New podcast episode: How urban farms benefit communities with Kevin Jones

EPISODE 10- How Urban Farms Benefit Communities with Kevin Jones

Urban farms have a number of environmental benefits and have often been discussed as solutions to food security issues, but there is another, less discussed benefit: community building!


Thank you, Kevin Jones, for making this episode possible.



Host: Welcome back to the Land Use Podcast. My name is Aysha Wu with the Alberta Land Institute and today we’ll be talking about urban agriculture.

Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge that the University of Alberta is situated on Treaty 6 territory, the traditional lands of First Nations and Métis people who have cared for and grown food on this land for centuries.

Urban agriculture can be used as a nature-based solution for a variety of issues including sustainable growth, development and resilience building within cities. It can also increase biodiversity and has the potential to mitigate urban heat island effects.

Here to talk about urban agriculture is Kevin Jones who I will let introduce himself. Welcome, Kevin! Why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself? 

Kevin: Yeah, I’m Kevin Jones. I’m associate professor in the department of resource economics and environmental sociology in the faculty of ALES. I’m on the environmental sociology side of that. A lot of my research is community-based looking at the challenges communities face, working with communities to address those challenges including around issues of urban agriculture, environmental change and food security.

Host: Great thank you, Kevin. So, let’s start with the basics here, what is urban agriculture? 

Kevin: Urban Agriculture can mean many things and so it's more of a catch-all for talking about growing food in the city than a specific definition of what that looks like. And urban agriculture might, therefore, involve everything from growing something in your backyard domestic garden space, it might involve a high-tech rooftop garden or a wall garden or an aquaponics or a hydroponics system. It could involve community gardens and it can involve kind of community-run kind of farm projects. It can also include commercial kind of farm projects. So it’s a catch-all for thinking about growing food in the city.

I do have one problem with the language. There’s some– there’s an idea in urban agriculture, at least it carries this idea, that elevates its importance to a set of novel solutions to agreed-upon kind of crises in our communities, whether around food security, around the environment. Where me and a grad student and I have looked at that kind of language of gardening as something which is, maybe, a little bit more amenable to actually understanding this kind of diversity of what we do. And, actually, there’s something much more community-oriented around gardening and figuring out these issues together, which is important, which gets lost in the kind of serious business of urban agriculture.

Host: Yeah, right because we’ve always gardened, it’s something people understand, but urban agriculture sounds a bit intimidating or like you need some kind of understanding or background to get into it. That’s not to say, I’m sure, that there isn’t a base of knowledge that would help. What kind of issues do you think people might run into when getting involved in urban agriculture?

Kevin: The challenges of urban agriculture are, probably, fairly well known in part. In general, garden sites are very fragile in terms of the landscapes they operate on. So they can, for example in the European contexts, they’re often in areas of land which are undevelopable, so next to railways or canals or maybe former industrial sites, all which carry challenges. Here in Edmonton, we certainly have gardens that are on empty landscapes now, but where development is looming which threaten, kind of, the sustainability of urban agriculture. 

So access to land and the infrastructure to support gardens is something most urban agriculture problems are challenged with. And the kind of market basis around what even a commercial garden can do in the city don’t match up with the development values of those lands. And so this means that often land is lost, and it's not just land but gardens do a lot of work in producing soil for building communities around a geography, in a location. And so those things can be very fragile. 

Other challenges, access to infrastructure, electricity, water for irrigation, bathroom facilities for volunteers, can be very challenging things. Access to volunteers and coordinating it takes a lot of time. You're asking people at, say, a community-run garden to donate weekends and evenings to doing that. And, of course, people get something out of that, but producing a garden’s a lot of work and can be overwhelming for people as well. 

And then, you know, the other challenge is about distributing food into community, whether you’re a commercial gardener and finding markets for that, or you're donating through charities, you know, again, these are challenging relationships, they take a lot of work to build. So there's all this stuff that goes on around urban agriculture which can make them very fragile projects in terms of what they’re achieving and their ability to sustain themselves.

Host: So, despite all of that, why is urban agriculture important?

Kevin: I think that, you know, the experience and the literature around urban agriculture would cite a whole plethora of multifaceted, layered benefits. You know I think, important to understanding the benefits we’re talking about today in terms of urban agriculture are about the challenges our cities and communities face. 

So historically, again, community gardens, agriculture projects have been responses to crisis. We can historically go back to the 17 century and the loss of, kind of, common garden properties and movements like the Diggers movements as a response to that changing world and the crisis in the communities, the poverty and the loss of access to community food resources. But, you know, right up till COVID today where we can talk about gardens that were created around COVID, or grew around COVID, and responding to both the kind of challenges for community-building but also the food costs, the access to healthy food, the challenges that have followed COVID and stay with us today through inflation. So gardens are often built in terms of response to some kind of crisis or perceived need.

Today, when we talk about the benefits of gardens, it’s often about these kind of anxieties and concerns we have about the sustainability of our world, the polarization of our communities, the chronic kind of nature of our food security in a city like Edmonton which, despite being wealthy, has really long-standing and growing problems with providing fresh, nutritious food into communities that need it. And so gardens today are seen as responding to environmental challenges, as ways of moderating urban temperature, as, you know– urban heat island effects. They’re ways of managing extreme weather through kind of rain capture or bandaging against drought conditions. They’re about biodiversity, promoting pollinators and insect species. So there’s all these environmental kind of benefits. There’s health benefits, there's social and community benefits that go on and relational kinds of ways of building community. So there’s this whole kind of diverse, layered kind of benefits that range from environmental to access to food to health and nutrition to participation. 

New York Times just had a nice article last week on the mental health benefits of gardening. And so we tend to see gardens a lot in that kind of space, as positive responses to these anxieties or concerns or crises in our communities. In my own research, and research I do with graduate students in my department, is to think about actually what goes on in gardens as well as what gardens deliver to an environment or to a community. And so we're really interested in the kind of relationships and interactions that go on in gardens. And so one of the real benefits I don't think we often look at when we're talking about these kind of crises, is instead of providing kind of solutions to agreed-upon definitions of what those problems are, gardeners work together, across very different communities, to figure out what those problems are and to find ways of acting together on them. 

In a project I’m doing at the moment with colleagues at the University of Sheffield, we’ve been talking to urban agriculture practitioners about some of the challenges they face and the way they’re responding to them in their gardens. And one of those is around climate change where we get variable seasons. We could have dry, hot springs, or this year we’ve had a very wet, cool spring. The length of our seasons is changing. How our winters affect some of our perennials is all changing. So we talk to gardeners who’re having to adapt to climate change in very pragmatic ways, in managing soils, planting techniques, cropping in different ways in the garden and we do this together. And so, there is a lovely quote I got from a research interview where a colleague says, you know, I work on this day to day with somebody who is a climate denier. It doesn't matter. We get past all the fear and anxiety about that to figure out what these pragmatic solutions are. So, to me, this is an enormous benefit in these kind of community spaces. Not gardens as delivering benefits, but as being a benefit in themselves for figuring out what sustainable challenges we face, to think about how we act, to figure out how we feel about those and what our anxieties are. 

Another student, Sarah DeLano, did a masters project looking at feelings of belonging amongst newcomer and migrant communities to Edmonton, and using gardens and green spaces as a means of building connections to pasts, to other geographies, to each other and, of course, to finding belonging in Edmonton and the kind of food spaces here. And so that process of working together in a landscape, working with growing a garden is a really important and, kind of, magical process for figuring out really these complex scenarios. So a lot of my research is very interested in what goes on in the gardens, not necessarily just what the gardens contribute. 

Host: That’s a really interesting perspective that, honestly, I didn’t really think about. There’s a lot of emphasis on the environmental benefits of urban farms, and there’s a very community-driven level to urban farming, and studies have shown how effective community-lead initiatives can be. So it’s really interesting to hear about, kind of, the other side, how it’s benefiting the community, too. 

Kevin: And if we think about it, if we asked the garden I work at, Prairie Urban Farm, to solve even a fraction of our food security challenges in Edmonton it’s a drop in the bucket–

Host: Right.

Kevin: –in terms of what we can produce and provide access to those communities. So by setting ourselves up these huge, lofty challenges, we kinda set ourselves up for failure in them. And, as we’ve already talked about, these are very fragile enterprises. So, for me, in terms of food security, responding to that is at very different scales within a city and it’s gonna involve lots of different kinds of actors, government, private industry and urban agriculture projects. So thinking less about the kinds of big things urban agriculture can solve to thinking about actually what goes on there and the benefits that participants can understand and see and believe in and get behind is really an important shift, I think, for understanding those gardens. Not putting too much pressure on them themselves.

Host: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So, speaking of participating in and learning about urban farming, do you wanna talk about Prairie Urban Farm a little bit?

Kevin: Yeah, so Prairie Urban Farm is something very close to my heart. I've been involved for 11 or 12 years ago. It was originally started by Professor Deborah Davidson, an environmental sociologist. I work with myself, and a former PhD student, and we’ve got access to a small slice of land on South Campus, near the dairy barn, and it's been growing ever since. It's a completely community-run initiative, although it does get some leadership from the university through people like Deborah and myself, and Mary Becky, another colleague, in school of public health, but it also gets a little bit of support in terms of access to space and water from the university. But otherwise it’s community-run.

So our volunteers do the work. They lend their expertise and knowledge to how we grow things, to what we're growing. And so you know I try to work in cooperation with them as much as possible to figure out what that garden looks like. In terms of what we produce, we’re about an acre and a half garden on the South Campus of the university. We produce the kind of things that you'd expect to see out there, carrots and potatoes and lots of different roots and greens and onions and tomatoes and brassicas. We also have some perennials in terms of a small fruit orchard, berry bushes, haskaps, saskatoons, currents, all kinds of things, strawberry, rhubarb– you can go on and on and on. 

We try, in recent years, to do a few different things that might be more relevant to different cultural groups in our community, to diversify what we plant a little bit. And then the other kind of area we do lots of planning is around things like pollinators, wild species both as kind of weed control but to promote insects and wildlife and cultivators within our garden itself. So we grow a lot of different things out there. If you look on Google Maps you’ll see the garden is shaped as a hexagon or a mandala kind of shape. This is not the most efficient market gardening kind of way, but it’s there as a means of inviting our community to come in and explore the space together. So while we grow lots of things, we do place a real emphasis on your ability to come out, to participate and enjoy being in the garden, not just producing vegetables. 

What else can I say about Prairie Urban Farm? It’s a site, for me, of research activity and constant learning and community. We distribute our produce, really, in three different ways. One, through organizations we work with to get produce into peoples kitchens that need it, whether that be something like Multicultural Health Brokers Grocery Run program, and, of course, increasing in our profile of giving is the Campus Food Bank at the university, who have been wonderful in participating in volunteer sessions with us at the farm this year. The second way is our volunteers take food with them themselves. So we harvest together, during the harvest season, at the end of every session to make sure people are able to take things and experiment with things and learn to cook with things. We do some kind of instruction around that sometimes. And then our third way is we sell a community supported agriculture box and that’s our main source of fundraising. So we sell between 12 and 20 of those weekly boxes a year to generate revenue to sustain us in tools and seeds. 

The other thing that Prairie Urban Farm does, I’m really proud of is we work with community organizations out at the farm. So, in the past, it’s been quite a diverse number of kind of communities that have been out there. One that’s been with us for a long time is Michael Frost who’s a devout volunteer and essential kind of person at our farm has been bringing a community from AdaptAbilities out on weekday mornings and they garden a site together. They do these wonderful experiments together learning how to garden. AdaptAbilities is an organization that provides respite care for families that have people living in those families with visible and invisible disabilities. And so that's been a really important community for us to come out to and so they're actively involved in our garden, not just receiving produce from us. We try to work with as many different community organizations as we can to both provide access to foodscapes, like South Campus, and then to provide, where possible, the produce that they might want to take with them.

Host: You mentioned community involvement and some organizations but who can get involved in Prairie Urban Farm? Is it mostly organizations? Is it university staff or students? 

Kevin: You know, one of our core values as a garden is to be inclusive. I'd say anybody is welcome to come out and garden at Prairie Urban Farm. We do work with some communities, but you can also join as an individual. We get both students, we get faculty members, we get people from the local community, we get people to come all the way across the city from other parts to come and work with us. It's really an enormous kind of diversity of individuals that we have out there. 

You can find information about those volunteer sessions on our website, but generally they’re Tuesday, Thursday evenings from 5:30 to 8:30, and Saturdays from 1 to 5 in the afternoon. And if you come out somebody will put a waiver in front of you to sign off and then you’ll work with a mentor or one of the garden leaders to get right in at a task. It’s nice because we have people that are out there every week, sometimes every day it feels like, and you have other people that might not be able to make that commitment and come out with a group of friends two or three times in the year. There are lots of opportunities at the university for getting involved. You know, as I was mentioning, Campus Food Bank has a tremendous set of volunteers that have been coming out with us, largely on Tuesday evenings of late. The Alumni Association brings volunteers out, some of the residence services come out with groups at different times of the year. And so lots of ways you can get involved and if you’re part of an organization that is interested or faces of some of the challenges around food security in our communities or access to foodscapes, then always happy to hear from you and try to figure out something that works with those organizations as well.

Host: And what kind of learning opportunities does Prairie Urban Farm offer?

Kevin: The biggest one is learning by doing, right? So you know, again, the seriousness of that language of urban agriculture sometimes sounds like we all know what we’re doing. There are lots of mistakes made at Prairie Urban Farm, and I’ve been gardening most of my life, but I’m still happy to make mistakes and learn by doing and I'm really happy to learn from other volunteers that do things differently, that might bring other methods or values or other experiences or different gardening cultures to us. And so there's tremendous opportunities for just getting things and trying things out, trying different methods, learning from other communities. So that's the most valuable way. And we have gardeners on site that are people like me that have been gardening for a long, long time. We have other people that have never been on a patch of dirt in their life and are learning to plant a seed and water it for the first time. And so that learning by doing is really important.

We do try to host a series of workshops every year. Sometimes these can be things like just social events where we do a little bit of recipe instruction. I think last year we did a pesto making workshop and potluck dinner. We’ve hosted workshops on composting in the past, we had a workshop a few years ago on creating food forests and kind of permaculture planting around our orchard. So it varies year on year. This year we have big plans for doing some stuff around seed collection and seed saving, maybe for doing some propagating of fruit tree stuff. And then I’ve been working with two friends and colleagues about maybe doing something like willow weaving where we are starting to plant willows and make actual infrastructure out of them at the garden. So it changes year to year and often we try to respond to the kind of interests or what our volunteers would like us to do, but by and large, the best way to learn about what we do is to come out and to figure it out. And if you're an experienced gardener we'd love to learn from you. And if you're thinking, “oh, I don't really know what I'm doing,” well, then come on out as well. There's no better place than Prairie Urban Farm to make mistakes and figure it out along the way.

Host: Yeah. So that’s a pretty good overview of a Prairie Urban Farm, but what is your role in the project?

Kevin: My role in the program, yeah. So I think I’m, at the moment, called the Director, but that’s really a glorified title for the person that’s responsible for the paperwork. But we try to be as collectively-run as possible so there are three of us: Deborah, Marie and myself that kind of, on a day-to-day basis, make sure that we have seeds and organize the garden and that things are running and put on sessions. But we have an enormous kind of group of everyday volunteers that we couldn’t do without. So I kind of love it because I can be a professor that’s interested in urban agriculture and community, but I can go out to Prairie Urban Farm and I can be the person that is digging the garden bed or pushing the rototiller and I can be learning. So, to me, it's this indispensable community and sometimes, you know, you won't believe this, that as a professor we can live in our little bubbles, right? Where we hang out with other academics all the time and talk to students and I just love that there's a much broader, more diverse community there. So how do I see my role? Yeah, I’m the Director, but I'm also just part of the gardening crew out at Prairie Urban Farm.

Host: Awe I love that. So that's kind of everything that I had to ask you. Is there anything that you want to add as concluding thoughts about urban agriculture or Prairie Urban Farm?

Kevin: Yeah, I mean I’ve been talking about Prairie Urban Farm. We’re on South Campus. You’re welcome to join us. There’s so many different versions, as I said, about what urban agriculture is to get involved in. So find something that works for you, explore different options. Edmonton Urban Farm up in the north east of the city is fantastic. Just down the road from us is the most beautiful market garden, Green and Gold Garden, which produces wonderful vegetables and donates all their proceeds to a charity in Rwanda with this unbelievable garden they produce. Edmonton Organic Growers Guild is out on south campus. Lots of community leagues now have gardens going in them. You might have a boulevard or a domestic space you can get involved in. Maybe it’s backyard chickens or beekeeping. There’s enormous opportunities to get involved in so try things out go have a look around. Don’t feel inhibited if you don’t have that gardening experience. There’s wonderful communities out there, and in Edmonton there’s just a whole range of different opportunities you can get involved in.

Host: Great thanks so much, Kevin. 

Kevin: It’s my pleasure.

Host: So that’s it for this month’s episode. As always there are links in the description if you want to learn more about urban agriculture or Prairie Urban Farm including a link to Prairie Urban Farm’s website. If you enjoyed the episode, leave a like, a comment and subscribe to stay up-to-date with all of our latest episodes. You can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, X and LinkedIn and sign up for our newsletter on thank you for listening to the Land Use Podcast.