When walking down a city street people are accustomed to the familiar sights and sounds of the urban environment — buses, cars, trees, parked vehicles and the occasional dog or cat.
However, an often overlooked feature that is catching on among city dwellers is urban farming. Increasingly more people are becoming drawn to urban agriculture for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is saving on food costs.
Veggie gardens can be found in back yards — and some front yards — in community gardens, on rooftops, in city allotments and even in large planters on high rise balconies.
Michael Levenston is the executive director of City Farmer, a non-profit organization in Vancouver dedicated to urban agriculture. Over the past 30 years he’s seen a gradual increase in the number of urban garden and farm plots and expects that number to grow, not only in Canada but around the world.
“When we started the backyard composting program here in Vancouver around 1989 it was only fringe people doing it. As soon as it became promoted and was on the news it became more status quo and thousands of people got involved. It seems that we’re reaching a similar point in urban agriculture and this kind of home food growing is trendy and fashionable.”
Urban farmers are a disparate group, ranging from immigrants simply following tradition by gardening and farming in their back yard to a new environmentally conscious generation that recognizes the sustainability of urban agriculture.
Although urban farming has existed since people started living in cities, it declined with the advent of modernity when the density of cities began to drastically increase. That trend is starting to reverse now and even those with little or no knowledge of agriculture are learning the basics of growing their own food.
“I’m approaching 60 and I never learned how to grow food, and I think generations of urban people don’t know how to do it, they buy it at the store. The new generation is starting to get interested in farming and gardening and the old hobby is becoming a new hobby,” says Levenston.
During World War II, 20 million Americans planted “victory gardens,” producing 40 per cent of the country’s food supply. Proponents of urban farming say this can be achieved again and enable cities to become self sufficient.
The benefits of urban farming are numerous. Locally grown food reduces the environmental impact in terms of fuel usage — a lot of fuel is used to bring tomatoes up from Mexico as opposed to getting them from your own backyard — and saves on food costs.
There are also health benefits, as urban farms are usually free of the harmful pesticides and fertilizers that most large commercial farms use.
Home grown food tastes better too, and those who practice urban farming say it gives them a feeling of personal satisfaction. Like any good hobby, urban farmers find growing food rewarding in and of itself, apart from the material benefits it provides.
For the time being livestock is not a part of the urban landscape in some cities, including Vancouver, due to bylaws against having farm animals in the city.
“We support chicken-raising in the city,” says Levenston. “We’re not pushing the city to do anything, but we support it and promote it. There are a lot of people who have chickens in the city and there are a lot of cities where raising chickens is legal.”
Levenston believes these bylaws will be overturned in the not too distant future so that people will be able to “enjoy the value of chickens.” However, beekeeping is allowed and is currently part of urban agriculture.
While it may not be common to see chickens rutting around in the downtown core just yet, don’t be surprised if the next time you’re out on a neighbourhood stroll you see a make-shift farmers market offering local produce.
City Farmer (www.cityfarmer.info) has a garden at 2150 Maple Street in Vancouver and provides demonstrations and tours to teach people how to grow their own food in the city.