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Cultivating New Economies

Land developers as investors in the start-up ecosystem of urban agriculture.


Mike Layton doesn’t usually make apple sauce midday on a Friday. On September 15, though, the Ward 19 Councillor for Toronto’s Trinity-Spadina was leading a canning demonstration using Toronto-grown fruit for a dozen people at the Scadding Court Community Centre. The demonstration was part of the GrowTO Market festivities, where you could also tour the on-site aquaponics farm and container greenhouse, learn about vermicomposting and vertical gardening and, of course, buy local produce. A few feet away Councillors McMahon and Mihevic, by decree of Mayor John Tory, officially proclaimed the day as Toronto’s first Urban Agriculture Day.agrihoods

The celebration is fitting acknowledgement but likely long overdue for a movement about to radically change the city. The start-up world of urban agriculture in Canada has been simmering for some time and is approaching a boiling point of popularity and profitability. Partnerships along with business and financial models are all being vetted in advance of this expected lucrative transition. The move forward is energized by innovative technologies and, occasionally, suitable planning policy.

But to grow food requires space. And city space is at an all-time premium in Canada as renewable energy, public art, stormwater management and other interests vie for room. That’s why city builders as owners and regulators are carefully considering how best to invest their limited resources into urban agriculture.

The Rise of the Carrot City

Like most start-up industries, urban agriculture at this moment is messy, chaotic, sprinkled with compelling measures of failure, potential and success. It also has a legacy, one which Joe Nasr suggests North America forgot about for a while. “There is a long history of [people farming in cities], for centuries and millennia, all over the world,” says Nasr, a Toronto based consultant and associate of Ryerson University’s Centre for Food Security. “So in a way it is nothing new, but in this particular model — the social entrepreneurship approach — it’s new in this configuration.”

Nasr, also a member of the Toronto Food Policy Council, which was instrumental in the promotion of the city’s Urban Agriculture Day, has been tracking forms of urban agriculture for eight years as part of his Carrot City initiative. Carrot City, which “examines how design at all scales can enable the production of food in the city,” takes the form of a website, book and international travelling exhibit, most recently featuring Canadian projects on their Fall 2016 tour.

The rise of the Carrot City is an endpiece of sorts to the food-centered land development trend which began in the 1980s, coincident with the rise of gastronomy and coinage of the term “foodie.” Initially focused on food consumption alone, projects in the now-broad spectrum also focus on food processing and food production in homage to the “makers” — the brewers, the bakers, the picklers and the urban farmers — vaunted in this decade. In their 2017 report Cultivating Development: Trends and Opportunities at the Intersection of Food and Real Estate, the Urban Land Institute (ULI) suggests six categories now define food-centered land development.

Of all the variations, food production-focused projects have the greatest overall potential. They can improve employment, mitigate climate change and reduce dependencies on fossil fuels. Recently they also have demonstrated emerging capacities for profit and a triple bottom line. “There are more and more investors looking at how they can jump into this industry,” adds Nasr. “How far that will go remains to be seen, but people are looking at it in the business sense.”

From Pilot to Profit

Standing just west of the officers’ barracks, on the grass berm protecting the north flank of Toronto’s Fort York National Historic Site, offers a unique view of the city skyline. Across the train tracks stand the dim and derelict confines of the circa-1914 abattoir at 2 Tecumseth Street. A bygone era being overwhelmed by the future, it seems to struggle against a column of modern condos marching west out of the city centre.

In 2014, the last tenant, Quality Meat Packers — after enduring years of doorfront animal-rights protests and complaints from new neighbours — moved operations 180 kilometers west into the rural heart of Ontario. The property was then purchased by Toronto-based TAS in 2016 with a bold vision for the future. The self-described “developers of mixed-use buildings, and entrepreneurs for the public good” are proposing Toronto’s largest and most diverse food-centered development project yet.

The plan calls for two residential towers, commercial rooftop greenhouses, community gardens and underground aquaponics. In addition to developing food security research partnerships with postsecondary institutions and community organizations, TAS is also exploring food business incubation opportunities. The entire development is about one million square feet.

But before considering urban agriculture at this scale, TAS tested small, first engaging in 2013 with a purely experimental rooftop box farm. “It wasn’t part of a marketing or PR exercise,” says Celia Smith, the company’s chief operating officer and former president of Artscape. “We wanted to explore a viable partnership with a community organization. We wanted to grow food for people.”

TAS, a certified B Corporation, had invited CultivateTO, a non-profit organization operating a community shared agriculture program at the time, to install 72 EarthBoxes on the rooftop of their two-storey commercial building at 7 Labatt Avenue in the city’s Regent Park neighbourhood. The farm yielded 400 pounds of produce in the first year, which was all sold at local farmers markets or donated to local food charities. In the years that followed, more Earthboxes were added, TAS incorporated rooftop gardening features in two condo projects and installed a garden at their own mid-town headquarters.

“There is an aspiration to get out of the small-scale pilot project model, and we’re interested in getting to the scale where it is a viable commercial entity,” says Smith. The Tecumseth Street plan, currently in pre-approval stage, delivers on that aspiration.

Vancouver 'agrihoods' food assets plan.

Vancouver ‘agrihoods’ food assets plan.

Smith acknowledges past experimentation bolstered TAS’s confidence to jump from pilot phase to profitable project, but, she admits, the emergence of commercial success stories in New York, New Jersey and Montréal emboldened the effort, too. Companies like Newark’s AeroFarms, leaders in indoor vertical and soil-free farming, and Montréal’s Lufa Farms, who pioneered commercial rooftop farming in 2011, both employ patented turn-key solutions which make scaling urban agriculture easier. In March 2017, Lufa Farms opened their third rooftop greenhouse farm, a 65,000-sq.-ft. facility in Montréal’s Anjou borough which more than doubled their existing production capacity. The buzz around Lufa Farms has been so intense, trend-hound Justin Trudeau even stopped in to Anjou for an inspection.

Despite these market innovations, Smith doesn’t envision TAS as farmers. “I wouldn’t expect the best outcome to be developers getting in the business of growing food,” she says, emphasizing the critical nature of healthy, cross-sector partnerships. “Developers should be in the business of facilitating, and building the groundwork and opportunity for this, and in some cases fostering it and championing it.”

Growing People in Parking Lots

Michael Ableman, an organic farming and urban agriculture pioneer, has been engaging with developers Concord Pacific for five years on the False Creek location of his Vancouver-based Sole Food Street Farms. The largest urban farm of its kind in North America, Sole Food supplies 25 tonnes of artisan-quality produce to the city’s top restaurants and markets. The False Creek location is just one of four paved lots in Vancouver where Sole Food has brought bona fide farming to the city.

agrihoods. The BC Place location is the largest of Sole Food Farms' four sites in Vancouver, totalling two acres and tended to mostly by residents of the Downtown Eastside. Photo courtesy of Michael Abelman.

The BC Place location is the largest of Sole Food Farms’ four sites in Vancouver, totalling two acres and tended to mostly by residents of the Downtown Eastside. Photo courtesy of Michael Abelman.

But what makes Ableman’s operation even more remarkable are the employment opportunities he offers to the city’s most at-risk, downtown populations. Many staff manage addiction and mental health issues while training as urban agriculturalists under Ableman’s tutelage. Called the “farmily,” nearly half of Sole Food’s annual earned income, which reaches $750,000, is spent on programs to meet their needs. While growing row crops and orchard fruits, Ableman says, “we are really growing people.”

Ableman’s ambitious outreach is supported by an equivalently robust business plan which utilizes vacant urban land for temporary farming operations. In 2008, he co-founded Sole Food Street Farms with Seann Dory and formed partnerships with landowners to mutually capitalize on the unused potential of idle prime real estate. As for their Main Street and Terminal Avenue Urban Orchard, Sole Food has leased the land from the City of Vancouver for $1 per year as part of the Greenest City 2020 campaign.

Sole Food Farms at BC Place. Photo courtesy of Michael Abelman

Sole Food Farms at BC Place. Photo courtesy of Michael Abelman

“There are two challenges [for urban agriculture] in any city,” Ableman says. “The native soils are too contaminated, and the value of the land is too high.” As a solution to both, he incorporated mobility into his operating plan and developed planter boxes which could be easily transported. “They are stackable, nestable and are made of a high-density plastic with forklift tabs,” he says, noting crops are readily moved when a short term lease is up.

After five years at their False Creek location (two years longer than originally expected), Sole Food will move their 2,000-box farm this October as Concord Pacific readies the property and former Expo ‘86 site for other, undisclosed development. At a projected cost of $125 000, Ableman says the move was always a part of the budget and the project’s financial viability calculations.

Aerial view of Sole Food Farms at BC Place. Photo courtesy of Michael Abelman.

Aerial view of Sole Food Farms’  at BC Place. Photo courtesy of Michael Abelman.

The mobility and flexibility of street farms like Sole Food, Ableman says, are particularly attractive to landowners, but there are other benefits depending on the jurisdiction. In his 2016 book Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier, Ableman highlights “ideas to provide incentives [to developers] to include essential food production in communities.” One of these — tax incentives — has been offered by the City of Vancouver to the landowners where Sole Food operates. Ableman says he is encouraged to see people from all sectors realizing that food sources are as important as tennis courts or swimming pools. “It needs to be a part of how we live,” he says. “We can’t just keep having food delivered to us like baby birds in a nest.”

A ‘Terrace-To-Table’ Ethic

Jonathan Westeinde, CEO of Toronto-based Windmill Developments agrees with Ableman. “Being able to grow your own food where you live has always been how humans lived. It’s a recent North American phenomenon to identify food growth as something that takes place outside of the city centre.” The 10-storey condominium Windmill and collaborators Curated Properties are building at the foot of Dovercourt Road in Toronto doesn’t tackle food production on a commercial scale like Ableman’s Sole Food Street Farms or TAS’s Tecumseth Street project. However it does strengthen the connection between residents and their food, a vital part of urban agriculture philosophy.

The Plant is a mixed-use condo designed according to the same One Planet Living principles guiding Windmill's Zibi project in Ottawa, with an emphasis on residential urban agriculture. Image via TAS

The Plant is a mixed-use condo designed according to the same One Planet Living principles guiding Windmill’s Zibi project in Ottawa, with an emphasis on residential urban agriculture. Image via TAS

The Plant, a mixed-use building with 78 residential units and a flexible commercial space which can accommodate up to 10 retail, office or studio tenants, will be located on the original site of the much-feted Dufflet Bakery and will include “micro-gardening and food awareness” as central to the concept. Amenity spaces will include a communal roof with 18 custom-designed, five-foot-long micro-gardening plots, an indoor south-facing plant nursery for nurturing seedlings, and an industrial kitchen and lounge suitable for communal food preparation and consumption, taking inspiration from the Dufflet ancestry.

The units themselves abandon the typical “shoebox” orientation of ‘narrow and deep’ for ‘wide and shallow’ to maximize light exposure for growing and reinstall large eat-in kitchens as a focal point in the home. Larger pantries, aeroponic growing towers for the terrace and a kitchen table which extends to the island to promote large gatherings are all optional, while a mobile herb garden-cum-compost sidecar accompanies each kitchen.

Interior amenity space at The Plant. Image via TAS

Interior amenity space at The Plant. Image via TAS

The Plant is being marketed as a project which “fits with the foodie culture that has come to define Queen West.” Westeinde and team are trying to perfect a ‘terrace-to-table’ ethic even before occupancy in late 2019: The Plant’s presentation centre has been designed as a food-focused community space with a commercial kitchen for local chefs to host parties and a milk-crate community garden in the parking lot.

Exterior amenity space at The Plant. Image via TAS.

Exterior amenity space at The Plant. Image via TAS.

When asked how food-centered amenities may have improved the salability of units in TAS’s recent Kingston & Co or The Duke residential projects, Celia Smith said, “it might be hard to separate those,” suggesting a fundamentally hot Toronto real estate market might have obscured any food-focused analysis. A few weeks after release in May 2017, all 78 of the 1-4 bedroom residential units in The Plant sold out. Units ranged from $500,000 to $1.4 million and in area from 750 square feet to 1,500 square feet. The retail and office units were released in September.

The Village Revisited

The connections to food that The Plant and other food-centered condominiums create are in a vertical context, whereas “agrihoods” are creating in a decompressed, horizontal one. Formerly ‘conservation communities,’ agrihoods centre surburban-, exurban-, or estate-style neighbourhoods around an existing or purpose-built farm or orchard. Think golf course developments of the 1980s, but replace greens with greens.

In the United States, agrihoods have transitioned from fringe to the front line of popularity with ULI now tracking over 200 projects ranging in size from under 100 units to over a thousand. 20 years ago, agrihoods numbered less than 10; now, premium lots are being sold for more than $2 million. The refocus of consumers on food lends part of the explanation, but agrihoods also cultivate community in a way suburbia never could, bringing back a village scale and focus lost with endless sprawl.

Despite the popularity of agrihoods in the U.S., though, Canada is still waiting on its first large-scale operation. Creekside Mills at Cultus Lake outside Chilliwack, British Columbia, with 129 single-family lots centered around gardens and orchards, is the closest domestic example. Positioned as a subdivision with farmscaping and “recreational agriculture,” Creekside Mills sold out the 44 lots of their first phase in 2015 and are currently selling lots in their second of four phases.

Creekside Mill site plan. agrihoods.

Creekside Mill site plan.

100 kilometres west and slated for construction in 2018 is Tsawwassen’s Southlands development, which will be Canada’s first intentional agrihood. The 950-lot and 500-acre project south of Vancouver will include a 50-acre working farm, market square and bakery. Produce from the farm will also be sold or processed on-site while its hops will be distributed to local breweries.

The operational models which agrihoods employ are as diverse as the communities themselves. For larger operations like Southlands, an on-site manager is typically hired to coordinate day-to-day farm activities, but allotments can also be made available for residents to tend with hands-on training from expert staff. Monthly residential dues cover the cost of the collective farming ventures, and operate similarly as club fees in other non-food-based gated communities. Walkable agricultural urbanism with integrated retail, restaurants and market spaces could make agrihoods even more popular than luxury golf courses were in their heyday.

A Future with Food

“If every development considered the food needs of its residents and is able to produce a portion of those needs on site, wouldn’t that be brilliant? And, then by extension, if projects at scale were able to consider the food needs of their local community and not only deliver high-quality, locally grown food, but also offer employment on a local scale, that would be brilliant,” says Celia Smith. “If we are considering locally grown food as a priority, along with all the other priorities, you can imagine the city would look quite different.”

Joe Nasr likens urban agriculture in Canada to any start-up ecosystem: industry leads the way and regulation follows. “Ironically,” he says, “it is the emergence of industry that highlights some of the problems we didn’t realize were problems.” But as progressive municipal policy and cross-sector partnerships come online, the future and pace of food-centered land development will ultimately be determined by the rate of investment. As urban agriculture continues to transition from pilot phase to profit, an intriguing triple bottom line for city builders emerges.

In the late afternoon of September 15, after a series of hectic but rewarding Urban Agriculture Day events in Toronto, Nasr offers a quiet admission: “I aim for urban agriculture to [one day] be banal,” he says, “to be an activity that is normal and integrated into everyday things, but not as anything special.” Until then, he celebrates the return of food to the city.




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