Toronto Urban Agriculture with TUG

Sprout continues with Part 2 of the Toronto Urban Growers Interview with Rhonda Teitel-Payne, delving deeper into the opportunities and constraints in Toronto's Urban Agriculture initiatives.

Check out Part 1 prior to reading this post, found below.  

Concept- Hydro One Corridor CEED Project - Rendered by Michelle Moylan 

Concept- Hydro One Corridor CEED Project - Rendered by Michelle Moylan 

Rhonda: Right, That was the most challenging and in some ways the most heart-breaking part of this. That was one of our hopes, that the TPH soil protocol would be able to be used in the future for this. TPH staff really diligently, worked very hard to get that approval. They made a very evidence-based case, evidence based argument that their standard were in some ways more stringent than the provincial requirements and they go approval from the ministry of environment but, unfortunately, not in writing. When we went through this process of doing a modified environmental assessment for all of the four sites that we were working with and after we had completed those, we found out that  no Hydro One was not going to accept that. They were going to stand by their own process. Basically what it comes down to is the usage of the land. There are three different tables of soil contaminant values so you have to compare your samples to those values. The table that you use will depend on use of the property. It’s probably more complicated than I can explain in an interview, but basically we were told that, at one point this table would apply, and then later on we were told that actually, no, you need to go by this table. So there was a change of opinion throughout the process of what would be acceptable standards, I guess, would be the best way to summarize that. My point is basically that the Toronto Public Health people, I think, used a very good process and were quite diligent about the work that they did but the province, for their own reasons, could not accept that. And, people have asked me since then, is that fair? Can we fight that, and I don’t have the technical expertise to be able to say, yeah, your right, or no, you’re wrong. But I think that would be something that would be worth exploring in the future: was this decision the most appropriate decision?

Sprout: Has there been discussion about that being a matter of provincial politics and bringing forth legislation that would allow that kind of change to happen at the provincial scale? There is a lot of activity at the municipal scale but how can you bring that energy to the provincial level?

Rhonda: That’s a good question. I don’t know if that would be a political decision. I think that politicians would very much rely on the scientific analysis of provincial staff and the provincial staff are the ones who are saying no, this is not the standard or level we will accept. I think that rather than a political battle it needs to be a scientific one.

Sprout: A different case than the one that Toronto Health has already made? That case would have to be larger?

Rhonda: Yeah

Sprout: In this process how have the various levels related to each other? Especially, this is your role, how have these community level groups related with you, related with the city, related with Hydro? How has that coordination been working?

Rhonda: It’s been very interested. So the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, they establish standards that infrastructure Ontario then implements for province-wide projects. So anytime there is any construction or development, Infrastructure Ontario is responsible for giving approvals. IO then gives their decisions to Hydro One. Hydro manages that process. For TUG, we had some conversations with Hydro One, but really they prefer one point of contact and what we’ve heard is that there’s a difference; if you are anywhere else in Ontario, if you’re a private farmer, they have no problem renting out land to farmers, but in the City of Toronto, and I’m assuming just because the big population volume, they don’t have the resources to do that much. So they prefer to work directly with the City. Hydro One and the City of Toronto, they do have a very formal lease arrangement already established and so City of Toronto Staff would work with TUG, TUG would act as a liaison between the city and the community partners. We would share the information we get from the city with the community partners and take whatever issues the community partners have back to the city staff. And again that’s more about trying to keep things efficient than anything else.


Figure provided by TUG 

Figure provided by TUG 

Sprout: So that was your application format? Community groups making an application to the city? 

Rhonda: No, it wasn’t that formal. Not an application process. More of a partnership approach in a sense that the city wanted sites to work with and there were community groups that wanted to move projects forward as opposed to community groups saying that this is something that we want to do and we’re going to apply to an established program, because it is very new and a lot of things need to be negotiated. And, one thing I will say is that, the community partners really contributed a lot to moving the process along and making it the priority that it was because they got significant funding and having funders step up and say, yes, we will fund these projects was a big lever for saying we need to make this a priority. Another thing I will say that is interesting about this is the amount of money to community partners is significant amount of money but when you are talking about the city and the province, because they work on such a different scale, it’s like $400,000 [throws up her hands signalling no big deal]. It’s a different scale.

Sprout: I would think that since this is being led by social development [the city department], they might be a little bit more understanding of the funding . . .

Rhonda: And they were.

Sprout: So that was out of their hands?

Rhonda: Yes. They were also scrambling for information. To be fair to all parties, a lot of this stuff was very new even to Hydro One, whom I think have operated in a particular way for decades and now within, maybe, the past five years they are going by some new rules and new processes.

Sprout: That will make things easier?

Rhonda: Unfortunately no. It makes things more difficult. What they said to us from the beginning is we know there have been community gardens in hydro corridors for a long time and that they have been allowed to do a number of things that, now, we are not allowing new projects to do. And, to be fair, they have years and years of experience of running projects in corridors and seeing safety issues come up. So it’s no random[IY1]  [coincidence], it’s not someone being difficult, it’s just there are things that they have seen. Now, whether there are other ways to manage those concerns – that’s a whole other conversation.

Sprout: What would be an example of those concerns? Those safety concerns.

Rhonda: So, things like the height of the wires. The distance of wires. The types of equipment you are bringing onto the site, whether you are having strings of metal wires that can become electrified. Things that weren’t thought about before. If the wires need to be repaired and the site is surrounded by fencing and they can’t get in and there are buildings and structures and whatever. . . That’s all stuff they have had to deal with in the past that haven’t been very successful or that caused problems. That’s why they are now giving us this list of, these are the things that you cannot do on a Hydro One site. They have a number of restrictions. They have a new process that they call Step, Touch. That is a safety analysis process which they didn’t do before and, which now we are finding out has a lot of costs associated with it and time. So that is new. Having to do archeological assessments is fairly new as well. This is something that when we started out we didn’t know we would have to do. These were all put in place for good reasons. And I don’t know how much of that is what absolutely needs to be done to ensure safety and full functioning of the site and how much is to make their job easier.

Sprout: There are a few ways we could go forward. What are your next steps? What other projects do you have going on and also what is this project taught you about how to approach other processes?

Rhonda: The easiest one is what we’ve learned from this. The importance of champions. That sounds like a pretty obvious thing but it’s really true. And champions are both what I told you about funders and having funders support it but also having people within the city, like a one point the deputy city manager, the staff at TPH, the staff at SDFA [Social Development Finance and Administration], who have really pushed things through and have found ways to get around the barriers. I can’t understate how important that is. And having the mayor’s office come in at some point and say that this was a priority.

Sprout: Those champions, how does that look at the community level? What types of champion were necessary at that level?

Rhonda: Well the agency staff that have been at this for years, in terms of hearing from people what the needs are for land access. Prioritizing that within their own program plan even though this is not an easy project and they still invested time into this. There are a number of other priorities they could have landed on, this is the one they have chosen to land on so, again, someone in a key position made a decision that this was really important.

I would also say at Hydro One, people at the managerial level also said we want this to happen and we want to find a way to make it happen. So again, not to position Hydro One as being the bad guys. There was internal support there that was quite key.

Sprout: What other lessons?

Rhonda: Having said that about champions, making sure that all of the layers, particularly when you’re dealing with provincial and municipal governments, make sure that everyone who is involved in on board. At all levels. Because we would have managers that on one level were very supportive and then ground level staff didn’t get that message - and vice versa. And over the course of three years that provides lots of opportunities for miscommunication and for having to back track and make sure that people are fully informed.

Sprout: Did you learn ways to make the process more efficient? How do you ensure that that communication is happening in another department that you don’t have access to?

Rhonda: It’s basically a mindfulness thing. You have to check in. Don’t assume that they are communicating the way you want them to. This is part of the work. Making sure that [groups] have approval and what [they] need to have approval .

What was really key and what is understated but really exciting about the Toronto agriculture program is bringing all of these different divisions that often don’t talk to each other together to say, here’s the piece of work that we need to do, what are you contributing to it, what are your issues? Because if we don’t have people all around the table, hearing that this is a priority it gets shelved. If we went to Toronto Water and said that we need water access to this, they get a hundred other requests coming in at the same time, they don’t know how that intersects [with the project timeline]. And particularly when you talk about timelines, if Toronto water needs six months to accomplish something and another division needs another six months to accomplish something then you want to make sure that those timelines fit. And that’s where SDFA really came in handy because they were the ones who were fitting it all into a timeline. I and someone outside of the city wouldn’t have had a clue how all of these things fit together. So, having city staff who do know how to manage that system was huge.

Sprout: Anything else you would like to mention in the lessons learned category?

Rhonda: Oh, this is a small thing but again this is something specific to CEED, the framing of it was really key. We started out talking about Hydro farms and that’s something that the funders were really excited about. Farms in hydro corridors. But the language around farms really discombobulated people. So that’s where the CEED title came from, because even though it is a really unwieldy name it actually says ‘Community’, ‘Economic Development’, ‘Community Engagement’. Just to remind people that’s the focus of these projects. So that can’t be understated.

The other thing that I connect to champions is the importance of tying into key city strategic initiatives that are [on]going. So tying it into the anti-poverty strategy. – the poverty reduction strategy. Tying it into climate change. Tying it into tower renewal. Things that the city is already working on and saying, this is one way to accomplish those objectives. If it was standing out, like a sore thumb, on its own, it wouldn’t have got the same attention. That was really important.

Sprout: That’s a great list. So, what are your next steps for CEED?

Rhonda: To complete the approvals because we still aren’t there yet. Then to have the sites running for a year. And, that, to me, is going to be the exciting part, because we still don’t have huge abundance of urban farms in Toronto. So the models that these farms will use, I think will be very exciting to see how they organize themselves, how they stay viable, how they serve the community and maintain that balance of viability and serving the community at the same time. That will be really fascinating.

Sprout: Where do you see those two things running counter to each other? That is serving the community and viability.

Rhonda: Any farm in Toronto that doesn’t have a 100% commercial aspect to it, and even some that do. There’s a balance. You need to pay your farmers, you need to pay the bills. But, often farms are situated, and these two [CEED projects] in particular, it’s definitely the case, in communities that can’t necessarily afford to pay premium prices for food. So trying to figure out how to make food accessible to those communities. It is totally unacceptable to have a farm that is just growing food for wealthy people amidst poverty. That just doesn’t jive. So how do you provide food access but also make sure you are breaking even at least. Even if these are being run by non-profit agencies they still can’t be losing money, they can’t subsidize them forever. That’s just the environment that Toronto and Southern Ontario are in right now, that there’s not a lot of support financially for these kinds of initiatives, which is a long term issue to work on.

After a year we report back and that’s to establish that these can be community economic development initiatives and be true to the spirit of this being public land. So these spaces can be used for a number of community purposes as well as being functioning farms that produce. Once we’ve established that I think it sets the ground for public land being used for similar if not identical programs but other types of things like this. So if someone wants to set up an indoor vertical farm on city owned property this should make it easier to do. That’s where we can start dreaming. What else could we do on public land?

Sprout: Right, so what else can you do on public land. What other projects do you guys have in mind? Or what else is TUG working on – more broadly than just the CEED program?

Rhonda: More broadly, even though we’ve done this land access is still an issue and having seen how difficult the process is for hydro corridors I think we are trying to figure out how to get other ways to get access to land. So one of the things we’re talking about is the concept of backyard sharing. So private land. There are a few backyard sharing programs running in Toronto and there is a website that promotes that kind of stuff. So, we are thinking that TUG maybe able to play a role in supporting neighbourhoods who want to start up this kind of programming and providing them with the tools to do so and promote some best practice of sharing amongst those neighbourhoods. We can’t actually run the program ourselves because we don’t have the capacity to do that but we can support neighbourhoods who want to. I’m really interested in expanding that idea because right now it’s sort of traditionally with privately owned backyards but if you think about faith groups, if you think about businesses, if you think about condo owners, there are a number of places that have land available. Maybe what they need is, first of all, hear from people who are doing this kind of work to find out that it is actually a successful project and that they can accomplish some of their own goals, whatever they may be. But also to hear the how to’s.

Sprout: What else?

Rhonda: We are keeping tabs on some of the projects that are happening right now and finding out what kinds of obstacles people are running into. So For Life Farms, trying to do the rooftop greenhouse. Fresh City Farms doing their greenhouse at Baka Canada campus. A lot of things came up out of that which we think is something we can work with our city partners on to say, can we make this process any easier – because there are a lot of people that would like to start really interesting things but when they bump against barriers like that you are not encouraging innovation. What are those things that need to be ironed out. I think ultimately my dream, and hearing support from other people on this, is to have one point of contact at the city on urban agriculture. Whether it’s one staff person or office. That people can go to that place get answers and have someone who will help them navigate these channels.

Sprout: I’m not sure if it is through parks and rec, but you can start a community garden, and they have this program of one in each ward I believe, so that staff person already exists, could that be the contact person? Or do you think it needs to be broader?

Rhonda: I think that kind of thing is useful, but that one person is seriously under-resourced and the focus is just on community gardens. Parks has said the commercial side is not their mandate, so an office of urban agriculture might not sit within parks unless there was that broadening of their mandate to incorporate community economic development. That would be one of the challenges of having an office of urban agriculture. Figuring out where in the city [bureaucracy] it would actually sit and what would be the vision that would make most sense.

Sprout: Thank you very much. That was great.

This in-depth interview considers the various dimensions of Urban Agriculture in Toronto. Let us continue a dialogue on how to improve access to Urban Agriculture starting in your household to policy level initiatives. 

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