Urban planning and the food system (adapted from Watson, 2020)

The food system does not have a planning tradition, having relied for years on market forces and colonial histories to determine its trajectory. In cities, food was for many years strikingly absent from modern urban planning practice and research (Pothukuchi and Kaufman, 2000), but this was not always  the case (Kaufman, 2009; Vitiello, Brinkley, 2013; Morgan, 2013). Food was the original driving force behind city and community planning. Twelve thousand years ago, it was food domestication and production that allowed people to co-operate and organize into fixed, permanent groups or communities of more than 100 people (Harari, 2014). From that point on, intentional communities were developed in areas suited for agriculture (Cabannes, Marocchino, 2018). Communities centred around arable and fertile lands and eventually around waterways that could act as transport corridors for food trade systems (Vitiello, Brinkley, 2013). Canada, specifically, can trace the development of every major city back to the compatibility of its land to both trade and agricultural activity (Patel, 2012; and see Toews,[2018] for the history of western Canada’s agricultural expansion). Many Canadian cities had Market Commissions that determined how food markets operated, what could be provided, and where the food came from.  As late as the 1920s and 30s, Toronto's Medical Officer of Health was determining which suppliers could provide Toronto with certain foods, such as milk, based on the quality and hygiene of their products (MacDougall, 1990). Of course, these periods of development took place much before the formalization of planning as a profession. In the early 20th century, all this shifted, to the detriment of food system function.  Some specific problematic outcomes of this shift are presented below.

Inequitable access to food retail

Many regions of the country are not well served by conventional food retail.  Most food retailers are private firms, making private firm decisions about where to locate. Their decisions are somewhat shaped by the land use rules within a city or town, but municipalities do not have the authority to ensure that stores located somewhat proximate to underserved areas.  Typically, the most underserved areas are low - income ones, because stores do not believe there is sufficient buying power in the neighbourhood to generate the target sales levels for the store.

Identifying how much of Canada is underserved is difficult.  The most obvious cases are food deserts - no food retail store within 0.8 km for urban areas or 16 km in rural ones (Hanson, 2019) - or food swamps - when an area is saturated with fast food outlets and convenience stores, so there is food but it is generally of low quality (Osorio et al., 2013). Many communities will have different combinations of these realities. Toronto, for example, is seen to suffer more from food swamps than food deserts (Warren, 2015). Many of regions of Northern Canada have no or only one supermarket.  This situation is exacerbated by high levels of food retail concentration (see Corporate Concentration, this section).

There are of course other kinds of food retailers that can mitigate for the absence of conventional retailers.  Many regions of the country have a long history of food retail co-operatives (see Steinman, 2019).  Although the chain stores dominate the retail landscape, some  communities have a robust network of independent retailers, including many ethnic grocers, whose philosophy is more aligned with community needs.  See Goal 1 for more on these phenomena and how to resolve them.

Limitations on urban food production

In earlier periods, a significant percentage of the population had vegetable and fruit gardens.  Backyard food gardens, though still significant in many communities, are less common now.  Although some urban areas have robust community garden programs for those lacking land, or situated where gardening is not feasible,  many other communities are significantly underserved for a variety of reasons, including municipal restrictions, insufficient spaces for existing demand, land contamination, and lack of community animation.

Failure to Protect Agricultural Land

Only about 7% of Canada's land is suitable for agriculture and only 0.5% is the best farmland in the country (Class 1).  It has not been well protected by provinces and municipalities who have primary jurisdiction over land use.  Since 1971, 3.9 million ha of prime agricultural land (Class 1-3) have been lost (net) across the country, an area roughly the size of Vancouver Island.  Roughly 1.4 million ha of class 1-3 land are now lost to settlement (Statistics Canada, 2014).  Such losses are a product of numerous forces, including farm consolidation, lack of financial viability, soil degradation, aggregate extraction, industrial activity, and urban sprawl.

Regarding urban sprawl, the biggest offenders are the provinces of Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, where most of the urban pressures lie.  52% of  class 1 agricultural land in Canada is in the GTHA and comprises 5% of the province’s total farmland (Geerts, 2016). About half of Ontario’s urban land is built on these former prime agricultural lands and at least 11% of Class 1 land is no longer available to agriculture (Statistics Canada, 2005). Wilson (2013) noted that 16% of the prime farmland in the Greater Golden Horseshoe of Ontario was lost to urbanization between 1996 and 2001.  In British Columbia, despite the Agricultural Land Reserve, there are have been significant land losses in the Lower Mainland.  The provincial government has claimed no net loss by adding lands from northern BC to the Reserve, but these are less productive and under significantly lower development pressures. Quebec's urbanization pressures are centred in the St. Lawrence River Valley and the province has been slackening its zoning rules protecting prime farm land.

Outright land loss, however, is only the most dramatic expression of this problem.  More subtle effects are apparent, as agricultural production  deemed incompatible with residential housing - many livestock operations - or that requires long term security of land tenure - for example, production with significant capital investment - moves further away from the population centres. New producers, many of whom want to produce for urban markets, are unable to afford the land costs (Walton, 2014, Golden Horseshoe Food and Farming Alliance report).  All this has long contributed to agricultural land and food system fragmentation, making demand - supply coordination much more difficult (see Goal 2) and contributing to deterioration of the rural economy, landscape and fabric (Bryant et al, 1982; Francis, et al. 2012).  In Ontario, the report from Advisory Panel for the review of the Growth Plan (2015: 73) observed that,

The development sector has generally assumed that the lands below the Greenbelt will eventually be urbanized, and most of these lands have now been purchased or optioned by investors. This has led to significant impacts on the viability of agriculture, including an increase in the number of tenant farmers, lack of investment in agricultural infrastructure, fragmentation of the land base by development-related uses, and near-urban pressure on agricultural operations."

The development industry, and elected and unelected provincial and municipal officials aligned with that industry's view of progress, are squarely to blame for the situation as they have long favoured residential development, particularly single family dwellings, over working landscapes (Bunce, 1985).  In their view, loss of agricultural land is of limited consequence because food can just be imported (See Export reliance for a critique of this view) or productivity gains can compensate for land loss.  But as discussed in many parts of this site, productivity gains create negative secondary effects that then most be addressed (but typically are not), and many marginal lands onto which farms are pushed are even more dependent on production inputs.  This policy failure is reflected in the federal government's view of the future. According to Statistics Canada (2014), "As Canada’s population grows and cities develop and spread outward, the loss of some of the country’s best farmland will likely continue given that many population centres are located near some of the best farmland in the country”.