Agricultural Urbanism: Linking sustainability, food production and rural heritage protection

By: Matthew Somerville, CAHP, LEEDAP, MCIP, RPP As an practicing urban planner, farmer and an entrepreneur, much of my work triangulates around the intersection of heritage, urban planning and food security,  Over the past 13 years I have witnessed the issues of sustainability, food security, racial justice and heritage increasingly coalesce around the intriguing concept of Agricultural Urbanism.  This concept if implemented correctly contains the potential to provide a means to save threatened rural heritage structures, by using them for what they were designed for. Growing food. 

A quick caveat, Agricultural Urbanism is not a panacea for all the disused, falling down or otherwise neglected barns that dot Ontario’s rural landscape.  This form of development generally only works where there is development pressure.  For areas outside of urbanizing areas there are other options which I will discuss in a future blog, but for today I will focus on the urban/rural pressure point as it offers the greatest opportunity for raising the consciousness of agricultural heritage among urban dwellers.

What is Agricultural Urbanism?  In its simplest form it is the integration of food systems (the planting, growing, harvesting, processing and selling of food) into urban development.  It is a field to fork approach that by its very nature and physical constraints places a premium on small-scale value-added production.  The intent is to use food to reconnect those who live in cities to the cycles of the seasons, localize our unsustainable global food system and find new uses for heritage agricultural structures.  By shedding light on the processes behind food production the hope is that a new appreciation for farming will emerge, bringing new people into a dying community and breathing new life into agricultural buildings.   

Currently there are projects either completed or underway in British Columbia, Quebec, the United States and the Carribean.  However, no projects have been proposed in Ontario.  Why?  Because this Province of Ontario does not have the policy framework in place that would help support the dedications necessary to permanently protect agricultural land and heritage resources.  Through my work as an urban planner I’ve spoken with developers who think this is a great idea, but the numbers just don’t add up and as a result they fallback to demolition by neglect, mysterious fires, big box malls and subdivisions.   

Policies that could support new agricultural urban developments either already exist or could be augmented to integrate with our existing planning framework.  These policies include: increased tax credits for the donation of agricultural land to Land Trusts, the Transfer of Development Rights (TDRs) and Conservation Easements that consider Cultural Heritage Landscapes.  Fundamentally, the policy framework is not the roadblock, it is a lack of creativity, a failure to understand the value of agricultural land and an inability to value the cultural loss of these heritage structures.  

Southlands in British Columbia provides an example of a master planned community that successfully integrates new development into agriculturally significant land while retaining and rehabilitating existing heritage structures.  Located just south of Vancouver in Tsawwassen the project, when completed, will include 950 homes on 530-acres and include a 325-acre publicly owned farm including existing heritage buildings.  A community with farming and food at its core.  

Southland: Farming and Food

In Quebec, the 40-acre Hendrick Farm in Old Chelsea, just outside of Gatineau offers a smaller scale example.  When completed this 315 unit project will integrate a 5-acre organic farm at its core anchoring the community around a central green that includes the historic Hendrick family farmhouse and barn.

Hendrick Farm

It was Albert Einstein who said “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.  We have been building the same way since the end of the Second World War.  Isn’t it time we tried something else?  Something that offers the ability to take back control of our food systems, integrate sustainability AND protect local rural heritage?  YES!!!  We just need to think outside the box, see what’s happening elsewhere and press our politicians and planners who are in charge to stop the insanity.  We’re not inventing the wheel here, we’re just reinventing farming for the 21st century.    

Stay tuned, in a future blog post I’ll discuss various options to address protecting rural heritage in areas not experiencing development pressure.

Matthew Somerville is a heritage planner, farmer and entrepreneur. He operates his own consultancy – Somerville Planning and he and his partner operate a farm-based cidery – Two Blokes Cider.

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