With hundreds on waiting lists, Montrealers call for more community gardens

In some boroughs, residents can expect to spend years waiting for a community garden plot. City officials suggest people get creative in finding ways to get involved with urban agriculture.

In some boroughs, residents can expect to spend years waiting for a garden plot

Julie Langlois oversees some public gardens in her role as project manager of Un Plant de Tomate à la Fois. She says her organization needs to make deals to use private space, including in the yard of this church, because there is not enough community gardening space in Montreal. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

Julie Langlois bends over to inspect the carrots, still growing underneath soil dusted with snow.

"It's OK, they're OK in this weather," she said. "The frost makes them sweeter."

She's standing in the courtyard of a church in the Montreal neighbourhood of Verdun, where her organization, Un Plant de Tomate à La Fois, rents a space of about 15 x 15 for a collective garden.

She says the garden helps feed about 10 local families, many of whom have young children who learn about gardening through growing their own vegetables.

Langlois has been involved in urban agriculture over ten years.

In that time, she's seen a shift in collective and community gardening.

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In collective gardening, a group of neighbours shares and cultivates a plot of land together. In community gardening, people oversee their own plots.

Both forms of urban agriculture have become more popular in recent years, she says. Space is scarce, but demand is high.

"There's definitely not enough. Demand really exceeds supply, what we can provide," she said.

Langlois says she gets dozens of calls every year from people in Verdun looking for garden space.

Long waiting lists across the city

In fact, most of the boroughs of Montreal have waiting lists for their community gardens. Some have hundreds of people on waiting lists for a plot. 

In the Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough, for example, there are more than 670 people currently on the waiting list. 

In the Ahuntsic-Cartierville borough, officials estimate the wait time ranges between one and two years. In the Sud-Ouest, they estimate the wait for a plot is "a few years."

Verdun borough councillor Marie-Andrée Mauger suggests would-be gardeners call their boroughs to ask about urban agriculture alternatives to community gardens.

Community gardening is a borough-run issue, and staff may know of citizen-led gardening initiatives where people can get involved.

She says the city wants to encourage urban agriculture — but acknowledges space is at a premium.

"We face the challenge of the land because land is limited. As much as we would like to have more community gardens, in many boroughs, there's just no land available," she said.

Projet Montréal Borough Counillor Marie-Andrée Mauger says the borough wants to encourage urban agriculture, but says available public land is difficult to find in many boroughs. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

Need for activism

John Beales manages the Verdun community garden Les Pouces Vert. His garden has about 110 plots, all taken, and 140 people on the waiting list.

He's also calling for more public space to be turned into space for urban agriculture. He says Montreal doesn't have enough community gardens — it has 97 in total — and the plots generally aren't large enough.

John Beales, President of Les Puces Vert, says the city of Montreal could consider creating a community garden at the old Angrignon farm site. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

"We should have more gardens, especially if we want to make a difference in how people eat. We should have more and bigger gardens," he said.

Both Beales and Langlois say the main impediment to having more garden space is finding public space. Much of Montreal's land is contaminated, and it's difficult to free up land for gardens. 

Montreal's community garden system was set up in the 1970s, and hasn't changed much since, Beales said.

"There are other cities that have kept on fighting for more gardens, better access, ever since. They've had 30 years of activism that we don't necessarily have in the same way," he said.

Planting in alleys, renting private space

Langlois's organization has tried to work around the lack of public space available for gardening. It rents collective garden space from churches and other private property owners.

It's risky, because the land owners can choose not to renew the deal.

"Our future is always full of uncertainties," she said.

She said Montrealers have turned to the city's many alleyways to get their gardening fix.

Dozens of green alleys, known in French as "les Ruelles Vertes," have been developed in collaboration with the city.

In one such alley in Verdun, squares of pavement have been cut away so neighbours can plant perennials.

That might scratch the gardening itch for some — but people are discouraged from planting edibles, both because of land contamination and because pets might relieve themselves in the garden.

"It's not that it's not allowed. It's more than it's not promoted," said Langlois, with a laugh. 

Montrealers have started gardening in alleyways, known as "les Ruelles Vertes," because many apartment dwellers have little outdoor space. The city boroughs support gardening projects in alleys, but discourage growing edible food. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

Demand for gardens sprouting internationally

The growing popularity of community gardening — and the struggle to meet the demand — is not unique to Montreal. 

In Germany, community gardens were an invaluable food source during the world wars.

Their usage is highly regulated. There are federal laws that exist to oversee public gardens. The country has one million community gardens. Ninety-five per cent of them are occupied.

According to the BBC, some of the more popular gardens in Germany have a waiting list of over 1,000 people.

Similarly, community garden waiting lists in London are estimated to be 40 years long, The Guardian reported.

Other cities have come up with other solutions.

In New York City, more than 1,000 schools and social housing complexes have community gardens attached.

In St. Louis, Mo., groups can lease available city-owned land for five years at a time to make a community garden. The cost is only $1 per year.

Beales thinks the city should explore creative ways to find land for gardens, such as including it space for gardening in new low-income housing projects, or redeveloping the old Angrignon farm to include community gardens.

City wants to encourage urban agriculture, suggests creative solutions

Mauger says the city and her borough want to encourage Montrealers who want to grow their own food.

"We know that urban agriculture is something that has a growing interest among Montrealers. Urban agriculture as a whole is something that is emerging," she said.

She applauds Langlois's efforts to find private groups to collaborate with. She also says the city encourages businesses to include garden space when they're submitting proposals for new developments


Kate McKenna is a senior reporter with CBC News. She is based in the parliamentary bureau.