For David Walker, entering a community garden in East Vancouver is an escape from the cares of everyday life.
She has been gardening at Cottonwood Community Gardens for 10 years.
“As soon as I walked in, I fell in love with the place,” he said.
“I can shut out many of the worries and strife of the rest of the world, at least for a few hours of the day.”
Walker is one of many passionate gardeners in Vancouver who use community space to relax, grow food and connect with others — some of the myriad benefits of gardening in urban spaces.
Tammara Soma, associate professor in the school of resource and environmental management and research director of the food systems labs at Simon Fraser University, says community gardens are important for many reasons.
For example, he said, gardens increase biodiversity as new plants are added and through pollination; they build community relationships; and they increase food security for those who have the opportunity and time to look after them.
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They also take unused or derelict spaces and turn them into something useful. For example, Cottonwood Community Gardens was built on a former landfill.
The City of Vancouver estimates there are more than 110 urban grow sites in parks, schoolyards and private property across the city, many of which have waiting lists for membership.
Soma said interest in community gardening has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People were looking for a way to pass the time during the lockdown, and there was also an increase in interest in the garden due to supermarket disruptions, [such as] food hoarding, long queues in supermarkets,” he said.
“Horticulture was a way to ensure the sustainability of the food system.”
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Urban gardening takes many forms beyond the typical small plots of individual farm plots.
For example, City Beet Farm owners Duncan Chambers and Liana Glass grow fruits, vegetables and flowers in residential backyards across Vancouver, which are then distributed to residents who receive an annual share of the produce.
They currently serve 87 members and provide additional produce to the community support organization Little Mountain Neighborhood House for their food HUB programs.
Duncan said he, Glass, and two other employees collect enough food for 250 people from June to October.
“If we had more small farms like this, you could multiply those numbers,” Duncan said.
Allowing City Beet Farm to use its yard — one of 13 across the city — is “an incredible, wonderful opportunity as a host,” Carol Schoen said.
“Seeing life — food, more importantly — growing in my front yard brings me so much joy. It also gets people talking about how we use our yards,” she said.
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Soma agrees that urban gardens are no place to grow food.
“They are also older indigenous elders and knowledge keepers and a way to support intergenerational knowledge between elders and youth,” he said.
‘Decolonizing our minds’
Leona Brown, an Indigenous cultural facilitator who is a member of the Gitxsan and Nisga’a nations, helped develop Indigenous Food Forests that grow culturally important food and medicine in the Metro Vancouver area. one started this summer in East Vancouver.
According to him, these forests give the city’s local population a chance to taste and learn about plants important to their culture, such as salmon, berries, tobacco, nettles and firewood.
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“Going back to the medicines we lived with for millennia before colonization happened is decolonizing our thinking,” Brown said.
Educator Lori Snyder, who is Métis, works with children to teach them the importance of not only growing food and medicine, but also connecting with the land.
“They were told that dirt is, you know, dirty,” he said. “It’s not dirt – it’s soil, it’s a living organism.”
Education is also important at Ocean Park Community Orchard in Surrey, BC
“We’re trying to do an educational program that’s not too boring for kids, but kind of makes them think about how it touches their lives,” said founder Linda Stanley Wilson, a retired university professor.
The garden differs from others in that the volunteers who take care of the garden do not take home the fruits of their labor; instead, it is donated to those in need.
“It just comes together and people can come up with ideas and work together towards a common goal and we don’t have a set agenda,” he said.
“The community really expands based on people showing up. And we’re just trying to encourage and facilitate that.”
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