In support of the Off-Bank Community Garden

by Stephen Thirlwall
CCCA Trees and Greenspace Committee

The Trees and Greenspace Committee (T&G) welcomes and appreciates both positive and negative comments regarding the Off-Bank Community Garden.

The garden is a learning experience; different people may have diverse ideas about what a community garden is and how it should function. The garden is, thus, a point around which there can be discussions on whether this type of activity (involving developers, the City, and groups such as ourselves) is worth pursuing and, if it is, how things can be improved.

Until now, we have only received positive comments people who live and/or work in the neighbourhood. I personally spoke to over 70 individuals. One from outside the area, hoped that something similar could happen in her neighbourhood in Sandy Hill.

Some had good questions, such as, would part of the garden produce food for a food bank or to hand out to needy people living close by? Can some of the food help serve a local market (e.g., Nanny Goat Hill Market)?

We were, unfortunately, unaware of the situation with the residents feeling they were forced out. But the developer did follow due process with the City applying for demolition and the City accepted it.

The City posted a sign giving an opportunity for others living in the neighbourhood to make complaints or ask questions. If no one contacted Councillor McKenney ahead, they missed their chance.

This demolition would have gone ahead whether there was to be a temporary community garden or not (i.e., just an empty lot). From the old house’s exterior, it appeared rather derelict. To a passer-by, it was not clear whether anyone was actually living there.

At this point in time, we cannot immediately return to the concept of a shared “public common” where anyone can go whenever they want and do gardening or other activities. Sharing, unfortunately, is not well developed in our society. Also for a small garden area like the Off-Bank garden there is just not enough room.

T&G took care to pass the message around through the neighbourhood and within Centretown that people could request a plot and that assignments would be done in as unbiased a process as possible. In the end, all who requested got a plot. They were all Centretown residents.

Why a fence? Essentially, for protection of the property (it still belongs to the developer) and protection of the gardens. There are people who do not respect other people’s work. The fence minimizes theft, damage of crops and other vandalism. It has worked. All community gardens suffer from these problems.

There are still problems at Off-Bank. For example, someone regularly dumps bags of dog waste in the garden. When our first sign went up to inform neighbours that they could request a plot, someone vandalized the sign. This caused the assignment process to be delayed and so delayed the start of gardening.

Can others visit the gardens? My experience is that they can. I can’t speak for the all the gardeners, but I have taken people in to have a look around and told them about the garden’s background and purpose. Perhaps in the future there could be set visit times for the public.

Even for those who only look through the fence, we have planted various beautiful flowers that bloom at different times through the season. They are more appealing than an empty lot.

One couple stopped outside to view the orange lilies that reminded them of their youth in Eastern Canada. And, if you look, you can see each garden plot is filled with a variety of plants (far more than two tomato plants), and these plants are amazingly productive. The Off-Bank garden operates at very minimal cost.

There are alternatives to just one community garden used by a small number of people. With enough interest and the commitment of others, it may be possible to have several temporary community gardens on other sites that are currently either vacant or occupied by derelict buildings.

Temporary public parks are another option. Richcraft has been a leader in this area too, with the park at the corner of Charlotte and Rideau streets.

For such parks to exist, we need to ask: Will we use, support and help maintain them? Will families and groups of friends meet there and single individuals go for a few moments peace? Or will we ignore or abuse them, damaging benches and dumping garbage, cigarette buts, dog waste and used needles?

How well these sites work depends on the community, especially the immediate neighbours.

Dialogue is needed to keep improving our neighbourhoods. New developments are going to happen. Any one development site could involve many years of idleness and a few years of construction. If we, as community members, find ways to work with our Centretown Community Community Association and collaborate with our councillor, City Hall, and developers, we can hopefully create better results in future developments.