A Future in Farming
Urban farmers working with a condo developer?
This could only happen in Victoria
By James MacKinnon
With the author's permission.
Originally printed In Monday Magazine
February 1, 1996
"I never thought I'd be collaborating with people who are building condos." says Paul Winstanley, sitting an arm's length away from dozens of anti-development petitions he helped fill with signatures.
Winstanley is one of a handful of urban farmers who tend a four-lot farm tucked between Balmoral Road and Mason, Cook and Vancouver streets in Victoria, British Columbia. Even in winter, the plot is a mosaic of green-bright garlic shoots, deep, olive rosemary shrubs and winter broccoli with leaves the colour of a tarnished copper roof.
But more has grown here than the makings of a good soup. This urban farm long ago blossomed into a symbol of the clash in values that development brings out in Victoria.
Since its founding by Brett Black in 1989 (Black now tends land in Saanich), the farm has faced constant challenges. There was a move to evict most of the farm's chickens. The compost has been sniffed at. High-density condo schemes have come and gone. Even now, the land-leasing farmers could be asked to move on with just two months' notice. Their protection has been the people in the area, who in most cases chose to risk siding with the farmers.
Standing where steamy compost has melted away the snow, Winstanley says the site may have been an urban farm as long ago as the 186Os. He connects his hopes for the farm's future to its history. "There's been a continuity of food gathering here that we'd like to see go to perpetuity."
So how is it that Winstanley and other urban farmers have ended up involved in - even giving conditional support for - a condo development proposed for the lots?
Food is a key ingredient.
The vision goes something like this. Where the farm is now, a 34-unit, three-storey condominium development would go up, made neighbourly with a walkway, a small courtyard restaurant and front door access to every suite.
Much of the landscaping would be "edible". That is, tomatoes, kale or kohlrabi might grow in planters, hops vines could crawl over the buildings, bay leaf trees might line a walkway. On the south side, where two old houses now stand, there would be a private farm for the condos - a greenhouse and a garden.
Further south still, Mason Street, presently one-way, would be cut off mid-block, providing more greenspace. This would also create a pedestrian connection to Franklin Green, where there is now a small, underused city park. The existing farm, chickens, compost and all, could replace the park while retaining a public walkway.
There is plenty of tinkering to come with this idea. But let's be clear about what this means. First, it would keep the urban farm close to its roots, in a place where it is clearly wanted. Second, it would make room for an innovative development; experts that I called had never heard of farming being planned into a condo scheme in Canada.
Third, and most important, it would represent the gains that can be made through collaboration. in a neighbourhood that faces enormous pressure to change because of its nearness to the downtown core.
Gene Miller, the "alternative developer" who came up with the condo plan, recalls his favourite response to the idea so far: "It's all pie in the sky."
It's the commitment to the imagination that the idea requires that Miller seems to like best. As I conjure up images of condos as Babylonian gardens, he says: "I'm not only not ruling it out, I'm saying that's what should be done. "If the farm had not existed, I'd have had to create it," Miller says. Later he adds: "I'm in love with this one."
Miller, also the founding publisher of Monday Magazine, knows his New Landmarks design firm has a long ways to go with this proposal. He also recognizes that some of the farm supporters have a "reasonable fear" that the whole thing could be a charade.
"You say 'developer', they think 'spawn of the devil'," he says. And the urban farmers still hope to make their own deal to buy up the land. They are wary: the condo proposal is their contingency plan.
I'm wary too. But something unusually interesting is happening here. I like to think about this plan. I like the fact that the farm-condo idea cannot be dismissed in a knee-jerk reaction. It reminds me of how healthy choice can be. And it reminds me that developing a community is all about risk. Once we realize that, the risks become easier to take.