Friday, January 30, 2009

Urban agriculture for the landless

Over the last couple years, I've been reading more and more stories about people making use of otherwise ignored space in cities. Some are guerilla gardeners, sneaking about in the dark of night and making the grey city more colourful. Others are discovering rooftop gardening. And some are knocking on doors and asking their neighbours if they could plant some veggies in that backyard they never use.

That last group came to mind today, while reading "A farm in your yard," Pamela Wood's story in The Capital newspaper in Annapolis, MD. It's the story of a city dweller with little land, but a hankerin' to be a-farmin'. Like me, she seems to want to grow food and feel that connection with nature. But giving up the city is either impossible or just an unsavoury thought for most of us. So, by getting neighbours to let her farm a bit of their yard in return for a share of the produce, Eliza Toomey is finding a way to have the best of both worlds.

The story also makes reference to many other places around the Unites States where people are doing similar things, making it an inspiring read.

There have been similar stories in papers and magazines all over North America, and you can expect to read more. The localvore movement is one of the drivers, fuelled by books such as "The 100-mile diet." The economy is another factor. In England, gardeners are turning their backs on exotic flowers and clamouring for packets of carrot, broccoli and cucumber seeds, I recently read in one of the British papers (thought it was the Indy, though I can't find the article now).

I've certainly seen articles about people here in Toronto taking a similar approach to Ms. Toomey. There are entire organizations devoted to urban agriculture. If you're interested, the Food Share website is a good place to start. It's worth exploring anyway, as the group takes an innovative and multifaceted approach to the problem of hunger in the city. In 2005, a Ryerson urban and regional planning student named Tara Johnson, wrote a paper on urban agriculture that gets into a bit more detail about the promise and barriers of community and entrepreneurial urban gardens and their role in community economic development. You can access the paper (a Word file) here.

My little plot isn't much. But, as I've said before, I'm hoping it will supply a decent quantity of veg this summer. It's a couple hundred square feet, up from about 60 last year. If it works well and I find that I want to take on more next year, then I might follow Ms. Toomey's lead and start knocking on neighbour's doors. But for now, I'll just peruse the seed catalogues and dream of crisp, fresh lettuces.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Water on the brain

Detail from a mural at Bridgepoint Health,
on the edge of the Don River, Canada's most polluted river.
Photo by Craig Saunders

I've been thinking about water lately. Every time I shower, or pull the plug on my son's bath, I think about all the water going down the drain. In a week, hundreds of gallons of fairly clean greywater flows from my house into the city's wastewater system. It doesn't need to.

My city has more than 9,000 kilometres of sewers connecting the homes of a few million people. The wastewater generally flows downhill to the lake, but sometimes must be pumped uphill at one of 45 pumping stations. The more we flush, the more electricity gets used to pump that waste. Then there's a 10.5-hour treatment process at the end.

That process takes a lot of energy. more than 190 million kilowatthours. Water systems are one of the biggest parts of any city's energy bill, and because of that, one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. There's a lot a city can do, from replacing leaky old pipes to installing biogas systems to use some of the energy stored in all that poop-filled water. Homeowners can fix leaky faucets, take showers instead of baths, and really, do you need to take a full shower every day? Wouldn't a sponge bath in the sink (using just a few litres of water) suffice some days?

Every time I pull the plug on the bathtub, I think about all that water going down the drain. It's good water, with quite a few nutrients in it thanks to the soap. Then I think about my garden, a few hundred square feet of vegetables (well, it will be once the snow melts). Why not use the greywater on the garden?

I'm happy to take buckets out to the garden. I used to do this in London. But my garden paths are dirty, and I'd have to walk back and forth across the carpet in my bedroom countless times. The obvious solution is some sort of a water barrel on the back porch. Then I could carry buckets to fill it, then go outside and do the watering without tracking dirt throughout the house.

But where to get a suitable barrel? I was wondering about this, and today it came to me. The city just delivered new garbage bins. We have to use these official bins if we want our rubbish collected. That means the big, old plastic bin we had been using is just sitting at the side of the house. If the upstairs neighbours don't object, I'll put it on the back deck and use it for greywater. Now I just need to figure out some sort of spigot system for the bottom.

Then I'll have a great greywatering system for my garden. My veg will love it, it will reduce the amount of relatively clean water the city will have to treat, and it will reduce the amount of water they need to pump into the system, since I'll be using less municipal water for the garden. A win-win-win situation.

Now I just have to wait until the snow melts.