Food and urban agriculture strategy "Fresh" for Edmonton

Edmonton, Canada

Food production must be added to urban planning policy and legislation to increase the normality of urban agriculture in Edmonton

While growing food has always occurred in cities, particularly in the later part of the twentieth-century food production lost its legitimacy as an acceptable urban activity and subsequently was largely erased from most urban planning policy and legislation. But over the past two decades, growing numbers of citizens are challenging urban municipalities to support and enable urban agriculture, as they engage in activities to better feed the city. 

Development of Edmonton’s food and agriculture strategy, Fresh, included workshops, public education campaigns, and council hearings

This case study highlights how food activists within Edmonton mobilized local citizens to pressure City Council to change the parameters of what was up for debate regarding future urban development.

In response to the public mobilization, significant amendments were made to the Municipal Development Plan, putting on hold proposed residential and industrial developments in one of the few remaining agricultural regions in the city, and enabling the development of Fresh, Edmonton’s food and urban agriculture strategy. 


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City information
City
Edmonton

Size and population development
2011: 1,142,000; 1990: 831,000; 2025: 1,427,000; 2010-2015: +1.76% / year

Population composition
one quarter of the population belongs to a minority group

Main functions
known as the "festival city"; cultural and educational centre.

Main industries / business
oil and gas industries (important reserves)

Political structure
Mayor and City Council

Administrative structure
7 sectors divided up into 375 neighbourhoods

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Background and objectives

Edmonton is the capital city of Alberta, and the most northerly metropolitan region in Canada. As the gateway to Canada’s north and the Athabasca bitumen deposits, the region supports a strong economy fueled largely by the energy industry, and is one of Canada’s fastest growing municipalities. Edmonton is also located on some of the best agricultural soils in Canada, representing the highest concentration of Class 1 soils in Alberta. Yet Edmonton has the second largest ecological footprint (EF) in Canada (8.56 global hectares (gha)/ 21.15 acres per person), 30% larger than the Canada average EF (7.25 gha/ 17.9 acres per person) and 2.9 times larger than the average global EF of 2.7 gha/6.67 acres per person. Edmonton is a sprawling metropolis in which the automobile largely determines the structure of the city

Urban food strategies have the potential to act as strategic resources in advancing urban sustainability. While growing food has always occurred in cities, particularly in the latter part of the twentieth-century food production lost its legitimacy as an acceptable urban activity and subsequently was largely erased from most urban planning policy and legislation. But over the past two decades, growing numbers of citizens are challenging urban municipalities to support and enable urban agriculture, as they engage in activities to better feed the city. 

In spite of their many benefits, as the case study of Edmonton’s food strategy development will illustrate, many urban food strategies are caught in the ‘sustainability dilemma’. 

Implementation

The inception of Edmonton’s food and urban agriculture strategy, has its roots in Edmonton’s Municipal Development Plan and civic activism. Alberta legislation requires municipalities with populations over 3,500 to develop a Municipal Development Plan every 10 years. Development of Edmonton’s Plan began in 2006 and took more than four years to complete largely due to concerns raised by civic activists.

In 2008, City Council held the first public hearing on the draft Municipal Development Plan (City of Edmonton, 2010a). Prior to the hearing, a not-for profit network called GEA, (composed of civil society organizations such as unions, churches and local businesses that address pressing local issues) formed a Local Foods Team. GEA polled its membership on their opinions of the draft Municipal Development Plan and identified two issues of concern: food security and the preservation of prime farmland within city boundaries.

Through social media, kitchen and neighborhood meetings, GEA built public awareness about these issues and mobilized nearly 600 Edmontonians to attend the Municipal Development Plan hearing.

Historically, Council viewed food issues as beyond their mandate. However, they tabled the draft, requesting administration to report back on comparable municipal food and farmland policy initiatives.

Meanwhile GEA continued education and mobilization efforts, generating significant local media and pledges from more than 700 families to shift 40% of their current food dollars to purchase local food. The second public hearing was held June 2009 and was attended by 500 citizens. GEA presented a policy paper entitled, The Way We Eat, recommending amendments to the Municipal Development Plan to support urban agriculture and the preservation of Edmonton’s remaining agricultural lands. Councilors tabled the amendments for consideration.

That fall GEA and a potato farmer from the Horse Hill area in northeast Edmonton organized the Great Potato Giveaway. This one-off event brought 15,000 citizens to the agricultural lands in a single day and distributed freely more than 45,000 kg (99, 200 pounds) of potatoes. The event was a success for the organizers, generating local and national news stories that highlighted the significance of local food, and the need to protect and integrate agricultural lands into urban development. 

Financing and resources

Fresh received final council approval November 2012. The Strategy outlines five goals that establish its foundation, and nine strategic directions that provide the basis for action. Four out of five Executive Committee members voted in favour of the draft strategy. The councilor opposed to the Strategy supported GEA’s request for more in-depth cost analysis of the options for agricultural lands, as well as the insertion of more concrete recommendations and targets within Fresh. Council asked administration to prepare an implementation and budget for the Strategy and approved continuing funding of $150,000 annually to secure one full-time staff position to establish and support a food council.

Results and impacts

The efforts of many urban activists engaged in urban sustainability or food debates can be framed as attempts to create new ‘spaces of possibility and governmentality.’  Capitalizing on the upsurge of concern about food and the emergence of a ‘new food geography’ focused on supporting local food, the strategy process and GEA’s efforts were both successful and limited. 

In response to the public mobilization, significant amendments were made to the Municipal Development Plan, putting on hold proposed residential and industrial developments in one of the few remaining agricultural regions in the city, and enabling the development of Fresh, Edmonton’s food and urban agriculture strategy. 

If transformative change is to occur in association with municipal planning processes, there is a need to create spaces of possibility for discussion amongst a broad diversity of citizens concerning visions of sustainability, food and justice.

Barriers and challenges

In terms of building a transformative urban process that treats food and sustainability as more than ‘mere commodities,’ both GEA’s strategy and the framework provided by Fresh are incomplete in some significant ways.

GEA and other food activists created moments of disagreement, disaggregation, and disorder during the development of Fresh, all centred to transgressing the established order of governance. Nonetheless they were largely unsuccessful in challenging the framework that views agricultural enterprise as a regressive use of land when compared to the short term profits associated with residential and commercial development. 

While the approval of the Horse Hill ASP was seen by many on City Council as a positive step forward, it was also a lost opportunity to advance other key city strategies. 

The framework provided by Fresh, though vague and incomplete in many ways, nonetheless provides the first steps toward building a multi-sectoral approach to both food and sustainability.

During the development of Fresh, civil society groups failed in key respects to fully engage in democratic debate about vital issues associated with developing Edmonton’s food and urban agriculture strategy. The City invested significant financial resources and time to undertake extensive public engagement, but nonetheless they severely constrained public debate by limiting the process to a thirteen-month time frame. Equally concerning was their failure to allow for public debate about the options for development in Horse Hill, further feeding public cynicism and distrust.

Lessons learned and transferability

Too often the work of alternative food initiatives have focused on isolated aspects of the food system and in the process reproduce the very problems or conditions they are trying to address. Overcoming this limitation requires alternative food actors to engage in more critical and reflexive praxis, that is, directed at a ‘transformative food politics’ built around developing collective subjectivities, a whole food systems perspective and a politics of reflexive localization.

Finally, one could take from this case study that caution is appropriate in assigning too much faith to the role of municipal governments and planning processes to support the development of transformative food and sustainability strategies. While clearly a widely popular public policy issue, to achieve significant long-term tangible results requires difficult political choices that most are not willing to make, or even debate. Furthermore, to fully realize the transformative potential of food as a strategic resource in advancing urban sustainability will require municipalities both to embrace a paradigm shift that treats food as a catalyst for developing new relations between governments and civil society actors, and to frame urban sustainability as more than a ‘profitable commodity’.

References

Lorelei L. Hanson and Deborah Schrader 2014, 'From Sustainable to Resilient Cities: Global Concerns and Urban Efforts Research in Urban Sociology', Volume 14, 191- 214