Wait lists bloom as demand for city gardening grows
Published Tuesday, April 5, 2011 4:08PM PDT
Forget lofts in Gastown. The hottest real estate in Vancouver is somewhere you might not have expected: your local community garden.
Neighbourhood plots are springing up around the city, but not fast enough to keep up with the demand from urbanites hoping to get a healthy injection of the city farming experience.
Wait lists continue to grow as the desire to be a part of plant parenthood blossoms, says Michael Levenson, executive director of Vancouver's City Farmer, a non-profit agency dedicated to urban agriculture.
"The more multi-family homes in the city, the more people want to get out and get their hands in the ground. It's getting back to nature and it's hot in terms of demand," Levenson told ctvbc.ca from his Kitsilano community garden headquarters.
There's just one problem, and it's a big one: land. With real estate values in Vancouver topping out at a country-wide high, and density levels rivalling the most heavily populated major city, even the most unattractive piece of concrete jungle is likely slated for building homes, condos or businesses – and soon.
Maryclare Zac, director of social policy for the City of Vancouver, says city council is committed to increasing urban agriculture in local neighbourhoods to boost access to local gardening and sustainable, healthy foods. But she admits that land is a hot commodity.
"The dilemma is that there's competitive usage for the land. And that's a big concern," Zac said.
Levenson concurs, saying: "It's all about land. But the problem is we're such a built-up city."
To put it in perspective, right now the city has approximately 2,500 garden plots, or roughly 4.3 per thousand people. There are 70 gardens for public use and the city tries to introduce an additional three each year.
But it's still not enough.
One of the hottest pieces of plant real estate is a new garden at Wylie Street and West 1st Avenue, just underneath the south end of the Cambie Street Bridge and a stone's throw from thousands of new housing units at the Olympic Village.
When I applied for a plot in early March I was the 50th person to be added to an ever-expanding wait-list.
Organizer Yolanda Bienz says the response to the garden has been overwhelming and all 43 plots were spoken for almost immediately. While priority is given to people who live and work in the area -- like me -- she also said I wouldn't have a chance at a plot for at least two years, maybe three.
For a full list of Vancouver city gardens, click here.
Necessity breeds innovation
With more and more people competing for something that's a limited resource, Vancouver is seeing community gardens popping up in the most unusual places, from junkyards, to boulevards to the rooftops of new condominium towers.
Levenson says one of City Farmer's biggest achievements is the conversion of unused train tracks running east-west on West 5th Avenue into blocks of beautiful and productive working land.
"It's a wasteland turned beautiful," he said. "You take a piece of asphalt and a parking lot and turn it into a lovely field of nature."
And with a shortage of land on the ground, the city is now taking gardening to new heights with rooftop plots.
Vancouver is on the forefront of developing green roofs, including the new roof on the Vancouver Convention Centre that is home to a giant bee hive.
Green roofs are now being planned on a massive scale in the bustling city's downtown core.
The new million-square-foot, $750-million Telus headquarters will feature more than 10,000 square feet of green roof space. While most of the details still aren't finalized, the company says the growing space will provide organic produce for local restaurants as well as two elevated roof forests.
The project, slated for completion in 2015, also plans for four "sky gardens," spokesman Shawn Hall told ctvbc.ca.
"These are literally gardens in the sky. Some will be on rooftops. Some will be in areas that are jutting out from the building. We're excited to go green," he said.
It's not just businesses that are getting on board the bandwagon. City farming is now so hot that many upscale condo developers have begun offering private garden plots alongside luxury amenity packages like fitness facilities and granite countertops.
With a promise of "a sense of community and a relaxing place to call your own," The Rise, a new rental development on top of retail space at West 8th Avenue and Cambie Street, gives tenants the chance to cultivate their green thumb in their very own 4x6 foot plot.
And while urban agriculture is making gains at the construction phase, there's also a grassroots movement making inroads within city limits.
A new City Farmer database called Sharing Backyards brings together people who are looking for a space to plant and people who have a little extra land to share.
The interactive mapping tool plots points on a Google map of Vancouver to give users descriptions of what land they have available to share – or what land they'd like – with the hopes of connecting gardeners.
It's working well, says Levenson.
In fact, Zac thought the sharing website was such a great idea she started letting someone use part of her backyard to plant fruits and veggies.
"It's a very enjoyable thing," she said.
"I'd recommend that if you know someone who has land they're not using, it's worth it to see if they would volunteer to give up a portion of it."
Levenson said would-be green thumbs often pay the land owners back by providing gardening know-how, or samples of their homegrown produce.
"So it's helpful and delicious," he said.
Doing it yourself
If you still want to get your hands dirty in a garden, and can't find a place, there's one last option: starting your own.
City planners and the people who run community gardens say there are lots of people who have taken matters into their own hands with great success. But there are a lot of things to consider before you start turning over the sod.
The first challenge is finding the actual space, a real concern if you're a downtown dweller or live in a built-up area. For starters, the space needs the physical space to support a vegetable garden. The good news is that this doesn't have to be a lot – some gardens have as few as three plots, while others have more than 50.
The land doesn't have to necessarily be garden-ready either. Many community gardens make good use of raised container beds, framed structures that build the garden from the ground up.
A fantastic example of this is the downtown garden space at the corner of Burrard and Davie streets, which occupies land that was formerly a gas station.
When you find a suitable patch of land – or concrete – the next step is finding out who actually owns it. City staff can help with this, but if the space is privately owned, they won't be able to tell you who it belongs to. And the city needs to make sure there isn't use planned for that land within the next few years.
"If we know there's a development coming in a few years it doesn't make sense to develop there," Zac says.
If the land you find is city-owned, like a park, you may be in luck. More than half of current Vancouver plots are located on parkland but organized through community groups.
A great example of this is the Jonathon Rogers Community Garden at West 7th Avenue and Manitoba Street in Southeast False Creek. By the way, I'm number 100 on that wait list.
2010 community garden challenge
While Levenson and his non-profit group have been involved in urban farming for more than three decades, the movement in Vancouver really took root in 2006, when then-councillor Peter Ladner challenged the city to establish more food-producing gardens.
A motion was passed to create 2010 new garden plots by the year 2010, an Olympic legacy Ladner said would be an example to all municipalities in the GVRD. And it worked. The city surpassed its target before the Games were held last winter.
Now with Mayor Gregor Robertson at the helm, city council will present targets for homegrown food access next month as part of the Greener City Action Plan – an initiative to make Vancouver the most environmentally friendly city in the world by 2020.
While a lot of the targets include things like greener buildings and transit, there's also a big emphasis on the production of local food.
Part of this is an ambitious project by the Vancouver Park Board to plant three new fruit tree orchards in city park lands.
Students at Moberly Elementary School and seniors from the Ross Street Temple will break ground on the second of three orchards on Thursday in East Vancouver's Ross Park.
The first was installed last November in Falaise Park and a third is slated for Memorial West Park later this spring.
The orchards are part of a city recommendation to increase "city and neighbourhood food assets" by a minimum of 50 per cent over 2010 levels by 2020.
Zac, who admits she wasn't a gardener when she started at city hall, believes it's an achievable goal.
"We recognize that community gardening is popular but we see it as an opportunity for more," she said. "It's to let people to have some social time, a time for recreation but also to be able to buy their own fresh food. It's important."