Art / Food / Garden

Rising with Community Gardens: Three Cities

Vancouver’s Sole Foods: Bringing Back Dignity and Purpose to Emptiness 
Last year, a large dreary parking lot in downtown Vancouver was transformed with rows of bright green vegetables under the shadow of B.C. Stadium, elevated light rail viaduct and condo towers.  It didn’t take long for rich green leaves to unfurl and cover part of the asphalt carpet.

A Sole Foods urban farm in Vancouver's Eastside neighbourhood. Above mural is community art completed in 2012.

A Sole Foods urban farm in Vancouver’s Eastside neighbourhood. Above mural is community art completed in 2012.

People would drive, stroll and bike by, curious at first and then later, it was just another large garden.

Another Sole Foods urban community garden by B.C. Stadium. In an empty parking lot owned by developer Concord Pacific. Vancouver BC 2013. Photo by J. Chong

Another Sole Foods urban community garden by B.C. Stadium. In an empty parking lot owned by developer Concord Pacific. Downtown Vancouver BC 2013. Photo by J. Chong

However at various local farmers’ markets about the city, we saw the non-profit organization Sole Foods, that coaxed these gardens, sell the fruits of their labour. They also supply  some local restaurants.

Sole Foods provides employment and agricultural training to people with multiple barriers while also transforming vacant urban land into small farms. These community gardens are the brainchild of Michael Ableman and Seann Dory.

We cycled 6 kms. over to another Solefood farm location in downtown Vancouver Eastside on East lst St. and Clark St. Just above the garden were 2 different community art murals finished last year that celebrated gardening and  wild salmon in the region.

Salmon community art mural overlooks Solefood urban farm. Eastside downtown Vancouver, BC. Photo by J. Chong 2012

Salmon mural art, a community art overlook’s Sole Foods urban farm. Eastside downtown Vancouver, BC. Photo by J. Chong 2012

Like the parking lot garden, these gardens were in a fenced area with a garden  lot that was neatly tended with mini greenhouses, pillars for climbing raspberries, strawberries and blackberries and more luxuriant leafy vegetable rows. It is in a rougher area of town, with light industry across the street.

It is a heartening sight that although these gardens  grow food, that if nurtured right, community gardens can teach, unite as well as beautify desolate areas right in the core of a city.

Transforming Toronto’s Transit Streetcar Barns and Yard:  Gardens and Art
A few months ago, we cycled from our hotel to the Wychwood Artscape Barns in Toronto’s west end on Christie St. We wondered about it after I heard that this art and farmers’ market regularily bubbles with crowd activity every Saturday in the summer.

Wchywood Barns were the former Toronto Transit Commission's storage barns and track shunting yard for their red streetcars for many decades. Photo by J. Chong 2013.

Wchywood Barns were the former Toronto Transit Commission’s storage barns and track shunting yard for their red streetcars for many decades. Photo by J. Chong 2013.

The Barns were formerly the Toronto Transit Commissions storage barns and shunting yard for the Toronto’s well-known streetcars. The main barn interior vaulted walls are line with wonderful vintage photos of transit riders, TTC employees and streetcar

Inside the barns, large vintage photos of TTC streetcar workers, riders and yards line the walls. Wychwood Artscape Barns, Toronto ON 2013. Photo by J. Chong

Inside the barns, large vintage photos of TTC streetcar workers, riders and yards line the walls. Wychwood Artscape Barns, Toronto ON 2013. Photo by J. Chong

scenes in the early 20th century. “That’s Spaghetti Yard”, remarked Jack, pointing to a photo of a chaotic tangle of streetcar tracks in the yard. Too bad that yard was torn out. Instead of the rail track squiggly mess, there were jammed racks of bikes while cyclists hung out with everyone else in the bright sunshine.

Side community gardens and also gardens found at the back of the barns. Wychwood Artscape Barns, Toronto 2013. Photo by J.Chong

Side community gardens and also gardens found at the back of the barns. Wychwood Artscape Barns, Toronto 2013. Photo by J.Chong

But let’s get back on track here: there were community gardens lining outside the barns –in some need of water soaking. Nearby vendors trotted out their vegetables, baked goods and crafts.

The success of retrofitting this heritage building site for regenerative activities of food gardens, small art enterprises, café, meeting space and farmers’ market, has now spawned some proposed Artscape sites elsewhere in Toronto.

Scarecrow in business suit overlooks Fort Calgary's community garden. Located in prairie parkland behind a heritage museum for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Photo by J. Chong 2012

Scarecrow in business suit overlooks Fort Calgary’s community garden. Located in prairie parkland behind a heritage museum for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Photo by J. Chong 2012

Bringing Food, Order and Law in Calgary: Feeding the Police
I often bike homeward from work, by an urban scarecrow: it wears a two piece black suit along with a straw hat. A formality suited to the history of its still existent community garden –at Fort Calgary. Fort Calgary is now the heritage outpost site for the Northwest Mounted Police, now known as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The police had their own garden to feed themselves in the 1880’s with jump-start help of 2 local farmers.  Later the garden had its own windmill with plans to install a water tank with pump. However that plan never launched.  A second windmill was installed in 1910 by a farmer which has been preserved to now.

Business suited scarecrow is now a Royal Canadian Mounted police officer scarecrow. It overlooks a heritage community garden that was once tended by Northwest Mounted Police in the 1800's. Fort Calgary Museum site, Calgary 2014.

Business suited scarecrow is now a Royal Canadian Mounted police officer scarecrow. It overlooks a heritage community garden that was once tended by Northwest Mounted Police in the 1800’s. Fort Calgary Museum site, Calgary 2014. I wonder how the hat and uniform suit is kept so bright and unsullied in rain and snow.

Unlike the mild, rainy weather of Vancouver, coaxing a large variety of edibles in windswept prairies, required ingenuity and patience. Growing season does not start in this part of Canada until June –the ground is too cold and threat of errant snowflurries were and continues to be real.

Somehow one scarcely believes that all the police officers were thrilled to muck about in the soil, instead of relaxing during off hours and maybe relying on the occasional Canadian Pacific railway shipment of food across the road or from local farmers.

Still, on the vast flat prairies, a viable garden of food and some brave flowers, is welcome relief for residents and travellers.

Interesting Reading:
Chong, Jean. Community Gardens Near Cycling and Pedestrian Routes: Complementary Community Amenities. In Third Wave Cycling Blog. Sept. 25, 2011.

Seen not far from Wychwood Barns along a bike lane near Casa Loma, Toronto 2013.  Jane Jacobs was a Canadian journalist and activist on sustainable urban development who lived in Toronto after leaving the U.S. She would have supported community gardens. She is best known for her influential book on urban planning, "Death and Life of American Cities".

Seen not far from Wychwood Barns along a bike lane near Casa Loma, Toronto 2013. Jane Jacobs was a Canadian journalist and activist on sustainable urban development who lived in Toronto after leaving the U.S. She would have supported community gardens. She is best known for her influential book on urban planning, “Death and Life of American Cities”. Photo by J. Chong 2013.

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27 thoughts on “Rising with Community Gardens: Three Cities

  1. I had no idea that eye sore of a parking lot near the stadium has been transformed. How beautiful. Now I have to head back to Van and check out my old stomping grounds!

    • Hi Urkai: It’s going to be the 2nd year the parking lot in downtown Vancouver will be a garden again. I saw it a few weeks ago and seems to be jammed with more gardens. At some point, that space will be eventually a highrise building since Concorde Pacific owns it. I understand the same organization is trying to start up an urban orchard this year down near a Home Depot store on Terminal Ave. –about 2 km. away.

      • I hope Concorde Pacific at least tries to incorporate the garden. The problem with that area, is there is very little sunlight anymore. When I was off on Mat leave, I use to walk around searching for sun! An urban orchard would be really interesting on Terminal Ave. – Kendra

  2. Such wonderful initiatives and i appreciate your telling me about each of them. I have been enjoying cycling by the Royal Mounted Police scarecrow as well. One can’t help but smile to look at him. I like the photos you captured.

    • The Mounted Police scarecrow is a great idea and long overdue for a place that honours the history and role of the police in the Canadian prairies. Hope it protects the garden from the huge jackrabbits that jump around.

    • Yes, I had read about that park and seen photos for the elevated park NYC transformation.

      Right now there’s a huge ruckus in Vancouver BC for a long “abandoned” CPR line that runs right through residential areas and near Granville. People have community gardens lining the Arbutus Rail Corridor. Just a month ago, CPR threatened to take it over since it’s still there. Their staff started to cut down trees.

      Some photos from my previous blog posts of those gardens: Cypress Community Gardens by Arbutus Rail Corridor. Vancouver BC

      Side view ith walking grassed path

  3. Interesting to see how isolated patches of Vancouver get green-makeovers. And the spruiked up places do look lovely from you photos. We do have little garden spots like these in Melbourne’s city too…but after about a month, the fresh grass and flowers planted tend to wither and go dry. Poor maintenance, I reckon.

    Markets. I’m not too sure if I like them or not. I would love to say that I love them. But from my experiences with markets in Melbourne, they seem…tired and boring. I tend to find a lot of the crafts, food, plants etc on sale pricey. Is this the case in Canada?

    • Sure, it sounds like a maintenance problem for some of those gardens that you saw in Melbourne. Since Vancouver gets plenty of rain, the flowers are bigger, brighter and ground cover of bushes, grasses, flowers is simply more thicker and luxuriant. Gardeners are in heaven in Vancouver whereas in Calgary, it appears more yellow, brown until there’s rain. Buds have started whereas in Vancouver their dazzlingly cherry blossom trees have dropped off their petals. The whole month of April is marked by blossoming cherry trees all over the city every year.

      Depends how one defines markets and for whom. I like markets that sell and promote local/regional goods. We try to visit one when visiting another country/area..to get a better feel of local produce, crafts, etc. http://thirdwavecyclingblog.wordpress.com/2010/12/03/growing-up-and-cycling-through-the-years-to-farmers%e2%80%99-markets-home-and-abroad/ Gives a flavour of different markets where we’ve been, etc.

    • The garden with climbing berries is in the rougher area, Eastside Vancouver, a km. away or so from areas where there is drug addiction, etc. But really no more different than areas where same problems are more hidden in the city. For sure, it absolutely safe to bike around. And there is other public, permanent art in addition to the featured mural.

  4. Hi Jean!,

    I just scrolled to see the beatiful picture tonight but going to read when I have time this weekend!

    Oyasumi(Good night-it is 23:24=11:24 pm).

    Risa

    Date: Mon, 19 May 2014 22:00:28 +0000

      • Hi Jean!,I believe that some area might have the places called ‘community gardens’ in Japan but I don’t think we have ‘community gardens’ in my city…there are places called ‘community farms’ in the countryside ward of my city and neighbors rent it as a year lease and they try to plan veggies there,enjoy making them(some of them might don’t have a enough space in their property or some loves to get more own food.Even though,many people(even who don’t have garden, they try to plant seeds that they can eat later of course and has one more good thing about.It is the season to plants seed of “bitter gourd” here,it will be like a curtain (green curtain we call)when it get taller from protecting a lot of sun in the summer time^^.

        • Coincidentally, I just bought a bitter gourd a few days ago for a small meal. I probably can stretch it out to 2 meals. They’re probably shipped in from somewhere. I guess the “green curtain” must the leaves that grow attached to the gourd.

          Given the reality that Japan is a small country with many people, not surprising that people have to lease their community farm land. I think there is a fee to join up a community garden group, which I believe in the big Canadian cities has to be a non-profit organization. I don’t know the different arrangements, but a non-profit organization has to be registered with the government. In that way, then people really are growing it for home use, not to sell to make money in a commercial way.

          I usually stir-fry the sliced gourd (and seeded) with onions, garlic, slices of beef in a bit of soy sauce, etc. Nice over rice or with pasta. I have it only several times per year.

          • Hi Jean,thank you for your comment again(^_<).

            That's coincidence!I think you guys can get bitter gourd in Canada,I am guessing if you try to plant it,even in a planter on your balcony,it will grow like a green curtain and all you need to one thing is that you put strings up to the ceiling for each bitter gourd's seedling so that it will look like the "green cutain" I mentioned and the “green curtain” must the leaves that grow attached to the gourd you guessed.

            You belive this or not,70 % of our land is mountains or forest or the places that people can't live in our country('s land).
            Some community might owned by the city or ward but also there are quite a few land that are own by the people who has taken over by their ancestors,which no one can steal it from them(even if you have a lot of money to give it to them,they would not cell it because that's what from their ancestors',unless they don't any children who can take it over then they might give it to someone who is responsiblity and take care of the land that they will never build a house to get money from after they knows you working hard to make veggies.They want keep the nature how it has been there for thousand years.) as that's what their ancestors has been having(protecting) it from generations to generations for many many years.

            I enjoyed to read how you cooked with bitter gourd Jean!
            I will continue to make comment next time soon^^/

            It seems like we are having the 'rainy season' from Okinawa(down south east of our country) and our area will be in the season in a few days probably and it will give the plants to become bigger even some people don't like the season,but as you know,nature is first!

            • For sure, Nature rules over us. I would be very surprised that much bitter gourd is grown here in the prairies even if it’s in a greenhouse because they potential customer market would be customers with understanding of Asian cuisine where I’ve seen recipes /cooked the most (which still isn’t that often even among families with Asian roots/influences). Bitter gourd is an acquired taste but eaten in judicious amounts, can be healthy. Not sure where our supply of bitter gourd comes from –whether it’s from British Columbia or south of us from California. But it wouldn’t be surprising it’s grown in China. I was surprised, even disgusted to see snow peas….from China in Canada?? Snow peas are grown in Canada, so I get suspicious when something as simple as snow peas are shipped from Asia. It must have taken some sort of mutant grafting or chemicals to preserve the freshness of snow peas.

              Unless one’s a farm, a cottage or old house, and with the exception of the First Nations, it’s hard to imagine many Canadians having ancestral land beyond 100 yrs. Canadians are probably quite mobile in terms of where their family members end up living across several different cities or in different provinces, thousands of km. apart..like myself.

  5. Canada is so far ahead of us here in making community gardens and farmer’s markets. The police story is heartwarming. I can just imagine them mucking around. Thanks for the “tour” in the cities. I always thought Vancouver would be special. I live very near Toronto and like that city too.

    • I think community gardens are in some areas of the U.S. –Seattle, Portland. But what do I know…..

      Vancouver has now over 3,000 community gardens. The current mayor just prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics, was aiming for 2,010 community gardens.

  6. What a great initiative is Sole Foods doing! This last quote by Jane Jacobs is so true. Thank you so much Jean for making us discover these wonderful community gardens.

    • They sell their garden veggies at local farmers’ markets in Vancouver. The parking lot garden is actually quite large. Jane Jacobs certainly has left a long shadow worldwide on people-oriented urban planning.

  7. Pingback: In Praise of Urban Farming | this time - this space

  8. Wonderful post, Jean– a real delight! As other commenters have said, your photos are superb, and really give readers a great sense of what’s happening. I like the way you captured some of the art murals, too.

    Your post is both informative and encouraging. To see grubby old parking lots transformed into beautifully tended gardens gives real hope for the urban future. The fact that the produce is sold at local farmers markets takes the concept to an even more pleasing level.

    Community gardens and farmers markets do seem to be everywhere these days. Even little Harrisville, NH, where I live, has both. Of course, we’re a rural area– making it all work in post-industrial city areas seems much more impressive.

    Thanks again for a great post– a mini-documentary, really. Well done! : )

    • Hey, Mark glad you are enjoying your local markets and their bounty. The climate in Vancouver really encourages a lot of local berry, greens and other produce to be grown and sold here. I’m sure it’s scenic in your end of the U.S. at this time of the year.

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