Feeding the City: Reconnecting to our food systems

Vegetable plants growing on a rooftop.




It’s Toronto Urban Agriculture Week! From September 10 to 18, local food and food growers will be celebrated through a series of in-person and online events. From seed saving workshops and community garden open houses to farmers markets and outdoor film screenings, the week promises to unpack the varying and complementary definitions of urban agriculture.


As we discuss in this blog, urban agriculture means more than just garden plots. It includes interventions as big as a community garden to as small as a community fridge. When stacked up, these strategies can help address some of the most pressing issues faced by cities.


Reducing food-related carbon emissions

A woman carrying a child and another woman are looking at plants growing vertically on the side of a building..

A vertical urban farm. Source: Bright Agrotech, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


Events like the Toronto Urban Agriculture Week demonstrate the City’s commitment to connecting residents to the food they consume and the waste they generate. In 2019, recognizing that food is amongst the biggest sources of consumption-based emissions from cities, 14 global cities, including the City of Toronto, signed the C40 Good Food Cities Declaration. The Declaration calls on cities to support healthier diets while reducing food-related waste.


Collapsing distances between production and consumption can help reduce carbon emissions. In fact, eating a sustainable diet and avoiding food waste could cut greenhouse gas emissions from the food we eat by more than 60%. That is because about 50% of food wasted in Toronto single-family households is avoidable, including leftovers or spoiled food that was not consumed in time. This trend is not unique to Toronto; food waste in Canada accounts for nearly 6.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, equivalent to two million cars on the road.


Reducing food insecurity

Seedlings protected by shade cloths with a city in the background.

Seedlings in Chicago are protected by shade cloths. Source:  Linda from Chicago, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Providing local, sustainable, affordable, and culturally appropriate food is critical to tackling important urban challenges like food insecurity. According to the City of Toronto, one in five Toronto households is impacted by inadequate and insecure access to food due to lack of money. And food deserts, defined as lower income areas with relatively few nearby supermarkets, compound the problem. As of 2015, about 31,000 households in Toronto were more than one kilometre walking distance to a supermarket. For many of these households, food options are limited to those with low nutritional value and high caloric intake, which contributes to negative health outcomes like heart disease and diabetes.


Addressing the challenges


At Waterfront Toronto, we understand that we are part of a larger constellation of groups working collectively to address these challenges. Working with our government and development partners, we are committed to enhancing the city’s urban agricultural offerings by way of our Green Building Requirements (GBRs).  

Read the Green Building Requirements [PDF].


Our goal is to improve food security, create social opportunities within the neighbourhood, and reduce emissions associated with food transportation. The GBRs include the following three requirements, each intended to encourage urban agriculture and local food production:

  1. Provide shared garden plots as part of consolidated common outdoor amenity space.
  2. Provide Waterfront Toronto with a Design Narrative as part of the GBR Final Compliance Report that describes, among other things, the detailed design and layout of garden plots, including soil composition and maximum reach and height of planters.
  3. Develop and submit an Operational Plan & Maintenance Manual as part of the GBR Final Compliance Report that describes the implementation, allotment, and access by residential and non-residential building occupants (if applicable).


Understanding that some projects offer more opportunities than others, the GBRs also include direction for going above and beyond. For instance, we encourage projects to explore the feasibility of community kitchens, on-site organics management, fruit-bearing trees, greenhouses, covered outdoor spaces for shelter, or outdoor children’s play areas and/or facilities to support neighbourhood food networks. Moreover, non-residential buildings are encouraged to consider opportunities for community agriculture and shared garden plots.


Let’s look at a few of our projects to see how these requirements translate to the real world.


Green roof or roof greens? Could rooftop farming come to Quayside?

Rendering from above showing the proposed rooftop garden in Quayside.

Rendering of proposed rooftop garden atop one of Canada's largest residential mass timber buildings proposed by Quayside Impact Limited Partnership.


On February 15, 2022, Waterfront Toronto announced the selection of Quayside Impact Limited Partnership – led by Dream Unlimited and Great Gulf Group – as the Preferred Proponent to develop Quayside and negotiations on a project agreement are underway. In addition to a two-acre forested green space, the proposal from Quayside Impact features a significant urban farm atop one of Canada’s largest residential mass timber buildings. Quayside is the first project subject to version three of the GBRs, signaling the immediate effect of our urban agriculture requirements.

More than just an amenity for residents of Quayside, the rooftop farm could deliver a host of benefits, including hyper-local produce, and reducing carbon emissions related to manufacturing, packaging, and transportation. Like green roofs, the rooftop farm will further reduce emissions by lessening the urban heat island effect and the related use of mechanical air conditioning. Finally, exposure to nature and vegetation can help reduce mental anxiety and fatigue while encouraging learning, inquisitiveness, and alertness.


Smorgasburg Toronto: celebrating homegrown businesses

People enjoying a food festival.

People sampled local food from a variety of cuisines at Smorgasburg Toronto

This summer, Toronto’s local fare was on display for eight Saturdays at the foot of Yonge Street. Considered the largest open-air food market in North America, Smorgasburg attracted over 120,000 diners to the waterfront, where 100+ vendors showcased the best of the city’s hyper-local culinary diversity. Programming like Smorgasburg helps to connect people to local food, build networks, and strengthen the local food culture and economy.


Enabling sustainable and circular food systems at Villiers Island


Toronto’s path to circularity will feature food-waste reduction strategies, including reducing embodied emissions (emissions associated with production, manufacturing, and transportation) and the ecological footprint of food, rescuing and redistributing food, and increasing landfill diversion rates. Villiers Island could support these efforts through a series of food-related programs and design interventions. Given there is more planning and design work to be completed for Villiers Island, specific strategies have not been identified. However, in addition to embedding all food related GBR requirements into our future Development Agreements, we will investigate the following interventions to deliver a circular, sustainable, and equitable food system on Villiers Island:


  1. Ban all single-use plastics.
  2. Integrate food growing infrastructure, including irrigation, wash stations, lay down areas, storage facilities, and vertical transportation for hauling of larger items, such as soil and produce.
  3. Partner with public and/or private food rescue programs, including Urban Harvest, which collects surplus fruits and vegetables and redistributes them to local food banks and programs.
  4. Integrate fruit-bearing trees and shrubs into the design of streets, where appropriate.
  5. Provide compost-supportive infrastructure and education.
  6. Celebrate local food and food growers through farmers’ markets and festivals.
  7. Support and accelerate the development of circular, food-focused technologies.
  8. Explore how public art can be used to start new conversations about managing food waste.


Definitions of sustainability and resilience are constantly evolving. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic uncertainty, and climate change, it’s clear that social and cultural sustainability, alongside environmental and ecological considerations, must be integrated into our cities. Access to food via urban agriculture is a critical component of this effort. Taken together, food’s ability to strengthen social bonds, produce positive health outcomes, and reduce carbon emissions are integral to the broader effort to make Toronto a more resilient and sustainable city. That’s why we will continue to strive to ensure all waterfront communities have access to affordable, healthy, and local food.


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