Ruben Anderson is a long-time member of Strong Towns and consultant on sustainability and regenerative systems. Today he's sharing a guest article as part of our ongoing conversation about local food.


My hometown of Victoria, British Columbia, is known as The Garden City. So it may not come as a surprise that our City Council is interested in increasing the amount of food grown in the city in order to boost food security, reduce the environmental impact of our groceries, and diversify the local economy. These goals are even laid out in the Official Community Plan.

Implementation shows the goals have changed, but the municipal mindset has not. We have two perfect examples of this in Victoria: a new food tree stewardship program and a set of regulations for home food growing businesses.

Ill-Fated Orchards

The Food Tree Stewardship Pilot Program seeks to test if volunteers can maintain fruit and nut trees in parks and other City-owned green spaces.

This seems like a great idea on the surface. Trees can root deeply, and so in their maturity, they can produce an astonishing amount of food with very little labor, fertilizer or water. Also, they provide a lovely place to sit and read a book, and help manage stormwater in the rainy season or cool the heat of summer. Trees are wonderful, and productive fruit and nut trees are even better.

In this pilot program, "Volunteer Stewards" will be entirely responsible for the watering, pruning, weeding, harvesting, and disposal of all prunings and windfalls. The information sheet suggests volunteers even must buy the trees themselves, though City Parks staff will help with planting. So, it seems the Stewards are on the hook for up to a couple hundred dollars to buy trees and pay for ongoing water charges, they might need to hire someone to prune the trees, plus they may need a truck to dispose of yard scraps or be willing to pay someone to haul it away.

Strong Towns believes cities should make a lot of small bets instead of going all in on one thing, but this bet is starting to look quite miniscule. Almost microscopic.

What's more, the Steward is not allowed to sell any of the food they harvest. Instead, it must be “available for the public to harvest”—while at the same time the Steward is responsible to “ensure all fruit is picked during the harvest”. In my own experience, there is a Tragedy of Excessive Politeness in the Commons, in which everyone wants to leave food for everyone else, and so nobody picks much at all and a huge amount is wasted.

It will be interesting to see what the uptake on this pilot project will be. It seems like it would be a lot more attractive if someone could take stewardship of a substantial urban orchard and run it as a business. That would not provide free food, but would provide a lot of local food, which is a worthy project, and one that might draw dedicated people.

Source: woodleywonderworks

Source: woodleywonderworks

Food Production Fail

I am afraid the next project is even less commendable. It beckons you forward, then slaps you for being so fresh. 

Happily, it is now legal to grow or produce food on your city lot, and sell it. 

But you need a business license. You can buy a license to sell from your home for three months for $25, or one year for $100. You can buy a license for selling offsite (like to a restaurant) for $100. If you want to do both, you need both permits.

Very few people will produce a truly serious amount of food, but potentially thousands of people will have an extra bunch of carrots, a dozen eggs or a twenty pounds of surplus apples. It is pretty easy to imagine the long tail of urban agriculture. And if you would like to sell that extra twenty pounds of apples, the City of Victoria will be happy to sell you a business license. 

So, if I dedicated one entire row in my garden to growing carrots, and grew two crops of carrots per year, I could pay for my business licence. No carrots for my family to eat though…

Or, I could keep a couple of hens year round. Those hens would lay enough eggs to cover their food costs and pay for the business license, but I wouldn't get paid for the labour feeding and watering them, letting them out of their coop in the morning and ushering them back in at night, nor for the time collecting and washing the eggs—that would all go to the City. Heaven forbid one of them get sick and I need to buy medicine or call the vet.

Once you have bought a business license, food stands are allowed in all zones, which is amazing... But you can’t sell from your garage, or greenhouse, or shed, or home. So you need to build a farm stand.

Structures like farm stands or greenhouses do not need to be permitted if they are under 10 square metres, though they do need to obey all setbacks. But if your sign is larger than 0.185 square meters (2 square feet), you need a sign permit.

And here is one last little detail to show how the City has failed to wrap its head around what it would truly take to enable growing a meaningful amount of food… Victoria is The Garden City—which provides a lot of great food for the Garden City Deer. A large number of urban deer ambulate around the region, snacking and napping in back yards as the urge strikes them. There were not one but two four-point bucks in my neighbor’s yard just a few weeks ago.

Since deer are cute, there is vociferous opposition to killing them, even though—ahem—that could provide a great deal of hyperlocal food.

And so the Urban Food Production Handbook spells out what is permitted for fencing your new urban farm: In the front yard, you are allowed a fence four feet high. In the side and back yards, you may have a fence six feet high.

Anybody in deer country is now laughing hysterically. Deer fences need to be either fairly tall—eight to ten feet—or short and wide, like two shorter fences a few feet apart. The latter is a waste of scarce urban space and a landscaping nightmare, and the former is illegal in Victoria.

So to recap: you must buy a business permit and build a dedicated stand to sell your produce. You must not sell from your garage or porch, and you may not build a fence to keep the deer out. Signage must be small or you must apply and pay for a sign permit.

All of this so you can legally sell a bunch of beets or a handful of radishes. 

What this means is that my city has just turned a bunch of its citizens into criminals. Gardeners. Seriously. For lack of a business license, Victoria now has a huge per capita population of scofflaw vegetable gardeners, who may sell contraband carrots under the cover of night. 

Returns from Regulation?

There are a whole lot of things that will never be a problem and so we should consider just not regulating anything about them. Sure, some people will—gasp—erect an unpermitted farm stand sign larger than two square feet. But most people want to be good citizens, and most people tend to obey even bad laws, whereas if there are no laws they would rely on their common sense. That means when the permit procedures are too onerous they will inhibit instead of encourage, and will not foster the flourishing of food production Victoria says it wants.

Source: USDA

Source: USDA

This song is all too familiar on Strong Towns. Too many cities are still trapped in The Expectation of Betrayal, and so they regulate every aspect, even when they are trying to loosen up and be cool. Our Mayor once described how she followed every City regulation in order to hang a swing from a tree branch in the boulevard—but obeying excessive regulation is not a sign of success. Dismantling excessive regulation is the correct response.

I want to step very carefully here. Some ideologues cut regulations just for the joy of cutting and regardless of the reason the regulation was written in the first place. Personally, I am very far from ideologically opposed to regulation, but I do oppose regulations that don’t lead to Strong Towns.

Strong Towns asks us to calculate the lifecycle costs of our infrastructure, and ask whether that infrastructure will pay for itself. If you can’t collect enough taxes from homes to cover the costs of laying sewer pipe, connecting the house, and maintaining and replacing as needed, well then, maybe those houses should be on septic... But how do we calculate the returns from regulation? I am not sure, but I can’t imagine how these regulations will pay for the staff time required to sustain them, and I can’t see how they will meaningfully increase urban farming.

Read more about local food issues.

(Top photo source: woodleywonderworks)


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About the Author

Ruben Anderson consults on behavior change, sustainability and regenerative systems. He taught Sustainable Design at the Emily Carr University, and won an award for Cradle-to-Cradle product design from the Cascadia Green Building Council. Ruben advised on future-proofed, locally resilient systems while working in the City of Vancouver’s Sustainability Group and with the Planning Department, and supervised a Zero Waste proposal for the 2010 Winter Olympics. He has also consulted for BC Housing, Industry Canada, private sector and NGO clients. He has blogged for TreeHugger.com and theTyee.ca, and presents about behavior change and how Compassionate Systems can increase the effectiveness of pro-environmental behaviors. His recent writing and presentations can be found at www.SmallAndDeliciousLife.com.