Published September 21st, 2012
The City of Havana, Cuba produces a tremendous amount of the food for its citizens, as we see in the BBC show, Around the World in 80 Gardens. In the 2004 documentary, The End of Suburbia, the futurist, James Kunstler talked about how people living in the 'burbs, will, in the future, use their front gardens to grow food.
Just how close are we to this being the case in Toronto? Based on my experience across the city, with schools, neighbours, various botanic gardens and teaching the Plants course, I would say that we are still pretty far off. But, there has been movement and a steadily increasing interest amongst youth (for me, that's everyone under 30) in gardening and growing food over the last 5 years - the same trend is happening for knitting. One example of why I think we are far off this, is that I spent a good chunk of my volunteer time in the mid 2000s on my knees, digging, with other dedicated parents (see Catherine Majoribanks, Pete Ewins, myself, Sheila O'Connell and Jeff Hanning above), and restoring an overgrown public school butterfly garden to have a focus on food and herbs, and installing a new native species garden. My various strategic attempts, at that time, to make the sporadic efforts of parent-driven efforts in school gardens more sustainable and widespread over incoming generations of parents, teachers and children, failed. There was simply not a broad enough interest and uptake on multiple fronts - in other words, the tipping point hadn't been reached.
In 2011, The Horticultural Societies of Parkdale and Toronto became a part of the local urban food movement. In an initiative led by Beth Kapusta, a resident of the High Park-Roncesvalles, the Society supported the highly successful Veg Tour 2011. When Beth was looking for local gardens to include in the tour, my family's garden got volunteered as a stop on the tour by the owner of our local cheese shop, the Thin Blue Line.
In 2012, instead of a public Veg Tour the local gardeners previously involved in the tour visited each others' gardens as well as new gardens, and exchanged ideas, as well as a taste of food grown in our' gardens (those are my tomatoes and nasturtium pesto on the tray - photo by Howard Rideout, used with permission).
It was very interesting and educational. This year's tour was an illustration of the principles of successful grass-roots movements. First, it was notable that the leads and participants in the Veg Tour were neighbours who are activists, gardeners, writers, etc. with lots of background knowledge and experience. For example, the 2011 Veg Tour included gardening writer Lorraine Johnson and social innovator Tonya Surman, while the leader, dynamic Beth Kapusta, grew up in Delhi, Ontario, a farming community. What the tour did, was to allow us to aggregate as a group. Reaching critical mass is important for grass roots efforts. As we say at IRIS, "if you're not networking, you're not working".
There are two main challenges for local urban food movements like the High Park-Parkdale Veg Tour. The first is to broaden the community participation to include diverse gardeners from varied cultural backgrounds, who might not normally think about getting involved with such a group. A few years ago, the Toronto Botanical Garden held a workshop aimed at figuring out how to be more relevant to the broader Toronto community. I, along with others suggested the idea of asking culturally diverse gardeners to plant gardens characteristic of those that various waves of immigrants to Toronto created when they arrived: so many immigrants have brought with them knowledge about growing crops. Many of us at the workshop also suggested increasing engagement with school gardens.
A second challenge facing these urban food movements is to transfer the knowledge to less experienced and skilled, but interested youth. Bottom line, is that sustainability-ideas such as growing more local food in urban locations is not new. It's about getting to a tipping point where a critical mass sustains the movement. In Cuba they had no choice. In Toronto, it's more of a choice, at the moment.
Here are some of my favourite veggie gardens in my west Toronto neighbourhood.
PS Through the Veg Tour events, I discovered some interesting York University connections. Clement Kent, the president of The Toronto and Parkdale Horticultural Societies is a post-doctoral fellow in the Biology Department. He was featured in a Y-file article, about the Pollinator Advocate Award that he received for his Pollinator Garden Project.