Urban farming grows on Vancouver

Condo dwellers cry out for some land to call their own.

Credit: Angela Fama

Ward Teulon is surrounded by construction and car traffic noise. A highrise building is growing out of the concrete across the street. Teulon does not notice it. His eyes and hands are deep in the soil. The 44-year old agrologist is interested in growing food out of this soil. He is on the seventh-floor mezzanine rooftop of the Freesia, a 181-unit highrise condominium in downtown, the first to incorporate garden plots for residents.

The garden area features 60 wood-frame raised beds, a tool shed, and garden lockers. The plots are covered with weeds, and nothing grows. “It is not good soil right now. It is probably acidic because of the rain; it doesn’t have nutrients because nothing has been applied. It just needs to be amended. But there are lots of opportunities, it has good potential,” says Teulon. “If you’ve got sun, soil and water, you are in business.” By June, Teulon hopes to be growing herbs, beans and other vegetables this summer. He believes he can grow anything out of the city. And make money at it.

In 2006, he started City Farm Boy, a company that promotes urban agriculture. “For years I have been thinking how we use our landscape, and I often wondered why there are so few gardens in the city. A lot of the soil in the city is very good,” he explains. The concept is simple. Teulon uses private backyards in the city that owners don’t have the time or the skill to look after, and puts them into food production. Garden owners get fresh vegetables, and the City Farm Boy sells the produce to farmers’ markets. “It is really rewarding to be able to grow your own food, harvest it, take it to the market and sell it for people to eat it,” says Teulon. Last year he made $2,400 at the farmers’ markets. The Freesia’s rooftop is the latest addition to his 8,000-square-foot inventory of garden space. Initially the Freesia garden plots were offered for sale to the building’s residents at a price tag ranging from $2,500 to $3,000.

Only two plots sold. Concerned that the unkempt garden would quickly become an eyesore, the building strata council asked Teulon to maintain it.

Teulon hopes to develop a network of urban farmers in the city who will learn how to grow food in neighbourhood backyards and sell it at the local markets.

Urban agriculture

Teulon is not the only one who believes in urban agriculture. More people are interested in growing food wherever they can in the city: on rooftops and balconies, in private backyards and community gardens. Not too far from the Freesia’s rooftop, Miriam Stuart, a resident at the Lore Krill Housing Co-op in Gastown, grows tomatoes, eggplants, beets, spinach and other vegetables on the building’s rooftop. Stuart, who lived on Bowen Island for twenty years, has always loved gardening, and enjoys doing so on a rooftop. “You are right in the middle of the city but you can get lost up there and forget where you are with all the cranes and the noise. Somehow you block that out working in the soil,” she says.

Private developers have caught on to the trend. The development company ONNI turned a vacant site at Seymour and Pacific streets in the heart of Yaletown into a community garden. Seventy-nine plots were made available on a first-come first-served basis to community groups and residents to grow food on a temporary basis, until the site is developed within one to three years. Mike Clark, ONNI development manager, was surprised at how much interest the garden generated and how quickly the plots were taken. “We had overwhelming response. The lineup of people is unbelievable—hundreds of people pounding down the doors trying to get some dirt on their hands,” Clark says. “We have learned there is a major need for gardening facilities in downtown. Everyone is going condo-living, but people are just dying to get their hands dirty and they don’t have the opportunity; they don’t have a backyard.”

ONNI is now working on incorporating communal garden plots into plans for the residential tower that will be built on the site eventually. The plots will be offered as a building amenity, similar to the pool or the gym. “We build units based on what the market is demanding, and if people are demanding more areas for urban agriculture, you will see more and more of it,” Clark says.

Until every rooftop in Vancouver is colonized with tomatoes and strawberries, urban agriculture has yet to be fully accepted and make its way into the mainstream. Last year, Attilio Gioe decided to grow tomatoes, eggplant, basil, and parsley on the rooftop of his East Vancouver apartment building. The 56-year-old Sicily-born gardener was surprised by the amount of food he was actually able to produce—close to 70 pounds of tomatoes in one season. Soon he became concerned that his landlord would no longer allow him to grow food on the rooftop. As a result, he installed sticks to curve down the eggplant and the tomatoes so the plants would not grow too tall. “I was afraid that my landlord would see all these plants because they became too majestic. I started to get worried that people could see it from the street,” he explains. Since then, Gioe has moved his food production to a plot he obtained at the Strathcona community garden, where he believes he can increase his food production ten times and where he doesn’t have to worry about his landlord.


For the city’s part…

The City of Vancouver has recognized residents’ growing aspirations for gardening and is trying to provide more opportunities for growing food in the city. In May 2006, a motion was passed by city council to increase the number of food-producing garden plots to 2,010 plots by 2010. The city is in the process of adding three more community gardens, assisting with clearing the land, supplying compost facilities, and installing water on the sites. “There is not a shortage of people that want a plot in a community garden; the waiting list is long, but the challenge is getting land anywhere,” says Devorah Kahn, City of Vancouver’s food policy coordinator. “As Vancouver develops, we are taking away land and we are putting more people in that land, and those people want to garden. How can we satisfy both of these demands?” Kahn asks. To address this challenge, the city is currently developing urban agriculture guidelines to bring food-producing gardens to the city’s new high-density residential developments. The draft guidelines suggest that developers should include 30 per cent of shared gardening space for units that do not have access to private garden spaces.

This process was partly inspired by the urban agriculture strategy developed for the Southeast False Creek community, where the Olympic Village will be sited. The project has become a laboratory for how urban agriculture can be designed into high-density developments. In particular, it requires shared garden plots for the residential units that lack access to balconies or patios of at least 100 square feet. Some of the larger patios and balconies will also include planters to provide residents with the opportunity to grow food. These plans were almost stalled when the insurance industry refused to offer coverage to rooftop gardens because of concerns with potential water leakage. The issue has been resolved since then.

To many, the concept of growing food in a dense urban centre remains novel and difficult to implement. For one thing, it is still unclear as to whether the city would be able to feed itself successfully through urban agriculture. In 2005, the City of Vancouver completed a survey of existing community gardens and found that more than 80 per cent of the plots were producing food. Yet the challenges of growing food in the city are real. Michael Levenston, the executive director of City Farmer, a non-profit society that promotes urban food production and environmental conservation in Vancouver, believes it is more difficult to grow food on rooftops than in backyards. “You are moving soil up, there is wind, you need sunlight, you need room,” he says. “Realistically, are we going to get a good amount of food production in that kind of environment?”

Condo owner Harvey Wolfson could not agree more. For the last five years Wolfson, a lawyer who lives in Yaletown, has tried to grow vegetables on his 300-square feet balcony. But he finds himself faced with major problems that he did not have when he was gardening in a backyard. “Things wouldn’t grow properly up there because of the wind. I suspect that the wind cuts down what I get by a substantial amount,” Wolfson explains. In addition to the wind factor, Wolfson noticed that his zucchinis would systematically fail. After conducting research on the Internet, he found out that bees do not fly up to balconies, and as a result his zucchinis were not getting pollinated. “I ended up having to artificially pollinate them by hand,” recalls Wolfson, laughing. “It was like being a plant doctor! It worked; I got a zucchini!” Even with these challenges, Wolfson finds it rewarding to grow things that he can eat himself. “It is fun and it tastes better,” he says. “But I know I will never have a great garden up there.”

Finding enough space and sunlight

Planners who conceive spaces for urban agriculture agree that not all spaces in the city are suitable for growing food. For example, according to Janine de la Salle, director of food systems planning at Holland Barrs Planning Group, it is probably not a good idea to place food producing lots near major arterial roads that generate a lot of traffic. ”We have to consider place and context to layer urban agriculture into our urban environment,” she says.

Some believe that the city cannot feed itself, and that only a small portion of foods in the Canadian diet are suitable for urban production in Vancouver. The climatic conditions, the amount of open space and sun, the required efficiencies of scale for some types of production, and various bylaws such as ones prohibiting chicken raising are all factors that limit which foods might be grown within the city (Update: read about city council’s decision to allow backyard chickens in Vancouver.). A report entitled “B.C.’s Food Self-Reliance,” released in 2007 by the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Lands estimates that B.C. farmers produce 48 percent of all foods consumed in B.C. and produce 56 percent of foods consumed that can be economically grown in B.C. When comparing current production to recommended consumption by “Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating,” B.C.’s food self-reliance drops to 34 percent. The report also indicates that given the production technology available today, over half a hectare of farmland is needed to produce the food for one person for one year. This is roughly equivalent to six city lots. Given these facts, “the city of Vancouver can’t feed itself. It’s not possible,” says Kim Sutherland, a regional agrologist with the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Lands. “It is more a question of esthetics, of having a hobby than it is a reality. You cannot really grow what you need.”

Mark Bomford, program coordinator of the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at UBC, has quantified the capacity of urban agriculture to feed Vancouver residents. While the city contains about 11,500 hectares of land, the total arable land is estimated to be about 4,400 hectares. However only 81 hectares of public land have urban agriculture capability, according to a 2006 inventory. On the other hand, using a “bio-intensive” method which claims high yields in a small scale, the amount of land required to sustain the population of Vancouver with a nutritionally complete vegan diet for one year would be close to 29,000 hectares.

It is clear that Vancouver requires a substantial area of food-producing land outside its city limits, especially when it comes to the food that make up the bulk of calories in our diet such as grains, meats, and oils. However, according to Bomford, this does not mean that urban agriculture should be abandoned. “Urban agriculture tends to produce quality food rather than quantity, food that will provide you with a lot of nutrition, micro nutrients, vitamins: your health veggies. You can grow a lot of those in the city,” Bomford says. And he believes that while not all residents in Vancouver have the skills or time to grow their own food, some individuals can.


Guerrilla gardening

Justin Tilson is one such individual. Five years ago, concerned with peak oil, climate change, and food security, the 32-year-old software developer started a guerrilla garden close to his apartment in Kitsilano. Guerrilla gardeners reclaim neglected land to grow food. Inspired by Cuba, which was forced to sustain a unique urban agriculture model, Justin and his wife Lisa try to grow as much food as they can on a space that is now about 700 square feet. “We are trying to do something fairly large here to see how much we can grow on our relatively small piece of land,” Justin says.

With no particular knowledge in gardening, the newlywed couple has adopted a trial-and-error approach, learning from books what plants grow well together, experimenting with crop rotation and installing a greenhouse to cover winter crops. And sometimes it is hit and miss. “We lost quite a few of our potatoes. We didn’t know how to plant them properly,” says Justin.

But so far the experiment is working. “We did fairly well this winter, eating a lot of chard, kale, carrots and potatoes. You learn to eat in season,” says Lisa. And the guerrilla garden was successful enough to produce the bride’s bouquet for the couple’s wedding last June. “There was lavender and lots of lettuce. We were eating the bouquet during the pictures,” recalls Lisa.

Justin and Lisa Tilson have to put a lot of dedication, commitment, and time in their urban garden. But others believe than farming in the city can become more than a few individuals’ dreams. In New York City, Dickson Despommier, a professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, has developed the concept of vertical farming in urban centres to address sustainable food production and environmental restoration. With his class, he determined that a 30-storey building on one square New York City block could feed 50,000 people. The vertical farm of the future uses various controlled indoor-environment agriculture strategies, such as hydroponics and aeroponics, to grow a variety of crops indoors. The farm uses treated human sewage as the source of water, and is powered by wind and solar energy.

Some are skeptical and believe that vertical farming is energy intensive, offers limited agricultural potential, and doesn’t really solve the world’s environmental problems. “People are always thinking technology is the answer! There is a lot to be said for fresh air, sunshine and the natural landscape when it comes to agriculture,” says the Ministry of Agriculture’s Kim Sutherland.

In the end, trying to link urban agriculture with self-sufficiency may be a mistake. “There are so many good reasons why we should be pursuing urban agriculture, but if you are saying that it is because it will feed our city, that is the worst reason why we should pursue it,” says Mark Bomford. The good reasons include the fact that urban agriculture not only provides the opportunity for urbanites to access nutritious food, but it also carries benefits in terms of community-building and spiritual connections.

Also, if urban gardeners understand where food comes from, they will be more likely to support local farmers and to protect the agricultural land reserve from urban development. “Urban agriculture is more than growing food in urban areas; it is about supporting food production in the perimeter of the city,” says the City of Vancouver’s Devorah Kahn.

Miriam Stuart knows the food she and other gardeners grow on the rooftop of her building in Gastown is not enough to feed the tenants. But it doesn’t matter to her. “It is more soul food than body food. It is just the wonder of having something that is growing right outside your door,” Stuart says. “Even though it is not a huge amount of your daily diet, to have a little bit of that feeds the soul.”