Faces of Food Systems Planning: James O’Neill

JONeillJames O’Neill is a social planner for the City of Vancouver, where he devotes the majority of his time to urban food systems planning and policy work. He is currently responsible for implementing the Vancouver Food Strategy.

This interview was conducted via phone by Kimberley Hodgson, Chair of APA-FIG, on September 24, 2015. The following responses have been edited.

What is your first and last name? James O’Neill

What is your current position? Social Planner, Department of Social Policy, City of Vancouver

How long have you held this position? 5 years

What do you enjoy about your work? I enjoy the ability to see different things that are happening on the ground through my work. There are tangible benefits of working on topics such as food. I enjoy being able to financially support the work of community organizations and witness the effects and outcomes of this funding – how it contributes to building more resilient and sustainable communities throughout the city.

Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work? I find it most challenging to work across and between different topics. Food is a varied and wide topic expanding everything from food production to waste disposal. There are many different things the city can work on, so trying to be strategic when there are competing interests can be challenging.

What areas of the food system do you focus on in your work? In our department, we take a food systems lens on all that we do.

In the work that you perform, where does addressing food systems issues fit in? How has this changed over time? Here in Vancouver, we take a community development and social justice lens on food issues. Although several planners in my department focus on food systems planning and policy, no one has a title other than social planner. This allows our director to move us around, depending on resources and needs. About 85% of my time focuses on food work, and the other 15% focuses on issues concerning older adults and infrastructure development.

Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not? Yes. Although I don’t have that title, I do think I advance the work of food systems and sustainability in the city. And a lot of people look to me and my colleague as the food policy team to implement the actions developed in the Vancouver Food Strategy.

What is the biggest food systems planning-related hurdle your community/organization faced in recent years and how was it dealt with? In the past year, the biggest hurdle was the development of the Vancouver Food Strategy. Before its development, there were a number of food policy initiatives, projects, and other programs being led by community and neighborhood groups. The city wanted to support this work, but there was no coordinated policy. There was no one document we could point to and say to city council that this is what we are working on and that the food systems is a priority and is connected to other city issues. It took about 18 months to develop the Vancouver Food Strategy, which elevated the conversation of food policy to a different level to be equal to other city initiatives. We can now sit around the table with the transportation, land use, waste planners, and others to show how food can add value to what they are doing. We now have policy at adopted at the same level and deemed as important as some of these other urban topics.

How has your perception of food systems planning changed since you first entered the planning field? In the beginning food systems planning was an outlier. It was considered grassroots, even radical. But, I think now the perception of food systems planning has changed over the years to be a solid piece of policy and strategic priority for the City of Vancouver, but also for many cities across North America. Many of these cities now see how food can add value and help achieve a number of social, environmental and economic goals.

Who has had the most influence on you as a planner? As a food systems planner? There hasn’t been one particular person. The Vancouver Food Policy Council (VFPC) members have such a passion and interest and depth of knowledge around food. They come with different and unique lenses. Speaking with VFPC members offline and working on different projects to better enable and support the work I am doing, has helped me to stay grounded and move a lot of the work forward.

Do you have any advice for someone entering the food systems planning field? What makes you successful in your work? What skills do you use the most in your food systems planning related work? Hone in on food systems planning, but recognize that food systems planning, when working in a municipal setting, is one of many competing and different urban topics. Planners need to be able to understand how cities work, and have a holistic view of planning.

A lot of our success within the City of Vancouver has been around relationship building, or working with other people in different departments across the city. We cannot strengthen our food system alone. We need the parks, sustainability, planning, licensing, transportation, and other departments. We also need to have great relationships with the community and community organizations. Policy within the city is important, but we also want to support the work of community groups.

It’s also important to be strategic, and to anticipate when to push ideas forward or when to hold back. Sometimes things might happen that are out of your control, so it’s important to be patient and wait for future opportunities to move forward on a particular issue.


 

Faces of Food Systems Planning is a series of interviews with practicing planners from across North America who are engaging in food systems planning and policy work. This series is part of APA-FIG’s efforts to highlight food systems planning as an important planning topic. Click here for more information.

Faces of Food Systems Planning: Jaspal Marwah

IMG_3963 - Version 2Jaspal Marwah is a regional planner working for Metro Vancouver, a regional planning agency, in Burnaby, BC. He is responsible for developing an action plan to implement the Metro Vancouver Regional Food System Strategy.

Kimberley Hodgson, Chair of APA-FIG, conducted this interview via email in October 2015.

What is your first and last name? Jaspal Marwah

What is your current position? Regional Planner, Metro Vancouver, Burnaby, BC

How long have you held this position? 2 years

What do you enjoy about your work? I like the variety of assignments and projects that I’m able to participate in – from technical work like processing requests to change land use designations, or assisting municipal partners in aligning their planning processes with the regional growth strategy, or championing a new plan or strategy like the regional food system action plan. My area of focus tends to also be in social planning issues, which I find rewarding to participate in. And it’s also interesting to focus on the connections and opportunities for local governments to collectively advance initiatives that are region-wide.

Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work? Working at a regional scale doesn’t have the same level of engaging technical, hands-on, on the ground type of planning work that happens at the municipal level. And political interests are always a challenge to navigate.

What areas of the food system do you focus on in your work? I’m working on an action plan to implement our regional food system strategy. My focus is on convening all of the local governments in Metro Vancouver to assess the current state of activity related to the region’s food system, to map out what’s happening on the ground in the next 5 years, and to address areas that need more effort. This initiative focuses specifically on the dimensions of the food system that local government have immediate control over and can directly engage with.

In the work that you perform, where does addressing food systems issues fit in? How has this changed over time? My involvement with food systems planning started out working with colleagues to plan and deliver a consultation series on different aspects of the regional food system, including some analysis of the feedback and outcomes. Following that, the food system portfolio migrated from a different department into the planning department, where I was able to take the lead on moving things forward in developing a regional food system action plan. Currently, food systems planning remains one of my lead projects.

Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not? I consider myself a planner who is fortunate enough to be involved in food policy and food system issues. Although I enjoy being engaged in the regional food system, it is only one dimension to my overall planning work.

What is the biggest food systems planning-related hurdle your community/organization faced in recent years and how was it dealt with? One of the biggest challenges is in securing and sustaining political and organizational support for bringing food system issues into the local government sphere of activity. Some don’t always see the important role that local governments have in supporting the food system. Building connections among local governments helps create a network of peers and practitioners to learn from, and to develop common approaches and language around integrating food system issues into local government processes. Similarly, building relationships between local government and civil society groups seems to be a very effective approach to enabling a lot of on the ground activity.

How has your perception of food systems planning changed since you first entered the planning field? I started off in the green development/ sustainability policy field, and wasn’t aware of food systems and the connection with planning at that time. Since then, I’ve seen the steady growth of food systems issues in general within my community, and increasingly in the realm of local government interests. It is now a burgeoning field with opportunities for practitioners and supporters in the public, private and non-profit sectors.

Who has had the most influence on you as a planner? As a food systems planner? The colleagues and partners I worked with when I first started out in the consulting field helped provide perspective and experience to learn from and to understand the field more holistically. For food systems planning, my peers Janine de la Salle and Mark Holland have always been passionate voices and innovators in the field, and have helped bring food systems planning to the forefront of planning practice in Vancouver.

Do you have any advice for someone entering the food systems planning field? What makes you successful in your work? What skills do you use the most in your food systems planning related work? Don’t feel constrained by job titles or even distinctions between public/private/non-profit sectors – there are many paths that lead to food systems planning. Look for opportunities to be involved in food systems issues in your community – there are non-profits that are always looking for assistance, and who are doing a lot of the ‘on the ground’ work; municipal advisory committees with opportunities to be involved as a citizen; attend council meetings for food systems issues to get a sense of the discussion, debate, areas of concern from a local government perspective; and, if one is working in a planning company that doesn’t have any food systems experience, there’s an opportunity to bring the issue to the table as part of other projects. Like any planning work, the skills involved are varied and depend on the nature of your work, but some skills are always helpful, such as: systems thinking (to consider how all parts of the food system interact), facilitation (sooner or later you’ll be involved in some form of consultation and group work) and relationship-building (positive and productive relationships with other agencies is key to advancing food systems issues).

What do you wish you would have known before going to planning school? Planning is a broad, generalized field and has as many dimensions as it has practitioners. The education helps give one a sense of the field, but the real learning really only happens after planning school once you’re practicing!


Faces of Food Systems Planning is a series of interviews with practicing planners from across North America who are engaging in food systems planning and policy work. This series is part of APA-FIG’s efforts to highlight food systems planning as an important planning topic. Click here for more information.

What Feeds Us: How Food Fuels Vancouver

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A sustainable food system is essential to nourishing a healthy city. The City of Vancouver, Canada launched its Food Strategy in January 2013, the culmination of 10+ years of policy, planning and community work to build a healthy, just and sustainable food system. Check out the video showcasing its big impact in Vancouver so far! To learn more, visit http://vancouver.ca/foodpolicy.

The City of Vancouver extends a huge thanks to their partners: none of this would be possible without the creativity and dedication of countless individuals, community groups, and local businesses, including Sole Food Street FarmsGordon Neighbourhood House, and Inner City Farms.