Harvesting Food Not Angst from Agricultural Urbanism
At Large: Peter Ladner
This article from Business in Vancouver
May 18-24, 2010; issue 1073
While Metro Vancouver is gradually piecing together a consensus on the next regional growth strategy, a battle is raging in Delta over a piece of prime farmland with a toxic political background.
Almost 600 people packed a recent public meeting to discuss Delta’s official community plan, now under review, many of them driven by opposition to Tsawwassen developer Sean Hodgin’s plans to put 1,900 homes and an unprecedented agricultural development on the 538-acre farm once owned by farmer-turned-developer George Spetifore. Spetifore’s 1970 attempt to put 2,000 sprawling houses and a golf course on the site – then in the agricultural land reserve (ALR) – led to the longest public hearing in Canadian history. That application, like seven others after it, was turned down. In 1981, the land was taken out of the ALR by the provincial cabinet, against the advice of soil experts at the Agricultural Land Commission. The land is now in the Metro Vancouver Green Zone, designated for agriculture, which means its fate is dependent on, first, the Delta council and its official community plan, then the Metro Vancouver board.
Our agricultural land is at a premium and needs to be protected.
But for what? Is mere protection enough to keep agricultural lands in production, especially at the urban edge? Hodgins’ opponents want a “referendum” question on the ballot in the upcoming Delta municipal byelection: “Do you wish all of Southlands to remain agricultural land?”
If only it were that simple. A more realistic question would be: do you wish all of Southlands to remain vacant agricultural land? Spetifore gave up on his 42-year-old farm in 1970 because he said he couldn’t compete with imported food. The economics of farming for local food production are worse today.
Hodgins assembled some of the brightest minds in North America, including New Urbanism rock star Andrés Duany, to put together a plan for the land that starts with the premise that simply protecting our agricultural lands is not helping us feed ourselves.
Farmers are getting older (average age now 55 to 60), food prices are still too low for farmers to make a decent living growing for the local market and much of ALR land adjacent to built-up areas is either fallow or being cut up into non-producing “hobby farms” with large houses, pools, driveways and outbuildings.
In return for 1,900 homes, some multi-family, on a third of the land, Hodgins is offering to dedicate the other two-thirds to a mix of parkland, a training centre for young farmers, a farmer’s market and food-growing plots ranging from backyard gardens to commercial farms. All the amenities would be subsidized by the land lift from the rezoning, with the 40% dedicated to agriculture protected under a community trust. The detailed plan, worked out in consultation with Tsawwassen residents, is part of a larger movement to bring food production into our urban communities. A new book edited by Janine de la Salle and Mark Holland of HB Lanarc Consultants, Agricultural Urbanism: a Handbook for Building Sustainable Food and Agriculture Systems in 21st Century Cities (www.hblanarc.ca) outlines the wider range of thinking on making our cities more resilient to the pending breakdown of our cheap, imported food sources. (I contributed a chapter on the economic potential of urban agriculture.)
If you look at the Southlands development as a way for a developer to dress up the rape of agriculture in fancy concepts, it’s easy to agree with his opponents that agricultural urbanism is “one of the greatest threats to farmland and food security that BC has ever seen.”
But are the residents of Tsawwassen prepared to offer more density in their neighbourhoods to finance local food production so we can use our scarce supply of farmland to “grow food, not houses?” If not, what’s their solution to putting our precious agricultural lands back into local food production?
Peter Ladner (email@example.com) is a founder of Business in Vancouver and a former Vancouver city councillor. Business in Vancouver (www.biv.com) has been publishing in-depth local business news, analysis and commentary since 1989. The newspaper also produces a weekly ranked list of the biggest companies and players in a wide range of B.C. industries and commercial sectors, monthly features and industry-focused sections that arm its subscribers with a complete package of local business intelligence each week.