A Vancouver Perspective
By Alexandra Woodsworth
May 18, 1995
Alexandra wrote this paper for a Grade 10 high school project in the Trek Program at Prince of Wales High School in Vancouver. Alexandra's father, Bob Woodsworth, is a founding director of City Farmer.
Imagine a vacant lot between two run-down buildings. Imagine it filled with old newspapers, empty wine bottles, needles and condoms. Then imagine this barren, depressing scene five years into the future. It is filled with grass, vegetables, flowers and trees. It is filled with beauty and children and laughter. This once-vacant lot is now a flourishing neighbourhood garden, and it has a purpose. These community gardens reach across the barriers of age, race, sex, ability and economic status. The participants range from troubled young people to elderly retirees to large families. The gardens vary from small patches of earth to acres of plants, trees and ponds.
The increased growth of urban gardens is vital for many reasons. To begin with, communal city gardens foster a strong sense of community and pride in one's neighbourhood. Equally important are the strong economic advantages of urban gardening. In addition, community gardens are extremely healthy, both physically and psychologically. Finally, city gardens provide a much-needed oasis for a wide variety of wildlife and plantlife. All in all, it is overwhelmingly obvious that community gardens should be developed in vacant lots and parks in cities and towns throughout the Lower Mainland.
One of the major reasons for the development of urban gardens is their effectiveness in enhancing community development and morale. Neighbourhood gardens nurture not only food and plants, but people and local culture as well. Amateur plays and festivals, as well as painters, musicians and other artists, often make their homes in the gardens.
Even though every member of the community may not be a gardener, the benefits of urban gardens can be felt by each citizen. For example, in 1991, a Seattle community garden produced 8 tons of food for the local food bank (Urban, 1994, 9). As well, recycling programs, improved air quality and a lower crime rate all contribute greatly to an ameliorated feeling of community (Huff, 1990, 24-25).
Sam Snobelen, a Downtown Eastside Residents Association community worker in Vancouver, corroborates this idea: "The garden has had a marvelously positive impact on the community. It's built cohesiveness. It's really brought people together in a very positive way" (Sinclair, 1994, 8). The gardens are often built on vacant lots which were previously used by drug dealers, gangs and squatters (Sarti, 1991, B6). When these people no longer frequent the neighbourhood, it becomes a safer, happier, more pleasing place.
One of the products of this more positive atmosphere is the presence of horticultural therapy in community gardens. Gardening is becoming recognized by academics and doctors alike as a spiritually uplifting occupation (Jobb, 1979, 37). Restless teenagers, bitter old people, the unemployed and the handicapped find gardening enjoyable and rewarding. A plant doesn't nag or reprimand, and it "repays everything, and more, that a caring gardener gives it" (Huff, 1990, 24). While sowing and raking and harvesting, these unhappy people talk to other gardeners and are often drawn into the community and made to feel welcome and happy. As urban gardens work to increase these unhappy people's sense of well-being, as well of that of each other neighbourhood member, the community as a whole benefits accordingly.
As well as bolstering community pride, neighbourhood gardens make economic sense, for both poor and middle class citizens. Indeed, the first community gardens were started by the mayor of Detroit in the 1890's as a result of a major economic depression (Huff, 1990, 29). The gardens were abandoned when the economy stabilized.
However, throughout history, whenever there have been food or money shortages, community gardens have resurfaced. The Liberty Gardens of World War I, the Victory Gardens of World War II and the many gardens which sprang up during the Great Depression serve as examples of these 'emergency' gardens (Coe, 1978, 14). Today, 69 percent of community gardeners in the U.S. say that saving money is the primary reason for gardening (Sommers, 1984, 15).
For needy people who are homeless or just barely surviving on welfare, urban gardens can provide a vital source of almost-free nutrition. It costs next to nothing to garden, and the average plot in a community garden yields about 540 pounds of food annually, which translates into $470 in savings (Sommers, 1984, 14). To someone who lives in poverty, this is an enormous gain to their lifestyle. Even for those people who are not destitute, growing their own food cuts back tremendously on costs. A massive percentage of the price of store-bought food is "determined by advertising, packaging, and many other processes - things you can't see" (Jobb, 1979, 17).
The actual food product has changed hands so many times, and has been transported and stored for so long, that by the time the consumer buys it at the supermarket, the price has inflated immensely. All in all, the economic benefits of community gardening are enormous.
The advantages of urban gardens extend beyond the economy to the physical and spiritual health of the individual. Simply being outside in the fresh air and sunshine with a little bit of raking and hoeing as exercise can improve your fitness, as well as your mental attitude. The health of the body is directly related to what goes into it, in other words, food. For a city-dweller, it is difficult to find fresh foods which are organic and free of other "supermarket stabilizers, emulsifiers, preservatives, artificial flavourings, and other nonfood additives of dubious nutritional value" (Jobb, 1979, 21). The few organic stores that exist have exorbitantly high prices. Growing one's own edibles is a cheap, simple and easy way to insure that the food is fresh and nutritious (Sommers, 1984, 19).
Experimentation is also an important advantage of community gardening. Many types of vegetables and fruits are unavailable in cities - for example chayote, amaranth, winged beans, bitter melons, balsam pears, and taro (Jobb, 1979, 38). As well, many ethnic foods are hard to find in North America and are easy to grow. Although immigrants often do feel transplanted from their native lands, they are not the only people who feel rootless. In contrast to olden times, when a person usually was born and died in the same town or farm, humans today can live in many countries, let alone cities, in their lifetime:
Without roots in land or family, many modern folks feel estranged from basic human rites, unsettled, rootless, restless. People removed from relatives and seasonal fluctuations are not humbled by nature. Modern writers speak of the "necessity of wildness" or "rituals of return to the human condition." Others talk simply in terms of getting "back to the land" (Jobb, 1979, 36).
These "drifters" end up feeling as though they belong nowhere, as though they have no space to call their own (Sommers, 1984, 14). While being small and sometimes temporary, a neighbourhood garden plot can help alleviate this feeling. On the whole, community gardens can greatly improve the healing of the body and mind.
Added to their positive health aspects. community gardens help to create new wildlife and plantlife habitats and protect disappearing ones.
Augmenting the widespread formation of community gardens in British Columbia is essential for numerous purposes. First, they are a practical and pleasant method of strengthening community pride and cohesiveness. Furthermore, an urban garden can be a major economic boon to any citizen. Community gardens can also contribute greatly to a physically and mentally healthy lifestyle. Moreover, neighbourhood gardens are sanctuaries for many varieties of animals and plants. During the past century, community gardens have been started many times. Until the late 1970's, however, these gardens would be abandoned as soon as they were no longer needed. Today the popularity of community gardens are increasing rapidly as people realize their many benefits. There is much work to be done:
We praise the person who had the sense to set aside Stanley Park years ago. We need to set aside pieces of land in Greater Vancouver for future community gardens. We need to do it now, before it's too late (Urban, 1994, 9).
Coe, M.L. (1978). Growing With Community Gardening. Barre, Vermont: Northlight Studios Press.
Huff, B. (1990). Greening the City Streets. New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.
Jobb, J. (1979). The Complete Book of Community Gardening. New York, New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc.
Sarti, R. (1990, November 24). "Seek and You'll Find Artistry in Garden as Nature Intended". Vancouver Sun, Dl.
Sarti, R. (1991, June 14). "Organic Tenants Replace Squatters". Vancouver Sun, B6.
Sinclair, B. (1994, May 13). "Eden in the Eastside". Georgia Straight, 8.
Sommers, L. (1984). The Community Garden Book. Burlington, Vermont: Gardens For All, Inc.
Staff. (1988). "A Natural Park". Vancouver: Strathcona Garden Society.
Urban Gardeners Sow the Seeds of an Edible Cityscape. (1994, May 13). Georgia Straight, 9.