Root Causes

Tree expert and guerilla gardener David Tracey

The Downtown Eastside is one of Vancouver’s most infamous neighbourhoods, long notorious for its high incidence of poverty, drug addiction and homelessness. The bars, rooming houses and convenience stores that dot the area offer residents little respite. But on a patch of land tucked between two brick and cinderblock low-rises on East Hastings Street, rhubarb, beans and potatoes sprout from the soil. This formerly empty lot has been transformed into a community garden that supplies fresh organic produce to the area. “Even in the harshest parts of a city, you can still grow organic food,” David Tracey says of this improbable plot, known to locals as the Hastings Folk Garden. The 49-year-old Tracey is the enthusiastic, indefatigable coordinator of the Vancouver Community Agricultural Network (VCAN), a consortium of groups keen on promoting urban agriculture and community development, particularly in vulnerable areas. In conjunction with the Portland Hotel Community Services Society, the group that started the Hastings garden, VCAN has hosted design and planting workshops, and continues to help with planning and materials. A journalist-turned landscape architect, Tracey is also the executive director of Tree City, Vancouver’s urban greening group, and a tree care expert who consults on edible landscaping projects. His 2007 book, Guerilla Gardening: A Manualfesto, urges readers to commit random acts of city gardening. As a child, Tracey was fascinated by the idea that a seed could be grown into food. An interest in politics and the environment led to a career in journalism, where he worked for Japan’s Asahi Evening News and freelanced for the International Herald Tribune. He soon realized, however, that he didn’t want to just be writing about things, but doing them as well. He also realized that the real battle for the environment— and the future of food— was going to be in urban areas. “We have to transform our cities,” he says, insisting that they must be thought of as living organisms. Approximately 80 percent of Canadians live in cities, but in Tracey’s view, urbanites are largely disconnected from their neighbours and have lost the agricultural skills that were commonplace two generations ago. Both VCAN and Tree City seek, in different ways, to remedy this. Tree City hosts workshops that teach Vancouverites how to plant and care for trees (organic and heritage fruit trees, in particular) and Tracey himself leads tree tours every spring, as part of the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival. “Growing food in a community garden is truly a fantastic thing, for many reasons,” Tracey says. “It’s great exercise, it creates both multigenerational and cross-cultural interactions, and in the end you get healthy, nutritious fruits and vegetables. Community gardens are one of the most effective ways for someone to go from being an alienated apartment-dweller to an active community member.”