Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Space for Faith - Urban Planning and The Church

New Westminster’s Child and Youth strategy is a good first step in developing plans and policies to make the city more inviting for families to live.  Two of the tenets the strategy identifies are Belonging and Inclusion.  Historically, one of the key community connection points for belonging and inclusion was the local church.  As a bad Christian, I was curious to see how the city had accounted for the needs of the local communities of faith in its community and related plans. 

Reviewing the official documentation finds scant mention of churches, temples, or other houses of worship, despite a healthy collection of them in the city.  Reviewing five community plans, the only real references I found to houses of worship were in reflection of their heritage value for the downtown churches, or in the context of South Asian ‘culture and diversity,’ as with the Sikh Temple Sukhsagar in Queensborough.  New Westminster is not alone here, Vancouver did just the same in their West End plan.  Despite several vibrant, active churches in the west end, how those churches and members fit in to the plan is not discussed. 

Holy Trinity Cathedral - Parish Founded 1859
So how is that oversight going to play out in the coming years?  Looking at the census data for New Westminster paints a picture that probably surprises no one. 

Religious Affiliation
City Total Population
Other religions
No religious affiliation
Total Religious

As of 2011, roughly 61% of city residents are claiming a religious affiliation.  It strikes me as odd that the city planning documents generally ignore the potential needs for some 60% of its population.  Particularly given that even as the proportion of religious residents shrinks, due to a growing population the absolute number of religious residents is still growing.  Metro Vancouver growth projections show New Westminster having ~102,000 people come 2041.  If the current rate of religious affiliation holds through then, then another 22,000 people will be looking for places to worship and fellowship.  Even if the rate drops to 50%, that’s still 11,000 more adherents than today.  Where will they all go?

We have some idea from what has played out in the city and regionally in recent history.  The two most visible signs of this are the leasing of commercial spaces by churches and the suburban style mega-church.  According to the zoning bylaws, churches are permitted in CM-1, or Commercial/Industrial zones, or Institutional zones.  However, we have examples such as Five Stones Church or the Redeemed Christian Church of God setting up in straight commercial spaces. 

Five Stones Church in the heart of downtown New Westminster
Now there are some benefits to siting churches in commercial zones – they could share parking with the nearby businesses that don’t need it on weekends, it’s generally transit accessible, it draws more people to the area in quieter times, etc.  They churches can minister to people who are working in the area.  They’re closer to many of the people in need that they should be serving.  But it’s clearly not what’s intended by the zoning laws as they stand.  And shouldn’t the city actively consider the benefits and costs and then manage it instead of letting the chips fall haphazardly as they do now? 

Being a developed, compact city, the mega-church has not really come to New Westminster.  Calvary Worship Centre at the foot of 12th Street is probably the closest thing we have going to a "mega-church", and from what I can tell they just took over an old Legion building, and being reasonably centrally located have fewer of the issues associated with mega-churches.

But large churches in other cities contribute to sprawl (you can argue if the zoning restrictions contributed to that too) and have a regional draw, taking local residents out of town.   I would rather have our residents attending local churches helping local people deal with local issues that see everyone scatter on Sunday. 

Historical churches have additional issues.  Several churches in New Westminster were built around the turn of the (previous) century.  There weren’t as many cars around then, so the churches were easily accessible for the folks living in the area.  But over time, development has pushed homes out from these churches.  How do they maintain accessibility to their adherents?  Needs have changed, regulations have been strengthened - are these churches able to keep up to date and relevant while still complying with local bylaws?

Also absent in the 1900s were seismic codes.  Holy Trinity Cathedral has started the process to develop some of its property, the proceeds of which will be partially used to upgrade their cathedral to modern standards.  My church is amidst the same process right now.  How should the city handle these kind of developments?  Many of these churches are on the historical building register – should the city be providing more active support to maintain the heritage value of these buildings?

As discussed at RethinkUrban, churches hold geographically central locations, and as such are often in the midst of the city’s social issues.  Why are they not being included as stakeholders in the urban planning?  I don’t believe it’s ill will or malice – in every church-city interaction I’m aware of, the city has been unfailingly helpful.  I think it’s more that communities of faith have failed to keep up with how development and planning engage with the community theses days, and make their voices heard.  As the planning process has become more conversational, we as people and communities of faith have failed to join in that conversation. 

One city that has tried to change this is Calgary.  After Calgary developed its City Centre plan, a group of faith organizations recognized the issues discussed here and took action.  They took inventory of the faith communities in the area.  They studied the role those institutions play in the city.  They proposed discussion and changes to the city.  This led to amendments to the City Centre plan last year.  While most of the changes were simple recognition of the roles faith organizations play, there is value in that recognition.  It also brought in a policy to recognize the role both faith and non-faith based institutions have in promoting social stability and assisting community members in need.  

New Westminster Councillor Jonathan Cote was gracious enough to speak with me about this, and what he said was encouraging.  One, the city is already involved with a number of churches in terms of services for the homeless, new immigrants, and other people in need.  Working with such groups is already in the Official Community Plan, and the city intends to continue.  This is a natural point of contact, as the missional side of the church and the government both have similar goals in protecting the vulnerable in our community.  

Two, the city tries to be accommodating when churches and temples come to the city with their planning and development needs.  The city recognizes that many of the buildings were built a long time ago and do not suit current needs, and is willing to work with the churches in terms of variances and zoning to help them update their facilities to meet the needs of their congregations. 

Three, the city also sees the churches working to partner up and more fully utilize the assets within the city, for example having multiple services run by different organizations in the same church building.  I've seen signs of this on many churches in the city.  Will this accommodate 10-20,000 more people?  I don’t know, but it’s a start. 

Four, Cote recognized that in the overarching planning, there may be some gaps in recognizing and accounting for the spiritual needs of the city’s residents.  This is particularly the case given the significant growth in immigrant populations which can bring very specific religious requirements with them. 

Finally, we spoke on how communities of faith can make their voices heard. The Official Community Plan (OCP) is being updated, and there are a number of ways to be involved.  The update of the OCP is a great opportunity for people of faith both as individuals and communities to provide input to the city on how the government and communities should support each other. 

From the OCP website,
“The updated OCP will provide a renewed vision for New Westminster, and the regulatory framework to guide growth toward that vision.
The OCP will contain policies on housing, parks & open space, arts & culture, heritage, energy, utility services, transportation, well-being, hazards, economy and environment.”

Do faith and spiritual needs belong in there?  I believe they do and will be saying so through the channels provided.  If we as communities of faith come together to present a common vision on this, Councillor Cote also said there may be other opportunities for such a group to be heard.  I would encourage all people of faith in New West, both as individuals and communities, to participate in this process and let the city know how you believe faith should be shaping our city.  

Friday, May 16, 2014

The ALR - (potential) Farmland, not Holy Land

Local agriculture cannot feed Southwest BC.  It can potentially provide a small, but significant, portion of it, but it will never support the population.  This shouldn’t surprise anyone; back in 2006 the government found BC as a whole was about 48% self-reliant for food. Feeding the densest corner of the province from local farms?  Ain’t gonna happen. 

This farm would feed those towers for about two minutes

First off, what is local food?  The Canadian Food Inspection Agency defines it as such  (it is noted this is an interim description and subject to a review).
  •  food produced in the province or territory in which it is sold, or
  •  food sold across provincial borders within 50 km of the originating province or territory
The problem with that definition is BC is big.  No seriously, BC is REALLY FREAKING BIG.  Like it would be the 32nd largest country in the world big (larger than Venezuela, Turkey or France).  Saying all food produced within BC (or parts of AB/Yukon) is local to Vancouver is insane.  Los Angeles is closer to Vancouver than the northwest corner of the province.

The previous definition was
  •  the food originated within a 50 km radius of the place where it was sold, or
  •  the food sold originated within the same local government unit (e.g. municipality) or adjacent government unit
That’s more local for sure.  CFIA says this is not representative of how things work today.  I don’t totally buy that, but I would say local food is somewhere in between those two definitions, somewhat closer to the old one.

So to pick a number out of nowhere, let’s say local food is food that originates from a 100 km radius.  Fits nicely with all those hipsters doing their 100 km (or is it mile?) diet.  Very, very VERY broadly speaking, someone on a North America needs about 1-1.2 acres of farmland to keep them fed.  If we take Southwest BC to include
  • Metro Vancouver
  • Fraser Valley Regional District
  • Squamish and Whistler
  • The Capital, Cowichan and Nanaimo Regional Districts
we need to feed roughly 3.35 million people, requiring (very) roughly 3.35 million acres of farmland.  How much farmland do we have within 100 km of those regions?

708,890 acres.  Sounds like a few of us are going hungry.  Now this is just the land in the Agricultural Land Reserve – I’m assuming all farmable land is captured in there.  Not true, but should be close enough for our purposes. 

It gets worse.  Of the 708,890 acres of ALR land near southwest BC, only 287,000 acres of it is Class 1-4 in ALR terms, which is land suitable to growing food crops (and it ain’t easy on class 4 land).  Now the one acre per person assumption does account for the fact that lower quality land can potentially be used for grazing animals, so we don’t need to evacuate everyone just yet, but numbers are clear.  There is nowhere near enough local farmland to support Southwest BC.  There are too many people. Assuming all 708,000 count to the one-acre-per-person, local agriculture can feed ~20% of southwest BC currently, down to ~15% in 2040.  

Even worse worse, farming is highly regionalized.  From the reliance report, “For example, grains and oilseeds are produced primarily in the north, beef ranching occurs mainly in the Interior, the majority of tree fruits are produced in the Okanagan, dairy is concentrated in the Fraser Valley and north Okanagan, and the major production area for small fruits and vegetables is in the Fraser Valley.”  We’re not getting grains, meat, or tree fruits locally in any real quantity. 

What if we expand our “local” radius to 500 km?  That gets us up to 1.1 million acres of Class 1-4, or 2.7 million acres of everything.  We also get another 350,000 mouths to feed, but it’s still a net gain, and we get those lovely Okanagan peaches.  However, it’s still nowhere near enough, especially when we project 30 years into the future where we’re probably looking at over five-million people in the area. 

So when we’re told local agriculture is necessary for our food security, it’s a false bill of goods.  No matter what, Southwest BC will be reliant on importing the vast majority of our food from out of our region, if not out of our country.  Increasing density will only worsen the problem. 

Should we go with the interim definition of local, where the whole province is considered local to itself?  That’s pretty dubious.  One of benefits of local food is short distance to market.  This is supposed to mean you get fresher food, less preservatives, and it’s less transportation intensive. 

In the debate I constantly hear a whine of “why are we buying our food from California, when we could be buying it locally.”  Well, our largest chunk of ALR land, including Class 1-4, is in the Peace Region, centred around Fort St. John.  How far away is Fort St. John?  A little over 1,200 km. Going the other direction, this takes us a little south of Redding, California, not too far from Sacramento.  That chunk of farmland near Fort Nelson?  Farther away than San Francisco.

Apparently, this is local agriculture
Worse worse worse.  This is the description of farmland near Fort St. John, BC from Integrated Land Management BC, “Cold winters, short growing seasons and low precipitation limit the vegetation, agricultural crops and forest ecosystems that can thrive here.”  Limited crops and short growing seasons.  The 1 acre per person was estimated based on New York State farmland, with growing seasons of 150-200 days.  While we get that in Southwest BC, the growing season in the Peace region is near, and often less than, 100 days.

In order to grow, plants need sun, soil, air, water and snow.  
In season food?  Sure, for three months of the year.  The rest of the time we’re eating preserves.  So much for that benefit.  California’s growing seasons?  250 days plus, depending on where you are.  Our choice is fresh, in-season produce from 1,200 km away 9+ months of the year from California, or fresh, in-season foods from 1,200 km away for 3 months of the year from BC.  And that’s not even getting into variety of foods. 

Would local preserved food be better than shipped in fresh?  Well, it takes as much energy to run your chest freezer for a year as it would to ship the 2,000 pounds of food you eat per year from San Francisco on a semi-truck (the least efficient form of transport), and then there are all the nutritional losses from preservation, so I’d say we’re better off with the latter.  Especially since for Southwest BC, it won’t be local either way – ship in fresh food, or ship in preserved food?  It’s a no brainer to me.  Particularly since the Peace region is generally focused on grains, so we’re getting some form of processed food from them regardless.

Furthermore, if ALR land is critical for food security, why are we using it for non-food purposes?  Over 10,000 acres of land in BC are devoted to vineyards and wineries.  I like a glass of nice wine as much as the next fellow, but for the purpose of food security that land may as well not be in the ALR.  Same story for horses and Christmas tree farms.  In 2001, non-food use of farmland totaled 370,000 acres

So what can we do to reduce the reliance on distant food? 
  • Eat less food.  It would do most of us some good.
  • Promote more home agriculture.  While we will never live primarily off it, we can supplant our diets with home gardens. 
  • Eat more meat.  This is ironic as I was taught growing meat is bad and wasteful and is much more land intensive than crops.  It is, but many kinds of animals can pasture on land and crops that aren’t suitable for humans. 
  • Annex northern Washington.  Seattle might complain, but they’ll all be too stoned to do anything about it. 
  • Irrigation.  We are blessed with tremendous water resources in BC.  Perhaps we can leverage that to expand the amount of high quality farmland we can use.  I know it’s never just that simple, but it’s worth asking have we taken advantage of this where we can?  The self-reliance report indicated we will need a significant increase in irrigated lands to just maintain the current level of reliance. 
But even if we did all that, we will never be anywhere close to supporting the local population with local food.  Taking away a few acres of Class 7 land in Fort Nelson is not going to alter the food situation in BC – Southwest or as a whole.  Heck, taking away all the ALR land in northern BC isn’t going to alter the fundamental equation for Southwest BC – we already must and forever will need to import most of our food to Vancouver and Vancouver Island.

Should we remove all the land then?  No, but we need to accept that once a piece of land is designated as part of the ALR, it is not deified and never touchable for anything else ever again.  Food is only one of humans’ key needs.  We need shelter, activity, and community among other things.  It may well be better for the city, the province and for the people for some land currently in the ALR to be used for something else. Non-farming usage make this the case for over 3% of the ALR already.  

We can't meet our needs locally, so we should be focused on how to maintain a secure, stable food supply in spite of that.  Food security is generally defined along the lines of “the state of having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.” Giving someone affordable shelter or a well-paying job may be the best way for some ALR land to provide food security.