Lessons on growing food and community from the “world’s greenest city”

by Constance Wylie

Social impacts are the sweetest fruit of urban farms. – Vancouver Farming Census

“Hold up!”

My partner and I were on an exploratory bike ride through the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood in Vancouver. I was wallowing in the pessimistic despair that hits me in areas where yellowing lawns are all that fill the 20-or-so-foot gap between street and houses. No trees, flower beds, or fences. I could see the potential growing energy of that space withering away. Then I spotted something that made me slam on the brakes: three adjacent yards filled with tidy rows of produce, lush green vegetables in place of dead grass.

After a few photos, we were off. My mood had lifted. Who were the fantastic people behind this project? By the next morning, I had my answer. A farmer friend from Squamish replied to a photo in my Instagram story. City Beet Farm: two young women who grow in 18 different yards across Vancouver and sell through a 60-person CSA (community-supported agriculture organization). Moments like that make me love social media and the close-knit local food community—one that is making a mark on the city’s landscape.

Vancouver is routinely internationally recognized as one of the world’s most liveable cities. In its newly released 2018 report, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked the city in sixth place. The top three were Vienna, Melbourne, and Osaka. When current mayor, Gregor Robertson, was elected in 2008, he promised to make Vancouver the “world’s greenest city” by 2020. Under Robertson’s leadership, which ends this fall, as he is not running for re-election, the city’s aspirational goals have been “zero carbon, zero waste, and healthy ecosystems.”

It is not only Vancouver striving for this position. In fact, cities around the world are taking up the friendly challenge to become the greenest. In my view, this is the most positive international rivalry our world has ever experienced and a cause worth championing.

Vancouver’s objective is not something randomly decided by the political powers and placed upon the people. Rather it reflects the culture of this young city, incorporated in 1886, and its older roots. The 114-square-kilometre municipality occupies the unceded territories of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh nations. The land has fed and sustained thriving and complex human cultures since time immemorial.

Today, dedicated groups of people who care deeply about the environment make up some of the 630,000 people that call the City of Vancouver home. Some of those residents are the people who brought Greenpeace to life in the early 1970s and continue to demand the halt of pipeline expansion near our coastal waters. Others planted the Vancouver Demonstration Garden in 1982 and now teach neighbours how to grow food and compost organic waste under the name City Farmer.

The official “greenest city by 2020” goal shows politics finally catching up with this history. It also recognizes that cities and citizens need more sustainable policies, that the habitat in and around these cities is greatly affected by their existence, and that if we wish to maintain our current standard of living in a changing climate, things must change. Something that winds its way through all areas of city life is food, including the systems that grow, process, deliver, and dispose of it. Food systems are therefore one of the main areas where citizen action and government policy can increase a city’s sustainability. Vancouver’s actions here provide lessons for other municipalities hoping to join the competition.

City Beet Farm. Photos: Constance Wylie

ACTION PLAN
Vancouver’s action on food actually started in 2003, before Robertson’s official pronouncements, when the city council called for a just and sustainable food system. To accomplish this goal, the Vancouver Food Policy Council (VFPC) was created as an official civic agency. Its members see themselves as a “food think tank” and advise city council and staff on food security.

In 2011, after Robertson’s greenest city campaign promise, the Greenest City Action Plan (GCAP) was developed. It lays out goals for the transition to green infrastructure, transportation, waste reduction, and clean air and water. A crucial part of this framework is the goal to be a “global leader in urban food systems.”

In Vancouver’s local food domain, success is measured by the number of food assets in the city. Food assets are “resources, facilities, services, or spaces that are available to residents of the city, either at the city-wide or neighbourhood scale, and which are used to support the city’s food system,” reads the GCAP. “Alongside physical food assets are human capacity or social food assets.” A baseline of 3,340 food assets was measured in 2010. The plan is to increase the number by at least 50 percent by 2020.

Following the release of the GCAP, months of public engagement took place in the winter of 2011-2012. “Talk food with us” was the slogan, and more then 2,200 people did just that by sharing what they valued in the local food system, leading to the release of the Vancouver Food Strategy in 2013.

The full strategy can be found on the city website, but the five main goals are: support food-friendly neighbourhoods; empower residents to take action; improve access to healthy, affordable, culturally diverse food for all residents; make food a centerpiece of a green economy; and advocate for a just and sustainable food system.

Achieving these goals requires a collective effort. The food strategy is “a comprehensive road-map for action,” reads the GCAP. It envisions “how we want our food systems to take shape in the future.” The Vancouver Park Board became a partner in 2013 with its Local Food Action Plan to “support local food efforts in parks and community centres” and by making more space for food in the city’s parks.

IN THE COMMUNITY GARDEN
On a mid-July morning in East Vancouver’s Riley Park-Little Mountain neighbourhood, Mayor Robertson stood amidst flowering gardens, pollinators, and vegetables—and microphones and cameras. “We are here to celebrate a big success on the greenest city front, in particular, our local food goals,” he stated. The city had reached its goal of increasing food assets by 50 percent above 2010 levels two years ahead of schedule, at an increase of 53 percent. “The local food movement is booming,” Robertson continued. “It’s never been more popular for residents to grow their own food, buy local, and support local food programs.”

I looked around the Riley Park Community Garden as I listened to Robertson’s celebratory announcement. The land we were gathered on used to be a swimming pool and community centre. Bringing the garden to fruition was a true collaboration between the government, park board, and local community.

More speeches followed from the park board chair Stuart Mackinnon and Little Mountain Neighbourhood House vice president Roy Millen. “What a transformation we have seen,” said Mackinnon. “It is just tremendous to see how this community of Riley Park has embraced this community garden and the Local Food Action Plan.” He added that the park board’s plan, in particular, had enabled 10 similarly significant community gardens across the city, together holding the more than 1,000 plots growing in the Vancouver’s parks.

“Families, youth, seniors, newcomers, and long-term residents all take part and reap the benefits of this beautiful, peaceful, nurturing land,” said Millen. The non-profit neighbourhood house manages the ongoing operation of the garden, most of it communally rather than as individual allotment beds. According to Millen, this allows them to “bring together people from really diverse backgrounds and experiences to share their time and food together.” A few beds are assigned to groups, such as neighbourhood newcomers and Syrian refugees, who are provided with additional growing assistance as needed.

Among those who help out are experienced volunteers like Art Bomke. A neighbour to the garden, Bomke is a soil specialist and UBC professor emeritus in applied biology. He emphasized the struggle many residents face due to high housing costs. With money tight, eating well for those individuals and families is a challenge. “We want to connect with those people, want to see if there is some way we can help to make it a little better,” said Bomke.

Following the press conference, Bomke led a few of us on a garden tour. We wandered through a young fruit orchard and berry patch that will provide a substantial amount of fruit a few years from now. Pollinator-preferred species grow around the garden’s perimeters, combining beauty and function. When the Riley Park community was asked what they wanted to see happen in the park, Bomke said the top requests were for a community garden and space for a farmers’ market. It is essential to him that “people feel welcome to come here,” and that it’s “an open space for people to gather.”

A lovely farmers’ market now runs every Saturday from April to October adjacent to the garden. The market collects donations from farmers and shoppers to support community food programing run by Little Mountain Neighbourhood House. A result of collaboration between the city and community, this Riley Park Community Garden now promotes more food security beyond its edge rows buzzing with pollinators.

BEYOND PLANT DIVERSITY
The evening before the Riley Park press event, I sat in on a monthly Vancouver Food Policy Council meeting, which are open to the public. During the discussion, the loose thread that kept showing its frayed head was the need to better represent and connect with the cultural diversity of food growers, processors, and eaters in the city. While Vancouver Farmers Markets, a non-profit society founded in 1995, is rightfully proud of its seven weekly summer markets and two winter ones, a VFPC member pointed out that they primarily attract white, educated professionals.

According to Statistics Canada, 45 percent of Vancouver residents have a mother tongue other than English, while around 30 percent of the residents are of Chinese heritage. Making space for the plethora of communities with different cultural needs in the dialogue and action around food access and education is something the city continues to work on.

Moving forward, Vancouver has updated its policy goals and targets in the local food domain to reflect this challenge. According to the city’s website, the definition of food assets is under review in order to better represent “food retailers and food- and knowledge-sharing networks that are culturally or economically important.” This revised definition will help the city “prioritize them in planning processes and new developments and work on better preserving them.”

Meanwhile, VFPC members have received cultural competency training, which included participating in a June workshop on Indigenous food systems. One of the council’s aims is “reconciliation and decolonizing the Vancouver food system.”

One group working to close this cultural gap while the city plays catch-up is hua foundation, a youth-driven non-profit that runs The Choi Project. This educational service, primarily for the Chinatown community, helps community members select local and in-season choi (vegetables), since most Asian produce is imported from overseas. The foundation also provides cooking classes and urban growing workshops so residents can grow their own Chinese vegetables. The Sprouting Choi workshops come with a beginner’s gardening guide that works for community or backyard gardens and apartment balconies. For those who can’t garden, a CSA program provides members with culturally appropriate and organic produce grown by a local farmer.

When I stopped by the outer courtyard of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Chinatown, two pop-up hua CSAs were arranged for weekly pick-up. Beautiful, fresh produce covered the table, while people enjoyed a Chinese dessert bar serving soft tofu with a variety of toppings, all made locally. The atmosphere was celebratory and relaxed. Strangers walked by, asked questions, and joined in conversations about food and family. The CSA manager shared how she is enjoying learning more about her culture’s food history and traditions. It’s even changed her relationship with her dad.

“[He] is very reserved about sharing his language, but being connected to this project and people to support me learning about [culturally appropriate] foods has opened him up to share words,” she told me. As the Choi Project grows, they hope to find more farmers to grow the already sold-out program.

Reflections

I will remember the summer of 2018 as an extended bicycle ride—the best way to get around Vancouver!—searching out and admiring vegetable patches in yards, boulevards, and public parks. I was searching for a story about food production. Instead what I found was a story about community. Growing food in the city is fostering local and international connections.

I had the chance to ask Mayor Robertson if there has been much resistance to community gardens and urban agriculture. He answered no. In the past, people didn’t want to lose public park space to community gardens, but that has changed. “People are much more food-aware and want to see gardens in parks and edible landscaping rather than just grass,” he said.

The competition for the “world’s greenest city” title is one that we can all benefit from. It is fierce, yet friendly. “Everyone is learning ideas from each other and it’s a race to the top,” said Robertson. “We steal good ideas from many cities around the world.” And it is more than okay for other cities to copy what is happening here in Vancouver.

 

THE NEXT TIME you are in Vancouver, take advantage of the spaces designed for you to slow down and find grounding in the natural beauty of edible landscapes. Visit a farmers’ market and picnic—weather permitting—near one of the many community gardens for a dose of the urban good life. Imagine what ideas you can take back to your community, no matter its size.