Back to Our Roots: The Case for Urban Green Space

Amelia Bredo

As February nears its close, thoughts of spring are unavoidable. Although new greenery has yet to make an appearance, sporadic mild temperatures are brief reminders of what is soon to come. Every year, urban agriculture adapts to meet the needs of cities, working within while also challenging the laws that serve to enforce distinctions between urban and rural Canada. Rooftop gardens, urban beekeeping, backyard hens, and guerilla gardening are just a few of these initiatives. Adjusting to increasingly dense cities, where condominiums have become ubiquitous to the urban landscape, has been a consistent challenge in terms of ensuring residents have access to public and private green space.

In 2009, Toronto became the first city in North America to adopt a Green Roof Bylaw, which applies to new residential, institutional, and commercial building permit applications. The bylaw requires all proposals for buildings with a Gross Floor Area of 2,000m2 or greater to include a green roof, the size of which is determined on a graduated scale, with larger buildings required to include a higher percentage of green space. Developers may receive an exemption from this bylaw with the approval of the Chief Planner, and a payment of $200 per m2. Green roofs are publicly and privately beneficial in many ways. These include moderation of the urban “heat island effect”, in which high levels of human activity increase the temperature of urban centres; improved storm-water management, air quality and energy efficiency; noise reduction and, most importantly for many urban residents, providing additional green space for public and private amenities. Eventually, these amenities could grow to include public spaces, like community and allotment gardens. This bylaw has the potential to greatly improve the lives of Torontonians in the future, as high-rise condominiums and office buildings continue to be constructed. The full potential of such a bylaw has yet to be realised.

The requirement for large buildings to install green roofs has been an important and beneficial step in decreasing Toronto’s environmental footprint, while increasing the amount of green space available to citizens. More, however, could be done to ensure that citizens are able to cultivate a beneficial and personal relationship to city land, and to the nourishment and enjoyment such space has the potential to cultivate. Recently, urban beekeeping has surged in popularity, despite the fact that Ontario regulations stipulate that hives are located a minimum of 30 metres from any property line. In this case, rooftops are prime real estate for urban hives. “Guerilla gardening”, the act of gardening on private or public property without permission, is another increasingly popular urban activity. Guerilla gardeners have successfully re-imagined neglected spaces, with little backlash from property owners. Unlike “guerilla gardening”, the ownership of “backyard hens” has seen considerable controversy. In 2012, a motion to re-examine the feasibility of backyard hens in Toronto was put forward by Councillor Joe Mihevc, but was not passed. The movement continues, however, to gain proponents. Limited access to allotment garden plots, and limited advertising surrounding such amenities by the City of Toronto, is exemplary of the unmet agricultural potential in many cities. With an increasingly environmentally-oriented public, it is time that such plots became more available and known. Green roofs, and a reimagining of unused space, will be helpful in this regard.

This past winter, the cost of many vegetables rose shockingly high. The price of a head of cauliflower, reaching $8 in December, made national news. Many health-minded citizens have become increasingly concerned about the accessibility of nutritional food. The benefits of eating a well-balanced diet are frequently touted in news sources, though these foods continue to be inaccessible for many. Existing food-banks are already struggling to meet the needs of low-income Canadians; food-bank use is reported to have increased by about 23 per cent following the 2008 recession, with limited funding from government sources. Further, the price of some vegetables means that, at certain times, even Canadians who are not necessarily low-income, but are living relatively close to the poverty-line, are also unable to afford healthy fresh vegetables.

While most allotment gardens are not a viable response to vegetable shortages and high prices during the winter months, with indoor gardens and greenhouse spaces being an exception, many urban areas of Canada, including Toronto, are well-suited to the cultivation of a variety of crops in the summer and autumn. It is surprising, then, that allotment gardens in Toronto are not more well-known, or advertised by the city. Aside from producing food, such plots and other community gardens are known to contribute to the mental, physical, and emotional well-being of individuals. The opportunity to partake in the cultivation of crops should not be limited to Canadians who are lucky or wealthy enough to have access to a private backyard.

The lack of demand for such gardens by many Canadians, most of whom are unaware that such plots exist, could be remedied by increased horticultural education, particularly at the elementary and secondary level. Some Toronto schools have already implemented garden plots. A good example of such a school is Bendale Business and Technical Institute. In 2010, with assistance from the non-profit organisation FoodShare, and $65,000 from Go Green Ontario, a government grant that is awarded to projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Bendale implemented a successful agricultural pilot project. In its first year, Bendale harvested 18,000 pounds produce, which was used for culinary instruction, budgeting exercises in business classes, and as inspiration for the creation of a student cookbook. Students also gained skills during the construction of the gardens. Programs such as this, even on a smaller scale, should be available across the country.

Cities such as Toronto have the potential to make better use of limited land in order to improve upon the lives of Canadians. Innovation, by government or private organisations, continues to be a crucial component of this re-imagining of private and public space. Individual efforts on the part of urban citizens, in the form of initiatives such as “guerilla gardening” and urban beekeeping, ensure that law makers are aware of public interests, and are willing to invest the time and resources necessary to protect and increase public access to green space.

Amelia Bredo is a 2017 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. She also holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto with a double major in English and History. Her policy interests include immigration, corrections, and social policy. 

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