Roots of a Political Plot
The growing international movement known as urban agriculture has its origin in a 2,500-square-foot Vancouver garden
By Bev Holmes
Vancouver Sun May 19, 2001
In 1978, a dozen young environmentalists met over coffee at the Uprising Breads Bakery in East Vancouver. Michael Levenston and his friends were high as kites after spending six months promoting food gardening to Vancouverites as part of a federally funded make-work project. The project was over, but Levenston wasn't ready to hand in his hoe. He and his friends saw a future in urban farming. All they needed was a business plan, some start-up money and a catchy name. Such were the humble beginnings of City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture. "I know it sounds official, but we just made it up," admits Levenston, the non-profit organization's executive director. "It seemed to carry the appropriate weight. And Ottawa was not about to open a real one."
Twenty-three years later, Ottawa has indeed not opened a real one. Meanwhile, the physical manifestation of City Farmer is nothing more than a parking lot turned demonstration garden in Kitsilano with fewer square feet than most new homes. So it's more than a little surprising to discover that the organization and its garden are probably the best-known of their type on Earth.
Yes, on Earth. Among City Farmer's partners are the United Nations Development Program, the Resource Centre on Urban Agriculture and Forestry in the Netherlands, the Washington-based Urban Agriculture Network, and the Support Group for Urban Agriculture, sponsored by Ottawa's International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
Then there is the Web site (www.cityfarmer.org). In 2000 it recorded more than two million hits from 170 countries, and last month was the site's busiest ever. Given top marks by Yahoo Internet Life magazine in April, the site keeps Levenston busy seven days a week. Brenda-Lee Wilson, a research officer at IDRC's Cities Feeding People program, which funds urban farming projects in developing countries, says people often contact her after learning about the IDRC through City Farmer. "Michael is definitely at the forefront of linking the global urban-agriculture community."
"No one in the world was talking about urban agriculture as a field of study in 1978 when we started," says the soft-spoken Levenston. "There's always been backyard gardening and community gardening, but as a comprehensive field of study that includes those aspects and more, it's very recent."
Vancouver is now an internationally recognized leader in the urban green movement, although food gardening here is about leisure, exercise and a desire for wholesome produce. "For the most part," says Levenston, "people aren't gardening for their livelihood or to feed themselves as the bottom line." In developing countries, however, urban agriculture is about survival. "We're seeing a tremendous increase in urbanization around the world, which raises problems of food security, water, and waste, among others," he says. There's a reason he refers to his line of work as "political horticulture."
It's a nice life, he says, but it's not for everyone. Like other farmers, he gets up at 5.30 every morning. But instead of milking cows he's answering e-mails, and checking out any new countries that have logged on to the Web site ("kinda like collecting stamps," he says). By 9 am. he's heading for the garden from the nearby co-op where he lives with his wife and 16-year-old daughter. He and his staff run through the day's schedule and grapple with any tough questions on the Compost Hotline. Then it's downtown to the office, where Levenston promotes City Farmer and the practice of urban agriculture to the world at large.
Not that there isn't work still to be done here at home, which is where the Vancouver Compost Demonstration Garden, located at Sixth and Maple, comes in. There Levenston, his mighty staff of three part-timers, and their volunteers, run programs such as Introduction to Organic Food Gardening, Backyard Composting, Wormshops (composting with worms), Grasscycling, and workshops on natural lawn care. "The idea is to get people growing food along with their flowers," says Sharon Slack, head gardener. "Veggies are beautiful anyway, and our climate here is great - you can grow almost anything."
To demonstrate, she and Levenston provide a whirlwind tour. Peas, lettuce, celeriac, onions, strawberries, Asian greens and dill weed are at various stages of growth; beans, cucumbers, eggplants and squashes sit in flats, waiting to be planted. Worms wriggle around four big black bins, breaking down eggshells and apple peel into rich compost. Exquisite orange calendula brighten up the day, and an outhouse-style composting toilet - which Levenston is responsible for cleaning - dominates one corner of the yard.
Modesty prevents Levenston from demonstrating the toilet, but he enthuses about its effectiveness: "All the, er, material stays in there, and you just use a handful of this peat and sawdust to cover it. About once a month you crank this handle which turns the drum, and everything breaks down - we've had it three years and only emptied it once!"
In another corner of the garden in the greenhouse-style office, 10-year staff member Spring Gillard operates the Compost Hotline (736-2250). Gillard takes about 4,000 calls a year, answering questions like, "'Where can I buy ready-made compost?" "How do I get rid of these rats?" and "Can I compost cigarette butts?" (Not a good idea, says Gillard - too many chemicals.)
"We're a tiny group, probably smaller than most environmental groups," says Canada's unofficial minister of urban agriculture. "But our work has given us quite a presence. People think we're much bigger than we really are."
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