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When I moved back to my hometown of Vancouver in April 2006, I decided I wanted to live on the West Side. This area appealed to me in part because of its many green spaces, including community gardens. I really hoped that I could find a place where I could grow some of my own food. Once I began to explore the possibilities, I realized that there was little hope of getting a plot in one of the nearby community gardens: the waiting lists were incredibly long. It seemed like everyone in Vancouver wanted to garden.

One day, while I was walking along the train tracks a block away from my new home, I came across a man digging in a “vacant” plot of land between an industrial building, some disused railroad tracks, and the street. I asked him what he was doing and he replied, “I am preparing beds for a vegetable garden.” I enquired if anyone could claim a plot, and he told me, “Why not? Just start digging!” I returned the next day with a shovel and began to dig.

My foray into urban agriculture in Vancouver was the beginning of a new, unintended, research project. This article will look at how the guerrilla gardening movement, community gardeners, and the City of Vancouver are negotiating space while trying to create a green city, ensure a safe sustainable food supply, and strengthen community in urban environments. Based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out between 2006 and 2008 in what would become known as the Pine Street Community Gardens, this article explores the development of spontaneous and grassroots urban agriculture movements in Vancouver and their contribution to transforming Vancouverites’ view of their food system. During this period, I worked my own garden plot and interviewed city officials and a number of gardeners I had gotten to know while working in the garden. This research took place during a time when journalists, politicians, and citizens were giving an increased amount of attention to public spaces and the image of the city. As the city prepared for the 2010 Winter Olympics and growing public concern for the environment came into the media spotlight, urban agriculture became a showcase for Vancouver’s “green” consciousness and dedication to holding the most environmentally friendly games ever.[1] This case study offers a unique perspective on the ways in which municipal policy and support can foster grassroots movements, which, in turn, encourage the creation of meaningful social spaces that provide opportunities to learn about local food systems.

When I first began digging at West Sixth Avenue and Pine Street, I did not really think that the process of creating an urban garden would be quite so harmonious. I was up for the adventure, but I did not necessarily think this would be an enduring project. Although I had grown my own food before and I had done research on urban agriculture in Europe, this was my first foray into guerrilla gardening. According to David Tracey, author of Guerrilla Gardening: A Manualfesto, guerrilla gardening is the illicit cultivation of someone else’s land. It is usually done in the name of improving urban space and as an action against urban blight. It can be very politicized, and it can also be informal. Sometimes it is a short-term gesture, as in throwing a seed bomb over a fence into a vacant lot. Other times it can grow into something much more permanent, like the garden plots in my neighbourhood. Guerrilla gardening is almost always done without asking for permission.[2] This illegal nature of guerrilla gardening is due to gardeners’ fear of the length and complexity of navigating bureaucratic channels. There is also the worry that access to land would be denied or heavily regulated.

The idea of guerrilla gardening frames green space as potentially contested space in cities − the act of gardening becomes political as gardeners lay claim to land that is not theirs.[3] According to Shane Ralston: “Organized garden projects can become sites of political protest, opportunities for people who have been marginalized to formulate alternative discourses and to partake in communities of interest that push back against more powerful interests.”[4] In many ways this type of gardening challenges the municipality’s and the private sector’s role in controlling the use of public space; it questions the meaning and purpose of public space. Guerrilla gardening creates physical and social spaces that often fall outside of the intended uses of public space in the city; however, these places are frequently far more successful in creating a sense of community in comparison to planned urban spaces such as parks and greenways.

Tracey explains how guerrilla gardening helps create active and engaged citizens who are involved in producing public space in their immediate environment.[5] Community gardens can play a role in creating “ecological citizens,” that is, individuals who participate in the public domain and who are socially engaged in learning about food production and consumption habits. Travaline and Hunold further explore this concept of urban ecological citizenship in their research on urban agriculture organizations in Philadelphia. They analyze gardens as opportunities for public participation and places for “social learning about food production and consumption practices and decisions.”[6] In this vein, urban agriculture transforms public space into a place for activism and education that has the potential to change the ways in which city dwellers think about their food systems.[7] Urban agriculture can be seen as a social movement that is part of actively reclaiming control over how food is produced and what we eat. Creating connections between people and the environment is critical to this form of food activism.[8] The first beds that we dug along the old Canadian Pacific Railway lines on Pine Street are an example of grassroots spontaneity that started as an attempt to transform abandoned space and find a place to grow food and that ended up creating an unlikely community of diverse citizens.

Oddly this activist spirit may not have been the motivator behind the first group who envisioned a garden on this land. A group of undergraduate geography students from the University of British Columbia (UBC), working on a directed study project, planted the first seeds of the Pine Street Community Gardens in 2005. The choice of the Fairview area for this project was largely due to the presence of the abandoned Arbutus Corridor, 9.5 kilometres of railway tracks that Canadian Pacific Railway had stopped using in 1999. The Arbutus Corridor is the centre of an ongoing debate involving the City of Vancouver, real estate developers, and green transportation activists − no one can agree on the future use of this valuable land.[9] This area remains a liminal space that residents are “unofficially” repurposing in the interim. The Fairview area is an interesting combination of low-rise and high-rise condominiums developed from the 1980s to the present, ex-industrial land, and commercial real estate. It is a rapidly developing area, and the real estate values have skyrocketed in the last ten years. The housing being developed in this area is high density, and most units lack yards and other outdoor spaces that could be used for growing food and plants. The physical and social transformation of the Fairview area between Burrard Street and Granville Street is reflected in the makeup of the gardeners and the people passing through. Not all the gardeners are from the immediate area. People passing through the gardens vary from affluent local residents walking their dogs to homeless people looking for a quiet place to set up camp in milder months of the year.

The UBC student project played an important role in the reimagining of an industrial space into an urban Eden, even if the students were unaware of the eventual outcome of their project. The students mapped and staked out the garden and even erected a fake permit application sign (fig. 1), but the course ended, the students moved on, and the project remained at this stage until people started to spontaneously dig more than half a year later. Sam,[10] the first gardener I encountered, was one of the original diggers, and it is hard to say whether things began to grow because of his presence and example, or because the space of the garden had already been appropriated and allocated by the student project. What is important here is that the suggestion of a garden can be powerful enough to lead to its concrete establishment.

Figure 1

Garden sign posted by UBC students.

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The initial gardeners had little idea who the land belonged to, but they could see that it was not being used for any productive or official recreational purposes. Interestingly, there was little discussion between gardeners of the legalities of planting vegetables on the land. To the gardeners, vacant, unkempt land was nobody’s and everyone’s land. These plots were a natural progression of the well-established Cypress Community Gardens two blocks to the west. At the start, there were about ten plots. Sam had started to stake out and dig up a few, which he then handed over to newcomers. Not knowing what surprises lay in the soil, we created raised beds using a few pieces of untreated lumber.[11] I used my best judgment to decide the size and position of the plot; there were no guidelines. Shortly after we constructed our plots, the City came by and dropped off compost and woodchips. We could not believe this good fortune. Although we did not know it yet, the City had started a move to increase the number of garden plots on municipal land. Not one to leave a gift unappreciated, I filled my plot with the clean soil and compost left by the City. Then I started planting, and by early summer I was harvesting all the lettuce, beans, and peas I could eat. The garden grew organically before our eyes as people claimed more and more plots. It was evident that there was a huge desire to “get dirty,” as one gardener put it, and to grow food and flowers. This desire took on many shapes and forms.

The overall aesthetic of the garden is a product of every gardener expressing his or her own vision of what a garden should be. For some of the gardeners, the Pine Street Community Gardens is a place to get closer to nature; others see the garden as a space they have taken back from private and municipal interests; to some, gardening is a form a recreation, and to others it is an important source of food. As I met the members of the garden, I realized they came from diverse backgrounds: Katie is a gardener by profession and a single mother; Philip is an architect; Valtr is a retired engineer and a Czech immigrant; while Jenny is dying to find a job having something to do with organic agriculture and food access. This diversity and individualism is also strongly expressed in the aesthetic of the Pine Street Community Gardens, whose hodgepodge nature is in sharp contrast to the community gardens up the street (fig. 2).

Figure 2

Plots in the Pine Street Community Gardens have many different aesthetic styles.

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The Cypress Street Gardens, only a few blocks away, are an excellent example of cooperation and collaboration. There is a strict set of rules, and all garden members must participate in work parties that ensure the upkeep of the garden’s communal spaces. The shared garden plots are carefully tended, and there is a certain degree of aesthetic harmony. Additionally, the Cypress Street Gardens are more established from a horticultural and social perspective. The Pine Street Community Gardens could not be more different. With few rules and little organization, the gardeners down on Pine Street have created individual spaces in a common area. For the Pine Street gardeners, the need to respect diverse worldviews and ideas of what a garden should be has posed some challenges as the garden developed. Not only did the gardeners have to negotiate between themselves the spaces of the garden, they also had to think of their nongardening neighbours. Diversity is not always seen as a beautiful thing: during the first summer of the garden’s existence, some neighbours complained that the garden looked messy. The Pine Street gardeners responded to the complaint by organizing a work party to tidy up and plant flowerbeds in common areas. At this point, the Pine Street gardeners began to focus not only on their own little plots, they began to think about the garden as a whole and what the garden meant to the larger community.

The overall reaction to the garden from neighbours and passersby is positive, and people are generally happy that the gardeners are doing something with land that was largely abandoned. People out walking stop to admire the flowers and chat with the gardeners. One passerby asked me what I was growing. I gave him a tour of my little garden, pointing out the various vegetables and plants. My visitor remarked, “I never knew that beans grew on vines like that. I feel like I know so little about how food is grown. It’s not really something I think about a lot.” Little exchanges like these are spontaneous moments when people learn and become aware of local food. For me this sort of on-the-spot learning about food is an excellent example of what Travaline and Hunold mean by urban ecological citizenship: individuals exchanging knowledge and learning about food production through the experiential.[12] Social thinker and garden education advocate John Dewey’s writings on experiential learning in school gardens echoes the lessons passersby learned as they engaged with the Pine Street gardeners and their plots: these lessons are not abstract, they belong to life.[13] Much of the Nature Studies Movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries emphasized the particular importance for city dwellers to engage with nature through gardens.[14] It seems that urbanites are coming full circle back to Deweyan ideals that place an emphasis on learning from nature, particularly in urban contexts.[15]

Cities are not usually associated with agricultural practices, and some Vancouverites felt that transforming a public space into a place for growing food was provocative. “That’s disgusting. I can’t believe you are going to eat that lettuce! A dog could have peed on it,” exclaimed one discouraging passerby. I looked up from my weeding not knowing how to respond. Not everyone saw the beauty in putting green spaces to work producing food.

People passing through the garden space were not the only ones who expressed diverse views about gardening − these came out in daily interactions with other gardeners and during more formal interviews. After interviewing numerous gardeners, it became evident that they all have a different imagined reality of the garden and that their garden plot is an expression of their connection with nature. For some, the garden is a place to relax by digging and doing heavy landscape work. One couple told me how gratifying they found the hours they spent digging up an enormous boulder they had unearthed in their plot. They proudly made the gigantic rock a landscape feature. Others see the garden as a place to experiment with different growing methods and crops in order to learn more about food and plants. Bill is trying out different combinations of companion plants in an attempt to practise organic agriculture; the other gardeners did not appreciate some of his experiments. Bill decided to try his hand at cultivating thistles, a plant that other gardeners see as an invasive weed that is difficult and painful to pull out. The gardeners in neighbouring plots were worried about the spread of these weed seeds and loudly expressed their dissatisfaction to Bill, who eventually gave up on this particular attempt at furthering biodiversity.

Some gardeners use their plots to help maintain their distinct culinary cultures.[16] This is particularly important to Valtr, who grew three types of celery that he could not buy in Vancouver and that he used to make Czech dishes reminiscent of home. He explained to me that “this is a taste that brings me back to my childhood.” Others focus on the medicinal uses of plants. This was the case for Jenny, who was learning about homeopathic medicine and was very interested in what she called “natural living.” Motivated by flavour, my main purpose in gardening was to grow as much food year-round as possible to supplement what I bought in stores. There is nothing tastier than fresh picked arugula or tomatoes that are still warm from the sun. I grew enough lettuce during the summer that I no longer needed to buy any. I even started giving away peas, beans, and lettuce to my grandmother and friends. During the fall and through much of the winter, I had plenty of kale and other cruciferous crops. Vancouver has a short summer growing season for crops like tomatoes, but the cool, damp seasons allow gardeners to grow heartier food crops year-round. Every gardener has a different purpose and motivation that is reflected in their plot. As gardeners gained experience, motivations sometimes changed and developed. I learned that the garden is a place of constant change.

As the garden matured, it filled out: people planted more flowers in common areas, adding on to their plots, embellishing and growing in all kinds of ways. A sense of place developed as people invested themselves in the garden. Some people put up garden signs indicating to whom the plot belonged: claiming space through naming (fig. 3). Others constructed shrines to lost relatives, and some built art installations from the industrial refuse found while digging their plots (fig. 4). There are gardeners who installed sculptures, benches, and tables that invited sociability amongst gardeners and those just passing by. These are all transformative place-making activities that play a part in giving new meaning to liminal urban spaces: through their collective actions, the gardeners on Pine Street were creating a new frame of meaning for the abandoned space they transformed. Drawing on Erving Goffman’s concept of framing, Deborah Martin explains that, “‘frames’ − or ‘framing’ − is a term that refers to how individuals organize experiences or make sense of events.”[17] In this context, these frames of meaning are constantly negotiated through interactions between gardeners and their neighbours. Once a wasteland where abandoned cars were left to rust, the Pine Street Community Gardens have become a place for growing food, enjoying an evening stroll, or eating lunch on a bench.

Figure 3

Gardeners lay claim to their plots by planting them and making signs.

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Figure 4

Found art sculpture.

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Unexpectedly, place making and making sense of collective action did not come out of resistance to the municipality or landowners, but rather emerged as a response to an incident that occurred early on in the life of the garden, which had showed how important protecting diversity and freedom of expression was for the gardeners. In 2006 a proposal was made by a large multinational food company to sponsor the garden. This company wanted to promote its brand of mayonnaise, tying its relatively unhealthy product to healthy food. Initially a few gardeners supported this sponsorship. They saw it as an opportunity to get free equipment and some funding to build basic infrastructure. However, after this proposal had circulated through the garden’s e-mail list, a large number of gardeners started to protest against the idea of a corporate sponsor. They argued that this was in direct opposition to the founding spirit of the garden: taking back space in the city from corporate and private interests. One gardener expressed her opposition to the proposal in an e-mail thread:

I do not at all agree with a multinational coming in and interfering in any way with our community garden. Many high schools have made similar mistakes by allowing large companies to come in and promote their products. Much damage has been done with high-school kids consuming products that are very bad for them. I would not in any way wish to be connected to an organization which would promote commercial products. My father feels the same way.[18]

There were already a number of billboards in and around the garden, and the idea of corporate branding was deeply offensive to many.

This exchange demonstrated several salient points. First, it showed that some people have little problem with the way that corporations impose themselves on the public sphere, while others are sensitive to advertising pollution and the branding of public space. Several e-mails circulated with unfavourable data and information about our potential sponsor. Once a discussion began and the initial supporters were made aware of the larger issues at stake, most people decided that it was not a wise idea to pursue this offer. One gardener even made a photomontage (fig. 5) of what the garden would look like if we went ahead with the mayonnaise sponsorship − an image that hit home the absurdity of the offer. Second, this episode helped solidify a sense of community and forge shared values. It also spawned a lively debate about health, food, and the urban environment.

The role of technology in facilitating the debate also brought a unique dimension to community life for the group. In addition to spending time together in the physical space of the garden, the Google Groups and e-mail list helped us to organize, exchange ideas, and often come to a consensus about important issues. New communication technology added a layer of cooperation and cohesion to an organization that may have seemed outwardly disorganized. This was particularly true in the early stages of the garden when gardeners were still hashing out their shared values and what form the garden should and should not take.

Figure 5

Photomontage created by a Pine Street gardener.

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The mayonnaise incident is part of a history of corporate interests appropriating gardens on railway land as a way to put forward their brand’s social values. In Rhetoric and Roses: A History of Canadian Gardening, Edwina Von Baeyer devotes a chapter to Canadian Pacific Railway company gardens. Von Baeyer explains that at the end of the nineteenth century, CPR railway workers planted gardens on railway easements and at stations as a voluntary movement. However, the CPR quickly realized the value of station gardens: they were excellent for public relations, potentially encouraged migration west, and were in keeping with the contemporary spirit of reform in Canada.[19] Reformers, municipalities, and corporations came to see gardens not only as acts of civic beauty, but also as patriotic symbols. Gardens had the potential to turn new immigrants into productive Canadians.[20] For all of these reasons, the CPR encouraged the gardens that had started as a spontaneous activity. By 1912 there were 1,500 gardens along the CPR right-of-way. At this time the gardens became recognizable entities because the company standardized their design.[21] During World War I the gardens changed focus: “Complying with federal pleas for greater food production, many railway employees planted war gardens.”[22] The CPR granted employees more land, supplied seeds, provided detailed gardening instructions, and even distributed free fertilizer to help in the war effort. After World War II the function of railroad had shifted from a central focus on passenger trains to freight. As a result the CPR gardens eventually disappeared from the Canadian landscape.[23] Nonetheless, the CPR gardens are another example of the ways in which corporations used gardens for brand promotion, but also social improvement.

Even if its rhetoric was not as heavy, the City of Vancouver may have had ideas of social improvement on its agenda as it promoted “2010 Garden Plots for 2010,” a program to create an image of environmental sustainability for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. Whether this agenda was explicitly on the minds of the Pine Street gardeners is hard to say. The original Pine Street gardeners may have eschewed corporate interests, but there was certainly some sense of being part of a larger social movement. This came together slowly as the garden took shape physically and grew as the dialogue between gardeners expanded. After about a year of digging, planting, weeding, and harvesting, we realized that a healthy and happy garden needed organization. A small group of gardeners took the situation in hand and planted in each plot flyers calling for a general meeting. The first meeting took place in the garden around an old stump, and twelve gardeners eagerly participated. One gardener had done some research, and it turned out that our garden was on City land, and not CPR land. This was one of the first steps in understanding where we were growing and where we stood from a bureaucratic perspective. The most pressing issue at the meeting was not how to get our garden recognized by the City of Vancouver. The group had gathered not to talk about legalities and official recognition, but rather about a much more practical issue − water. Up until that point we had brought buckets of water from home or begged to use taps at nearby businesses. This was not a sustainable situation. In order to obtain water, we needed to start a dialogue with the City.[24] At that same meeting, tasks were divided and a discussion group (Google Groups) was formed to facilitate communication. This was the first step in moving from a ragtag group of gardeners to an organized community entity.

Becoming a legal community garden proved much easier than anyone expected. As mentioned earlier, it turned out that in 2006 the City of Vancouver had started promoting a new programme called “2010 Garden Plots for 2010,” with the goal of creating 2010 new garden plots in the city as a legacy of the 2010 Winter Olympics.[25] For this international event, Vancouver wanted to put forward a green and sustainable image to the rest of the world. The Vancouver Food Policy Council (VFPC) saw this as a perfect opportunity to encourage urban agriculture − one of the most visible forms of urban green.[26] In the eyes of the VFPC, urban agriculture is key to improving food access, sustainability, and environmental awareness. The VFPC calculated that there were approximately 900 registered gardens in Vancouver in 2006. It hoped to raise this number to 2010 gardens by 2010. By 2009, the City had surpassed its goal with 2029 gardens.[27] As far as the Pine Street gardeners were concerned, we were pleased and rather surprised to have the City’s support.

Interestingly, not all Olympic host cities see gardens as a positive portrayal of urban life. Before the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, the City of Turin bulldozed a large number of orti abusivi (illegal gardens) to “clean up” the city and create spaces for new sports facilities.[28] Urban gardening, food, and a sustainable city were not part of the image that Torino tried to project while hosting this international event. Instead, this northern Italian city focused on showing off its new infrastructure, such as the new metro line and stadium, and portraying itself as both a city with history and a place that had embraced modernity. Gardens, and in particular illegal gardens, were associated with backwardness and disorder. Similarly, as the 2012 Summer Olympics approached, the City of London took a stand against allotment gardens. The Manor Garden Allotments gardeners were evicted from Hackney Wick to make way for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The gardens were relocated to a new site in the Waltham Forest; however, there was a great deal of protest about this move and the inappropriate nature of the new site.[29] Like Torino, London did not see gardening and food production as part of its Olympic plan and representation of local values. These two cases also underline the issue of land use and social values. They place urban agriculture at the centre of the debate over the function of agricultural practices in cities. Mega events such as the Olympics can be seen as sites of struggle and articulators of political dissent.[30] Although Vancouverites participated in initial debates about the Olympics and showed some resistance to hosting this mega event, the City was able to get most people onboard before and during the Games.[31] Urban agriculture was part of the city’s “urban re-imagining,”[32] and this action contributed to the idea of Vancouver hosting the greenest Games ever.

This was lucky for our little group of gardeners − where we expected resistance, there was none. At the same time, we wanted to ensure that our garden would remain a longstanding legacy to Vancouver’s green Games. We still worried that we were riding a temporary green wave. Therefore in 2007, we formed a nonprofit society to help manage the Pine Street Community Gardens and the adjacent orchard.[33] We hoped that this official structure would also help us to apply for city grants.[34] Today the garden continues to grow, and the organizational structure is maturing from a loose meeting of gardeners to an elected group of representatives. As the garden moved away from being a clandestine outfit, it did not lose its core spirit of individualism and freedom. It is true that our garden could not keep growing exponentially; we had to set limits to plot size and give rules to plot tenure. Once all of the land was claimed, the pioneering guerrilla gardeners of Pine Street took on new roles as neighbours and custodians. The story of the establishment of this garden demonstrates that people within a community initiate some of the most successful community building projects, and these are best left to develop based on the needs of the individuals involved, which is the case with many food justice movements.[35] We were fortunate that the city did not impose too many structures on our garden and that the rules and regulations for sharing the space of the garden were created and negotiated by the gardeners themselves.

In the summer of 2007 we decided to hold a garden party, and each gardener was to bring a dish that featured produce from their plot. As the sun set behind the low warehouses, people came bearing trays and bowls of beautiful fresh food. We used the toolbox as a table, and two barbeques were set up on the decommissioned train tracks. A group of gardeners organized a video installation that featured garden insects and time-lapse clips of plants growing. Passersby coming out of the nearby cinema stopped to admire the garden, and many asked us how they could get their own plots. Laughter and the smell of the grill filled the air as we ate and chatted into the night. The neighbours did not complain; they came out and joined us. The Pine Street Community Gardens had truly changed the way in which the gardeners and the community perceived the use of public space, offering a new possibility for the future. As I looked around at people exchanging recipes and gardening tips, the children playing in the twilight, and the beautiful green space we had created, I realized that the garden had grown into a community (fig. 6).

Figure 6

Garden party, summer 2007.

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