Unlike bike lanes, urban agriculture is pretty widely supported in cities across North America.
Any movement that improves public health, balances diets, reduces health care costs, alleviates poverty, gets people outdoors and exercising, creates local jobs, builds community, excites people, makes cities safer and more beautiful, helps integrate immigrants, reduces our carbon footprint, creates resiliency in the face of peak oil, water shortages, and soil erosion, and provides environmental education, with no downsides — has to be all good. You’d think.
Not in Vancouver.
As the Nov. 19 municipal election deadline nears, the struggling right-of-center Non-Partisan Association (NPA) has been challenging the ruling Vision Vancouver party’s misspending through its Greenest City Action Plan. The one project singled out for high profile ridicule is the “wheat fields” — a modest $5,000 grant to the Environmental Youth Alliance dedicated to planting enough wheat in numerous front yards to harvest 100 pounds, redefine the notion of the “city farm,” and teach young people how bread is made. It’s definitely a stretch of taxpayer dollars, but hardly significant for a city with a $1 billion budget.
In another attempt to create a wedge issue, NPA has challenged Vision’s approval of urban chickens. Candidates for the party make public appearances with a chicken mascot, holding up a sign that says, “Chickens for Gregor” — a reference to Vancouver's mayor, Gregor Robertson.
“Chickens. They love the mayor,” NPA mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton wrote in the Vancouver Sun last summer. “Their chicken brothers, sisters, and cousins can all retire to Vancouver. And if they wear out their welcome in somebody’s backyard, they can always move to the mayor’s $20,000 shelter for homeless chickens.”
She’s referring to the $20,000 Vancouver's City Council approved to be spent on a shelter for homeless chickens. And who wouldn’t cluck about that?
Except — it was never spent, the shelter doesn’t exist, and the only backyard chicken handled by the city’s animal control officers so far this year was a wayward backyard rooster found wandering in Stanley Park.
This gets personsl: the NPA is the party I led as a mayoral candidate in 2008. Today it is struggling for something, anything, to chip away at the runaway approval ratings of Robertson, Vancouver’s telegenic, teflonic mayor. Characterized as the “Happy Puppet” by some (a play on the Happy Planet juice company he and his wife Amy helped start and sold before he got into politics), Robertson says little, does little on his own, and offends little. But he sincerely carries aloft the banner of “the greenest city in the world.” What’s not to like?
It’s a risky policy to be against urban agriculture, because there’s a surging tide of support for it across North America. (For more on this see my new book.) Maybe Vancouver voters will chose to turn back the clock on urban ag, but I doubt it.
Ironically, urban ag is a lot about “past forward,” or “back to the future” — recreating lost food-growing systems that were abandoned in our complacent shift to dependence on imported, oil-dependent industrial monoculture food. Still, there is certainly resistance from some quarters, from those against going back to messy, dirty, pest-attracting backyard food production. Can’t we just agree that modern food comes from grocery stores? Not anymore.
From the show of public support for Dirk Becker, the zany poster boy of urban ag persecution in Lantzville, B.C., it’s hard to see that reactionary stance as a winning strategy. Hundreds of people have been showing up to public meetings to support him and his partner, spurred on by national petitions.
Becker and his partner Nicole Shaw live on a 2.5-acre residentially-zoned lot in this small Vancouver Island town, where they make $20,000 a year selling produce grown on their property. While Becker has lovingly restored the property by piling up sawdust and compost to replace its original soil, which was mined and sold by the previous owner, his neighbor prefers the manicured estate look of the golf course that abuts both their properties. The neighbor has the ear of the local council, which last fall ordered Becker and Shaw to “remove all piles of soil and manure” from their property and boulevard and “cease all agricultural activities,” based on a bylaw that says, vaguely, that residentially-zoned properties cannot “grow crops.”
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