Montreal now boasts about 100 garden sites, 22 of them in city parks, containing more than 6,600 plots, or allotments. People over age 55, who generally have more time and less space than mid-life householders, form a majority of the gardeners in 39 of the sites. The gardens are multicultural, exuberantly sociable, highly productive, immensely popular. The gardeners compost, welcome disabled participants and contribute food to the city's food banks. There's a long waiting list for an allotment.
Today, Bourque is the mayor of Montreal. And Montreal is the leading city in Canada, perhaps in North America, in its encouragement of community gardening.
"Community gardening is a holistic activity," says Sean Cosgrove, an urban planner in Toronto who has written on the subject for 10 years. "It engages people at many levels—it provides food and flowers, it's healthy, outdoor exercise, it connects people with nature and it builds communities by bringing people together."
Community gardens are strongly supported by European immigrants because they are long-established features of European life, where they were created to allow early industrial workers to grow their own food. The International Office of Allotment and Leisure Garden Societies in Luxembourg represents more than three million such gardeners in Western Europe. Britain alone has 305,000 plots involving 1.2 million gardeners. In cities like Copenhagen, people build tiny, wildly imaginative cottages in their garden plots, and spend much of their summer living full-time in their century-old spaces.
In Canada, enthusiasm for community gardening waxes and wanes in tandem with depressions and wars. In the 1930s, such gardens provided food for the destitute, and many older Canadians still remember the "Victory Gardens" that supplemented the war effort during the Second World War. At least one of these Victory Gardens survives on a railroad right-of-way in Vancouver's Kerrisdale district.
Feeding the poor, winning a war, providing a distraction for urban industrial workers—these are political objectives, and community gardens are intimately linked with politics. The gardens occupy expensive, developable urban land, and they represent a view of the city as a place harmonious with nature, an environment that requires green, growing spaces, a place where people do things communally—not a vision shared by all municipal politicians. Often they are places where poor and powerless people learn their own capabilities in the course of planning, organizing and labouring side by side for a common goal. Many community gardening enthusiasts see the gardens as instruments that can transform entire neighbourhoods, and ultimately the whole urban environment. The physical and economic benefits of urban forests and gardens include improved air quality, a secure food supply, energy savings and higher property values. Vegetation also moderates the urban climate by providing shade, windbreaks and erosion protection.
Community gardens appear to be very unevenly distributed across the country, with few sites in the Maritimes or the Prairies and a few hot spots like the Waterloo region in Ontario, sparked by the leadership of a community development group called The Working Centre (www.theworkingcentre.org). Sean Cosgrove notes a growing interest in Toronto, where a Community Gardens Network was recently formed. The city has hired a co-ordinator and adopted a plan to put at least one community garden in every ward of the city by 2003. And—predictably—community gardening is rooting itself in Vancouver, the most politically polarized city in Canada.