By Issac Phan Nay
When I visited the Kilborn Allotment Gardens in late October, they bustled with life despite the wet and cold of that grey Sunday afternoon.
Each of the 400 plots making up Ottawa’s largest community garden is unique. Some were bound with chicken wire while others had professional fencing installed around their thousand square-foot plots. A couple plots featured sheds made from scrap tin. Huge puddles flooded the nine-acre allotment gardens, forcing a few gardeners to innovate drainage systems out of plywood and plastic. Watering cans and gardening tools were scattered throughout the gardens.
Paola De Rose could be found spreading plant choppings across the rows of her plot on Oct. 24. Even in Autumn, her garden is home to a medley of herbs, tomatoes, and a vibrant green broccoli plant.
De Rose worked as a director of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade before becoming senior director at the Centre for Remote Sensing with the National Research Council of Canada. Now De Rose is retired and spends her time gardening.
While gardening might be a hobby for De Rose, others rely more on the gardens. The Shepherds of Good Hope, an Ottawa non-profit that runs supportive housing units and emergency shelters, use their plot at the Kilborn Allotment Gardens to supply their downtown soup kitchen with fresh fruits and vegetables. According to their manager of community and volunteer services, Gordon Richards, the plot supplies the Shepherds with around 6,000 pounds of produce each year.
But this community space will not be around for long — the Kilborn Allotment Gardens are set to be paved over. The City of Ottawa plans to build a new transportation corridor starting at the intersection of Conroy and Walkley Road and ending at the Nicholas Street on-ramp. Dubbed the “Alta Vista Transportation Corridor” (AVTC), the road would run straight through the Kilborn Allotment Gardens and other greenspaces.
De Rose said those plans deeply upset her. “A space like this, that is essentially a series of little tiny urban farms, is very, very important,” she explained. “What the city should be doing is trying to ensure that other wasted green space should all be turned into allotment gardens.”
If the city promoted these gardens, nutritious food would be accessible to marginalized people.
The allotment garden is also a significant source of the Shepherds of Good Hope’s supply of produce during the summer.
“When we’re getting super fresh, super clean veggies like that, that’s all we use in the kitchen,” Richards said.
He added that in September alone the garden provided the kitchen with around 80 per cent of their produce for almost 13,000 meals.
And the Shepherds of Good Hope use their garden plot to stock more than just their kitchen. Richards said volunteers deliver the produce to the non-profit’s other projects. “They drive to our different supporting housing units around Ottawa to deliver veggies just so that everybody gets a piece of it,” Richards said. “Financially, certainly it helps, but it’s just clean, fresh, great stuff that people don’t have a lot of access to.”
The Shepherds of Good Hope are only one of many groups with a plot at the garden. Jaku Konbit is a community organization dedicated to supporting people in the African and Caribbean diaspora within Ottawa. The organization calls their plot at the Kilborn Allotment Gardens the Greenstar Community Garden. Before the pandemic, children attending Jaku Konbit’s summer camp would learn to grow vegetables at Greenstar, according to outreach coordinator Domeniko Peterkin.
Peterkin said the Jaku Konbit donated food grown at the garden to members of their community throughout Ottawa. “We give it out to our seniors, we talk about it at our community lunches,” Peterkin said. “We talk with our outreach programs to see if people are interested in receiving vegetables.”
Neither Jaku Konbit nor the Shepherds of Good Hope could use their volunteer-run garden in 2020 because of COVID-19 restrictions. (Recall that in 2020 the Ontario Conservatives seemed to believe that gardening would somehow spread an air-borne virus that gets dispersed in fresh air and killed by sunlight — instead of recognizing that gardening was probably one of the safest activities people could engage in, with significant physical, psychological, and even financial benefits.) Richards said volunteers were upset they could not work in the garden, and that the organization had to rely more on partnerships with local businesses and the government to provide for the hungry.
“We had to bite the bullet, suck it up, and modify the budget a bit and use some of the, COVID-19 funding that we got from the city towards veggies,” Richards said. “It is missed when we can’t get the variety of vegetables that we make ourselves in the garden.”
The COVID-19 pandemic made it hard for low-income groups in Ottawa to put food on the table, according to Dakota Cherry. Cherry is a research partner with the Bridge Engagement Centre in Ottawa, an organization that researches how policy affects healthy equity in Ottawa.
“We measured the large amount of food insecurity that these people experience on a daily basis,” Cherry said. “They don’t have access to food, they can’t afford it. And the food that they can access is not nutritious.”
Cherry noted the Bridge Engagement Centre uses their own plot at the Kilborn Allotment Gardens to help the hungry learn how to grow fruits and vegetables. Cherry added if the city promoted these gardens, nutritious food would be accessible to marginalized people.
“Changing [our food system] has a huge impact on changing the lives of people who are most adversely impacted by climate change and COVID-19,” Cherry said.
But the Kilborn Allotment Gardens are not a priority for the city. Jean Cloutier is the Ottawa city councilor for the Alta Vista ward, which includes the Kilborn Allotment Gardens. Cloutier wrote he supported the AVTC in an email.
“My position has been consistent on this item since I became a volunteer for the Canterbury Community Association in 1987,” Cloutier wrote. “I want the AVTC to remain on [Ottawa’s] Transportation Master Plan.”
The Official Plan Ottawa passed on October 27 and became bylaw on November 25. According to the plan, the city’s population is expected to grow by 402,000 people in the next 25 years. City planners estimate they will need 194,800 new private households to house the growing population. In fact, schedule two of the city’s plan lists meeting this demand as “big policy move number one.”
“We will need to create an affordable supply of options across the city for different household types and income groups,” the plan states. “The city will accommodate this growth within its existing neighbourhoods and villages, in undeveloped greenfield areas within Ottawa’s urban boundary.”
Urban planners call the further development of already developed areas “intensification.” In Alta Vista, the neighbourhood surrounding the Kilborn Allotment Gardens, the plan mandates development of three-storey buildings where single-family residential homes currently lie.
Intensifying in a neighbourhood like Alta Vista also means the city can accommodate housing needs without encroaching on larger greenspaces outside city bounds, according to City of Ottawa manager of policy planning Alain Miguelez.
“Everything that surrounds us right now is difficult land,” Miguelez said. “It’s either land that you can’t touch because it’s agricultural, therefore protected, or is environmentally sensitive, therefore protected, or it’s an aggregate resource, therefore protected.”
Building a major road also brings commercial development, Miguelez said. He said that meant AVTC would make Alta Vista a 15-minute neighbourhood, where a variety of local amenities such as grocery stores, medical services and greenspaces are in walkable distance for residents.
Right now, Miguelez said Pleasant Park Road and Kilborn Avenue are the major corridors for Alta Vista.
Both roads are mostly single-lane residential streets. The Pleasant Park Public School and the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic school are on Pleasant Park Road. Some Alta Vista residents would rather move traffic off these roads instead of increasing transportation through the neighbourhood, according to Martha Carr, president of the Alta Vista Community Association.
“There are people that want the road. They want traffic off of their street and they want it diverted away,” she said. “You don’t often find this much available land, so there will have to be difficult discussions, with residents feeling very strongly either way.”
Enter the AVTC, a road that could sustain transportation of a denser population and move traffic off the suburban streets.
The city’s plan outlines the development of the AVTC, a road that Miguelez said has been included in the city’s Transportation Master Plan (TMP) since the 20th century. Section 1.3 of the city’s Official Plan 2A states the road will “wind through the green transportation and utility corridor behind the Ottawa Hospital and CHEO, and “is planned to be a major transportation corridor.”
The AVTC would also run through the greenspace where the Kilborn Allotment Gardens currently lie. While Miguelez declined to comment on the AVTC, he noted planners would review the proposed highway when reviewing Ottawa’s transportation plan.
“What our colleagues need to do is look at the whole network and see what happens if you take out a piece or you add a piece,” Miguelez said. “You can’t just isolate one [road], take it out and then call it a day — you have to do all the modeling for all the rest of the network.”
Miguelez said the city was waiting for traffic to return to pre-pandemic levels before Ottawa could reassess transportation needs.
Cloutier also stated that comment on the AVTC should only be made in the context of the transportation plan, which he added would be under review in 2023.
However, urban planners in charge of zoning and facilitating development have to follow their city’s Official Plan, according to professor of landscape architecture at Guelph University Karen Landman. “It really sets the agenda for how a community changes, how it develops,” Landman said. “If [a development] is in the Official Plan, it is part of the city policies. Then the planners must respond to that.”
And while the future of the AVTC might be on hold for now, planners following the Official Plan do not have to wait to propose changes to zoning by-law. On November 8, city planners proposed changing zoning by-law to allow for warehouse development at the intersection of Conroy Road and Walkley, one end of the proposed AVTC.
Residents of Alta Vista might not see the disorganized sprawl of gardening plots as an amenity, either. Landman said the appearance of an urban farming space makes it less valuable to the community.
“[Gardens] should be beautiful. If you have a rough looking farm, the people who are living around that might object.” Landman said. “But as long as it’s beautiful — surround it with some flowers, everybody loves some flowers — they will appreciate it as part of their community.”
The Kilborn Allotment Gardens are not filled with tidy rows of pretty flowers. Plots are run by people who want or need them, not professional gardeners.
But what looks unseemly to the untrained eye might serve a very important purpose to gardeners. On that cold October afternoon, De Rose’s plot was covered in a mess of cut-up garlic stalks and mulch.
De Rose said that chaos was intentional. Instead of tilling her soil in the spring she covers the ground with plant choppings and mulch to protect the soil from the sun. She calls it a “permaculture garden.”
The former government scientist added community gardens improve soil quality and give people access to locally grown food, meaning less emissions from transporting produce.
“Urban farming is probably the best thing the average citizen can do if they want to help combat the environmental crisis,” De Rose said.
Meanwhile, Cherry is working personally to get the certification from community non-profit organization Just Foods that she needs to get city funding to coordinate Ottawa community gardens. She said she plans to use the certification to ensure local gardens are accessible throughout Ottawa.
“As a young person, I see it as our responsibility to get more involved in these processes [and] determine the future of our food system,” Cherry said.