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?