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Street Gardeners

Wrote this one back in 2004 when I was doing the regular radio bit on CBC’s North by Northwest. The Green Streets program is still going strong – with more than 300 gardens now and a beautiful coffee table book highlighting some of the best. My friend Terry Dixon has retired to a life of gardening and sailing.

I was walking the streets in a neighbourhood once known for its street walkers; now gaining fame for its street gardeners. Mount Pleasant is one of Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhoods, yet is sadly lacking in trees and park space. But all that is changing with the Green Streets brigade of volunteers. I was with Terry Dixon, Vancouver’s Green Streets program coordinator.

“The program invites neighbours to adopt traffic circles and corner bulges,” said Terry.

“Bulges?” I asked.

“Yes, they’re located at the corner of intersections and help to shorten the crossing distance for pedestrians,” she said.

“There’s got to be a better name than bulges. It sounds so unsightly,” I said. Terry laughed and blamed the misnomer on city engineers.

The city landscapes the gardens initially with low-growing, drought-tolerant perennials and shrubs. Then the gardeners are welcome to plant their favourites too. There are now over 200 Green Streets gardens around the city; that’s 70% of the traffic circles now weeded and watered by residents.

The purpose of traffic circles and corner “bulges” as they are unfortunately called is to calm traffic and make the neighbourhood more pedestrian safe. But this creative street design initiative has more benefits than safety; it also beautifies the neighbourhood and adds green space, brings neighbours together, helps to cut down on littering, vandalism and graffiti and creates pleasant walkways and seating areas for residents.

And that brings me to a dynamic duo who has been working on greening their neighbourhood since the 1990s. Sylvia Holland and Catherine Kerr commandeer seven Green Streets gardens and a dozen more guerilla garden patches around home turf at Sophia and 14th.

According to Sylvia, guerilla gardening is a “spirited attack on barren urban spaces with seeds, plants and garden tools.” She sees it as a healthy response for neighbourhoods facing vandalism, drug dealing and garbage dumping challenges.

But a guerilla gardener is no average gardener – they have to be in fighting shape. Sometimes it’s a battle just to water their garden patch.

“This one garden we maintain is on the other side of a four foot wall – and of course the water tap isn’t on the garden side,” said silver-haired Catherine.

One day she was leaping back and forth over the wall to water the garden and refill the watering can. A group of young neighbourhood boys watched her spry acrobatics. Finally, one of the boys called out, “Hey lady, are you young?”

“Gardening and tool hauling really is a no cost fitness program,” Catherine laughs. No bulges on her!

In addition to secateurs, trowels and spades, the street gardener’s arsenal may also include a hacksaw and an ax.

“I have to chop up abandoned couches from time to time and put them in the dumpster,” says Catherine. She’s also made repairs to tumbledown fences and picked up garbage by the ton.

“One of the perils of street gardening is trying to actually get some gardening done because people want to talk to us when they see us digging in the dirt,” says Sylvia. “We get a lot of people thanking us as they walk by; some really want to engage us.”

“Hey, do you have any of those things that come up in November?” asked one man.

“Do you mean it blooms in November or comes out of the ground in November?” asked Sylvia, trying to narrow down the field.

“Comes out of the ground,” he replies.

“Where were you living when you saw these?” Sylvia astutely thinks to ask.

“In Manitoba,” he says.

My God you couldn’t get a pitchfork into the ground in November in Manitoba, she thinks to herself. But in the end it’s not really about the plant at all, it’s a story the man wants to tell; a sweet childhood memory of helping his mother lift plants out of the ground in the fall.

City employees and volunteers like Catherine and Sylvia have together created a wellness walkway in this neighbourhood too. This necklace of small gardens runs along a frequently used pedestrian route. The gardens and intersecting pathways include benches for resting, shade canopies and curb cuts for wheelchairs and walkers. The seating areas become outdoor living rooms and social gathering places for folks who live in tiny apartments or care facilities nearby.

So street gardening has its rewards, but what happens if a favourite plant gets stolen or worse, an entire traffic circle gets trashed?

“Well, it’s a lesson in detachment for sure,” says Sylvia. “Detachment and tolerance for differences in styles, customs and cultures. But we do lose it sometimes.”

One day Catherine came home and said to Sylvia, “Did you hear that crazy woman yelling out there?”

“No,” said Sylvia, “the windows were closed.”

“Well it was me,” confessed the soft-spoken woman.

For the second time, a certain neighbour had pruned the shrubs into rectangles in one of the larger gardens. In his home country, it is customary to have all paved edges showing. For five years, Sylvia had been working hard to soften the edges of that sidewalk.

But still the street gardeners soldier on, because even when they aren’t softening their sharp edges, they can still do battle with their bulges.

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