Public space isn’t supposed to poison you. Last year, though, hundreds of Montrealers discovered that their community garden plots were contaminated with lead and arsenic. In some sections of the Plateau Mont-Royal’s Baldwin Garden, located on the site of an old quarry, lead levels were found to be nearly 1,000 times higher than the acceptable limit.
Cleaning the gardens has been a slow process. This past summer, 18 were declared off-limits to vegetable growers. It’s a hard blow for a city that prides itself on having one of the largest and most comprehensive networks of community gardens in North America, with more than 8,200 allotments in 98 gardens – used by as many as 15,000 people – scattered across the island.
Montreal’s city-wide garden program was launched in the 1970s, but after a thirty-year increase, the number of people who use it seems to have levelled off. Now, faced with the spectre of soil contamination, some are looking outside the box – or the garden plot, you could say – for more innovative and adaptable approaches to community gardening.
On a sunny and unseasonably warm October day, McGill University architecture professor Vikram Bhatt takes me to see one of those innovations: the Edible Campus, a small but highly-functional container garden installed on a concrete terrace at McGill’s downtown campus. In a few dozen plastic containers, spread over no more than 1,000 square feet, enough tomatoes, ground cherries, herbs and other fruits and veggies are grown to supply a full third of the food needed by Santropol Roulant, a local meals-on-wheels service.
“It has become so natural,” says Bhatt. “You couldn’t imagine that this was not here before. People hang around, walk through it, people sit on the steps [nearby]. It attracts more people around the area and it’s become a very attractive corner.”
Since it opened last spring, the Edible Campus has given a real sense of place to what was previously an empty space. Put a bunch of plants in some boxes on a concrete tarmac, it seems, and you’ll not only grow a large volume of healthy fruits and vegetables, you will create a spot where people can meet, mingle and interact with food they might otherwise find, processed and packaged, on supermarket shelves.
The potential of container gardening is enormous, say Rotem Ayalon, the Edible Campus’ coordinator. “You can rethink any space, any nook and cranny. Think about alleyways, rooftops, community buildings like YMCAs. You can open up balconies or even parking lots to gardening,” she says in her office at Alternatives, an NGO headquartered on Park Avenue, a few blocks east of McGill.
Why not, suggests Bhatt, use containers to turn part of Place Ville Marie or even the Olympic Stadium – two Modernist complexes with typically vast expanses of concrete – into giant gardens? He has other ideas, too, inspired by his work for McGill’s Low-Cost Housing Group in Rosario, Argentina, where the city has created “productive streets” lined by garden space. Something similar could be done in many Montreal neighbourhoods, where wide, publicly-owned rights-of-way exist between streets and sidewalks.
Whatever form it takes, a community garden is always a valuable social space. Not only is it democratically controlled by its users, it can be a site of important cultural exchange. Bhatt points to the gardens in his own neighbourhood of Côte des Neiges, where well over half of the population is made up of immigrants.
“You see communities meeting. You see different kinds of growing techniques and plants being introduced to one another,” he says. “In the garden on Victoria, near Van Horne, you see there are groups of Filipinos, Bengalis, Tamils, Eastern Europeans, and you can compare their gardens, three metres by six metres, and there is a difference. It’s so remarkable what they grow, how they grow, the sense of composition and beauty, efforts made to marry their growing traditions to our climate.”
“Without a garden,” he adds, “where would these people meet? How would they integrate? This is such a natural extension of community life.”
Next year, after winter has passed and the new growing season begins, Bhatt and Ayalon hope to expand the Edible Campus. Elsewhere in Montreal, there are other projects that could see community gardening expand in new and unusual directions. On the Plateau, behind St. Louis Square, the Plateau Mont-Royal borough will transform a Victorian-era laneway into a “country lane” with an environmentally-friendly road surface and garden space for residents.
As we stroll through the Edible Campus, the hubbub of campus life around us, Bhatt puts his arm on my shoulders and speaks frankly. “What’s all this bullshit about contaminated gardens? There are so many initiatives that are taking place right now. People are taking this into their own hands.”
Tags: Community Gardens, Container Gardening, Montreal