Cultivating community

A community garden in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood bridges isolation

Dhekyi Yangzom’s English class has a plot in HOPE community garden where interested students can learn English through various activities in the garden (photo: Carolyn Scotchmer).

Nestled in a small park in the bustling central Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale is a community garden project that is improving the health of the environment, the neighbourhood and the gardeners involved by reducing the social isolation and homogenization that often come with gentrification.

Over the last few years gentrification in Parkdale has increased, with hip, expensive boutiques and bars replacing some of the cheap restaurants and junk shops. An expensive new condominium called “Bohemian Embassy” is being built at the east end of Parkdale, playing on the neighbourhood’s reputation as an enclave of struggling artists and social activists. Alongside Parkdale’s many rooming houses now sit renovated Victorian homes that sell for as much as $800,000. Carolyn Whitzman, author of Suburb, Slum, Urban Village, found that the area north of Parkdale’s main street, Queen West, had a median household income of $55,814, while the area just south had a median household income of $23,070.

HOPE Garden
Marilyn Brownlee, Urban Agriculture Manager, gets ready for spring planting (photo: Gelek Badheytsang).

The HOPE (Healthy Organic Parkdale Edibles) garden is helping to bridge these divides. In the summer, the garden, located a few steps from busy Queen St. West, bursts with native flowers and a wide variety of vegetables and buzzes with the activity of enthusiastic gardeners and pollinating insects. It is an open and welcoming space that not only accepts the class and ethnic diversity of Parkdale but depends on that diversity for its success.

The HOPE garden is run by a Parkdale-based NGO called Greenest City. It is divided into about 30 plots tended by Parkdale-based social agencies and individuals.

During the growing season, the garden is often bustling with activity including gardening and food workshops on topics such as herbal salve-making and the politics of water. Weekly work evenings provide a time for gardeners (and curious non-gardeners) to drop in to work on their own plots as well as collectively work together on garden tasks such as maintaining the compost and cleaning out the shed. These work evenings are opportunities to share knowledge, skills and food. Over one hundred people gather in the small park to share food at monthly potlucks throughout the growing season, and an annual end-of-season festival attracts hundreds of people to celebrate the year’s harvest. Using organic gardening techniques and compost, community gardeners have enriched the soil and increased biodiversity on this small urban lot. And the garden, in turn, has given generously to the health of the Parkdale community.

Reducing isolation

Fatima and Aisha, two of HOPE’s most avid gardeners, help by watering their family’s plot (photo: Gelek Badheytsang).

Reducing social isolation is a benefit commonly mentioned by community gardeners. In her study on community gardens in Washington D.C., anthropologist Ruth Landman found that a sense of community was one of the major benefits of community gardening. Researcher David Hess found that community gardens “developed neighbourhood networks, reduced crime rates, promoted public health, provided a setting for food education, and otherwise enhanced civic culture of a neighbourhood.” In my own research, connecting with other people was the main reason Parkdale community gardeners mentioned for beginning – and continuing – to garden.

Jack, a man in his fifties with a warm smile and friendly eyes, explained that the HOPE garden helped to reduce his severe social isolation. “Before I started gardening,” he said, “I basically just stayed in. I didn’t go anywhere. And then [after getting involved in the garden]…everything lit up. It was just like an awakening. I can’t stress enough how it has really opened me up to get involved.”

Marina Shilo and the rest of the gardeners spend Wednesday evenings working together at HOPE (photo: Carolyn Scotchmer).

Melissa is a program assistant for the HOPE garden. “I think that many people feel isolated,” she said. “[In the garden], they gather together and they have a space to communicate.”

At the end of its fourth growing season, the HOPE garden plays an important role in creating a vibrant and healthy neighbourhood. Making use of public space, it connects people from a wide variety of backgrounds, providing an opportunity for them to grow, eat, learn and celebrate together. The garden has been a catalyst for holding other events in the park including storytelling and drum circles. By offering a space that encourages and embraces diversity and difference, the HOPE garden may help Parkdale resist the homogenizing effects of gentrification.

This article is based on research conducted during the summer of 2009. Some names of gardeners and Greenest City staff have been changed to ensure confidentiality.

Rebecca Ellis is an activist, organic farmer, and beekeeper in London, ON. She has a PhD in geography and environment from Western University and is the author of the forthcoming book Capitalist Agriculture and the Global Bee Crisis (Routledge Press). 

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