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Bumper Crop In The City

MONTREAL - It is the very beginning of rush hour, and cars and trucks are speeding along busy d'Iberville St.

But in a little alley beside them, things are moving at a much slower pace.

A bumblebee languidly buzzes from flower to flower on an eggplant, and sunflowers wave in the hot breeze.

The plants are part of the Jardin du marché rue Ontario, a temporary garden that sprung up this year a block from the Frontenac métro station east of downtown. Volunteers have been harvesting their tomatoes, zucchinis, herbs, beans, and cabbages and distributing bumper-crop overflow to people living in the neighbourhood.

The garden – about 25 metres long and six metres wide – adds a splash of green to an intersection with parking lots on three of the four sides, said Marie-Ève Voghel Robert, who got permission from her local borough to close part of the alley and plant the garden during the spring.

It's the kind of project Montrealers have been seeing more of in the past couple of years as interest in urban agriculture booms. There are chickens laying eggs at community centres, volunteer gardeners sharing the work and the harvest in 45 collective gardens across the city, and vegetables growing on top of the Palais des congrès convention centre.

But the blossoming urban agriculture movement is running into municipal roadblocks, say proponents pushing city hall to consult the public about the future of farming in Montreal.

Existing city bylaws make it difficult for people who want to practise urban agriculture to get started. They forbid livestock within Montreal city limits, except for in very limited cases in Rosemont-La Petite Patrie where community groups can get permission to have chickens for educational purposes. People aren't allowed to dig up their driveways to plant vegetables. Farmers delivering produce for community-supported agriculture projects try to stay on the good side of residents living around their drop-off points to avoid traffic complaints being made to the city. Even people who want to compost in their backyards have gotten into trouble with neighbours complaining to city officials that their compost piles are too smelly.

Demand for a plot in one of Montreal's 97 city-owned community gardens is so high some people wait as long as four years to get a plot, said Marie-Ève Chaume of the Conseil régional de l'environnement de Montréal. But even these internationally-renowned community gardens, where residents can use a small plot of city-owned land to grow vegetables or flowers, are threatened, Chaume said. Three were shut down four years ago because their soil was contaminated, and Mayor Gérald Tremblay personally intervened last year to stop the city from selling a community garden to a developer.

"The main reason we're asking for public consultations is to make a place for urban agriculture and have someone at the city of Montreal who takes responsibility for it, because that's the way that new projects will be able to begin," said Voghel Robert, a spokesperson for the Groupe de travail en agriculture urbaine.

"It would be nice to be able to speak to one person who knows the issue, instead of being sent to the people who are in charge of greening projects, or public spaces or social development or sustainable development or parks. It's a bit of a madhouse right now."

For the past month, the members of the more than two dozen groups have been collecting signatures on a petition that, if successful, would force the city to hold a public consultation on urban agriculture early next year.

"We need this public consultation so everyone understands the needs on the ground," said Chaume, whose organization represents more than 100 community and environmental groups in Montreal. "Should we adapt the existing rules to be more flexible, should we make it easier for projects to get started, do we recognize the value of fruit trees on the island, that's an underused resource right now, do we encourage vertical farms, do we open gardens in parks? The question is what place will urban agriculture have in the Montreal of tomorrow?"

Chaume said people who support urban agriculture have already tried to get city officials to look at the issue. In the past year, they've formally asked the city to hold public consultations and sent the executive committee members baskets of vegetables grown at the city's collective gardens in a bid to move the issue forward, she said.

"We hope with this petition that we can show this is an issue that concerns citizens, and it is an issue that the city should be working on," Chaume said.

Montreal has no policy on urban agriculture, although it is included in the city's sustainable-development plan as a way to help green the city and reduce heat-island effect between now and 2015, said city spokesperson Martine Painchaud.

If the petitioners are not successful, Painchaud said, urban agriculture could possibly be discussed in public consultations that are planned for early 2012 as part of the process Montreal has to follow to update its urban plan.

Montreal is in the same boat as several other cities whose residents want to expand their agricultural activities. Municipal officials in Portland, Ore., Flint, Mich., and Decatur, Ga., are all in the middle of updating their city regulations to include urban agriculture projects.

Mohamed Hage says it's high time Montreal took a look at easing the restrictions on urban agriculture here. Hage is the founder of Lufa Farms Inc., which in April opened a commercial rooftop greenhouse atop a two-storey office building near Marché Centrale.

But getting the permits and zoning changes needed to operate an agricultural project on top of a building took 18 months and cost nearly $40,000, he said. The company had to get zoning exemptions to be able to practise agriculture, to allow a greenhouse on the building, as well as for its water usage. It also had to take part in three public consultations.

"We're growing tomatoes and vegetables here. The amount of effort that goes into creating the farm has to be reasonable with its output. If we were planting pot, it would all be justified," he said, laughing. "But a year and half of zoning changes, of permitting, countless legal meetings – well, not everybody would go through that trouble to produce tomatoes and vegetables."

Lufa is now working on plans for a second greenhouse to go into production next year, and will have to go through the same process because the changes made by the borough apply only to the building housing the existing greenhouse.

"I know the city has to do its due diligence, but I think the whole process could be streamlined," Hage said.

Other cities, like Portland and Toronto, have policies in place that encourage urban agriculture and green roofs, and the city of Montreal could easily adapt their policies here, he said.

Portland, population 583,000, is widely recognized as the North American leader on urban agriculture. For that city, having residents produce some of their own food means they rely less on trucked-in food and are able to connect to nature. It also greens neighbourhoods in a densely-built urban environment, said Steve Cohen, manager of food policy and programs for the city of Portland.

That city actively encourages residents to produce some of their own food, offering dozens of courses in everything from cheesemaking to organic gardening. Portland has 26 farmers' markets, 32 community gardens, inner-city for-profit farms, backyard goats and chickens, and countless backyard, side-yard and front-yard gardens. Despite the agriculture boom, Portland's regulations don't really address how to regulate many of those activities, Cohen said. That's why the city decided to take a look at updating them.

Portland's approach is to try to make it easier for residents to practise urban agriculture, while keeping nuisances like traffic and noise under control, Cohen said. It is looking at allowing people to keep four instead of three animals, and easing the rules around beekeeping, he said.

"We want to look towards the future when we know that food production and transportation in alternative ways is going to grow," Cohen said. "We want to have regulations that will encourage these activities to flourish."

Working with Portland's food policy council – a citizen-based advisory group – the city's planning department held public consultations and drafted a report identifying the main areas to be governed by the updated regulations. Over the next few months city staff will work on new zoning language, and the city council will vote on it by the spring.

Back in Montreal, urban agriculture enthusiasts like Voghel Robert, Chaume and Hage envision a future where people could pick fruit from city trees, where vegetables grow on rooftops and in vertical gardens on building walls, and where agricultural activities are taken into account in urban planning and new construction projects.

Hage argues that using the city's rooftops to grow food could lead Montrealers to become more self-sufficient in their food production. His 31,000-square-foot greenhouse produces enough vegetables for about 700 households per week, or about one-tenth of one per cent of the city's population. But a network of greenhouses like it would feed so many more, he said.

"If there is some real change at the city level, we can easily go from .1 per cent to 10 or 20 per cent, and eventually we could even turn a small city like Montreal self-sufficient with its food production," he said. "Whenever I say that people laugh, but it's an absolute reality."

Besides food production, having gardens and farms in the city helps to deal with several environmental problems, Chaume said.
It reduces heat-island effect, where local temperatures are high because of concentrations of concrete or asphalt. It also shortens the distances that food has to be shipped to reach people, cutting vehicle pollution. And it encourages biodiversity by introducing plants and vegetables into the city, creating habitats for a diverse range of creatures and a food source for birds and pollinating insects, such as bees and butterflies, she said.

This month, Voghel Robert and the volunteers at the Jardin du marché rue Ontario are harvesting the last vegetables and herbs from their garden and thinking about what kind of project to undertake next year. With a large number of people living in poverty and single-family households in the neighbourhood, the garden in the alley helped them to connect, she said.

"I come from the country and we always had a garden, but I have no special training in agriculture. But with a collective garden, lots of people are involved and we put all of our knowledge together, like how to encourage certain plants to grow and produce," Voghel Robert said. "That's one of the advantages of urban agriculture, really, to create links between people and share knowledge that can be lost in the city."

Gardens in the city

(Montreal Gazette - September 2011)

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