City Council disregarded the needs of Edmonton’s urban farmers in order to accommodate rapid population growth on February 26th, concluding a two-day long public hearing on a contentious development plan for Edmonton’s northeast. The area, known as Horse Hill, is occupied primarily by low-density-property owners and small-scale farmers and will be rezoned as part of an Area Structure Plan (ASP) led by private developers. Like the other incomplete ASP’s in progress throughout the city, the Horse Hill ASP will develop suburban housing for Edmontonians. Despite various criticisms of the project, the plan was approved on the grounds that there is a demand for single family residences in this area. According to many farmers located in the Horse Hill area, however, the City missed out on an opportunity to incorporate food security and urban agriculture into its city planning process.
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The new Edmonton Energy and Technology Park (EETP) has been identified as the primary motivating factor for residential development in the northeast. EETP is a large eco-industrial development plan that was approved by City Council on June 9, 2010. This new industrial park will refine and process by-products produced by oil extraction throughout Alberta, and, in turn, EETP will create thousands of new jobs in Edmonton. Due to this projected increase of jobs, there will also be an increase in population: estimates show that Edmonto
n’s population will rise from 812, 000 to 1.2 million by 2040. The Horse Hill ASP sets out to provide some of the necessary residential development within close proximity to the new industrial plant in order to accommodate this jump in population.
Along with the development of low-density suburban housing, the private developers of the Horse Hill ASP also plan for the construction of a provincial highway across the rezoned neighbourhood. This highway will provide quick access from central and south Edmonton to the new industrial park. While the plan appears to be fairly reasonable—it is a development plan to provide housing near and road access to a developing industrial area—City Councillors and residents have voiced their concerns. Development of a new neighbourhood does not just require building and selling houses; municipal funding is required to build and maintain infrastructure in a newly developed area. Many Edmontonians are concerned that the City is not able to fund yet another neighbourhood development project; the Horse Hill ASP will divert attention away from inner-city neighbourhoods needing new schools, roads, and general infrastructure.
There is also some doubt as to whether Edmonton requires yet another suburb at this time. According to research done by community organizers known as the Greater Edmonton Alliance, demographic shifts in Canada have affected housing preferences; workers between the ages of 25 and 45 are more interested in living within walking distance of urban amenities and public transit systems. In other words, because young workers are increasingly less interested in spacious and isolated suburbs, there will likely be more pressure to further develop existing neighbourhoods and transit systems as Edmonton’s population increases. By approving the Horse Hill ASP without further inquiry into these financial and demographic concerns the City has, as many have argued, allowed for what might prove to be short-sighted city planning.
It is now clear that the City has failed to see the value of northeast Edmonton’s agricultural land. Horse Hill is presently home to many small-scale farms. Prior to the City’s approval of the plan, farmers within the Horse Hill area voiced their concerns regarding the development of exceptionally productive farmland. After working the land for many generations, farmers in the area have been able to take advantage of the area’s good soil, access to water, and proximity to the Edmonton area local food markets. The Horse Hill farming community has welcomed visitors to their farms, facilitated food security workshops for the wider Edmonton community, and organized food knowledge field trips for inner-city schools. While the early plans for the Horse Hill ASP immediately presented a threat to northeast Edmonton farmers not intending to sell their land, the development and approval of the City’s Food and Agriculture Strategy known as fresh provided some hope for preservation.
Developed by the Food and Urban Agriculture Advisory Committee, fresh sets out to “provide a means for Edmonton to begin working towards a vibrant and resilient local food system.” The executive summary of the strategy explains that because Edmonton is such a rapidly growing city, “our strategic planning must make sense within our local, regional and provincial contexts and our approaches to how we grow and use land must balance different and divergent needs, values and pressures.” For farmers facing the Horse Hill ASP, this strategy presented itself as an opportunity to incorporate food and agriculture into urban planning through a process of re-evaluation. But on February 26th farmers fighting for recognition and protection of their land were confronted with the City’s overwhelming disregard for the value of agricultural land within city limits.
Leading up to the public hearing last week, Horse Hill farmers asked that the City preserve 600 hectares of farmland along the North Saskatchewan River from residential and infrastructural development. Unlike other residents in the area, these farmers refused generous offers from large developers seeking to purchase their land. As young farmer Janelle Herbert of Riverbend Gardens explained a few days after the hearing, farmers of Northeast Edmonton decided “to forgo large profits in order to keep growing local food.” The farmers’ decision to not turn a quick profit provided the City with an opportunity, as Edmonton’s fresh strategy advocates, to help further develop a resilient local food system in Edmonton. Considering that locally grown food is a highly valuable resource within an urban setting and food security is becoming an increasingly important issue for many Canadians, municipal protection of Horse Hill’s agricultural land would likely receive community support. Herbert also emphasized that 600 hectares of land is less than ½ a percent of Edmonton’s geographical size—a reasonable request in a sprawling city.
But this request proved to be more demanding and complex than the northeast farmers had ever imagined. “When we first started to fight this [ASP],” Herbert said, “we didn’t realize we were trying to turn the ship around.” Agricultural land in the Edmonton area is not presently integrated into the City’s land use policies. Without the development of a new land use designation for urban agricultural lands, the preservation of farmland within city limits remains contingent upon the need for residential, infrastructural and industrial development; as Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel said during the first day of the public hearing on February 25th, “It’s nice if you can have farming in your city, but we’re a city.” Unless new policy is developed, there is no protection for agricultural land in Edmonton, land that has proven to be exceptionally productive in comparison to other farming areas throughout Alberta. As Herbert explained, by asking the City to protect farmers potentially facing expropriation due to disrupted irrigation systems or larger urban infrastructural projects, she was asking the municipality to redefine its land use policies and to protect farmland within city limits under the new designation of urban agricultural land. But such changes would require a long process of municipal policy making—a process which would take much longer than the developers of Plan Horse Hill ASP were apparently willing to wait.
While those Horse Hill community members who have been hoping to profit by developing their land are relieved that the plan has been passed, farmers who provide local food to the Edmonton community must now struggle against the private developers who are leading the ASP. For Riverbend Gardens, the decision means fighting against both the Horse Hill ASP and the province of Alberta; in accordance with the proposed ASP, the new provincial highway will likely pave across Janelle Herbert’s land. Without support from the City, Herbert must now apply to make an appeal to the province, a costly and complicated endeavour that will likely distract her and her family from growing food. “It’s lose-lose for us,” Herbert said in reference to both the lack of protection from the City and the narrow intentions of the developers. But despite the grim circumstances, Herbert and her family will continue to provide food to seven nearby farmers markets as well as expand their CSA service to reach hundreds of Edmonton families this summer. “We aren’t anti-development,” Herbert clarified, “we are just asking that agricultural land use be considered alongside city planning.” Despite the apparent antagonism between rural and urban development, growing food and building cities are not oppositional to each other. Without municipal protection, the farmers of Horse Hill will need as much community support as possible in order to maintain a fragile connection between urbanites and the food they eat.
Cynthia Spring is a writer living in Edmonton.
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