WFP Column: Urban agriculture takes root

Duets: Urban agriculture takes root – Connecting culture, enhancing livelihoods

Everyone designs. From inspired entrepreneurs full to the brim with ideas for our city to the many pop-up shops that have emerged in our downtown. From the local coffee shop on the corner to the delicate, delicious artisan pastries that we can’t help but devour, design is everywhere. Duets is an exclusive Winnipeg Free Press monthly series that pairs design experts with local champions and innovators to brainstorm new opportunities for civic building. Duets is written by HTFC Planning & Design’s Jason Syvixay, with imagery and photography provided by Kal Barteski and David Moder Photography.

Indigenous cultures have always moved in harmony with the rhythms of nature, developing a symbiotic relationship with the landscape that feeds their physical, cultural and spiritual needs while respecting mother earth.

In the last few centuries, this deep connection to nature and traditional relationships with its cycles have been challenged, minimized and sometimes fully severed for a great number of Indigenous people. Increasing global urbanization, the dawn of the digital age, and increased automation have moved all of us further away from our land, our food and even other people. Coming full circle today, these Indigenous traditions hold a vast potential to improve our health and well-being across Canada, especially in urban settlements where this disconnection is most prominent.

Urban agriculture, as HTFC Planning & Design’s Monica Giesbrecht and Trent Workman discussed with Feast Café Bistro’s Christa Bruneau-Guenther, is a way to reconnect Indigenous and non-Indigenous people with their culture and in supporting their city life — encouraging backyard growing, procuring, and preserving of food.

Born in Romania to a family with farming and engineering roots, Giesbrecht was drawn to landscape architecture as a perfect melding of design, technology and soul. Through her work at HTFC, she advocates for inclusive design and places that energize and welcome users of all backgrounds, ages, and abilities. Her research of the social, physical and psychological impacts of human environments on children and youth, immigrants and marginalized groups, aging and physically impaired, serves as a foundation for her work on healthy communities, urban revitalization, public and private parks, and culturally sensitive lands.

Workman, a University of Manitoba landscape architecture graduate, has served as a landscape planner at HTFC for four years. Born in Reston, and raised in Brandon, Workman grew up surrounded by agriculture, an upbringing that formed his interest in regional planning and in addressing large-scale landscape issues. Workman’s work often takes him north where he learns from people who are inextricably connected to the land in places such as Peguis First Nation, Cross Lake, Norway House and Nunavut.

Bruneau-Guenther, a member of Peguis First Nation, opened Feast in Winnipeg’s West End in 2016. Born in the North End, Bruneau-Guenther has a heart for people and the community. She contends urban agriculture can help connect Indigenous people to their culture, build relationships, and bring elders, youth, and the community together. The restaurateur’s kitchen at Feast Bistro is open, affordable and inviting, providing Indigenous people from the community with an opportunity to prepare and learn more about their food and culture.

On a hot summer day in Bruneau-Guenther’s backyard, the trio shared ideas around the full life cycle of urban agriculture, the role of municipal policies in supporting healthy cities, and the wide array of garden-to-table resources needed to create a sustainable food culture in cities.

Trent Workman (from left), Christa Bruneau-Guenther and Monica Giesbrecht toast their discussion on healthy cities.

What inspired you to open Feast Café Bistro?

● Bruneau-Guenther: Feast serves traditional First Nations food with a modern twist. We incorporate First Nations ingredients into meals that people are familiar with. Everything is locally sourced when possible. I was asked if I would be interested in investing in the pre-existing café on Ellice Street across from the West End Cultural Centre. Researching what the café could become, I realized that there were only a handful of restaurants promoting traditional First Nations food across the country. I was inspired to showcase our traditional foods, as many people have lost touch with them. I was motivated to show that the Indigenous community has really good, nutritious ingredients worthy of a showcase in a restaurant setting. The menu was probably the most difficult thing I have ever done. I wanted to source ingredients that were affordable because of the area Feast is in. People often ask, “Why don’t you cook bison steaks or elk?” If I did that, I would have to price the plates at $25-30. I would out-price the community around me. I want that young, single mom, who hasn’t experienced her traditional food, to be able to come into the restaurant and have a meal that she can identify with. For me personally, identifying with my culture’s traditional food has cultivated a sense of pride that I never had while growing up. With Feast, Indigenous people are trying bison for the first time even though it’s a traditional food that our ancestors and people have been hunting and eating for thousands of years. It’s really nice to see so many people coming to the restaurant — youth, teenagers, and people of all ages.

Is the design community interested in fostering and promoting urban agricultural initiatives?

HTFC’s Monica says urban agriculture could be placed on rooftops, vacant lots, underutilized pocket parks and plazas, street boulevards, and even the walls of buildings.

● Giesbrecht: There are many local initiatives already underway such as Urban Eatin’, Fruit Share Manitoba, and The Forks food forest. Many school grounds have edible landscapes and chefs all over the city are developing on-site herb and vegetable gardens to enrich their local offerings. As designers, we are interested in urban agriculture and the plethora of food, health and beauty products that can be made from these endeavours because they build healthier, smarter, more connected and self-sufficient communities. Most importantly to me, urban agriculture also transfers essential knowledge and life skills from one generation to another.

Where can urban agricultural initiatives take root?

● Giesbrecht: Everywhere! Rooftops, vacant lots, underutilized pocket parks and plazas, street boulevards, and eventually even the walls of buildings. I think you could literally grow food anywhere if you wanted to but you have to build the social infrastructure to support these programs otherwise they just become derelict landscapes and set a precedent for failure that impedes positive change.

● Bruneau-Guenther: The rooftop at Feast is ideal for a rooftop garden and patio! I would love to have a garden up there! When are you coming over to help me design it?

Urban agricultural initiatives require year-round maintenance and stewardship, says HTFC’s Trent.

● Workman: I think options for urban agriculture are endless. I think it comes down to will — who’s willing to do it and take it on. Many of these initiatives require dedicated maintenance stewards. It requires a lot of hard work.

● Giesbrecht: We need to consider and keep in mind the complete life cycle of urban agriculture. It’s not just about putting the seed in, growing it, and getting a carrot. It’s about knowing where the carrot can go and what it can be made into. Putting equal energy into figuring out how every part of it can be used or recycled for the benefit of a community.

How can the City of Winnipeg help urban agriculture flourish?

● Giesbrecht: I think the city can implement rather simple things. They could provide free or low-rent on underutilized public spaces to agricultural entrepreneurs instead of paying city staff to maintain these areas. They can put calls out for seasonal market gardens on their vacant or derelict lots much as they do with food trucks or hot dog vendors. In lieu of rent or a user fee, the city could also ask these operators to donate a portion of their products or profits to a local shelter or food bank. The city and Business Improvement Zones (BIZs) could help complete the urban agriculture life cycle by making their commercial kitchens in community centres or other venues available for low-rent — so small micro business owners can transform their vegetation harvests into dyes, perfumes, jams, ciders, and salsas. Working in Arborg last year, we noticed this service is already on the go in smaller Manitoba communities. BIZs, Food Growers Guilds and Chambers of Commerce could help promote and market local products, making that essential connection to the end-users that some growers just don’t have.

Which one of your ideas should come first?

● Giesbrecht: I think that working with the city to find suitable land and setting up a support system to start growing food in the public realm should come first. Imagine if the city said, “You can grow strawberries on all the boulevards!” We could have a massive strawberry picking party in the summer. This idea might be a little radical as a starting point, but we could start with allowing local groups to grow food in underutilized pocket parks and vacant lots owned by the city.

● Workman: The design term for urban boroughs that don’t have access to food is a “food desert.” One of the ways to combat them is to plan for edible landscapes and seasonal farmers’ markets. Many private developers are starting to plant urban food forests. The Forks planted an orchard next to the Children’s Museum a couple of years ago. It would be great if we got to a point where the city converted most of its public right of ways into edible landscapes.

What other initiatives could be implemented to mainstream urban agriculture?

● Giesbrecht: Co-ops like Fruit Share Manitoba can pick your tree if you have too much fruit and they’ll give you a percentage of it back. I have a massive crab apple tree that is prolific. I have arranged for Fruit Share to harvest our tree many times. I meet Winnipeggers I otherwise would not meet and they turn all of those apples into ciders and jellies that are shared with others so the fruit does not go to waste because I don’t have the time to process it.

● Workman: I have always thought it would be great to create a live sourced map of all the places in the city people could forage for free. It would promote all of the things that people don’t think of as food. For example, Linden trees are blooming right now. I bet most people don’t know you can steep Linden flowers for tea.

● Bruneau-Guenther: I think it would be great if I could develop an ‘Eat Local App’ with locally developed recipes and seasonal harvesting tips throughout the year. People could figure out what to do with the things they are growing and the things they can find in the landscape so things don’t go to waste.

What policies need to be put into place?

● Workman: The city already has a community garden coordinator. It would be great to hire an urban agriculture coordinator to explore how to use all types of city spaces for small-scale agriculture and market gardening or even urban U-picks.

● Giesbrecht: Good idea! Community gardens are for personal use. That position could support entrepreneurs who want to produce on a larger scale or supply restaurants with urban spaces to grow things in. Jardins St-Leon, which is an awesome little place in St. Boniface. They grow all of their produce outside of Winnipeg and ship it in. What if half of their sites were in the city?

Monica, I know you and Christa have been working on Canada’s Diversity Gardens at the Assiniboine Park Conservancy. How did Winnipeggers from all walks of life inform that project for the design team?

● Giesbrecht: We talked to hundreds of Winnipeggers in developing the purpose and focus of Canada’s Diversity Gardens (CDG). They had so many great ideas but the common threads in every dialogue centred on the life giving force of plants as food, medicine, art and habitat. Future users of the Diversity Gardens told us loud and clear that they thought this project had the most potential as a nature-based multicultural community centre. So this is what we did. The southeast corner of Assiniboine Park, where the Formal Gardens are now, will be transformed into a community hub consisting of ‘The Leaf’, a state-of-the-art nature education building; the Indigenous People’s Garden, a place to celebrate and learn about the sacred bond First Nations have with the land; the Cultural Mosaic Gardens, a place for nature-based cultural exchanges; and the Grove, a made-in-Manitoba arboretum and meadow.

Canada’s Diversity Gardens Kitchen Garden. (Supplied rendering: Adrian Phiffer)

Talking to Winnipeggers of all ages and backgrounds we realized the glue that holds many cultures and families together is growing, making and sharing food. And so with this sage advice from many voices young and old, we placed the kitchen garden in the centre of the design where it acts like a beating heart connecting and spreading life giving ideas through the other gardens. The whole project is underpinned by the concept that taking care of the land and each other makes us realize we are way more alike than we are different. I really believe this is an idea whose time has come. I think you will see this inclusion and fusion of people and cultures everywhere in our community and our country within the next few decades.

● Bruneau-Guenther: What were other lessons learned when you engaged these diverse populations?

● Giesbrecht: That everyone wants to share and learn from others. They just need a place to do it. What better move can Assiniboine Park make in the 21st century than converting a very formal garden rooted in formal landscape traditions from across the ocean and a bygone century, into a place where you feel at home regardless of how you have come to call Winnipeg home!

● Bruneau-Guenther: Food is so neutral.

● Giesbrecht: I think plants are one of the great connectors in our lives! They have no ethnicity or gender, only beauty and elegant purpose. They are perfectly adapted to their homes, driven to be in certain places by natural processes or careful human cultivation. Everyone can come to love and appreciate a plant with a little guidance and traditional knowledge, even one that may be seen as a weed like a dandelion. Spring dandelion leaves make great peppery salad greens, and dandelions can be fermented into some pretty fantastic wine. It really doesn’t matter what your background is. Plants speak a universal language. That’s the best part!

● Bruneau-Guenther: I think it’s important to celebrate the food that comes from this land because that’s something that has been forgotten over time. Sense of identity and sense of pride. Feast is part of that trailblazing. Making a little landmark that promotes traditional ways of life for Indigenous people, while showing non-Indigenous people that they have a space at the table as well. It’s part of the reconciliation efforts.

● Workman: That’s what I love about your food. It’s fusion. It’s mixing Indigenous ingredients with the flavours of other places and cultures. I have recently noticed that a younger generation of Indigenous architects, writers, or musicians are fusing modern influences and other cultures into their work. It makes for so many new and exciting collaborations, places and products that are the wave of the future!

How does food access weigh into your thinking and decisions around the design of a community?

● Workman: I think it’s important to look beyond the immediately apparent to understand a site from a much broader lens. You need to seek out local intelligence and partners. Projects always do best when you tap into local resources and grassroots groups that are already on the path to change. For example, Christa is an immense local resource in the West End and the Indigenous community. When we plan to revitalize a community, we try to find and work with and empower people like Christa. We never start projects thinking we’re going to superimpose our ideas on a place. The scale and grain of development always matters. Personally, I’d rather see smaller, more sustainable, more accessible fresh food carts, healthy mini-marts or seasonal storefronts. Small local start-ups need affordable baby steps to get into the game. There have been many attempts to bring healthy food markets downtown but it is a tough economic model to balance and a risk for the entrepreneur due to higher overhead costs and a lower percentage of permanent residents. For example, I am disappointed to see that Neechi Commons is potentially shutting its doors. I think some of the empty storefronts in the downtown could be used as temporary pilot projects or pop-ups to test the market and build consumer awareness and demand around locally grown products.

How can urban agriculture influence decisions around land use?

● Giesbrecht: Toronto has a green roof policy where all new developments of a certain size in the downtown require a green roof. Cities like Seattle and Minneapolis are implementing development policies that require new developments to allocate a certain percentage of their developable area to productive landscapes, including free-range chicken coops. Zoning ordinances and bylaws can support these types of initiatives. This is a shift that will take time in Winnipeg but in the meantime it would be great to incentivize the conversion of our existing downtown rooftops into passive green roofs that can act as essential habitats for urban wildlife especially birds, bees and insects.

● Workman: I have always found it strange that we are surrounded by an abundance of agriculture in southern Manitoba and yet the city does not embrace our agricultural roots as much as it could. In a rural community, having a large vegetable garden like Christa’s is not unusual because they are common. I think we are we are just waking up to the old idea that cities will thrive if they are more complex — and I mean complex in a good way like a very balanced healthy ecosystem is complex. We can no longer plan sites and infrastructure for single uses — it is expensive, inefficient and unsustainable. If we take our cue from nature it becomes evident that diversity is really the key to success. Uni-modal highways and vast suburban monocultures need to be phased out in favour of more closely knit mixed-use developments, active transportation networks and green infrastructure that will make our cities into healthy urban ecosystems. Urban agriculture is an important layer in creating a vital and vibrant city… I don’t think people realize it has been a series of decisions that have had distinct spatial implications that has made it hard to live without a car in the city. We still plan for a city that makes vehicle ownership almost inevitable. In older neighbourhoods like the Exchange, Armstrong’s Point or Osborne Village that were planned before the advent of the car, you can see that density, a mix of building types, small scale businesses and sidewalks create a very different way of living than suburbs that were developed after 1950. Until we plan for human comfort and pedestrian connectivity first, and car mobility second, this shift in lifestyle will be hard to achieve, especially in our northern climate. Other Nordic countries like Sweden, Norway and Holland have done a great job of this. Winnipeg can learn a lot from them.

What partners are needed to make urban agriculture happen?

● Workman: It can’t be top down. It needs to be a grassroots effort. The wins need to be created with and by the community. We need to find motivated locals with great ideas and either get out of their way or help them navigate local ordinances and requirements that can sometimes be obstacles to their projects. The Point Douglas community oven is a super successful example of this idea.

● Giesbrecht: Much like the green-team programs that give youth their first job taking care of our manicured green spaces, all three levels of government could explore urban agriculture youth employment or workforce re-entry programs — giving someone their first job, or their foot back into the working world while growing food for those in need in our community.

Feast Cafe Bistro’s Christa says her restaurant is providing Indigenous people from the community with an opportunity to prepare and learn more about their food and culture.

● Bruneau-Guenther: Things are moving forward on the Indigenous agricultural front. Recently, my bison supply was at risk because people from the States were buying it all for so much more money. I called my farmer and said, “As a First Nations restaurant, that doesn’t have any beef on the menu, not having any bison from our local supplier would cause a real uproar in our community.” Thankfully, the farmer I work with has a real heart for our people. His mother of his children is First Nations. He said, “I will make sure you don’t go without bison but I think it’s time we meet with the right people to start advocating. There are about four reserves that have bison. Why are they not supplying and sourcing them to our restaurants and chefs?” I am planning to be the first restaurateur in Winnipeg to start sourcing bison from First Nations communities. I can’t explain how exciting and important it is to me to be part of creating new opportunities based on old traditions for my people.

Want to duet with us? Email HTFC Planning & Design at