Vancouver envisions radicchio on its rooftops

Special to The Times

The residential skyscrapers in downtown Vancouver, Canada, are already covered with green. Rooftops and balconies overflow with ornamental vines, shrubs, even midsize magnolia and maple trees. And now, there's more.

Vancouver is launching a novel green initiative aimed at bringing food-producing gardens to the city's high-density developments. In what may be a first for a North American city, municipal planners have crafted a set of "urban agriculture" conditions for a new downtown neighborhood: Southeast False Creek, an 80-acre mixed-use community springing up on the former site of a shipyard.

Developers will be required to include "edible landscaping" and productive food garden spaces for rooftops and balconies. In the fall, planners will expand the False Creek policy to include such guidelines for all new multifamily projects in Vancouver.

One developer is ahead of the game. Last July, residents moved into the Freesia, a 19-story high-rise in downtown Vancouver and the first condominium project in the city to incorporate garden plots for residents. Situated on the seventh-floor mezzanine rooftop, the area features 60 wood-frame raised beds, a tool shed and garden lockers.

The Freesia and Southeast False Creek represent a "brave new world," said Michael Levenston, director of City Farmer, a Vancouver nonprofit organization. Most North Americans garden for recreation, not for food, he said, but urbanization, as well as concerns about climate change and food safety, are driving the trend toward locally grown foods in cities.

"You can't get more local than your own home," Levenston said. "We're going to see more of this in the future, no question."

Over the last few years, farmers markets and organic grocery stores have proliferated in cities around North America. But if stalking the locally grown tomato has become all the rage among some urban dwellers, getting condominium residents to raise their own strawberries and radicchio is another story.

"Urban agriculture demands a complete rethink of how the public and private realm is designed," said Janine de la Salle, the author of a report on how food will be grown at Southeast False Creek. Residents will not be required to garden, but the city is hoping the project will serve as a model for innovative sustainability practices.

The Southeast False Creek conditions require shared garden plots for 30% of the neighborhood's residential units that lack access to balconies or patios of at least 100 square feet. False Creek buildings also will have a maximum of 12 stories to increase green space and sun exposure. Plans call for fruit trees and raised beds on rooftops, courtyards lined with blueberry bushes, and balcony trellises to support fruit-bearing vines.

"It's a massive experiment," acknowledged Elaine Stevens, a professional gardener and a member of the community group advising the Southeast False Creek developers.

A public-private partnership, Southeast False Creek will house about 16,000 people when completed in 2020, and will include a school, child-care centers and green building features.

Millennium Group developers -- who received no tax incentives for the project -- and the city are now working on the first phase of False Creek: Millennium Water, a 14-acre, $1-billion community that will also house the Olympic Village during the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. Millennium Water will open in fall 2010 and will include 350 units of affordable housing and 750 condominiums and town homes priced, in U.S. dollars, from $421,250 to $5.6 million.

But all is not rosy.

Almost a year after the first residents moved into the Freesia project, the rooftop garden beds remain unplanted, except for a few azaleas and lavender, courtesy of the developers. Residents said having to pay for the plots -- $2,621 (U.S.) for a 24-square-foot raised bed -- was a deterrent.

"The price is just too high," said Farzad Forooghian, a 29-year-old lawyer who is spearheading an effort to activate the garden area.

So far, only two of the plots have sold.

Another problem is that about half of the Freesia's 181 units are investor-owned, and many renters lack the opportunity and the inclination to purchase a plot.

Freesia developer Henry Man said he may hand over the Freesia beds to the homeowners association for management of the food gardens communally but also said he is unperturbed by the still-dormant plots.

"Condos take a while to settle in," he said. "It's a normal evolution."

He is now developing a second high-rise with garden plots: the 29-story Atelier, which will open in 2009. Prices for the 200 units start at $655 a square foot. The raised beds will be free.

As public and private food garden initiatives move forward, it is important for people to remember the underlying purpose, said Vickie Morris, a city planner. "It's about the taste and joy of eating the food you grow," she said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World