Feed them and they will come
Nelson Park Community Garden in Vancouver. Credit: Park People

With their impressive array of social, health, and food security benefits, amenities like community gardens have become a staple in many cities.

Community food infrastructure holds even greater value in times of crisis, as we saw when provinces like Ontario, British Columbia, and New Brunswick declared community gardens an essential service during COVID-19.

As community resilience takes on heightened importance, roughly three quarters of cities reported demand for food opportunities in parks is also on the rise, creating an opening for cities to use food in parks to strengthen communities.

Design food amenities into parks—and get creative

When Halifax was hit by Hurricane Dorian leaving residents without electricity, the Park Avenue Community Oven group in Dartmouth stepped up to provide pizza to the community at a local park’s bake oven. And in response to the COVID-19 crisis, Victoria temporarily reassigned park staff to grow up to 75,000 food plants for residents in need.

These examples showcase how park-based food amenities and the support networks they create offer “an important buffer from stressful life events,” as one 2019 study found.

Yet it often falls upon community groups to advocate for features like community gardens after the park is built, said Alex Harned, Food Systems Coordinator at the City of Victoria, noting that this can be cumbersome and involve competing for space with other user groups.

Instead, Harned sees great potential for cities to start integrating these amenities into the (re)design phase as “a necessity within every park, and not just an afterthought.”

While Harned noted this is largely “a shift that’s yet to happen,” we found some cities are taking steps in the right direction:

  • When planning the green space outside Regina’s mâmawêyatitân centre, a community hub that includes a high school, library, and recreational spaces, the city worked with Indigenous Elders and the school chef to include fruit trees, herbs, and berries for community access.
  • Released in 2020, Longueuil’s urban agriculture policy emphasizes the importance of building food amenities into neighbourhood public spaces, involving residents and non-profits.
  • In Waterloo Park, neighbours can dine together thanks to a functional art piece in the form of a harvest table that seats 200 people.
  • In Ottawa, Halifax, Calgary, and Toronto, bake ovens can be found in parks—including tandoor ovens in the latter two cities—where community groups have formed around them, such as in Ottawa’s Bayshore Park.
Volunteers make pizza at Park Avenue Community Oven in Dartmouth, Halifax. Credit: Lorrie Rand
Volunteers make pizza at Park Avenue Community Oven in Dartmouth, Halifax. Credit: Lorrie Rand
Support the people behind the projects

Whether a garden, bake oven, or edible forest, food amenities often depend on the maintenance and programming efforts of dedicated volunteers.

Cities can lend a helping hand by providing coordination and resources, as Victoria has since 2016 through Growing in the City. Created in response to community demand, GITC supports community-led food projects in green spaces—from small-scale commercial agriculture, to boulevard gardening, to fruit tree stewardship, and more.

GITC provides support to groups at the start-up phase and beyond. For example, the city helps connect community garden groups to available land and offer start-up funding (new in 2020), but also offers $10,000 grants for garden volunteer coordinators to ensure the work remains sustainable over time and to support garden-based programming.

All of this work is overseen by Victoria’s full-time Food Systems Coordinator—a unique role based out of the parks department, created as part of GITC.

Other cities are also helping to coordinate garden groups, either directly or through partnerships:

  • In Guelph, city staff convene the Community Gardens Network Working Group, which includes an online forum for sharing information and regular meetings where volunteer garden coordinators discuss best practices, grant opportunities, and upcoming events.
  • For almost two decades, Ottawa has been collaborating closely with Just Food—a community-based organization that, among other things, manages a Community Gardening Network that assists with garden start-up, provides grants, and offers skill-building opportunities.
Victoria leads gardening workshops as part of Growing in the City. Credit: City of Victoria.
Victoria leads gardening workshops as part of Growing in the City. Credit: City of Victoria.
Grow your options for getting involved

While some enjoy the labours of gardening or running a bake oven, there is a need to ensure accessible food opportunities for those with less time to commit.

One way to do so is through providing free publicly accessible produce. A 2019 study of an edible orchard in Montreal found that food bearing plants can enhance residents’ social capital, place attachment, and food knowledge—all without requiring a high level of time, skill, or commitment.

Volunteer at Gordon Neighbourhood House community dinner in Vancouver. Credit: Matthew Schroeter
Volunteer at Gordon Neighbourhood House community dinner in Vancouver. Credit: Matthew Schroeter
Use food as an anchor for creative programming

Community groups across the country are showcasing how food can create a starting point for learning and connecting with one another.

  • Toronto is home to the first ever shipping container grocery store in Canada: the Moss Park Market, run by Building Roots. With pay-what-you-can and pay-it-forward options, the market is a response to the community-identified need for accessible and affordable local grocery options. Much of the produce is grown down the road at Ashbridges Urban Farm, where some patrons of the market have since become volunteers, said Building Roots’ Lisa Kates.
  • In Saskatoon, the askîy project—a container garden located on a brownfield site—is run by Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth through a summer internship program that focuses on building skills, sustainability, and cultural connection.
  • Local food groups can take up residencies in Vancouver’s parks through the Fieldhouse Activation Program, such as the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty, providing space to garden and host free, public events.
  • In Halifax, two youth-based social enterprises, Hope Blooms and BEEA Honey with Heart, use parks as their homebase for providing creative training and leadership opportunities for youth.
  • Langley’s Learning Farm, Fredericton’s Hayes Urban Farm, North Vancouver’s Loutet Farm, and Hamilton’s McQuesten Farm show how urban farms can double as learning spaces by offering educational programming.