Vacant space repurposed into urban farm in Calgary’s south end

A community garden in Calgary’s south end has come alive this season as part of a city initiative to connect vacant land with urban growers. 

The CalgaryEATS! Food Action Plan was approved by council in 2012, and part of its objective is to increase accessible, affordable and local food production by activating vacant, underutilized city land for urban farming.

It partners the city with non-profits to find and develop spaces for agriculture. It aims to benefit communities through engagement, education and donations to food banks.

Between an alleyway and condo complex in Auburn Bay, planter beds are now overflowing with greenery maintained by neighbourhood residents and Hands On Growing, an education-based organization that helps communities grow local food.

Joshua Hebb, the founder of Hands On Growing, left, and Kristi Peters, a food systems planner with the city, right. (Helen Pike/CBC)

“We wanted … to showcase the things that we can build [with] these mobile urban gardens,” said Joshua Hebb, the founder and president of Hands On Growing.

“[And] so that we can have students and seniors that we work with … come on out and grow food.”

Project took years of development

Brainstorming for the urban farm in Auburn Bay started with Hands On Growing and the city 2½ years ago, Hebb said.

The pandemic made the process challenging, and suitable property needed to be found.

Although there is a lot of vacant land in the city, challenges are presented by accessibility, water access and the land’s history, said Kristi Peters, a food systems planner with the city.

“We have to look at all kinds of things, like previous uses of the site, and if there is a possibility for a contamination hazard,” Peters said.

“The city owns hundreds of vacant parcels, but there are really only a small number that are checking off those boxes.”

Highfield Farm, pictured, was established in 2019 with the help of the Compost Council of Canada and the City of Calgary. (Submitted by Kristi Peters)

An established example of the initiative is Highfield Urban Farm, a 15-acre (6.1-hectare) space in an industrial area of southeast Calgary that was selected as a site for urban agriculture and revitalized in 2019. 

According to Peters, the space in Auburn Bay also met a lot of criteria needed to develop an urban garden.

“It’s flat, it’s got great sun exposure, [and] it’s in the middle of a community,” Peters said.

Community plots to keep on gardening

The beds in the urban farm in Auburn Bay are rented to residents, and Hebb said in spite of a dry growing season, the feedback has been positive.

Community gardens give people a sense of community, belonging and a place to gather, he said.

Carla Obuck, who is with the Auburn Bay Community Association, said neighbourhood families tend to the garden, and it gives residents a worthwhile project to look after.

“One of our gardeners is an amazing 80-year-old lady,” Obuck said.

“She comes out here, she waters the community plots … it gets her out of her condo and gets her involved.”

The space is slated to eventually become a park-and-ride for the Green Line LRT. But for now, Hands On Growing has a one-year lease with the city for the space.

The gardening beds are built on palettes, so they can be moved with a forklift and to a new location if need be.

But the community is plotting to keep gardening — and asking the city to extend its one-year lease on the land to five.

“Then we can expand even more because we’re here for a longer time,” Hebb said.

“As you look around now, it’s really come together well.”

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