Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


Toronto's Official Plan from the Perspective of Community Gardening and Urban Agriculture

Gerda R. Wekerle
Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University
Copyright 2002 Gerda R. Wekerle

Gerda R. Wekerle, MCIP RPP, is a Professor in the Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University who has been actively involved in the community gardening and urban agriculture movement in Toronto over the past decade.

Presentation to the Regional Agriculture Subcommittee,
Toronto Food Policy Council
June 19, 2002
(It appeared in the Ontario Planning Journal, July/August 2002 vol. 17, Number 4.)

'Urban agriculture' is often viewed as an oxymoron. The city displaces agricultural land; it doesn't create it. Or so conventional wisdom would suggest. Yet, in cities around the world, urban agriculture and a city's role in supporting it, has gained new prominence. Over the past ten years, the number of community garden sites has grown to more than 100 in Toronto; pilot projects in commercial agriculture include a rooftop herb and vegetable garden at FoodShare's offices in a downtown warehouse district and a newly created commercial urban farm on the site of the Queen Street Mental Health Centre. In February 2001, the City of Toronto was the first Canadian municipality to develop a comprehensive, multi-sectoral food security plan which identified the municipality's roles in the local food economy and Toronto city council approved a Toronto Food Charter. With this history of community and municipal support, I looked forward to finding policies in the city's Official Plan that acknowledged and supported the role of urban agriculture in contributing to the attractiveness of urban neighborhoods, alternative uses for brownfields, open space and natural infrastructure. To my disappointment, references to urban agriculture as a landuse, community service, or natural feature, were totally missing from the Plan.

This absence in Toronto's new Official Plan is surprising. U.S. cities have long included clear language in comprehensive plans which designate community gardens,not as an interim use, but as a legitimate and permanent use of land that meets the city's long term goals. In the mid 1980s, the District of Columbia's Comprehensive Plan created a Food Production and Urban Gardens Program. Seattle's 1994 Comprehensive Plan includes goals for community gardens, and for inter-agency and intergovernmental cooperation to expand the P-Patch program. The 1998 city plan for Berkeley, California aims to find appropriate long-term gardening sites and identifies community gardens as a community-building recreational resource. The 1999 Plan Baltimore includes community gardens as part of the open space plan.

US cities have also supported the development of for-market urban agriculture which includes local food production, green markets and food processing businesses. Here, Toronto again lags behind US. The reasons for this gap are similar to those identified by planners Jerry Kaufmann and Martin Bailkey in US cities: the scarcity of vacant land and the lack of city policies that affect availability and management of land for urban agriculture. US cities support more urban agriculture, in part due to the deterioration of city centres, particularly in the Northeast, which resulted in a glut of vacant land . Philadelphia has an estimated 31,000 vacant lots; Detroit has 46,000 city-owned vacant lots.

Toronto has few empty, let alone abandoned, lots owned by the city. With the exception of a handful of city-owned allotment gardens and vegetable plots along hydro corridors, community gardeners have been forced to grow food on relatively small parcels of left-over land, often around public and semi-public buildings, including churches, seniors'housing, health centres, community centres, hospitals, and agencies such as Food Share. These plots are small and fragmented, co-existing on sites with other, more dominant land uses. They do not exist on land use maps, nor are they on the mental maps of planners developing Toronto's new official plan.

This invisibility is not neutral. If these uses do not officially exist as land uses or community amenities, they will not be preserved, enhanced, or supported by policies articulated in the Official Plan. As a precondition for developing policy, the Official Plan needs to map and designate existing community garden sites, including those adjacent to public buildings,within social housing projects and public parks.

In Toronto's Official Plan, the emphasis on a reurbanization strategy may even work against developing policies or designating land for urban agriculture and community gardens. The plan focuses on attracting more people to live in the city through creating medium density housing and shops on avenues, mixed use, and the regeneration of vacant or underutilized lands through infill housing and brownfield redevelopment. Some potential infill sites or underutilized lands may already be used for community gardens; others may have been identified by community residents as potential garden sites.

Other policies in the Official Plan may inadvertently eliminate existing garden sites or halt their spread. For example, the landscaped open space around highrise apartment buildings constructed in the 1960s and 1970s has started to be used by residents in both public and market rental housing as land for urban food production. Yet this resource, defined at the time of construction as landscaped open space, for which developers often received density bonuses, may disappear as a result of proposed changes in the Official Plan. Section 4.2. "Apartment Neighbourhoods", has identified such sites as potentially "underutilized sites" which could provide "opportunities for additional townhouses or apartments on a site that already has an apartment building". While such infill housing is seen as improving streetscapes, recreational space and landscape features, nowhere does the Plan recognize its potential for growing food or for community gardens. Nor does it recognize that this is already a use, providing substantial community amenities, especially in older suburban highrise neighbourhoods that have become immigrant reception areas. Once built over with infill housing, this land will be lost for growing food in the city. In the Annex, at least one highrise apartment owner has already built townhouses on the surrounding landscaped open space. This new policy will encourage building owners to seek permission for infill development and deter them from allowing tenants to develop community gardens on-site.

Urban agriculture and community gardens are also not considered as possible land uses in other sections of the Official Plan. In Section 4.7 "Regeneration Areas" the Official Plan articulates a brownfield strategy for vacant or under-used lands. The objectives are to reuse buildings and contaminated lands, encourage investment, and create new jobs. There is also a greening strategy to plant trees and create parks and open spaces. Nowhere does the Plan identify and support the use of brownfield sites, including buildings and lands, for urban agriculture. Other cities have successfully incorporated such uses. For example, Greensgrow Farm in Philadelphia runs a hydroponic gourmet vegetable farm in a former steel plant. Vegetables are marketed to local restaurants. In Buffalo, NY ,Village Farms is a 35 acre commercial farm on an industrial site which produces 8 million pounds of tomatoes a year. Aquaculture is another option and entrepreneurs have already tried this in industrial buildings on Toronto's waterfront. In cities like Boston and Milwaukee, urban agriculture projects have focused on youth training and local economic development. Such objectives could be incorporated into Toronto's Official Plans for Regeneration Areas.

Toronto's new Official Plan "embraces sustainability as a central concept" and argues that a successful city inspires stewardship and responsibility for the natural environment. There is an emphasis on protecting, enhancing and restoring natural systems. However, nature is framed in conventional terms as parks, ravines, and natural systems that will be preserved and regenerated. There is no acknowledgement that nature might be cultivated and productive, that natural areas might be used for food production or that parks might be used for multiple purposes,including urban food prodution and local economic development. Nor does it recognize that stewardship in the city is exemplified by gardeners working cooperatively together to turn waste land into productive community space. For example, Dufferin Grove Park in the west end of the city,combines within one small neighborhood park, space for recreational activities in addition to two community bread ovens which generate income for local youth who sell bread in the park, the cultivation of vegetables and herbs, naturalized areas, community-maintained flower beds and sites for two local theatre groups.

Within the Official Plan, community gardens need to be included as part of green infrastructure. Dedication for park land needs to include community gardens and urban agriculture, with incentives for conservation easements and donations from private owners. Urban agriculture, including community and rooftop gardens, needs to be included in the discussion of natural linkages, habitat and reducing waterflow into storm sewers.

A city's Official Plan combines a focus on a vision for the city with designations of land uses to achieve some of these objectives. Access to land is essential to the existence of urban agriculture and community gardens in Toronto. Implementation policies such as height and density incentives could include community gardens as community benefits under section 37. Temporary Use By-Laws could be implemented to encourage urban agriculture instead of empty lots which pay reduced property taxes. Allowing small lots in the city used for food production to be taxed at an agricultural rate might encourage such uses. Without acknowledgement in the Official Plan, such initiatives will remain informal, ephemeral and marginal. Recognizing the role that community gardens and urban agriculture play as both a land use and a community service, would at least make planners and the public more mindful of the sometimes small changes that could support these initiatives and the policies that could, inadvertently, halt their growth.

  1. Food and Hunger Action Committee, The Growing Season: Phase 2 Report, Toronto Food Policy Council, City of Toronto, February 2001.

  2. Pamela R. Kirschbaum, "Making policy in a crowded world: steps beyond the physical garden", Community Greening Review, American Community Gardening Association, 10,2000,pp. 2-11.

  3. Jerry Kaufman and Martin Bailkey, Farming Inside Cities: Entrepreneurial Urban Agriculture in the United States. Cambridge MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy Working Paper, 2000.

  4. Ibid.

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Revised Thursday, October 3, 2002

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture