Food and Community: Complete Works

David Crombie was known as Toronto’s “tiny perfect mayor” during the 1970s, when he started turning the international reputation of a bickering place renowned as Toronto the Good into “the city that worked” — at a time when few did.

Now a veteran elder statesman, he’s just served as the tiny perfect commissioner for Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe area to figure out how a bickering mix of urban, suburban and rural areas can be turned into a world class model for the region that works.

His report, Planning for Health, Prosperity and Growth, deserves international recognition among planners and environmentalists for at least four concepts woven throughout the fabric of recommendations – complete communities, green infrastructure, positive planning and integrated agriculture. (He is pictured with me above, following a meeting to save all of this from a transport takeover of prime foodlands in Pickering)

I will look at his first and cornerstone concept today – complete communities, which is central to how successful urban communities co-evolve with successful agricultural communities.

Partial doesn’t work for food, cities, pregnancies, or the indivisible individual. They all have so many complex and interdependent parts that they need to be treated as a whole – something that is very difficult for a western mentality that thinks it succeeded because it divided everything into parts that could be treated by specialists.

Planners, who must at least nod their caps to treating cities and regions as a whole, used the term during the 1970s in reference to complete streets – ones that not only moved cars along throughways quickly, but served as people places where people from all walks of life could bump into each other.

Before the concept of complete streets took hold, the logical place to shop in a car-dominated culture was a mall set apart from the community, and the logical place to play sports and go for a walk was at a park a short drive from home, and the logical place where people met and hung out informally was – oops, did we forget about that?

Thinking of streets as complete streets wakes us up to realizing that streets are really a very complex and generative social technology.

Avant garde planners in California did the same for communities when they applied the complete concept to communities in 1991 with the Ahwahnee Principles, which stressed that all aspects of life — from housing to work to transit to shopping to open space to air quality to social equity — should be designed to be as mixed in and up as close and personal to one another as possible.

That was a complete turnaround from the idealized suburban bedroom community, designed as fragmented neighborhoods, where out of sight (think food, garbage, other social classes, air and water quality, special common places) was out of mind. Incomplete communities framed people to think of public issues in a way that excluded social, environmental and food security issues as ones that did not belong anywhere near their back yard.

As I read Crombie’s report, he understand that food and agriculture are part and parcel of complete communities in at least five ways. First, he praises urban agriculture, presumably because it  is based on a culture of activity, not one of consumption, and because it is key to people being outdoors, keeping fit and healthy, chatting with neighbors, and – dare we say – happy.

Second, food provides local employment in restaurants, deli’s, retail and artisan shops; so people can walk to work. Third, everyone needs food daily, so local food in local eateries makes shopping for daily necessities a walkable trip. Fourth, food convenes people (as Kevin Morgan puts it), and when provided with a space, provides  sociability, cohesion and entertainment, which now become walkable destinations.

Fifth, because all these activities are close and walkable, there’s no need to sprawl, and lots of room left for the best land to go to production agriculture.

“Supporting urban agriculture, food hubs, farmers’ markets, food co-ops and other food-related activities has many benefits that support complete communities while also addressing public interests related to access to healthy food and greater food security,” Crombie writes.

That’s why healthy food is so important that it requires formal policy. “Some regions and municipalities have created food policies, urban agriculture opportunities, charters and/or hubs to support access to local, affordable and healthy food,” he notes. he also refers to one government report that promotes sustainable food businesses and protection of all agricultural resources.

“However,” he completes the paragraph by elbowing the government in the ribs,  “there are no similar policies in the four plans.” Since he was charged with reviewing the four plans to find relevant holes, this is the perfect little call to corrective action.

No praise of Crombie’s contribution with this concept is complete without a reference to his use of words that make important ideas come to life.

I like completing tasks, and meals that provide complete satisfaction. Complete has a nice ring to it, and is linked in our minds to experiences we’re completely comfortable with.

By contrast, I could never stand the jarring technogeek jargon of density, intensification, mixed use and compact. I use those words when I’m thinking about a can of sardines, or looking at a place that is jampacked with too many people.

When I want a lively, friendly and liberating community, I’m in the mood of “now for something completely different.”

We owe Crombie for a great concept of complete planning, and for rescuing that concept for a lively public discussion that can bring city folk and country folk together.

Here are some reports I hope you find helpful:

http://www.mah.gov.on.ca/Asset11110.aspx?method=1

http://www.u.arizona.edu/~gpivo/Practicing%20Planner%20Pub.pdf

http://community-wealth.org/content/are-we-there-yet-creating-complete-communities-21st-century-america

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