Culture & Conversation

“Let them eat compost”


In this mayoralty race, urban agriculture has hardly been on the lips of the front-runners. When asked by a Radio Canada journalist if he composts, Denis Coderre quipped, “I eat my compost,” a one liner that surely sums up his party’s non-existing environmental program. En plus, both Coderre and Marcel Coté have said they will veto the proposed composting plant in St. Michel. To these parties, “gardening” is merely a pleasant pastime rather than an integral part of any plan to revitalize Montreal. Projet Montreal, on the other hand, digs right to the seed of the issue. 

Imagine walking down Sherbrooke Street on a crisp fall day. Breakfast hours behind you and hunger has just set in. You stop to pick an apple from the mini forest that borders the sidewalk. You pick a second one for your pocket. You walk on.

In the 19th century, apple orchards flourished on southern flank of the Mountain. Where McGill University’s business school now stands, a vineyard rolling back to meet Mount Royal grew grapes for the residents of “Dilcoosha,” the Orientalist-inspired mansion that occupied the site well into the 20th century. It has only been in the last 60 years that agriculture and the city have gone their separate ways. But this is changing both here and around the globe. Urban agriculture is at the forefront of providing city dwellers with a new vision of what it means to be urban.

In places like Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, Paris, London – or the amazing story of Cuba’s permaculture revolution – the list goes on and on. Communities are producing their food in both traditional and innovative ways, and changing how we live in cities in the process.  It comes as no surprise that Vancouver with its temperate climate would head the list of Canadian cities trying to reduce its carbon footprint using local agricultural initiatives, but what about Calgary, home to the gas and oil industry’s corporate headquarters. In 2009, Calgary initiated a five-year pilot project introducing municipally planted orchards to three areas of the city. In a city with only a hundred frost-free days a year it was a gamble — but the trees grew.

Although everyone agrees that the Montreal economy is stagnating, infrastructure is falling apart and families are fleeing to the suburbs, few are prepared to think beyond transportation as the key to resolving some of these problems. Lufa Farms is so far alone in showing the economic potential for developing the local economy through agriculture.

Fortunately not all of the candidates running in this year’s municipal election leave others to “eat their compost.” Members of the Projet Montreal team in Outremont have come up with a much tastier alternative. Their proposed centre for urban agriculture in the old Holmes-McFarlane House adjacent to Joyce Park would place food at the centre of a plan to make Outremont a destination for urban agriculture in this city. A hands-on site, the house and surrounding gardens would be used to educate citizens about best practices with regards to food production and preparation. Local community groups would manage the centre, working in conjunction with schools, businesses, and gardeners to spread knowledge and foster community among disparate cultures and ages.

“We have to be more creative and look to the future,” says Philipe Tomlinson, Outremont borough candidate and sustainability consultant. “We need to grow our food and, more importantly, teach our children how to grow food. We have all the resources we need right here, why not use them?”

“It’s time we get our hands dirty in this city – but in a good way for once,” he laughs.

Turning Montreal into a garden, it has happened once, it can happen again.

To know more about Projet Montreal’s plans for the old Maison Holmes-McFarlane, go here.

Some sites:
Agriculture Urbaine de Montreal
Cultiver Montreal
Montreal Rooftop Gardens Project
Montreal Urban Ecology Centre
Santropol Roulant Rooftop Garden
Sustainable Montreal
Radical Montreal

Kathryn Harvey is a Montreal historian, community activist, and proud owner of 20 hens and a rooster named Elvis. The complete Who’s Your Farmer series can be found here.

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