March 2nd, 2010

The Future of Canadian Cities

In 2008, Carmine Starnino, poet and now editor of Maisonneuve magazine, asked me to write an essay on the future of Canadian cities for an issue of Canadian Notes and Queries he was guest-editing. Here’s what I came up with.

Some days, on the corner of Clark and de la Gauchetière in Montreal, you’ll find a fortune teller who can read your fate in English, French, Mandarin and Cantonese. It’s a very non-specific kind of fate, which is usually the case with fortune tellers, but I sometimes wonder what he would have to say about larger subjects—like the city that surrounds him, for instance. What will it, and others like it across the country, look like in a generation? I’m no fortune teller, but here are three trends I think might influence the shape of our cities in the near future.

1. Edible cities

I never thought much about my family’s backyard when growing up in Calgary. Wide and shallow, its grassy expanse was eventually surrendered to our two dogs, who used it as their toilet. We were far from exceptional, and what still strikes me when I drive through Canadian suburbs is the sheer amount of empty grass. It’s always seemed like an egregious waste of space.

But things are starting to change. Small efforts are being made to introduce small-scale agriculture and locally-grown food into Canadian cities. Green roofs and backyard gardens have emerged in Vancouver; food co-ops in Toronto. In Montreal, the Minimum-Cost Housing Group has been busy finding ways to marry food production with urban life.

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December 28th, 2009

Rooftop Gardening

Posted in Architecture, Asia Pacific, Environment by Christopher DeWolf

Container gardening is the ultimate form of urban greening: space-efficient, low-maintenance and productive. People in Hong Kong have been doing it for generations.

Last summer, on a sunny but oppressively hot day, I found myself on the roof of a 1960s-era highrise apartment building in Kwun Tong. Among the lines of billowing laundry were several clusters of potted plants maintained by the building’s residents. Though most were decorative plants, there were some fruits being grown, including kumquats and tomatoes. Anyone interested in growing their own herbs or vegetables could have easily done so.

Unfortunately, informal rooftop gardens like this are set to become a rarity. The Kwun Tong building on which these photos were taken will be demolished next year for a massive redevelopment project. Newer buildings tend to have smaller roof areas and no room for plants. My building has just two flats per floor, for example, which makes for a very small roof, most of which taken up by stairwell entrances and an elevator machine room. Even if I tried to start a container garden up there, it’d probably be cleared away by the building management.

The government is pushing developers to include green features in new developments. The public housing authority, whose buildings house more than a third of Hong Kong’s population, is experimenting with green roofs, vertical greening and community gardens. But there’s something to be said for giving people a bit of empty space and letting them do what they want with it.

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December 13th, 2009

Dreaming of the Sustainable City

Hong Kong Shenzhen Biennale container garden

When the curators of the 2009 Hong Kong-Shenzhen Biennale began assembling exhibits for the urbanism and architecture showcase, they decided to focus on the theme of sustainability. It turns out that most of the artists, architects and designers who answered their call for submissions had the same idea.

“It’s almost a zeitgeist,” says Eric Schuldenfrei, one of the biennale’s four curators. “When you ask people for new work, the dialogue with nature is very strong. It might be subtle, but if you look for it, there is that element in almost every project in the biennale. It’s curated to an extent, but it’s also what everyone was already working on.”

Sustainability might be a buzzword, but the philosophy behind it goes far beyond a bit of greenery here and there. A scan of the biennale’s lengthy roster of exhibitions, installations, lectures and events shows a preoccupation with the question of how to reduce Hong Kong’s impact on the environment and bring city-dwellers back into contact with nature.

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November 28th, 2007

The Edible City

Posted in Canada, Environment, Politics, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

ediblecampus.jpg

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.

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June 6th, 2007

Eating the Campus

Posted in Canada, Environment, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

santropol.jpg

Santropol’s old rooftop container garden. Photo by Jack Sanford

Is it possible to eat a university? A group of environmental activists, volunteers and McGill University researchers want you to think so. Last week, they launched the Edible Campus, a container garden located at the school’s campus in downtown Montreal.

Operated by Alternatives, a social and environmental advocacy group based in the McGill Ghetto, the garden will supply up to one-third of the food needed to feed Santropol Roulant’s meals-on-wheels program. At the same time, it will provide an opportunity for researchers from McGill’s Edible Landscapes Project to study the effectiveness of container gardening as a tool for urban food production.

“Gardens are not just a leisure activity,” said Dr. Vikram Bhatt, a professor in the school of architecture and the director of the Minimum Cost Housing Group, which runs Edible Landscapes. “They play a profound role in the lives of the elderly, immigrants and people who are just lonely.”

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