Cultivating Concrete

With the rise of urban farming in metropolitan cities around the world, the phrase “concrete jungle” is taking on a whole new meaning. Though the concept of “urban farming” is relatively new, Vancouver is one of the first Canadian cities to accept it as a viable form of sustainable food practices due heavily to the growing concerns for safe food handling procedures and a rising population.

The number of community garden plots has nearly doubled since 2009 with over 104 locations, bringing a hue of bright green to the washed-out shades of grey our downtown core is inundated with. In an attempt to educate consumers about the realities of food production, City Council adopted a action plan at the beginning of the year that included the increase of urban farms, farmers markets and community garden plots within the city by 2020.

Parking Lot with a Purpose

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Last November, the first vertical urban farm was introduced to North America in the most unlikely of places — on the rooftop of an EasyPark in the heart of downtown Vancouver.

Operated year round by Alterrus System Inc., Vancouver’s Local Garden uses a new hydroponic technology called VertiCrop. Fashioned after a factory conveyor belt, it is equipped with over 3,000 trays that rotate between 18 to 24 days for maximum exposure to sunlight without the need for pesticides. The result? A yield four times more than a typical field crop at ten times the productivity.

The space is a mere 5,700 square feet, but given that the produce is grown in trays stacked 12 high, one might think they’re stepping into a lush forest of green as opposed to a once bustling parking lot. The site produces approximately 150,000 pounds of fresh produce annually while using only 10% of the water typically used for traditional agriculture.

Growing over 80 varieties of vegetables including spinach, arugula and kale, Local Garden significantly reduces Vancouver’s carbon footprint by cutting back on transportation distance, energy use and harmful chemicals.

Gas Station Gardens

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Imagine that instead of filling your car with expensive gas, you’re stocking the trunk with the season’s freshest herbs and produce. It may be a far-fetched idea, but for the residents surrounding Main Street and Terminal Avenue, it is very much a reality.

In the summer of 2013, SoleFood Street Farms, a Canadian nonprofit organization, converted an old Petro Canada gas station into the largest urban orchard in North America. With the land having been unused for the past decade, it is being leased to the company by the city of Vancouver for an unheard of total of $1 a year.

With the help of over 500 new fruit trees, SoleFood expects to produce up to 60 tonnes of produce annually between its four working sites. Members of the community can be a part of the fun too with a fully functioning share program, wherein SoleFood delivers a variety of produce, using the highest organic standards, weekly to customer’s doors between May and November. SoleFood also supplies produce to 30 local restaurants and gives back 10 percent of its harvest to Downtown Eastside agencies via donation.

Because Vancouver’s real estate is some of the most expensive in the world, SoleFood has countered the issue with a system of moveable planters that can be stacked one on top of the other and moved with a forklift. As a result, SoleFood prevents its crops from being exposed to contaminated soil, can cultivate an entire garden of produce on pavement and, if need be, can relocate the company at any given time.
SoleFood Street Farms have become somewhat of a tourist attraction. Their Pacific and Carrall location, which can be seen from the Stadium-Chinatown Skytrain, is in plain sight of thousands of people daily as they pass by on walks or bike rides along the seawall. While being one of the city’s newest hotspots, they also provide meaningful employment to members of the Downtown Eastside who may have struggled with drug addiction or mental illness.

Harvesting the Benefits

Though there are several obvious reasons as to why urban farming is beneficial to a city—reduction of soil contamination and the city’s carbon footprint, healthier living choices, and food security—the outcome is far greater than what is expected.

When a neighbourhood bands together to maintain and produce an urban farm, a sense of community pride is formed. In a survey done at the University of Albany on community gardens, research showed that by interacting with nature and their own neighbours, residents displayed an overall improvement to their social and emotional well-being as well as an increased community social life. Urban farming is seen as a calming experience and usually offers a place of refuge to people in heavily populated cities.

Noise pollution is also a growing concern in Vancouver where buildings seem to sprout overnight. Large amounts can not only lead to lower property value, but can also be damaging to both health and hearing levels. While plants are known for recycling harmful carbon dioxide emissions from the air, it is unknown to many that they are actually a vital source of sound absorption. As a result of implementing urban farms throughout the city, farmers are additionally contributing to a vast reduction in noise pollution.

As land becomes harder to come by and the city’s population continues to rise, urban farming is a trend most likely to take permanent root in our city. There is a certain appeal that comes with having fresh fruit and vegetables at our fingertips that many Vancouverites are being drawn towards. If the success of urban farms continues to catch on, we could be seeing one around every corner of our city, a soon-to-be common sight of flourishing greens typically only found after an hour-long walk through the depths of Stanley Park.