The Vancouver City Council is scheduled to vote tomorrow (Thursday, July 14, 2011) on the adoption of a comprehensive sustainability plan called the Greenest City 2020 Action Plan (GCAP). The plan runs the gamut of municipal sustainability issues, from energy to water, but one of its ten key goals is to make Vancouver “a global leader in urban food systems.” To achieve this goal, the plan outlines a series of short and long-term strategies, ranging from planting fruit trees on city property to developing infrastructure to aggregate, process and distribute regionally produced food.
The specific strategies in the document will be familiar to food system planners, and some may seem modest. Yet three characteristics distinguish the GCAP from other municipal sustainability plans: (1) it will be ratified by the Vancouver City Council and become official city policy; (2) it calls for cross-agency cooperation, which is so often missing in city initiatives; and (3) it addresses both the regional foodshed as well as neighborhood needs.
A Proper Plan
The GCAP is being ratified as a formal plan by the City Council at the end of a multi-year planning process, so it will be a statement of official city policy and a roadmap for city agencies to follow. The food section sets forth the broad aspiration to make Vancover a global leader in urban food systems, but also establishes a specific target of increasing city and neighborhood food assets by at least 50% from 2010 levels. And the plan designates a lead agency responsible for implementation (Social Policy) with support from two other key agencies, engineering and parks.
The GCAP has been several years in the making, allowing for public scrutiny and the formal adoption over time of goals, targets, and specific strategies. The plan was preceded by the work of an advisory food policy council and a food charter. In February 2010, the Council adopted the long term goals contained in GCAP and requested the action plan. In January, 2011, the Council adopted 14 targets to achieve these goals as official Council policy (and requested staff to develop an additional target that would encourage businesses to adopt green practices).
Public participation is essential to the development of plans, both because people contribute valuable insights and because a participatory process allows for an airing of differences, building credibility in the process and generating support for the final product. The GCAP solicited input in a variety of ways using conventional hearings and social media. But the plan also included external advisory committees made up of key stakeholder organizations. Often planners speak with experts as they are developing a plan or policy, but the advisory committee members appointed by staff to provide feedback on the GCAP were duly appointed and their names were public, adding transparency to the advising process.
One of the values of having the Council approve the GCAP is that once the Council adopts the plan, the goals, targets, and strategies will be identified as Council priorities. At that point it will be politically trickier for the Council to reject or de-fund programs and policies designed to attain the goals contained within GCAP. It will also be easier for advocates to argue for program funding, new policies, and agency regulations that are consistent with and that carry out the intent of the plan.
A Networked Plan
One of the reasons why food gets short shrift in most is that cities generally lack food departments (an idea that planning scholar Jerry Kaufman suggested a decade ago). And while certain municipal agencies are charged with addressing specific aspects of the food system, those responsibilities are dispersed across multiple agencies that may not even talk to each other, let alone collaborate and cooperate. This can lead to a dearth of innovative cross-agency initiatives, agencies completely letting the ball drop, and inconsistent or incompatible policies or programs.
The GCAP discusses the need for coordination and accountability across administrative agencies to achieve the plan’s goals and outlines mechanisms to facilitate multi-agency participation. The plan calls for the development of a coordinated food strategy that increases coordination between city departments, food policy council, community partners, and existing policy programs. It explicitly calls for linking together the work of various departments within an overarching municipal food action plan.
From Foodshed to Neighborhood
Unlike plans that focus exclusively on activities within municipal boundaries, the Vancouver plan is outwardly focused, acknowledging that benefits accrue to the City of Vancouver from a thriving regional foodshed that produces food using sustainable, fair methods. It calls on the city to advocate for maintaining food production capacity within the agricultural land reserve and other agricultural lands surrounding the city. It also calls on the city to promote a “food systems” approach to other levels of government, and for Vancouver to work with other large cities to develop key food system indicators to compare efforts.
To support the regional foodshed, the plan calls for the development of a procurement policy within the next three years that supports the purchase and use of local food in city-run facilities. Over the medium term, the plan calls for the creation of a central food hub to provide space for the aggregation, storage and distribution of food from local farms and the processing and development of local food products. And in an effort not to fall into the “local trap,” the plan defines local food as food that is sustainably produced and affordable using fair labor practices and sound production methods.
The GCAP recognizes the regional, national, and global dimensions to the food system, yet also focuses on neighborhood-level solutions that enhance resilience. The GCAP recommends support for neighborhood food networks or coalitions to increase community capacity at the neighborhood scale, along with the development of neighborhood food infrastructure, including food hubs (facilities to connect rural farmers to urban consumers), community kitchens, markets, gardens, and even community root cellars for food storage and community bread ovens. And, recognizing that small initiatives often have a hard time promoting their work and attracting financial support, the plan calls for the development of information-sharing systems to better integrate those working at the grassroots.
If the GCAP is adopted, as expected, and is actually funded by the City Council over the next decade, Vancouver is likely to achieve its bold goal of being a food systems leader.