The push is on to grow food in our unused spaces
If Calgary has an excess of anything, it’s space. Space that needs to be maintained. Each year crews of gardeners, landscapers and snow removers spend thousands of hours and many tax dollars keeping green (and not so green) spaces tidy. Paul Hughes, a well-entrenched local landscaper and the founder and chair of the Calgary Food Policy Council, would like to see that excess city land put to better use; preferably growing food.
“We are anti-grass,” Hughes says of his group, over coffee in a corner booth at Café Beano. “Calgary has more space than any urban area in North America and most of it isn’t being used well.” To be precise, there are almost 8,000 hectares of usable land in Calgary that Hughes envisions being transformed into edible green spaces by anyone who has the will and a shovel. “Wouldn’t it be a waste of ice if we didn’t have hockey or curling?” he asks.
The non-profit CFPC is driving the 2,011 by 2011 initiative, challenging Calgarians and City Hall to establish 2,011 new growing spaces by 2011. But it’s not just the land the group sees potential in; the CFPC is proposing that Calgary’s Plus-15 system incorporate indoor growing. The members view the world's most extensive pedestrian skywalk system (with a total length of 16 km) as the world's largest network of greenhouses.
Urban gardening is in our roots. From 1914 until the mid-’50s, Calgary’s Vacant Lots Garden Club converted empty lots and other spaces into prolific food sources. Members paid $1 per year and chipped in to tend and harvest the bounty of well over 3,000 plots. The last three remaining VLGC plots have been in Bridgeland-Riverside since 1922, where they are still maintained by residents. Last fall, the 825-square-metre lot was designated as a municipal historic resource, ensuring the site remains devoted to growing food.
In 2008, there were only nine public community gardens in Calgary, along with a few private gardens that had community building as the goal. (Between them, 376 plots were available. This year four new gardens have been approved by the city.) According to the Calgary Horticultural Society, 99,672 square feet were being cultivated last year, with over 750 people getting their hands dirty throughout the city. This year Bowness, Cliff Bungalow-Mission, Hillhurst-Sunnyside, Killarney-Glengarry and South Calgary (one at the Community Centre and another at Rundle Academy) have gardens available to residents for a small fee. Cedarbrae, Maple Ridge-Willow Park, Montgomery and Rocky Ridge-Royal Oak (the largest with 40 plots) had new proposals approved by the city in March. This spring, Hillhurst-Sunnyside expanded their garden to include the city’s first community orchard.
There are some gardens open to all Calgary residents: McClure Community of Gardeners and the University of Calgary Campus Community Garden, as well as the Garden Path Society, which co-ordinates Calgary’s largest community garden in Inglewood (103 plots). Last summer Garden Path launched Cornucopia on a half-acre behind Colonel Walker School, where over 1,360 kg of organic produce was grown and harvested by program participants, staff, garden members and volunteers. Anyone interested in gaining hands-on gardening experience can benefit from educational workshops and on-the-spot learning while nurturing fresh produce for a good cause. Last year, 907 kg of fruit and vegetables were donated to local charities and non-profit organizations. This summer, Cornucopia is open to Calgarians twice a week, when they are welcome to pick, pull and purchase organic fruit and vegetables, with proceeds going back into the program.
In May, the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) transformed a vacant lot in the East Village into a temporary community garden and the free plots were snapped up by residents in a matter of days; the project took about two weeks from conception to completion. And downtown on Barclay Parade — Third Street S.W. between Fifth and Sixth Avenues — two concrete flower planters were replanted with 20 varieties of herbs and vegetables, which will be tended by local businesses and the yield donated to the Calgary Inter-Faith Food Bank.
The potential is certainly here and the will is catching up, as people try to reconnect with the source of their food and seek out more economical organic produce that racks up the fewest travel miles. Urban gardens have been referred to as the accessory of the summer; everyone has one — the Obamas, the Schwarzeneggers, even the Queen. Gardening is the new black; it could even be the new dot-com. South of the border, micro gardens are popping up, even in high density areas, and if you want to grow your own but lack the motivation or expertise, you can hire a garden trainer (or personal gardener) to help you along.
The trend toward community-supported agriculture (CSA) is inevitable. More than half the world’s population (about 3.3 billion people) live in urban areas, with the ratio even higher in developed countries. CSAs aren’t limited to vacant lots filled with rows of edible plants to share with your neighbours (a selling point for some that makes others cringe). All manner of inner-city gardening falls under the umbrella of urban agriculture — small, inner-city (for-profit) farms, co-ops, market gardens, micro market gardens, community gardens, small individual plots and even container gardens clustered on high-rise patios. Allotment gardens, which are concentrations of parcels cultivated by individual members of an association rather than shared with neighbours, are popular in many European countries and the concept is catching on in Canada. Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation, for example, offers garden plots for community members for only $53.50 per year.
Many look to the Cuban model for inspiration. In Cuba, 70 per cent of the vegetables and herbs that feed a population of over 11 million are organic and grown in urban gardens — referred to as organopónicos or micro huertos — which occupy a total of about 35,000 hectares (86,000 acres) of land. Cuba’s so-called green revolution was triggered two decades ago by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which eliminated the country’s main trading partner and only source of petroleum, chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and abruptly ended the support of Cuba’s food and agriculture sectors by the Soviet Bloc. Cubans’ daily caloric intake dropped by a third, so they had no choice but to figure out how to feed themselves, with negligible water and without the conveniences of modern agriculture.
The catastrophe led to a complete restructuring of the agricultural system that saw the redistribution of 80 per cent of state-owned land to co-ops and independents. In cities like Havana, gardens popped up in vacant lots, back alleys, parks and rooftops; anywhere there was space. Twenty years later, Cubans have a well-established, socially and environmentally sustainable means of feeding themselves, with a higher intake of fruit and vegetables and a significantly reduced reliance on foreign food. Because the overhead is low and produce is sold a few feet from where it’s grown — about as fresh and local as you can get — buying local and organic is the norm.
Similarly spurred by political and socio-economic factors, victory gardens were famously planted in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Germany during the First and Second World Wars in order to reduce pressure on the food supply brought on by the war effort. Establishing food security doesn’t have the same urgency in present-day Calgary, but our priorities and perspectives are changing.
“Community gardens raise land values.” Hughes says. “They add to the vibrancy of community, food justice, food security.” (Food security is becoming a familiar term. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.)
“I can’t see any downsides,” he says, listing the benefits of urban farming until he runs out of fingers: increased revenue, more jobs, less tax money spent on grass maintenance, lower greenhouse emissions as a result of reduced food miles, increased food security, green credibility, social interaction and community building, and healthier Calgarians who have easier access to fresh, lower-cost fruits and vegetables. A city of healthier citizens carries its own list of benefits.
Watching cities like New York (the same size as Calgary, with more than 10 times the population), Los Angeles, London, England and San Francisco make the most of their limited space prompted Hughes to launch the 2011 plan. The concept follows Vancouver’s lead. In 2006, Vancouver City Council issued a challenge to individuals, families, community groups and neighbourhood organizations to work with the Vancouver Food Policy Council — a voluntary citizen body that was recognized in 2003 when Vancouver Council approved the Action Plan for Creating a Just and Sustainable Food System for the city — to create 2,010 new shared garden plots by 2010 as part of its Olympic legacy (in addition to the 950 that already existed in 2006). Since 2006, the total number of plots has grown to over 2,400. London has a similar goal: 2,012 by the 2012 Summer Olympics.
After meeting with the city’s parks department about the logistics of the 2011 campaign, Hughes sent out a frustrated e-mail. “One fact that came up,” he wrote, “[is that] there are some 800 seasonal workers with Calgary Parks. Not one of the 800 hard-working people who go around our city for six months with trucks and machinery produce food. That’s 768,000 hours of work a year and not one towards food and nutrition.”
City Parks maintains 7,500 hectares of land at over 3,400 sites, 975 playgrounds, 410 ball diamonds, 500 soccer and football fields and 120 off-leash dog areas. We have the most extensive urban pathway and bikeway network in North America — 580 km connected by 67 bridges.
Hughes sees urban agriculture as a growth industry, proposing that we could be generating income from unused land rather than paying for its upkeep. He’s not looking to reclaim parks and playgrounds, but the in-between spaces, the chunks of grass that are generally passed by unnoticed. Beyond the obvious benefits of health, community, sustainability, economy and a reduced environmental footprint, what really excites Hughes is the concept of entrepreneurial urban agriculture as a new and lucrative industry, one that is just being realized in larger centers like New York. And if they’re pulling it off there, he argues, the concept has enormous potential in a city known for its urban sprawl.
Reaching across the table to borrow my notepad, he scribbles a rough diagram of a box with a smaller, shaded box in one corner. The diagram is meant to compare our city’s unused space with that of an imaginary retail location. “A store wouldn’t allow so much space to sit unused, not generating revenue,” he explains. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Hughes envisions a collaborative effort among agrarians, the city and local contractors, who can avoid dump fees and reduce landfill waste by dropping off materials for use in gardening projects. In a perfect world, compost would be collected and distributed as well, with pick-up and drop-off stations scattered across the city. The obstacle is accessing city and provincially owned land, even temporarily, until it’s developed or other plans come about. “We just want access to it,” he says. “We’re not asking them to do anything.” If Hughes gets his wish, it would be the largest shovel-ready infrastructure project the city has seen — one that won’t cost millions of tax dollars.
Some argue that nothing grows here; this isn’t Vancouver, after all. But stuff actually does grow here, and something edible could take up that space where the grass and the pavement is. We may not be able to cultivate peaches, but our sunny climate (Calgary is among the sunniest in Canada, with around 2,400 hours of sunshine annually) is perfectly suited to growing tomatoes, greens, asparagus, potatoes, herbs, chard, peas, beans, beets, zucchini, rhubarb, strawberries, raspberries, radishes and squash, to name some.
Besides, it’s not just forward-thinking cities like New York, Vancouver and Seattle that are big into urban agriculture. Even Edmonton is host to 38 successful community gardens, with another two in Stony Plain and St. Albert. An Ipsos-Reid poll on behalf of City Farmer (Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture) found that 40 per cent of Greater Toronto households produce some of their own food. And Montreal has the highest number of communal gardens in Canada, with 97 spaces divided into approximately 8,200 plots. Montrealers put a high priority on urban agriculture; there is often pressure to develop on green space, which prompts individuals and groups to lobby at municipal meetings and protect the land against commercialization.
“Nothing helps ground a city more than agriculture,” says Hughes. “But the vision is not coming from the city, the vision is coming from citizens. There’s a massive disconnect.” We can’t see the garden for the lawn.