Urban Agriculture & Sustainable Self-Sufficiency

Will Allen is an agriculturalist and retired NBA player who runs Growing Power, an urban farm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

He is the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, largely for his work in developing an incredibly efficient, high-output urban farm and community agricultural project. On a two acre piece of land, the last remaining operational farm in the city limits, he’s managed to create a facility that can turn out a surprising amount of food (roughly 300 market sized baskets to 20 agencies in the City of Milwaukee, every week). His work is rooted in a philosophy of food security, i.e. that a city or country be able to sustain access to and the production of safe, nutritious and sufficient food for its population. Evidently, this is far from a given for most people in this country, let alone the world, despite the egregious sums of food we consume and produce.

rooftop garden Montreal Gazette

Food Security activists point out the overt commercialization of agriculture on a global scale as a fundamental reason why there’s still mass malnutrition despite over-abundant production. In response to this trend they promote the development of urban agriculture to secure access to organic and locally-cultivated produce as an alternative to mass-produced, industrialized food, for the urban masses.

On a broad scale, an urban agriculture initiative, such as Growing Power has demonstrated, includes both functioning farms as well as community farming centres where individuals are empowered to develop their own vegetable plots, community gardens, green roofs and alleyways. In this way Mr. Allen has been able to create a self-sustaining and self-sufficient agricultural project that provides wholesome food for several hundred people in Milwaukee.

Now what if a city were to take his idea and expand it to serve a population in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions?

What if it was a civic responsibility to ensure access to wholesome farm produce in the same way it’s responsible for providing clean drinking water?

I think Montréal may already be well positioned to do just that.

George Vanier community garden, credit to John Kenney of The Gazette

Over the past few years there’s been growing interest in rooftop gardening, green alleys and a variety of small-scale urban agriculture projects in our city, all in the interest of food security. Notable examples would include the likes of Santropol Roulant, the Concordia Greenhouse and People’s Potato, and the world famous Lufa Farms, among others.

But a recent report by an organization dedicated to researching urban agriculture for the city gave a big thumbs down to having poultry in the city, but were otherwise ‘favourable’ to encouraging community gardening and bee-keeping. While I’m glad this commission is seeking to expand the city’s community gardening initiatives, I’m disappointed there aren’t any daring, imaginative proposals.

Growing Power, as an example, has over 200 chickens, 50 ducks, a half-dozen turkeys, twenty-odd goats and produces thousands of pounds of perch and tilapia every year, in addition to some 20,000 cultivated plants and ten million tons of compost. And all this from a two-acre plot of land. Energy and water projects are increasing the farm’s relative independence from utilities, and methods employed by the staff at Growing Power assure all produce is cultivated in a sustainable, ecologically-sound manner.

Don’t tell me we couldn’t do something like this here. Heck, we could probably do it better, on a larger scale to feed more people. We happen to have a city built on very rich soil, with expansive low-density suburbs and decently-sized plots of land. If we were inclined to do so, we could develop urban agricultural facilities large enough to ensure food banks and soup kitchens were always well-stocked, and that quality local organic produce was always immediately available to the urban public.

Lufa Farms, Montréal

I don’t think it’s that crazy either – less than a hundred years ago there was a far higher degree of local food security and a greater degree of access to farm fresh produce, something that has been lost in the era of mass consumerism. A move in the opposite direction, to restore local food security and (potentially) to utilize urban agriculture to eliminate local malnutrition (and perhaps even as a source of revenue), could be implemented with a comparatively modest budget. Moreover, we have an agricultural college, in addition to remaining tracts of undeveloped, arable land, on-island.

After seeing this video I thought to myself – shit, imagine the money we’d save, both collectively and individually, if we were empowered to sustain our own nourishment. The drain malnourishment, obesity, poor nutrition and all the related health problems place on our society is likely far greater than we think, and the cost of food these days unnaturally high. Urban agriculture initiatives with an aim towards sustainability, self-sufficiency and food security could reverse this trend and provide a boon to our local economy.

Put another way, if food is the petrol of the human machine, we live on an oil field.

And every house with a yard, every rooftop, terrace, balcony and alleyway throughout the city is a potential derrick.


A closing thought.

A recent article on Coolopolis concerning the future of Les Habitations Jeanne-Mance proposed that the site be razed and sold for redevelopment to increase the municipal tax base. The primo location, right in the heart of the city, has been an eyesore and a waste of space ever since the subsidized housing project was built in the late 1950s, and would doubtless be very quickly developed into expensive condominiums, possible expansions of UQAM, commercial buildings, hotels and new cultural facilities.

I would agree – subsidized housing projects of this kind are obsolete and ineffective. It’s far better to decentralize subsidized housing, evenly distributing it throughout a large metropolitan area.

I can imagine this space may be redeveloped within the next ten years. But at just over 17 acres I wonder if there might not be some room that could be used to implement a project similar to that of Mr. Allen’s.

Or for that matter how much food could be produced using Mr. Allen’s technique on a 17 acre plot?

What can Montréal Learn from Ottawa’s Confederation Line?

Tunney’s Pasture LRT terminus conceptual rendering

Well this is good news for public transit enthusiasts in Canada.

Ottawa’s finally getting a light-rail mass-transit system. The Confederation Line is to be completed in 2018, using part of the OC-Transpo transitway, along a 12.5 kilometer stretch linking east and west Ottawa. The thirteen-station system is unique because unlike Toronto’s tram system, Ottawa’s will employ the use of stations, all of which are designed to be safe public spaces integrated into other existing transit systems. Ottawa’s new Confederation Line will be multi-modal in that they’ll provide access to the north-south O-Train, the Ottawa Via Rail station and the existing bus rapid transit and local bus systems. The new system will be designed to optimize the use of bicycles and will be able to transport 10,000 people and hour in both directions. Future developments will permit service at a peak of every two minutes and a maximum of 18,000 passengers per hour. End to end journeys will take twenty-four minutes and I can imagine, if it’s successful new lines may soon be planned.

This may well revolutionize transport in Ottawa, in that it will offer a quick and efficient method to cross the densest part of the city and simultaneously hook up it’s many currently disparate key components along a single East-West axis.

I’m particularly interested by the development of three stations which will be located underground inside a tunnel, which will permit an extension of Ottawa’s limited underground city. From what I understand, this system is going to involve some of the same people who developed Vancouver’s Canada Line – a fully automated elevated and subterranean monorail that connects Vancouver’s downtown with the airport.

Suffice it to say, this is a big deal, though I’m disturbed by how long its going to take to actually get the project off the ground. Remember, Montréal somehow managed to build 26 stations in four years – and that was for a a subway system, a far more complex job than the installation of an LRT. Regardless, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

I wonder if we could use something like this here in Montréal?

Montréal differs in that we do not have a primarily segregated expressway used by articulated buses to rapidly move large volumes of people around the city as Ottawa does. This new LRT will be able to travel at high speeds through the urban core without necessarily interacting with traffic. I’m not sure traffic could be avoided in the same fashion in Montréal.

That said, I believe Montréal could make good use of an expansive light-rail/tram system, but for a variety of reasons we could not copy Ottawa’s model. And nor should we, the Métro is the primary mass transit system in the urban core.

What I would propose for our city is a limited LRT development designed to do two things. First, as a method to spearhead new kinds of public transit access between the downtown and surrounding area (through specific transit corridors) and second as a means to replace buses in the city proper, ideally freeing STM buses to re-deploy to the suburbs and off-island municipalities.

Concerning the first part, a more-or-less concrete example of what I’m thinking about. There’s been an idea floating around for a little while to place a LRT line on the Champlain Bridge (or it’s ice-bridge) to connect Brossard with downtown Montréal, likely by using a route that would stretch from the Quartier Dix30 (located at the intersection of highways 10 and 30) to cross the river, Nun’s Island and Quartier du Multimédia and terminate at Place Bonaventure. It would place an LRT along a high-traffic corridor and deliver the city directly to nearly 80,000 people living in Brossard alone.

Or another example, an LRT as airport-link. It’s another very specific kind of connection we currently lack (the former being the obvious lack of connectivity with the massive South Shore) and that may be best solved using a specific transit mode. The Van Horne Institute put out this report suggesting an elevated light-rail system, comparable to Vancouver’s Canada Line, would be the best method of quickly connecting the airport with the central business district, principally using the Ville-Marie Expressway corridor. Thus, it would another train line in a transit corridor, but would avoid the problem of trying to integrate ADM needs with the strain already placed on the AMT. Further, the Van Horne proposal includes the use of multiple LRT stations, some of which would be inter-modal designs allowing connection to the STM and AMT.

The latter proposal has an interesting element to it – it could access Trudeau airport through an already existing underground terminal. The plan they propose would involve an eventual extension of this line under the airport, popping back up to eventually make it as far as Fairview shopping centre. Thus, their proposal really isn’t overly different from the Canada Line in its both elevated and subterranean qualities. Unfortunately, it would not be possible to integrate said system with the Métro, as they’d require different track systems (among a multitude of different reasons).

Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 11.55.52 PMProposed LRT line between Trudeau Airport and Montréal CBD – from the ADM and VHI

But that might not be the worst thing in the world. An LRT system has the added benefit of being able to operate on existing roadways inasmuch as completely separated railways. Thus, an LRT to and from the airport could theoretically use a reserved lane on the Ville-Marie Expressway inasmuch as a reserved lane on the Champlain Bridge, which would limit new LRT related infrastructure development. Further, if the system is designed to principally operate on existing roadways, we could gradually expand from two very focused LRT lines to a broader, more integrated system allowing another level of access within the urban core.

Imagine an LRT system operating on Cote-des-Neiges, Saint-Antoine, Pie-IX, Parc Avenue, Sherbrooke (incidentally, on that note, I’d like to see an LRT line run the length of Sherbrooke, from Loyola and Montreal-West train station to the Olympic Stadium and Parc Maisonneuve, but I digress). These are traffic-heavy streets that could benefit immensely with a high-capacity LRT system, ideally operating (where possible) on reserved lanes.

Suffice it to say LRT systems on these streets could not only drastically reduce automobile and bus congestion, but would further provide a kind of Métro ‘back-up’. Could be very useful if we ever need to execute a large-scale renovation of the system.

In any event, food for thought. One thing’s for sure, car culture as we know it today will soon become a thing of the past. There’s simply not enough cheap oil left and the entire idea is predicated on a notion of abundance that simply no longer exists. Worse still, every year we maintain the status quo, congesting our streets and boulevards with polluting, road-destroying automobiles, we pay more and more for our inefficient lifestyles. Ergo, providing a comprehensive public transit network across multiple modes won’t just ultimately become very convenient, it is an absolute necessity for future city living.

There’s no question in my mind the great cities of the future will be those who adapt early and demonstrate by example.

The Homeless Hotel

From the Métropolitain

The beginning of December seems to me an apt time to think about Montréal’s homeless problem.

About five years ago around this time I was walking around the city on my way to work at a local haberdashery, a job I loathed in particular because I didn’t think I could do much better, not to mention my own personal distaste for the rampant consumerism of the holiday season. As I mentally prepared myself for the coming onslaught of pushy customers and rehearsed sales tactics, I came upon a grisly scene in the early morning sunlight. It had been particularly cold overnight, and a homeless man lay frozen on the sidewalk, dead of hypothermia. Police officers were covering the body, so they must have just come upon it themselves.

A man had died through exposure to our environment, because for whatever reason, shelter could not be provided for him.

Now it’s likely alcohol may have been a contributing factor, as a significant amount of the local homeless population (which ranges roughly between 8,000 and 28,000 people based on the latest statistics dating from 1998) have alcohol-dependency issues. Alcohol gives the impression of warmth while in fact facilitating an increase in heat loss. And perhaps he had been offered shelter, but refused it. There are many factors at play here.

My primary question is still just this simple: why was he in the streets in the first place? How can we still tolerate homelessness in this day and age? Especially when we apparently have so much money to spend on crap we don’t need during the annual shopping bonanza we’ve somehow associated with the purported birth of a Nazarethran child in Bethlehem some time ago.

It’s vile and disgusting and wrong. No one should die of hypothermia in Montréal because we lack the means to house the homeless and provide top-notch social services to combat the pathologies which ultimately create the problem in the first place. And damn the expense while we’re at it – no cost is too high to eliminate the problem of people living in the streets. I would argue it is ultimately far more costly to the citizens, local businesses and the municipal government to continue with the status quo.

The homeless need a break.

Of all the people who live in our city, it is the homeless who deserve the biggest break by far. They are homeless – what more needs to be said?

And Who cares why, I might add. It’s irrelevant once someone has no other option but to sleep in a cardboard box near a steam vent (and that’s if you’re lucky). It’s demoralizing, de-humanizing and serves only to stimulate a source of preventable crime. Homelessness breeds desperation, and desperation leads quite directly to crime. And it’s all preventable.

So my question is how much would it cost to provide a massive assisted-living shelter for extended stays, including a sizeable food bank, cafeteria and comprehensive medical and psychological services, for the express purpose of turning homeless people into functioning members of society?

Because the cost of tolerated vagrancy on our society is definitely greater. It is an admission of a society’s failure to provide for itself, and a reminder of our disfunction. It’s bad for business.

In various conversations I’ve had concerning how to best address the homelessness problem in Montréal, I’ve come across an odd argument.

It is that the homeless should have the right to be homeless, and that the current criminalization of what I can only assume to be an increasing homeless population is morally abhorrent.

I agree with the latter, but not 100% with the former.

Being able to live off the land at a provincial or national park is one thing, but no one should have the right to be homeless. The right to have a home is far more to my liking. In this way, the responsibility to ensure a sufficient social safety net lies with government, and I would argue municipal government in particular, given its proximity to the problem. In this ay it becomes a direct manifestation of a city’s responsibility to its own citizens, to ensure the means are available to prevent people from falling off the edge.

I guess this argument is principally rooted in the extreme distaste in how vagrancy laws have and are applied, and how the Montréal police force has not only criminalized homelessness but has further demonstrated an inability to adequately train SPVM constables in mental health issues suffered by the homeless.

How can we forget the tragic shooting of Mario Hamel and Patrick Limoges? Hamel was well-known to have mental health issues (he had apparently been stopped that fateful day for ripping open garbage bags, was chased, cornered, maced and ultimately shot) and Limoges was struck and killed on his way to work by a stray shot.

In my mind it is ultimately the city’s responsibility to make sure that the segment of the homeless population which could pose a public threat is properly medicated and supervised and given a real shot at re-integrating into functional society. But it’s this idea that the problem would be best solved if we simply switched vagrancy’s status from crime to non-crime that bothers me – it may prevent situations such as ticketing a homeless man for $80,000 the city and ticket-issuer can’t possibly expect to collect – but won’t do much to prevent the deaths and crime associated with vagrancy.

So imagine the diverse local services associated with combatting vagrancy in proactive, socially-progressive fashion, were to integrate their services in a single building capable of housing a potentially large-number of people.

I can imagine a hospital – specifically one of the soon to be vacated hospitals in the city centre – would be an ideal location for just such a facility. A blend of accommodation styles would be provided, including private, furnished rooms equivalent to what you’d expect at Best Western or Holiday Inn, in addition to shared rooms such as you might find at the YMCA shelter. A refurbished hospital offers the added advantage of already including the required space and infrastructure, not to mention design, suited for medical and psychological care in addition to housing. Some of the hospitals destined to shutter permanently in the coming years have added advantages, such as proximity to nature (as with the Royal Victoria Hospital) or manicured gardens and a more residential feel (such as with the Hotel-Dieu).

I can imagine a strong NIMBY-styled reaction to either of those locations, which in turn focuses my attention on the Montreal Children’s Hospital location, centrally situated as it is. I think the Children’s may be a better choice ultimately since it’s a large purpose-built heritage building with emergency facilities. There’s enough space on the grounds to allow for additional purpose built expansions (such as for a massive soup-kitchen) while rooftops could be converted into greenhouses to provide organic food. And not only is it in an area already associated with public vagrancy, it’s very easy to access.

In sum, I don’t think it would be that much of a transition, but a lot of core services could benefit immensely if they were streamlined under a single roof.

In any event, just a thought.

If we could create a building that took in people at the end of their luck and gave back citizens able to live normal, productive lives, we’d be doing ourselves a great service. Such a facility is well within the realm of possibility, but it necessarily requires our society establish the right to a home as something with which there can be no exceptions, and thus the city requires the means to transform the homeless, by providing free and nearly-free accommodation to people in need for as long as they need it. Such a facility should be able to provide the requisite assistance necessary to help people with mental illness, dependency issues, lack of education and skills training get to a point in which they can take care of themselves and maintain their own job and home once they leave the facility.

How could we demand any less?