Suburbs OR farmland? That was never the question.


It is time for responsible and innovative leadership on the issues of urban growth and urban agriculture.

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.

The truth is Edmonton will face substantive growth pressures over the next 40 years. Our population is expected to near 1.2 million by 2040. This is 300,000 more people than live here today.

The 2009 Municipal Development Plan- titled The Way We Grow was largely a debate on how to plan for this growth -- how far do we build out and how much do we build in.

The issue of local food and farmland preservation entered the MDP debate with the question: “where is our food going to come from in 40 years?” How could our city use an undisputed asset like the soils of Northeast Edmonton to help build a vibrant and thriving local food economy, which could in part answer that big question?

We always aspired to a win-win campaign. In fact we worked diligently to build relationships with the development community and large landowners to ensure we were proceeding together. Greater Edmonton Alliance (GEA), where I was Lead Organizer at the time, supported the move within the MDP to advance Area Structure Plans in each of the three urban growth areas, including the Northeast. This support was about providing certainty and a fair process for all landowners in the area and to prevent hodge-podge development, which is already occurring.

I am concerned now, that the debate moving to city council this fall is about suburbs and sprawl vs. protecting farmland. This is not a debate that will lead to the preservation of any of Edmonton’s farmland.

The debate should be about how we can include an innovative urban agricultural district within the future development of Northeast Edmonton.

Responsible and innovative leadership will acknowledge Edmonton’s future population growth and work to provide housing and community choices for the many new families and citizens. We also must acknowledge that many mature neighbourhoods have aversions to the amount of infill housing required to accommodate this future growth without new, green field development.

In order to meet our growth needs, Edmonton needs higher density, transit oriented new communities AND an infill strategy that includes a better process for community/developer collaboration.

Responsible and innovative leadership will also acknowledge that we need to advance our local food economy like so many other jurisdictions in the world are and northeast Edmonton’s riverside soils give us a bountiful opportunity to do this.

THE GREAT OPPORTUNITY

Some on council have said that those calling for the protection of farmland are asking for too much. But what is the right amount?

This question must be answered with imagination, creativity and evidence. For example:  What if, in addition to the ~200 hectares currently being farmed, an additional and adjacent ~200 hectares was set aside in a land trust, purchased back from the majority real estate speculator at today’s value. The cost of 200 hectares would be in the area of $16 million. (Current pre-area structure plan speculative value of land in NE is around $33,000/acre.) An Urban AG District Zoning bylaw within the eventual Area Structure Plan for Northeast Edmonton would form around this ~400 hectares of farm land.

The opportunity is then to raise this money and engage investors in the development of the new businesses needed to expand the local food economy. These would range from new growers, producers and greenhouses, processers, wholesale and retail distributors. This is where the entire value chain of a local food system could play out for all Edmontonians to see and experience. The economic benefit of this district to the city is definitely something the city administration via The Way We Prosper and in partnership with the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation should seek to understand. 

This urban ag. business district then could be the base of a local procurement policy. Schools, post secondary institutions, seniors’ homes, and city run recreation centres would be among the primary customers of these new businesses. This would increase the education and health of our citizens through a focus on fresh, nutritious food choices.

THE ANSWER IS IN OUR BORDERS

Others have said there is enough farmland in the Capital Region so Edmonton doesn’t need to protect its own.

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 city council has the chance to make a responsible and innovative decision. As limp as the first draft of the City Wide Food and Agriculture Strategy may seem, it does provide a framework and the tools that can open a mind willing to be opened to the possibilities of doing something amazing in Northeast Edmonton.

We can achieve a solution that all sides and all interests can be proud of and grateful for. It really is now in council’s hands and there are likely no do-overs.

Michael Walters is a local community organizer. The views expressed in this blog are his views exclusively.


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