British Columbia

From community to biodiversity, urban gardens produce more than just produce

As well as teaching sustainability and how to grow our own food, gardening in urban spaces increases biodiversity, builds community relationships, uses otherwise underutilized space, and helps build cultural connections, supporters say.

Growing spaces benefit local relationships, biodiversity, education and cultural connections, supporters say

An older woman walks the path between community garden plots.
Gardener Beth MacLaren walks through the Cottonwood Community Gardens in Vancouver's Strathcona neighbourhood on July 5. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

For David Walker, entering his community garden in East Vancouver is an escape from the worries of day-to-day life.

He's been gardening at Cottonwood Community Gardens for 10 years. 

"I fell in love with the place as soon as I walked in," he said.

"I can shut out a lot of the cares and strife of the rest of the world, at least for a few hours of the day."

Walker is one of the many passionate gardeners in Vancouver who utilize community space to relax, grow food and connect with others — some of the myriad benefits of gardening in urban spaces. 

Tammara Soma, an assistant professor with the school of resource and environmental management and research director with the food systems labs at Simon Fraser University, says community gardens are important for many reasons.

For example, she said, the gardens increase biodiversity as new plants are added and through pollination; they build community relationships; and they increase food security for those who have access to them and time to tend them. 

WATCH | Vancouver's community gardens and 'guerilla gardeners':

From community to biodiversity, urban gardens produce more than just produce

1 year ago
Duration 2:06
Urban gardens come in many forms and offer myriad benefits to their surrounding communities.

They also take underutilized or derelict spaces and turn them into something beneficial. The Cottonwood Community Gardens, for example, were built on a former dump site. 

The City of Vancouver estimates there are more than 110 urban growing spaces in parks, school yards and on private property throughout the city, many of which have wait lists for membership.

Soma says interest in community gardening grew during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"People were looking for a way to spend time during the lockdowns, and also interest in gardening grew because of the supermarket disruptions, [such as] food hoarding, long lines at supermarkets," she said. 

"Gardening was a way to ensure a semblance of food system resiliency."

Urban gardening comes in many forms beyond the typical small plots of separated planting areas.

For example, City Beet Farm owners Duncan Chambers and Liana Glass grow fruit, vegetables and flowers in residential yards throughout Vancouver, which are then given to residents who buy annual shares of the harvest. 

They currently serve 87 members and supply extra produce to community support organization Little Mountain Neighbourhood House for their food HUB programs. 

Duncan said he, Glass and two other employees are harvesting enough food for 250 people from June to October. 

"If we had many more small farms like this, you can just multiply those numbers," Duncan said.

Carol Schoen said allowing City Beet Farm to use her yard — one of 13 that it farms across the city — is "a fabulous, wonderful giving opportunity as a homeowner." 

A community garden.
A mobility-friendly planter bed at the Cottonwood Community Gardens. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"To be able to see life — food, more importantly — growing in my front yard brings so much joy to me. And also it brings a conversation around when people walk by about how we use our front yard," she said.

Soma agrees that urban gardens are more than a place to grow food. 

"They are also a way to kind of support inter-generational knowledge between the older Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers and seniors, and the young people," she said.

'Decolonizing our mindsets'

Leona Brown, an Indigenous cultural facilitator and member of the Gitxsan and Nisga'a nations, has helped facilitate the development of Indigenous Food Forests, which grow culturally significant food and medicine in the Metro Vancouver region, including one in East Vancouver that was started this summer

She said these forests give urban Indigenous people a chance to taste and learn about plants that are significant within their culture, such as salmonberries, huckleberries, tobacco, nettle and fireweed.

"It's decolonizing our mindsets to come back to the medicines that we lived with for millennia before colonization happened," Brown said. 

Educator Lori Snyder, who is Métis, works with children to teach them about the importance of not only growing food and medicine, but also connecting with the land. 

"They've been told the dirt is, you know, dirty," she said. "It's not dirt — it's soil, it's a living organism."

A woman kneels to help a child plant a bush.
An Indigenous food forest, featuring plants traditionally used for food and medicine, is planted in Vancouver. (Justine Boulin/CBC)

Education is also important at the Ocean Park Community Orchard in Surrey, B.C. 

"We try to do an education program that's not too boring for kids, but kind of gets them to think about how this touches their lives," said founder Linda Stanley Wilson, a retired university professor. 

A close up shot of an apple slowly ripening on a tree.
Apple trees at the Ocean Park Community Orchard in Surrey, B.C. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The garden is different from others in that the volunteers taking care of the orchard don't take home the fruits of their labour; instead, it's donated to those in need. 

"It's just coming together and people being able to come up with ideas, work together toward a common goal, and we don't have a set agenda," she said. 

"Community really kind of expands depending on the people that show up. And we just try to keep encouraging and facilitating that."