A conversation at -20°C about urban greenhouses and regulatory experimentation

Photo credit: Maison de l’innovation sociale (MIS)

The apparent simplicity of this project belies an experimental approach involving several stakeholders. Overseen by the Carrefour Solidaire Community Food Centre in partnership with AU/LAB, this project is also central to the work of the Civic and Regulatory Innovation Laboratory (LICER), which studies the regulatory factors that obstruct or facilitate the deployment of innovative initiatives—such as this project featuring winter greenhouses in public space. AU/LAB and LICER are collaborating to test these new practices in order to inform the regulatory process and support their sustainability and scaling up.

Photo credit: Maxime Lapostolle

When challenges are also opportunities

On this chilly morning, Rue Dufresne is the site of a meeting between Héloïse Koltuk, the scientific advisor on circular economy for AU/LAB, and Pénélope Seguin, the project manager for social innovation at the Maison de l’innovation sociale (MIS). As they inspect the greenhouses, they talk about the implications of such a project in the public space. They discuss the implementation and scaling up of similar innovative initiatives, as well as the regulatory framework that governs them. Both Héloïse and Pénélope see collective learning opportunities in these challenges and opportunities. What’s working, and what isn’t?

Pénélope: “It’s particularly innovative to take over public space for an urban-agriculture project—especially during the winter! From the LICER team’s point of view, this type of novel initiative focused on the socio-ecological transition lends itself well to experimentation, precisely because the current regulatory framework isn’t adapted to allow, or even encourage, its deployment. Can you talk to me about the factors that you think make implementing this kind of project more complex or more difficult?”

Héloïse: “Yes, we did run into some challenges as we implemented this project! But I’d like to start by emphasizing one of the factors that helped us overcome those challenges: our collaboration with the Carrefour Solidaire Community Food Centre. This community organization, whose mission is food accessibility, has a strong local base and knows the neighbourhood well. The organization wanted not only to perennialize this summer initiative, which is very popular with the local population (the Promenade des Saveurs is the largest pedestrianized garden in Canada, with edible plants that are free to be harvested by citizens!), but also to extend it into the winter. On the AU/LAB side, we were looking for a way to reactivate the urban-greenhouse project using carports. Our interests converged, and we ended up with a great collaboration!

However, the winning conditions to move forward with the project weren’t all in place, particularly in terms of the required authorizations. The growing season doesn’t wait! Once this partnership presented itself, the challenge was to prepare the way for the construction of the greenhouses by going out and getting the support of the relevant authorities.” 

Héloïse (on the left) et Pénélope (on the right) – Photo credit: Maxime Lapostolle

From this exchange, we can see that there are divergent interests regarding the use of public space, which—we have to remember—is governed by a multitude of regulations, particularly in terms of seasonality and types and uses of structures. On the other hand, there are also interests that converge in any project that repurposes public space, and you have to take a chance on them.

Pénélope: “So the Promenade des Saveurs already had an agricultural function. What was novel was the idea of extending this use into the winter. In order to move forward, you had to consider issues specific to multiple departments, is that right?”

Héloïse: “Yes—absolutely. One of the big challenges has to do with the configuration of the street. The installation of the greenhouses had to be taken into account, of course, but so did various constraints related to snow removal, firefighter accessibility, and safety. We had to reconcile the interests and constraints of different departments, each of which is concerned with protecting the community and isn’t necessarily accustomed to collaborating on innovative projects that are off the beaten track. Naturally, they analyze the situation from their own perspectives. We had to solicit the support of each department by describing the project’s positive impact on the neighbourhood. For example, it would have been a shame to abandon the project because of snow-removal constraints when the public-works team, whose domain that is, has the resources and ingenuity to find a solution.” 

Photo credit: Maxime Lapostolle

Thus it’s public stakeholders who are impacted first by these kinds of initiatives. It’s important to involve them—to take into account their concerns and rely on their expertise in implementing the project.

Héloïse: “The collaboration of the public authorities on this project was decisive. A local elected official chose to support the project while also making sure to address the reservations of residents worried about losing their parking spaces. This political support also encouraged the various departments of the city to find ways to collaborate on our project, which is being carried out within the framework of Montréal in Common, an innovation community supported by the Montréal Urban Innovation Lab. On a more local level, the arrondissement of Ville-Marie has also been very supportive, both in terms of manpower and finances. They’ve provided us with professionals from different departments whose teams on the ground have helped us clean off graffiti from the greenhouses, remove snow, and get access to water and electricity. These are things we do in collaboration with blue-collar workers.”

The experimentation also allows us to test the greenhouse prototypes in terms of their materials and the context of their implementation—i.e., will they be placed on the street? in an urban public space?

Héloïse: “Transforming carports into greenhouses, while making sure to meet the experimental requirements of a winter crop, was also a challenge. A lot has been written about converting carports into greenhouses. However, none of it addressed our concerns about thermal insulation, resistance to weather, or the potential for vandalism. Faced with all of this, we had to create our own greenhouse prototypes and test them in real-world conditions!

“We were also fortunate to be assisted by Sid Lee, a renowned creative communications agency, for all aspects of the circular design of our project. A fun, informative, and aesthetically appealing signage was created from repurposed panels, with the goal of using a minimum amount of resources.

“Last but not least is the community’s enthusiasm for the project. I think it’s inspiring for everyone to see this type of project unfold. It generates a lot of excitement, as much from local residents as from the press. Since the project is only in its start-up phase, the best is yet to come!”

Pénélope: “Absolutely! What you’re talking about, I think, is the capacity of urban agriculture to create spaces for daily life—for meetings and other kinds of exchanges that encourage a transformation of society.

“This greenhouse project, if it’s implemented, could be adapted to the seasons. This has particularly interesting implications for Montreal, where we spend six months a year in winter!”

Photo credit: Maxime Lapostolle

In addition to revealing the immense potential for transforming public space to benefit living environments, this project opens up opportunities for collaboration with public actors as part of the social-innovation process. 

Do you want to get involved in the socio-ecological transition?

A series of LICER activities will directly involve residents. For example, through co-design workshops, groups of citizens might work on planning considerations or governance frameworks to democratize greenhouse agricultural practices in urban settings. To participate and help advance LICER’s regulatory experimentation, click here.

The LICER is led by the MIS, in collaboration with Cité-ID/ENAP and Dark Matter Labs as research partners. The LICER team also works with Montréal in Common partners (an innovation community led by the Ville de Montréal), among which are the Laboratoire sur l’agriculture urbaine (AU/LAB) and, as an extension of its privileged collaboration with AU/LAB, the Carrefour Solidaire Community Food Centre.

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