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Vegetables in the Kamloops Public Produce garden feature signs telling users when and how to harvest them. (Kendra Besanger For The Globe and Mail)
Vegetables in the Kamloops Public Produce garden feature signs telling users when and how to harvest them. (Kendra Besanger For The Globe and Mail)

Can a locavore dream of public produce come true? Add to ...

In Seattle in 2010, there was enough food grown on parkland to provide almost 42,000 produce servings to non-profit agencies. Now a parcel of land owned by Seattle Public Utilities is being transformed, with municipal grant money, into the Beacon Food Forest, where the public will be able to forage for berries, nuts and fruits. Last month, the Office de consultation publique in Montreal held public hearings into urban agriculture.

Even when Michelle Obama sowed her kitchen garden on the White House lawn, it was a symbolic gesture in the same direction – although those vegetables supply the presidential kitchen, not the public.

Growing food on public ground has roots in history. It recalls the “commons” that people who lived in rural communities shared for agriculture. Before the Industrial Revolution in England, villagers grazed their animals in public fields, until they were taken over by private landowners.

Today, the urge arises in response to multiple crises in North America – economic, nutritional and environmental, says Darrin Nordahl, an urban designer who lives in California. He coined the term “public produce” in his 2009 book of the same name.

“We’ve finally realized that the way we eat and procure our food is drastically affecting our quality of life,” Mr. Nordahl says. “Even government officials are recognizing that we have an opportunity to bolster our cities’ quality of life.”

The amount of state involvement can vary from simply permitting volunteers to produce food on public land to providing labour and supplies. In Baltimore, public employees raise the seedlings for the City Hall vegetable beds in municipal greenhouses before they are planted by Master Gardener volunteers.

Mr. Nordahl recently worked with the city of Davenport in Iowa, where he enacted some of his ideas. “Probably 30 to 35 per cent of the real estate in every city boundary is publicly owned, and that’s huge. We have an opportunity here.”

What he identifies as public land includes hospital grounds, university campuses, school fields as well as the obvious parks, road boulevards and the government-building grounds – anywhere the public has free and open access.

In this way, publicly funded landscaping can play many roles beyond city beautification. It can fill hungry stomachs, improve health and ease the financial burden for struggling families.

“There is a whole lot of ornamental landscaping which isn’t serving more than our visual appetites,” says Deborah Lakowicz Dramby, a student at the University of Maryland who helped start a Public Health Garden on campus last summer. “Imagine if you could walk to a park and pick apples because you can?”

Public-produce gardens also can save the city landscaping fees, since volunteers do most of the work and there is no need to buy tulip bulbs. In 2008, when Provo, a city of just over 100,000 in Utah, cut its budget and decided not to put flowers in the planters at City Hall, a few planners sowed vegetables instead. They borrowed tools and compost from the city, tended to their planter gardens on their own time and donated the produce to the local food bank.

Some gardens even earn money. The beehives on Chicago City Hall’s green roof produce honey that is sold to the public. At the University of California at Davis, where fallen olives on campus once caused bicycle accidents, the university now collects and presses them for oil, the proceeds of which are used to finance industry research and education.

Not everyone likes the idea of food being produced in their urban neighbourhoods. Currently in Annapolis, Md., a dispute has erupted between people who want to open a community garden in a park and those who want the green space to be left alone rather than produce food for a less-prosperous area nearby. According to a local newspaper, the fight is so vicious that neighbours aren’t on speaking terms.

In Toronto, there was acrimony in the Eglinton West neighbourhood near Ben Nobleman Park when the idea of launching a public orchard was first proposed. Some tried to stop it, fearing that the fruit trees would be neglected and attract bees that could sting children.

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