What if … cities become sites of food production

Population growth, climate change, and resource scarcity are all making headlines these days. But the future of food is now being added to the discussion.

According to Ernst van den Ende, a world authority on plant pathology, the planet must produce more food in the next four decades than has been harvested over the past 8,000 years. This is significant, given that our current industrial agricultural practices already use more than a third of our ice-free land and 30% of all fresh water, and produce half of the world’s GHG emissions.

According to the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute, Canada plans on increasing the value of agri-food exports by 50 per cent, and supplying 10 per cent more food for domestic consumption by 2025 However, only 5 per cent of Canada’s entire land base is suitable for growing food.

Natasha Arsenijevich

By 2050, it is projected that, in Canada:

  • The population will increase 30 per cent
  • There will be yearly water loss of about 3.5 kilometre cubed — enough to supply all of Canada’s households — due to an increase in temperature
  • An annual mean temperature increase of 3° - 5° Celsius, and increasing weather volatility in our prime farming areas, will drive the need for farmers to grow heat-tolerant crops as well as — or instead of — traditional crops such as wheat.

Resource scarcity, population growth, and climate change will continue to compromise our agricultural land. The future of food must use less land and water, pollute less, and sustain the food demands of a growing national and global population in an increasingly vulnerable and unstable climate.

The solution

There is one solution that promises to address this problem: Urban agriculture (UA). Defined as the growing, processing and distribution of food within a city, UA is categorized into two scopes:

  • Controlled environment agriculture, such as vertical farms and greenhouses, which often utilize soil-less production methods such as aquaponics, hydroponics, and aeroponics
  • Uncontrolled environment agriculture, such as community gardens, green infrastructure, and rooftop gardens

Urban agriculture requires 10-20 times less land and 70-95 per cent less water than rural agriculture; can eliminate the need to use pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides; and has the potential for year-round crop production.

A Growing Opportunity

Municipalities are in a unique position to capitalize on the holistic benefits of UA, which has also been shown to reduce crime, foster community cohesion, and create jobs. Studies have shown that there are 6,200 hectares of unutilized rooftops and corridors in Toronto alone, which, if used for UA, would provide an ongoing municipal savings of approximately $37 million a year in infrastructure costs and savings to businesses and residents on air-conditioning costs.

Urban agriculture also creates jobs and reduces unemployment. In Detroit, Michigan, United States, it was shown that, if 20 per cent of fresh food was grown within the city, it would create 4,700 jobs and bring in nearly $US20 million in taxes.

Additionally, experts explain that UA will be integral to reducing the growing problem of food inequality by providing discounted fresh produce to low-income families. The production and procurement of a stable food supply, currently impacted by unstable weather patterns and climactic conditions such as droughts, fires, and floods, could also be assured through the adoption of this approach.

Currently, Canada imports 60 per cent of its food from the U.S, which means that the droughts in California and the mid-west will also affect Canadians. Ontario, the most populous province, alone imports 50 per cent more food than it exports. If we continue to rely on food stuffs from regions that are facing climate uncertainty and vulnerability, our food security will be at risk.

Good for business, too?

At the property level, urban agriculture in the form of community gardens increases the sale prices of properties within 1,000 feet of the garden, yielding property value benefits alone of $2 million per garden. Aside from increased property values, incorporating UA using methods such as rooftop gardens, green envelopes, or green walls, can improve indoor air quality, conserve energy by reducing heating and cooling loads by 20-40 per cent, enhance tenant well-being, cultivate social cohesion, and elevate the building’s aesthetics. In Australia, for example, Ernst & Young, retrofitted its carparks to an urban farm, while in Toronto, large developers such as the Daniels Corporation have shown interest in building rooftop farms.

A more resilient city

If food production became embedded within city centres and adopted to building and infrastructure design, it would reduce pollution; conserve resources; improve crop yields; cultivate food security; capture and recycle nutrients and rainwater; reduce food-miles, waste, and packaging; improve biodiversity; reduce urban heat island effect by as much as 2 °Celsius; manage excess storm water; improve soil and air quality; sequester carbon, and reduce carbon footprint. That means that municipalities, property owners and developers, academic institutions, hospitals and health care institutions, conservation authorities, not-for-profit organizations, government ministries, and more can all stand to benefit.

If well-conceived and well-implemented, urban agriculture could save Canadian cities hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure investments and energy demands, and would go a long way towards helping us manage a future that includes water crisis and food insecurity.


  1. Blue Economy Initiative
  2. Canadian Geographic
  3. CAPI - Alberta Innovates
  4. CBC-Ontario Food Imports
  5. Comparison of Land, Water, and Energy Requirements of Lettuce Grown Using Hydroponic vs. Conventional Agricultural Methods, World Watch - Livestock and Climate Change
  6. National Geographic - How Netherlands Feeds the World
  7. PARC-Cimate Scenarios for Alberta
  8. StatsCan

  1. StatsCan-Food in Canada
  2. The Effect of Community Gardens on Neighboring Property Values
  3. The Globe and Mail - How to Feed a Hungry City
  4. The Globe and Mail - Urban Agriculture may be Inefficient but its a Model for a Sustainable Future.
  5. The Weather Network
  6. Transition from Conventional Agriculture to High-Tech Urban Food Production System
  7. Urban versus Conventional Agriculture
  8. Vacant Lots to Vibrant Plots, Urban versus Conventional Agriculture

New research

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A tale of our cities

The WSP Global Cities Index: A Tale of Our Cities provides insights about how cities are preparing for a future shaped by the major transitions of our day: urbanisation, density and growth, digital disruption, emerging mobility, evolving utilities models and a changing climate.

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Microgrids represent the next stage in the push toward electrification; a way to reach into the far corners where the big grids cannot go, and where they can go, to make electric service more reliable, clean and less costly.

Future Cities Summit

We’re pleased to be a lead sponsor of the inaugural Future Cities Summit, which takes place November 7-9 in Toronto, Ontario.

The event will bring together city builders from all sectors to create and strengthen new relationships and collectively accelerate innovations for more inclusive, sustainable and resilient cities.

To learn more about Future Cities Canada and WSP’s involvement, visit the event’s home page. We look forward to seeing you there.


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