Urban agriculture in 2011

THIS has been a year of success and failure for the worldwide urban agriculture movement that is desperately trying to atone for past abuses against the environment and to respond to growing concerns about the safety and sustainability of modern food production.

Urban agriculture is not always well received. Sandra Thomas of the Vancouver Courier wrote of Megan Hagerty's claim that a nearby housing co-op could not get approval for a community garden on their own land so they went to the city to get a garden built in Adanac Park. Hagerty claims lack of public consultation and parking issues make the garden unsuitable for the neighbourhood.

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Small scale food growing is also under siege: Jeff Nield of www.treehugger. com wrote of Dirk Becker of Lantzville, Vancouver Island, who was sent a letter by district council ordering him to cease all agricultural activity or face prosecution for contravening a bylaw that states: "Property owners will ensure their property doesn't become or remain unsightly through the accumulation of filth, discarded materials, rubbish or unused machinery or metal parts." Becker turned a desolate former gravel pit into a thriving rural garden for food production and education.

Matthew Burrows of the Georgia Straight told us how two East Vancouver renters were told by management for Taryn Court Apartments that the building's owners would tear up the garden and replace it with lawn if it was not removed by the notice date. Jodi Peters and Jeffery Radke rent the property and were told as part of the rental contract that they could garden to feed themselves. Jack Pereira, building manager for Taryn Court Apartments, said, "They asked if they could take care of the garden or maintain the garden, not grow the garden and put in a greenhouse. If they had asked to have done gardening and put in tomatoes and grow all that stuff, we wouldn't rent it to them."

Most alarming to me is the dismissal of basic science by many community keeners and park planners who believe that urban farming can happen on any piece of land, regardless of site history or soil contamination. To understand soil health and soil assessment within the context of urban agriculture visit www.toronto.ca/health/lead/soil_gardening. htm to read something that will open your mind.

A quote from Catherine Porter of www. star.com explains the hazards of boulevard gardening: "Front yards and boulevards are more likely to contain toxic heavy metals from years of bathing in diesel fumes," says Josephine Archbold, a toxicologist with Toronto Public Health."

Kate Murphy of the New York Times told of Frank Meuschke of Brooklyn New York, who tested his boulevard veggie soil and found it had lead contamination at 90 times the natural amount. "You won't know if you're at risk unless you test your soil," said Murray McBride, a professor of soil chemistry at Cornell University. "It doesn't matter if you're rich or poor, lead knows no socioeconomic boundaries." said David Johnson, a professor of environmental chemistry at New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, where he has found lead concentrations as high as 65,000 parts per million in the yards of upscale homes.

But not all the urban agriculture news is bad as told in a story by Jess Smee of www. spiegel.de in which three residents of Berlin, Germany belonging to the "Frisch vom Dach" or "Fresh from the Roof" project have earmarked a massive former factory roof with plans to create a 7,000-square-metre vegetable roof garden and fish farm to provide Berliners with locally-grown food. "Humankind is driving fast into a wall and global resources are running out. With so many people living in cities, we need to think locally," said Nicolas Leschke, a co-founder of Frisch vom Dach.

Here in Vancouver Matt Kieltya of www. metronews.ca told us how Valcent Products announced that it's teaming up with EasyPark to install the first high-density verticalgrowing system in North America. Valcent through VertiCrop is planning to produce 92 tonnes of fresh organic lettuce a year, all from the roof of a downtown parkade on Richards Street.

Randy Shore of the Vancouver Sun told the hopeful story of 22 students at West Vancouver Secondary who enrolled in the school's first for-credit course in urban agriculture. Designed and run by teacher Gord Trousdell, the course will consist of practical education in growing crops sustainably, soil science and biology, as well as introducing the students to the politics of agriculture including the Agricultural Land Reserve and global food issues.

And from our own Erin McPhee of the North Shore News, the uplifting story of growing food and changing lives in the Squamish Nation by Ustlahn Social Society founder and elder Barbara Wyss and her brother Rennie Nahanee, who work with youth to promote health and wellness in their community.

These are a few of the many stories around the world telling of people who are trying to reclaim the "Gardens of Earth."

Todd Major is a journeyman horticulturist, garden designer, writer, consultant and organic advocate. For advice contact him at stmajor@ shaw.ca.

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