Maybe we should have just had a food strategy

When it comes to the Food & Agriculture Strategy, there’s perhaps no organization more deserving of credit for getting us to where we are today than the Greater Edmonton Alliance (GEA). They worked hard during the development of the MDP to ensure that the importance of local food and agricultural land was recognized, and those efforts ultimately led to the creation of the strategy that is now in draft form. But GEA is also largely responsible for tying the development of that strategy to the land in the northeast, which has resulted in a document that fails to adequately address the importance of food to our city.

City Market 2012

Instead of a strategy to transform Edmonton into a world leading food city, the Food & Agriculture Strategy is viewed by most as simply one of the final remaining hurdles to the continuation of urban sprawl that has plagued our city for decades. Whereas the WinterCity Strategy was created to “highlight Edmonton as a leading winter city,” the Food & Agriculture Strategy was created to allow the development of ASPs to move forward.

The Advisory Committee, created to “offer guidance and experience in exploring the development” of the strategy, was doomed to fail from the beginning. Because the land issue was not resolved, it was made up of fifteen members representing very diverse interests, rather than fifteen members all focused on food. It’s no surprise that farmers and developers could not see eye-to-eye on what should happen with the land in the northeast and that the issue dominated discussions.

Think about all of the other advisory committees and task forces that have been created over the last few years. We’ve had groups come together to talk about community safety, homelessness, winter, and dozens of other topics. The makeup of the Food & Agriculture Advisory Committee is like putting people that hate winter on the WinterCity Strategy committee, or people who love crime on the REACH committee, or people who think we should have more homelessness on the Homeless Commission.

So, how did we get here? There are lots of reasons of course, but here are a couple thoughts.

MDP Second Reading

One issue is that GEA’s leaders don’t care about food as much as they care about power. This was made abundantly clear at the ward meeting GEA held on October 9. A significant amount of time was spent discussing the power struggles that take place behind-the-scenes inside and outside City Hall. “One of the tools GEA uses in organizing is the power analysis,” GEA’s Monique Nutter told us. She said that in organizing there are two forms of power: organized money and organized people. The latter is the approach that GEA has taken, and for a while it seemed to work well. They filled City Hall with citizens, and they got the attention of their opponents as well as City Council.

But somewhere along the line, GEA lost the room. Any support they may have had from Council during the MDP deliberations has largely evaporated. Were they too aggressive in their demands, or disrespectful in their communications? Does organized money speak louder than organized people? It doesn’t matter. The fact is, Council is unhappy with GEA right now. That’s a problem for those of us who care about the same issues as GEA but are not associated with them, because I think at least some Councillors now treat GEA and others who feel strongly about food and/or agricultural land as one and the same. Which means that if GEA is being viewed negatively, so are the rest of us.

I don’t mean to suggest that GEA deserves all the blame for the turnaround in support. Certainly Councillor Loken has not done the strategy any favors by “trying to add some reality to the discussions.” He claims his efforts have made him a target on the Advisory Committee. Rather than diffusing an already tense situation, it seems Councillor Loken has actually made things worse.

Food in the City

The second issue is that as far as I can tell, GEA didn’t have any other choice. Tying the development of the land to the creation of the strategy was really the best they could accomplish at the time. There was no support from Council for a stronger stance on urban sprawl, as evidenced by policy 3.1.1.2 in the MDP which establishes that just 25% of city-wide housing unit growth be located in the downtown and mature neighbourhoods.

In an ideal world, a Food & Agriculture Strategy would have been initiated without the need to incorporate a contentious debate over land use (of course, any strategy on food would have included something about the importance of agricultural land, but in broad strokes rather than specifics). Then again in an ideal world, the true cost of sprawl would be known and factor prominently in decisions about how our city should grow. We don’t live in an ideal world.

Untitled

On Friday, City Hall will fill up with citizens eager to have their say on the Food & Agriculture Strategy. We know that Executive Committee is not looking forward to the public hearing, they’ve made that clear. They’re expecting to hear the same thing over and over, and I admit that’s not an enticing prospect. But I think that’s because they’re viewing this strategy through the lens of land, rather than the lens of food. I hope there’s a large turnout on Friday, that at least a few people talk about the importance of food to Edmonton’s future, and that Executive Committee chooses to listen to them.

If you care about local food & urban agriculture, tell your Councillor

In an effort to connect City Council with constituents to discuss the Food & Agriculture Strategy, the Greater Edmonton Alliance (GEA) organized two ward meetings in advance of the public hearing on October 26. The first took place on Tuesday at the Robertson Wesley United Church, and while the councillors for wards 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8 were invited, only Councillor Henderson attended. GEA officials told us that Councillor Krushell had responded and that she was unable to attend, and that Councillor Loken had responded and wanted to meet privately with GEA (he confirmed to me he is waiting for GEA to confirm a meeting, GEA has told me they want a public meeting, not a private one).

GEA Local Food Ward Meeting

The meeting was scheduled to last one hour, and GEA officials did a good job of sticking to that schedule. Unfortunately most of the hour was spent bringing everyone up-to-speed on the issue, and on GEA’s efforts thus far. We heard from Elizabeth Smythe from GEA’s Local Food Team, Debbie Hubbard, who served as GEA’s representative on the Food & Ag Strategy Advisory Committee, and Monique Nutter, Co-Chair of GEA’s Local Food Team. Monique concluded her remarks with a call-to-action for citizens and a request that Councillor Henderson respond by October 22:

Unfortunately, pressures are mounting to push decisions on this land forward quickly in a way that denies the time to explore options and, more concerning, marginalizes the voices of citizens.

We are here tonight to ask our City Councillors to work with us to ensure the Citywide Food and Agriculture Strategy provides the necessary information to enable good decisions.

Finally, we got to hear from Councillor Henderson. “I’m not the one that needs to be convinced,” he started, gesturing to the empty chairs that had been set aside for his colleagues on Council. He received a loud ovation for his attendance from the crowd.

Asked whether he felt the strategy sufficiently answered questions about what to do with the land in the northeast, Councillor Henderson responded: “I absolutely do not have enough information yet.”

In his remarks, Councillor Henderson noted that whatever support might have existed for preserving the land in the northeast back when the MDP was passed now appears to be gone. What happened? The answer might be found in a blog post by former GEA organizer Michael Walters:

The campaign to “preserve farmland” in northeast Edmonton was never an either-or endeavor. It was never about opposing development. It was about making something amazing in Northeast Edmonton.

In short, he feels the conversation has shifted from wondering where our food will come from in the future to a debate over sprawl and farmland. A debate he feels is unwinnable.

It was a strategic decision to tie the creation of the Food & Agriculture Strategy to the development of the three Urban Growth Areas. Whether that was the right strategy or not remains to be seen, but at the moment things feel far more uncertain than they did three years ago. There are some good things in the strategy and it would be a shame to see them held up or abandoned because of the land use issue in the northeast. At the same time, what other leverage do proponents of preserving the land have? The Growth Coordination Strategy has already been made much less comprehensive, and the Integrated Infrastructure Management Plan has already been approved as a “framework”, rather than as a plan of Council as originally identified.

“What happens if we delay the entire strategy?” Councillor Henderson wondered aloud at the meeting. “I’m uncertain about what happens next.”

GEA Local Food Ward Meeting

Councillor Henderson also reminded everyone in attendance that this is a regional land issue. “The essence of this is the fixation in this province with the primacy of property rights,” he said. Michael Walters notes the responsibility to deal with the issue has been floating back and forth for years:

The Capital Region Board has shown little courage in facing this question and in fact handed back the responsibility for addressing protection of farmland to the province in 2010. So for the City of Edmonton to pass this decision to the regional board cements an existing culture of timidity in dealing with this issue.

This is despite clear input to the Capital Region Board on the issue of preserving agricultural land:

In the quantitative survey, a significant majority (60 percent) of residents said agricultural lands should be preserved and protected. This support was consistent across the region.

How can we address the ongoing lack of action? How can we get City Council to pay attention? Liane Faulder says a “noisy, loud, foot-stomping and engaged” food movement is needed:

City council may well get away with doing precisely nothing of any substance to deal with the issue of urban agriculture because nobody is going to make them. There’s not a single council member who has shown any real interest in the urban food debate.

In other words, if you care about this issue, you need to get involved now!

GEA Local Food Ward Meeting

The next meeting takes place on Thursday evening at 7pm at St. Theresa’s Parish (7508 29 Avenue). Councillors Sloan and Diotte have apparently confirmed their attendance, and the councillors for wards 5, 9, 10, and 12 have been invited.

Don’t forget the non-statutory public hearing on the Food & Agriculture Strategy takes place on Friday, October 26. If you want to speak at the hearing, fill out this form.

Edmonton’s Municipal Development Plan passes second reading

City Council passed the Municipal Development Plan in second reading tonight. Titled “The Way We Grow,” the document is Edmonton’s strategic growth and development plan, meant to shape urban form and guide future land use. It must now be approved by the Capital Region Board, after which it’ll return to Council for third reading (expected in the May-June timeframe). Here are a few notes on the evening:

  • Councillors Henderson and Krushell pounced on the removal of the words “winter city” from the plan. Councillor Henderson’s proposed amendment was passed unanimously, changing the wording to something like the following: “That all urban design reflects that Edmonton is a winter city, allowing citizens to enjoy it in all seasons.”
  • Councillor Iveson pushed for stronger language around intensification targets, arguing that we need to move beyond simple aspiration to achieving meaningful outcomes. His amendment was passed unanimously.
  • Mayor Mandel said that Councillor Iveson’s amendment was a clear statement that Council wants more aggressive intensification, something the Mayor has supported. He again urged creative solutions to cost difficulties for infill development.
  • There was quite a bit of discussion on the topic of gravel mines in the river valley. I suspect we’ll hear more about that in the future.

The Greater Edmonton Alliance has played a key role in the evolution of the MDP, through it’s campaign to “create a vibrant and sustainable food economy.” Hundreds of Edmontonians once again filled City Hall this evening to show their support. Here are a few photos:

MDP Second Reading

MDP Second Reading

MDP Second ReadingMDP Second Reading

If you’d like to be notified about future GEA events and initiatives, consider joining their mailing list.

GEA has had great success with the campaign, perhaps most memorably with The Great Potato Giveaway. It’ll be interesting to see which issue GEA turns its attention to next.

You can see a few more photos from the evening here.

UPDATE: Don posted his thoughts here.