Reposted from theprovince.com
As food prices rise, so does the demand for land to grow crops on
Vancouver city officials will let residents grow crops along roadsides, as skyrocketing food prices drive a huge increase in urban agriculture.
Demand for plots in city-serviced community gardens is so heavy that all 70 have waiting lists. Meanwhile, “guerrilla gardeners” are sowing seeds on vacant lots and right-of-ways, property owners are making ground available to neighbours and small-scale farmers, and apartment dwellers are growing herbs and vegetables in gardens that fit on a windowsill.
“The way food prices are going, one increasingly prevalent reason for getting into this type of stuff is budget,” says David Tracey, a member of the city’s Food Policy Council and author of the just-published book Urban Agriculture: Ideas and Designs for the New Food Revolution.
Tracey describes windowsill gardens as “the nearest farm you’ll ever know,” where even novice gardeners can produce delicious and nutritious enhancements to salads, soups and sandwiches.
“Anybody can be an urban farmer,” Tracey says. “You’re only limited by your imagination.”
Patios and balconies offer space for the next step up in at-home agriculture, and there’s no need to buy expensive, garden-specific containers, says Tracey, who has come across vegetables growing in everything from an old toaster to a boot. “We can be creative in our gardens and our farms without having to go with what the garden books have always told us,” Tracey says.
Pots, buckets, tubs or boots make acceptable substitutes for solid ground, he says. “You can grow anything in containers,” Tracey says. “It’s not hard to fool a plant.”
Once people put in a backyard garden bed, it can be an easy transition to full-backyard food production, Tracey says. “Now you’ve tasted blood, you’re getting into this thing, and those tomatoes definitely were better than anything you’ve had in the last eight years of buying Safeway stuff,” he says.
Front yards are the next frontier in urban-parcel agriculture, and sowing them with edible crops is leading by example, Tracey says. “You’re planting your food flag right out there for everyone to see.”
For citizens lacking yards and wanting to plant more than a patio, community gardens provide highly prized space.
“I come from a gardening family,” says Heesoon Bai, 56. Bai and her partner Avraham Cohen, 69, waited two years for a spot in a Kitsilano community garden along a railway bed. The two university professors are growing tomatoes, peas, corn, kale, peppers and herbs. “When you pick stuff you can eat it the same day, so it’s absolutely fresh-killed,” says Cohen.
Five years ago, there were only 780 community garden plots in Vancouver. Now there are 3,400. City planners faced with unrelenting clamour for more spots are striving to boost the number to 5,000 in the next decade, says Mary-Clare Zak, the city’s socialpolicy director.
With waits as long as three years for the city-serviced community plots, many people are turning to unauthorized “guerrilla gardens,” one of the most impressive of which was started by a wheelchair-bound man along unused railroad tracks by Granville Island. “He was surprised that nobody stole his tomatoes,” Tracey says. “Now all along the tracks you can see, the neighbours have taken it on.”
Throughout the city, green-minded property owners are also contributing to the urban agriculture boom, letting small-scale farmers and neighbours use their yards to grow food, often in exchange for a share of the produce, Tracey says.
Artist Diane Lefroy bought a small lot just off Main Street a year ago, but won’t be developing it into environmentally friendly housing till next spring. So she put a sign up inviting gardeners in the neighbourhood to email her if they wanted to grow food on her land. Now she has about 15 people cultivating beans, corn, carrots, beets, lettuce, tomatoes, herbs and more on a small patch of dirt in a concrete jungle of increasing density. “It didn’t make sense to have it sit there and not be used,” Lefroy says. “I believe in being neighbourly.”
Tracey would like to see all empty lots and other unused spaces become available for urban agriculture through the Roman-law concept of “usufruct” that allows citizens to grow food on such properties as long as they cause no harm.
“The owner still has the right to do with it what they will,” Tracey says. “When you’re not using it, it should not go to waste.”
City officials have largely taken a hands-off approach to guerrilla gardening and unsanctioned usufruct because they haven’t received complaints, Zak says. And while the city tells those who garden on the boulevard strips between the sidewalk and the street to grow only ornamental flowers and plants, officials plan to open up those roadside spaces for cultivation of food, Zak says.
“In addition to flowers we would be looking at edible plants,” Zak says. The new policy should be in place in time for next spring’s planting if not before, she says, adding she expects the city to discourage residents from planting food crops along busy streets, as vehicle emissions could contaminate vegetables and fruit.
The move toward boulevard agriculture is part of Vancouver’s plan to become the world’s “greenest city” by 2020.
As officials plan for progress and residents fight rising food costs by growing some of their own, the pleasure of gardening in the big city is reason enough to sow some seeds, says Cohen.
“It gives people a little more peace,” Cohen says, “and lets people step off of their treadmill.”