Little condo on the prairie: this 2023 trend is taking over the city

Urban homesteading is the latest trend in Toronto, and it’s all about grow-your-own and sew-your-own

Sustainability efforts as we know it might include reusable shopping bags, biking more, shopping second-hand and maybe cutting down on meat consumption. But a new sustainability trend has emerged onto the scene in Toronto called homesteading — and it’s all about returning to your roots. 

The term refers to a lifestyle of self-sufficiency and sustainability, which includes practices like growing your own food, producing your own clothes and crafting your own home products. If you search the term on TikTok, you’ll find that the hashtag version has over a billion views. The top videos on TikTok depict families and individuals living away from cities, often on farm properties. They post about things like gardening, creating their own textiles, raising farm animals and baking bread.

That the most viral videos take place on large properties with acres of natural land doesn’t seem to discourage Torontonians. In fact, urban homesteading is a trend in its own right, with city dwellers growing their own food in their backyards, their front terrace, city sidewalk boulevards or even on balconies and windowsills. Other urban homesteaders have taught themselves skills such as sewing or craftwork or even carpentry. #urbanhomesteading #urbanhomestead #fall #garden #gardening #gardeninghacks #cottagecore #homemaking #nature #chickens ♬ Hobbit – The Middle-Earth Orchestra

You don’t have to move out of your townhouse or even your apartment to start urban homesteading. You don’t even have to get your hands dirty. 

Alex Filtsos is the creator behind Snake Eyes Shop, an Instagram and pop-up retail brand selling vintage, altered and handmade pieces using one-off vintage fabrics — but it started with Filtsos learning to make her own clothes. 

Filtsos is particularly drawn to ’60 and ’70s novelty prints; she started sewing because she came across a mushroom print nurse shirt at a thrift store. The garment didn’t suit her personal style so she bought a cheap sewing machine on Kijiji and consulted YouTube videos to learn how to turn the shirt into a brand new mini skirt. 

After that Filtsos began collecting novelty print fabrics and vintage sewing patterns and turned her hobby into a business. 

“Being self-taught definitely has its downsides, and I find myself frequently learning from my own mistakes. It takes time and practice, but I really do believe it’s worth it to be able to give old fabric or clothing a new life,” she says.

Filtsos’s advice for Torontonians thinking of learning how to sew is to just do it. She advises that upcycling clothes is a good place to start for beginners. “Instead of buying new or tossing old clothing, try making something new out of something old. Something made from you, for you. It’s really a great feeling!” she says.

That feeling is what’s driving the homesteading trend. Tired of feeling disconnected from everything from the food they eat to the clothes they buy, homesteaders are looking for ways to reconnect. Making her own clothes reminds Filtsos of not only the work that goes into the clothes she wears, but gives her an opportunity to slow down — even the simplest item could take six hours to sew from start to finish. 

The same is true for homesteaders looking to grow their own food. Homestead T.O. is an organization founded by Derek and Vinyse Barber that facilitates educational programs to teach Torontonians how to homestead, and the pair are hoping to remind participants of the time and resources that go into the food they eat.  

Derek Barber says the problem in Toronto is that we’ve become disconnected from our food sources. “We can all name 20 restaurants, even 20 grocery stores, but most of us can’t name a single farm. We don’t know how our food is grown or what’s been put into it.”

The Barbers founded Homestead T.O. five growing seasons ago, and they offer a Grow Veggies program — offered both in person and online. The in-person program consists of weekly educational sessions spanning seven months in which the participants learn to grow their own vegetables in the Barbers’ teaching garden plot, located in Downsview Park. At the end of each class, the participants get to bring home their share of the garden’s harvest yield.

“A lot of our students have reached out looking for employment opportunities in the field,” says Barber. More people are opening up their backyards to the possibility of someone else growing food in it, and farmers markets are starting to open up tables to individual backyard growers, where they can sell what they grow. 

Urban homesteading offers an alternative to the narrative of TikTok’s most viral videos, showing often white couples moving out of the city to purchase acres of farmland and start anew. Escaping urban centres is a privilege only afforded to some, as is the option to buy up land. A study from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation from 2021 found that home ownership rates were lowest among Black, Arab, Aboriginal and Latin American Canadians, and the gap has been growing since 2006. 

With urban homesteading in Toronto, it’s community, rather than land ownership, that drives the trend. 

The Barbers say their programs, which connect aspiring homesteaders with others, are representative of Toronto. “The other farmers and the students that I interact with are mostly people of colour,” Barber says. 

In a city of condos, Torontonians have learned how to make urban homesteading their own and are determined to show you how you can, too. 

Mary is the urban gardener behind the Instagram account @_thisgardenofmine_ which has just over 30 thousand followers. On her page, you’ll find plenty of tips for gardening in small spaces, growing and preserving your own food and recipes to keep you inspired. 

Mary started gardening in her front yard at the beginning of the pandemic in 2019. “When I started there were very few front yard vegetable gardens but over the years I have seen a movement to grow ‘upfront,’” she says. Doing so has allowed her to meet a lot of the gardeners in her neighborhood, whom she sometimes trades plants and seeds with. 

“The main thing that I’ve learned about urban gardening is that you don’t have to do it alone,” she says.

Emma Biggs is an urban gardener who is working to inspire others to grow at home. At 17, Biggs is the co-author of a self-published kids’ gardening book, which she wrote with her father, as well as the co-host of the podcast they produce together, The Food Garden Life Show

“I’m really excited to see the number of new gardeners and homesteaders there are, and I really hope people stick with it,” Biggs says.

Of the many benefits of homesteading, Biggs is most grateful that growing her own food has allowed her to spend time outside and connect with the greater community. “When you grow a tomato plant, you get to eat those tomatoes, but you also get to share them with neighbours.”

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO