St. Paul’s Rooftop Garden Grows Community, Health and Understanding

Newer Canadians participate in intercultural community garden on roof of downtown hospital. 

Credit: Flickr / Jenn Laidlaw

St. Paul’s Hospital community garden plot

St. Paul’s Hospital community garden plot.

Newer Canadians participate in intercultural community garden on roof of St Paul’s Hospital in downtown Vancouver


It may have been a rough gardening year for some (I produced one late-blooming pepper and some gnarly looking cabbage), but for the 50 or so downtown residents participating in the YMCA Intercultural Community Gardens Project at St. Paul’s Hospital in downtown Vancouver, both veggies and friendships flourished.


One hundred planter boxes border the approximately 2,000-square-metre public rooftop space where an array of people—hospital staff, physicians, patients and families—can enjoy moments of solitude or the company of coworkers or loved ones. With a view that includes city reflections in the surrounding glass skyscrapers and slivers of the ocean beyond Davie Street, the St. Paul’s Hospital rooftop green space is really one of the downtown area’s best kept secrets.


St Pauls Hospital Garden

More than 2,000 square feet of outdoor space on the fourth floor of St. Paul’s Hospital makes for a nice refuge and the perfect spot for a secret garden.  


Intercultural community garden

The community garden initiative was launched on the fourth floor of St. Paul’s Hospital as part of the province’s Welcoming and Inclusive Communities and Workplaces Program. A partnership between the hospital, the YMCA, Gordon Neighbourhood House and the West End Residents Association, the project is helping downtown residents feel more included in their neighbourhoods by providing a comfortable space for people of different ages, cultural backgrounds and first languages to chat, share experiences and meet new friends.


David Tracey, program coordinator, says that integration into a new community is more than just living there. “We see this helping to build a truly intercultural community rather than just a multicultural community in which people from diverse backgrounds may live in the same area but still have limited contact or shared experiences in creating a better city for all.”


At least 40 percent of the gardeners must be born outside of Canada. This number reflects the population demographic of the community and meets requirements for government funding.   


Gardener Veronica Gruber chats with David Tracey, project coordinator, in front of her plots. 


St Paul’s roof project a success with community gardeners

Originally from Austria, gardener Veronica Gruber has been in Canada for more than 34 years, but she can still remember how difficult it was being somewhere completely new. “I heard that statistically it takes an average of 10 years for an immigrant to feel like a part of their new society, and I believe it.”


Kai Chang was faced with a problem many keen greenthumbs have in this city—he couldn’t find space in a community garden. He’d been looking for more than a year when he finally lucked out and spotted an advertisement for the intercultural garden. Since then, Chang and his wife have yielded more than 20 different types of herbs and vegetables, including kale, thyme, beets, carrots and radishes from their plots. While he admits with a laugh that the odd carrot or beet may have gone missing from his garden, Chang says that overall it has been a positive experience.


“We all get to know each other and form small groups to share watering and tend to each other’s plots,” says Chang. “Everyone really helps each other out.”


Program participant Kai Chang proudly shows off his produce.  


Workshops educate gardeners on racism, homophobia, civil governance

What makes this garden project wildly different from other community gardens is the mandatory workshops that must be attended by all gardeners. They include topics like racism, homophobia and intercultural communication. The goal is to help those who are new to the diverse backgrounds and beliefs represented in their new communities to feel more comfortable and to promote a continued culture of acceptance and openness in all aspects of life.


While Chang was already accustomed to life in Vancouver when he started hauling bags of soil up to the garden, he says that the mandatory workshops were still really useful.


“They really helped everyone get on the same page and have a common language and level of understanding before working together in the garden.”


Next up for these amateur horticulturalists is a workshop on civil governance to help prepare them for the responsibility of managing their cooperative project. In the spring, organizing partners will hand over full garden control of what will be an official non-profit society.


St Pauls hospital community garden

A hospital employee enjoys a sunny day near some of the 100 plots bordering the rooftop area.


Helping the healing

The rooftop garden has an added benefit of bringing a bit of the outside world up to those who might be spending time in the hospital. On a nice day, patients can stroll around outside, enjoy the greenery and escape the typical hospital setting. They might bump into a gardener and ask them about their tomatoes or simply sit and savour the fresh air.


Shaf Hussain, of Providence Health Care, which operates the hospital, says the added sense of community caused by the hustle and bustle of the participating gardeners goes a long way.


“To most people, gardening is a meditative activity,” says Hussain. “It involves nurturing, caring and an awareness of the importance of nature in our lives. The dimension of caring makes the initiative a perfect fit with the values of Providence, and it improves direct links with our communities and neighbourhoods.”