as we can in the city. Besides being the nursery manager at Mason Street Farm, Ford is an Urban Farmers’ Alliance member and works with the LifeCycles Fruit Tree Project. She takes a permaculture perspective and envisions the challenge as a “food system puzzle,” starting in our own backyards and balconies, then moving outwards.

According to Ford, when urban food production is an afterthought—something to do if we have spare time and on land that is not currently needed—“we are continuing to put ourselves at the mercy of economic and environmental forces beyond our control.”

GROWING IN THE CITY

While the thrust of Victoria’s OCP is to get food from afield, the City has shown that it values urban agriculture. In the fall of 2015, the City embarked on a year-long initiative called “Growing in the City” to update and expand policies and regulations that support it. A food systems coordinator position was created, now occupied by Virginie Lavallée-Picard. She consults with the Victoria Urban Food Table, a committee that gives direction and input on food policies. The City also set up booths at summer markets where citizens shared their visions and raised their concerns. Recommendations included: allowing small-scale commercial farming in all zones, side-walk market stands, removing height restrictions on rooftop greenhouses, and providing voluntary guidelines for boulevard gardening. The resulting amendments simplified application processes, clarified the rules, and made it easier to run an agricultural business in the city.

Though the initiative and its outcomes were generally embraced, one proposed change was not. On Sept. 8, 2016, nearly a year after the approval of BlueSky’s development, many of the same folks were again lining up for the podium at city hall to speak against an amendment to the OCP’s Section 17 (on food systems). The proposed amendment would make food production “subservient to the density, built form, place character and use objectives in the Official Community Plan.” In Ford’s correspondence with director of planning Jonathan Tinny, he explained the policy intended to clarify to urban farmers that food production is an “ancillary activity” within the urban fabric and that farms could be displaced by development. As an example, Tinny said if an established farmer objected to a taller building blocking sunlight, the onus would be on the farmer to know the zoning on adjacent properties.

Ford thought the amendment was “weird.” She says, “it clearly undermines the stated intent of all of the other policies.” She carefully sifted through “Growing in the City” consultation records, finding concerns about aesthetics, smell, and rodents, but none about conflicts between food and development. At the public hearing, Coun. Ben Isitt asked Tinny what had inspired the amendment. He responded that it was from conversations with and feedback from the development community. In an interview, Tinny explained that city staff hoped the change would avoid future “farm versus development” conflicts caused by confusion between OCP policies that encourage growing things and “very strong policies” in regards to urban development.

As a result of what Ford calls “a lucky catch,” the mayor and council struck down the amendment, favouring a case-by-case approach to land use decisions. While the change may have mitigated conflicts by favouring development, Ford says the heavy-handed approach could have left urban farmers without recourse to debate adjacent land uses and therefore without the security to make long-term investments.

Many urban farms remain insecure due to their temporary status on lands held for future development. While Ford agrees with the use of marginal lands to grow food and applauds the creative ways it’s happening in Victoria, she worries that densification has become a red herring to quickly approve building projects. Ford wants the City to slow down and “keep an open mind” about how land could be used in alternative ways, such acts of reconciliation towards the Lekwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ peoples, whose unceded territories it is, or to feed and house the homeless. “It’s important to hold that kind of space,” she says, “and not automatically and reflexively privilege development without looking at who it is for and who is benefiting.”

“Ultimately,” says Ford, “we are looking at the future of cities.”

Julia Ford planting peas at Mason Street
Julia Ford plants peas at Mason Street City Farm in March 2017

THE NEXT LEVEL

The term “small-scale urban food production” used by the City of Victoria clarifies that the conversation is not just about urban farms. Many see balcony and rooftop gardens as a viable middle ground, allowing buildings to be the primary land-use objective while simultaneously improving food security. Urban Food Table co-chair Aaren Topley says, “it is really important for us not to pit food security against development.” Topley warns against the “slippery slope” of saying densification goes against Victoria’s urban food production goals. “There is a way to bridge those two pieces together,” he says.

The urban agriculture business Topsoil is a prime example. In 2015, a rooftop on Blanshard Street between Fort and Broughton teemed with tomatoes and salad greens headed for nearby restaurants. Topsoil owner Chris Hildreth has worked for four years to develop his scalable, mobile model. The mountain of logistical barriers required to place his containers and workers on the roof (engineering certifications, WorkSafe BC permits, insurance, and municipal approval) would have scared off many developers, but Hildreth found early support in the Jane and Suzanne Bradbury of Fort Properties. They emphasize health and sustainability and were excited to help him bring his trial garden to life.

In 2016, Topsoil began its first official year of operation in a temporarily unused gravel lot on the Dockside Green development in Vic West. Topsoil grew over 7,000 pounds of produce for three restaurants. With that lot now under development, Hildreth negotiated a new space with Dockside, where he envisions growing 100,000 pounds of produce over the next two years. “We are going to take it to the next level,” he says.

Topsoil models how developers and food producers can work together. According to one [year] University of Victoria study, Vancouver Island needs around 350,000 hectares (a hectare is a similar size to a football field) more farmland than is held in the Agricultural Land Reserve to feed the current population with a vegetarian diet. Hildreth believes farms on gravel lots and rooftops are a viable solution that could rival what Victoria gets from California.

WHERE URBAN FARMING FITS IN

Arguably, rooftop gardens will not make ground-level urban farming obsolete. There’s more at stake than salad greens. The Urban Farmers’ Alliance represents some of Victoria’s more visible urban farms: Mother Felker Farms, City Harvest Co-operative, Donald St. Farm, and Mason Street. Their food is available at local restaurants, through C.S.A’s and box programs, at market stalls, and, as a result of a new City bylaw, it will soon be sold at urban farm stands.

Julia Ford says the alliance was formed to share marketing resources and provide a cohesive voice. She has heard the argument that the amount of food provided by these sites will never feed us all. “No one is arguing this,” she says. While Ford advocates for urban food production to build a more resilient food system, she adds, “there are social, environmental, and spiritual benefits that come with that.”

The central focus of Mason Street and other local urban farms is education, fulfilling an OCP goal of providing the skills, knowledge, and resources people need to grow their own food. School groups and tours come through the hand-made bicycle-rim gate and a steady stream of people use the farm for less formal learning opportunities.

The therapeutic benefits of urban farms like Mason Street are more challenging to articulate to policy makers. When citizens say they walk down Mason Street because they like the way the farm smells, Jessie Brown tells them it’s the microbial life in the soil. Government workers show up on their lunch hour to flip compost, “just to get that release and to be doing something natural.” While parks have some of those benefits, Brown says that “this is basically a park that produces and people can interact with.”

If we’re talking quantity of celery sticks, urban farms could be replaced by rooftop gardens. But Brown doesn’t think “the average Joe is going to have the ability to grow food on a rooftop.” It’s difficult and expensive to transport soil, tools, and water to a spot that might suffer from an excess of sunlight. “It’s such a harsh environment,” he says.

By contrast, the accessibility of urban farms and community gardens encourage city dwellers to learn about growing food. As densification and gentrification threaten urban farmers who don’t own their land, stakeholders are looking for other solutions.

BUILDING SOIL AND RELATIONSHIPS

Take your bicycle on the ferry and head across the Salish Sea. The SkyTrain zips you and your ride into Vancouver, where you can link up with bike routes into urban neighbourhoods. You will soon come across a community garden, with hand-painted signs, homemade benches, and trellised peas and raspberries. At last count, Vancouver boasts 120 community gardens, 50 per cent on city-owned lands. (Victoria has six community gardens and two orchards.) Many were a direct result of Vancouver’s 2013 Food Strategy, which aims to increase food assets by 50 per cent for 2020. The strategy includes community gardens and orchards, community kitchens and compost centres, along with supporting organizations to run them. By fall 2016, Vancouver reached a 42 per cent increase in assets and earned a Milan Pact Award, which supports cities’ efforts to strengthen urban food systems. “There is a lot of momentum,” says Vancouver social planner James O’Neill.

Victoria has followed the big city’s lead and borrowed Vancouver’s boulevard gardening guidelines, releasing an inventory of city-owned land that can be used for food production. Still, there is more to gain, such as Vancouver’s efforts to bridge ethno-cultural gaps in the food movement through engagement and grants to cultural organizations that work on food issues. The Vancouver Park Board has enabled the strategy’s success by allowing food-related uses in city parks. So far, Victoria has not shown the political will to have more than what Coun. Ben Isitt calls “a smattering” of edible plants in parks. He hopes to see support for this action in the soon-to-be-released Parks Master Plan.

Further abroad, the urban food movement received a boost in 2016 when three organizations based in London, Oslo, and Stockholm donated a total of $8.7 million US to form the EAT Foundation, which lobbies policymakers to transform the global food system. EAT held a conference on urban food systems at the UN General Assembly last September. Organizers offered examples such as the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, which Vancouver signed on to, as well as strong procurement and distribution policies to support urban agriculture.

Urban farming is about more than digging in the dirt; it requires a vision and constant policy tweaking to get it right. Vancouver has learned that if you build community gardens, you still need people with skills and leadership to fill them. That’s where farmers like Ford and Brown come in. The hours they spend nurturing their gardens and communities make them the true assets of the movement. As developers race to cash in on gentrification and densification, Ford and Brown’s bottom lines include maintaining our delicate relationship with the land, reconciling with First Nations, and feeding and housing a growing number of people in need. And they need as much support from the City as they can get.

People often ask Brown why farmers want special treatment. He tells them to consider where we’d be if produce was sold at its true cost and then replies: “Honestly, it’s because we are special.”

A late start to Victoria’s spring hasn’t held back Mason Street’s farmers. In February, Brown and Ford are prepping beds and making plans. It’s still possible, as Mayor Helps suggested at the BlueSky public hearing, for the community to form a land trust, raise funds to buy the farm, and turn it into the community “hub” that Brown envisions—where people walk over with wheelbarrows to pick up mulch and chat about the weather.

Or the owner could sell to a developer, as many others are doing. Despite an uncertain future for farming in the North Park neighbourhood, Brown and Ford continue to plant seeds.

 

This article appeared in our Spring/Summer 2017 issue. Photo credit Kingtide Films.

Did you enjoy this article? Subscribe here!