Over the holidays, the Tyee, a Vancouver-based webzine, published a series of twelve “New Ideas for the New Year.” Here’s one that really caught my attention: planting fruit trees on city streets.
While the benefits of greening the city are well-known — street trees provide shade, suck up storm water, remove carbon from the atmosphere and reduce the urban heat island effect — the notion of actually eating the things we plant in our streets is still quite novel. By doing so, however, we would gain an important local food supply and a way to bring people together.
That has been the experience of the Edible Campus, a container garden on McGill University’s downtown campus that I wrote about last November. Over the course of last year’s growing season, it produced one third of the food needed by Santropol Roulant, a meals on wheels service, and drew together a diverse group of volunteers who helped maintain the garden.
What really struck me, though, was the way that ordinary passersby used the garden. People make a point to pass through what had previously been an barren concrete space between a Brutalist highrise and the entrace to underground lecture halls. They stopped to examine the plants, sat on the benches near the garden, and walked through a wood archway that had been erected in the midst of the containers. Little kids were especially delighted when they ran around the garden, which must seem more like a forest when you’re three feet tall.
Fruit-bearing street trees could have a similar effect. Cultivation would be a communal activity; imagine a neighbourhood apple-picking festival. The Tyee goes even further by suggesting that fruit trees could reinforce neighbourhood identities and immigrant cultures, much in the same way that community gardens allow people to plant varieties of fruits and vegetables that are hard to find in Canada.
In Vancouver, the parks commission has already started planting 600 fruit trees in city parks; community groups will harvest the fruit when it’s ready in three to five years. Meanwhile, the Fruit Tree Project arranges with homeowners to collect fruit from under-picked trees on their property. The harvested fruit is donated to community kitchens and people in need.
Here in Montreal, there is a far more limited variety of fruits that could be grown. Still, climate would not be as much an obstacle to fruit trees as the risk of neglect and mistreatment. For years, street trees weren’t given enough space to grow, and many sidewalk planters were left unprotected by grates, as anyone who has tripped into one can attest.