Vikram Bhatt, Director of McGill's Minimum Cost Housing Group

“I’m not growing any food in my garden at home just now,” said Viram Bhatt, “but I have a good herb garden.” / Photo: Neale McDevitt
“I’m not growing any food in my garden at home just now,” said Viram Bhatt, “but I have a good herb garden.” / Photo: Neale McDevittTransforming heat islands into oases

From heat island to oasis

By Neale McDevitt

“This isn’t a about fighting against parking lots and plazas,” said Vikram Bhatt in the middle of a fertile patch of radishes, carrots, sunflowers and pumpkins that thrives on the east side of Burnside Hall where but a few short years ago only concrete and a rock basin could be found. “This is about working together to make better use of our city spaces.”

Bhatt, the Director of the McGill School of Architecture’s Minimum Cost Housing Group (MCHG) is one of the main architects – or landscapers, in this case – of the Edible Campus project that has transformed the barren concrete plaza surrounding Burnside into a veritable Eden stocked with more than 160 containers growing over 25 varieties of fruit, vegetables and herbs, and numerous edible flowers.

Recently, Bhatt spoke with the McGill Reporter from the middle of the garden. Pausing only to yank a stubborn weed here and there, Bhatt discussed the genesis of the garden and the endless growing possibilities this model provides for urban dwellers.

How long have you been interested in urban agriculture?

We’ve been working on urban agriculture for many years, since before it was even known as urban agriculture. The MCHG built it’s first rooftop garden potager on a community centre on Saint Urbain Street in 1974.

Since 2000, I’ve been involved in a global project to see how productive growing can be integrated in cities in the south, particularly in areas where there is a lot of unemployment.

There has always been a lot of informal growing going on in these places but we want to make it formally recognized as part of the city infrastructure so that it can be properly supported.

When were the seeds of the Edible Garden project first sown?

Our two partners in the Edible Garden project are Montreal-based NGOs Alternatives and Santropol Roulant. They had had a rooftop garden at UQAM but they lost the garden when the building they were using underwent renovations. They approached McGill and they asked for a rooftop where they could grow a garden.

But the people in the Buildings, Grounds and Special Events department had concerns with a rooftop garden because of security and access issues.  Besides, the MCHG had been promoting rooftop gardens in urban centres in Sri Lanka, Uganda and Argentina since 2004. We wanted to bring the gardens down from the rooftops and put them in full view of everybody.

Why Burnside Hall?

In Burnside we have a rooftop that is not a rooftop in the form of these heat islands so common in every city. We wanted to design something to take advantage of these spaces because we saw it as an opportunity to introduce positive functions to spaces that are underutilized or neglected.

Plants do very well on heat islands because they thrive by absorbing that heat. And the walls of Burnside can be used to grow beans. They love it.

But the Garden has given the McGill community much more than a lesson in small-scale farming, no?

Of course. Even though it looks like a modest plastic bucket undertaking, it has to be seen from different points of view. It isn’t a one-hectare farm where you are just producing. We are trying to produce, certainly, but at the same time we want to transform spaces. We have so many neglected spaces and corridors in our cities and we could do a lot with them. The Burnside Plaza used to be a through-place where people just walked by. Suddenly, it has become a kind of place where people can come and sit and enjoy themselves.

And schools bring children here so they can help plant and take care of the garden. If they are interested in this type of activity early on, they have a good chance of continuing later on.

What happens to the food you grow?

Basically we are helping a community-based partner who is really engaged. Santropol Roulant is first-class NGO that runs a meals-on-wheels program for mobility-impaired people. In our first year, we supplied about 30 per cent of the daily Santropol’s 80-100 clients. Last year was a bit more and this year will be even more because we’ve expanded the garden. We will also be distributing food baskets to poorer neighborhoods. It is a real university-community partnership model.

Speaking of models, could Edible Campus be transplanted, so to speak, around Montreal?

There are all kinds of institutions that can take lessons from this – if you are courageous enough.  How big is the Place Ville Marie plaza? Imagine how many people would love to use part of their lunchtime working in a box garden.

People are concerned about the quality of the food they eat, and people are also concerned about environmental and ecological issues. People are also trying got find other leisure and pleasure activities other than just going to the mall. This is a wonderful outdoor experience. If you have very little space, this project serves as a very good demonstrator. If you have a balcony, a little terrace, a railing from which you can hang little boxes – it’s not only geraniums – you can grow herbs and vegetables, you can mix and match. It works wonderfully.

Is this idea new?

Not in the rest of the world where the landscape attitudes are often more pragmatic than our historical views.

In a traditional Hindu home, for example, you’ll find basil growing in the entrance of a house or in the courtyard.  It has religious significance, medicinal value, and is a natural mosquito repellent. Potagers and kitchen gardens are found all around the world.

These types of gardens could significantly alter our urban landscape, could they not?

Absolutely. You can well imagine vines growing in heat islands with much of the surface covered by plants. It goes from a heat island always exposed to the sun to a landscaped plaza which is now filtering the sun that comes down. It gives you places to sit and celebrate. You can imagine this type of landscaping in a parking lot in which you create a landscape where multiple functions overlap and compliment each other.

Tell me about the international face of this – the Edible Landscape project.

Since 2004, we’ve worked in Colombo, Sri Lanka; Rosario, Argentina; and Kampala, Uganda.

In Kampala, we are involved with a group of about 120 poor families. It is a brand-new housing project so we’ve been able to design the gardens first and build the houses around them. The best part is that the houses may be financed by proceeds from the garden.

In Sri Lanka we’ve been upgrading a squatters’ settlement of a few hundred families. Unfortunately the squatters’ settlements in Southeast Asia are very crowded – you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire. In those types of places it is hard to find growing spaces. So people do a lot of containerized growing along the wall, in wall-hung planter boxes – these kinds of things have been well received. That’s quite rewarding.

I would say Rosario is the world-leader in integrating productive growing in cities. We were involved in a couple of projects. One squatter’s settlement was upgraded so that unused spaces have been converted into productive growing areas. Today more than 10,000 families are participating – it really has gone to the next level. The city maintains half a dozen public markets and the produce which is grown in squatters’ settlements now gets sold in the highest real estate areas, similar to Westmount. The city helps organize the farms, and teaches people about organic growing, composting and verimculture. They also supply transportation and have set up a central processing area where the produce is washed and wrapped. It’s become almost like a gourmet scene – people have begun to make jams, jellies and baked goods. The municipality has started to make agro-beauty products – skin creams, etc. made out of the produce grown in these gardens.

In the face of the food security problems that the world is facing, how important are projects like Edible Campus?

Food security is one of the major issues of this millennium. In Quebec, one in six people are food insecure – they aren’t getting adequate food for their physical needs. Often it is because food isn’t readily available in their neighborhood – they live in a food desert.

Our objective is not to change things just for change – we want people to ask the simple questions: what am I eating and where is it coming from? Once you do this you begin to appreciate what is on your plate all the more.