Bowery Project’s urban farms blooming in Toronto’s vacant lots

Bowery Project
It’s a verdant wonderland at the Vanauley Street YMCA homeless shelter thanks to Toronto’s Bowery Project, a volunteer-based operation that transforms empty spaces into mobile urban farms that grow food for local restaurants. (Photo courtesy of Bowery Project)

As many Torontonians know, lots can stay empty for years.

“What happens with vacant lots sometimes is that developers get held up at heritage or the design committee with their plans,” says Deena DelZotto, half of the duo behind the Bowery Project, which has been transforming these eyesores into mobile urban farms that grow food for local restaurants.

But to be clear, she’s not complaining: “We thought we’d only have one season and now we’re having three.”

DelZotto and co-founder Rachel Kimel’s pop-up growing gardens brighten up the community and can be assembled in a matter of hours, then dismantled just as quickly. In their own words, the Bowery Project is “a not-for-profit organization with a mission to create opportunities for urban agriculture through the temporary use of vacant lots.”

Bowery Project
A volunteer tastes tomatillos off the plant at the YMCA urban farm. (Photo courtesy of Bowery Project)

But its transience is key to the concept, DelZotto says. When the Bowery Project approaches a developer or the owner of a vacant lot, they may be hesitant about loaning out the space.

“The whole idea of the mobility — a mobile farm — started because when we talked to landlords, they said it sounds like a good idea,” DelZotto says, “but they don’t want to give something to the community and then take it away later.

“So we thought: if we come in and the whole thing is so mobile-looking that it speaks temporality, then we’re not fooling anybody, we’re not tricking them. We’re here now but we’re going to be gone — it’s just the way it works.”

Bowery Project
The Vanauley Street shelter is a 1,500 milk crate operation, which means 750 square feet of growing space. (Photo courtesy of Bowery Project)

So they use milk crates. Hundreds of these humble blocks can turn vacant lots into mini-farms — in just one morning. The bottom milk crate creates a platform, the top milk crate is filled with soil to grow a plant, vegetable or herb.

“It’s like Lego,” DelZotto says. “The milk crate just became this incredible way.”

“To set up at Sherbourne and Gerrard, we just did a call-out on Facebook and posted a couple of things with local organizations — and 90 people showed up. All the milk crates were there, and staplers, and liners, and soil. What we thought would take an entire day actually took three hours, and we were done.”

Marketing for developers?

The Bowery Project goes one step further, beyond the obvious benefits of organic produce and green spaces in the city: Could supporting urban farms become part of a developer’s marketing strategy? Why pay for disposable, forgettable flyers and pamphlets, DelZotto says, when a developer can sponsor a farm that truly benefits, and beautifies, a neighbourhood? Residents will walk by and linger, ask questions, watch the care and harvest, and see something positive.

Last year, when the project’s Alexandra Park site, in the Dundas/Queen and Spadina/Bathurst area, was sponsored by Tridel, DelZotto says that partnership gave the Bowery Project access to a whole new team.

Volunteers with the Bowery Project
Nearly 100 volunteers put together the urban farm at Sherbourne and Gerrard, and that includes 1,500 crates, 750 liners fabricated and installed, 27 cubic tons of organic soil and compost shovelled and filled into crates, and hundreds of seeds sowed to start the vegetation and greens. (Photo courtesy of Bowery Project)

“It’s cool because it’s like another crew for us to engage when we needed to build the urban farm,” she says. “The developer has volunteers and we invite residents and we all build something together that’s positive.”

The Bowery Project currently has two large sites — 1,500 crates each, which translates into 750 square feet of growing space — at Sherbourne and Gerrard and Alexandra Park.

The Sherbourne and Gerrard farm offers up educational workshops and programming with local community organizations, such as Anishnawbe Health Toronto, Native Women’s Resource Centre and Robertson House, a nearby shelter for women and their children.

Kristin Ondevilla, activities organizer with the City of Toronto for Robertson House, says the children’s time is filled with programming — from arts and crafts to day trips, swimming to movie nights — but their days spent on the urban farm are truly rare in the city.

Bowery Project
Kids from the Alexandra Park community summer camp participate in urban farm maintenance, including massive harvests to be used in their lunch program. (Photo courtesy of Bowery Project)

“We thought it was a great opportunity for the kids to learn about plants and gardening, especially in the urban site — you don’t get that opportunity that much here in the downtown core,” she says.

“They love harvesting the vegetables, helping out with preparing the soil and watering the plants. So it’s educational and hands-on and they love to get dirty — and they’re outside getting their sunshine. It’s a great program for the kids.”

Ondevilla adds that, on one occasion, Toronto Police on horseback noticed the garden activity and stopped by to chat with the children, who were eager to pet the horses. The scene recalls what DelZotto describes — a feeling of community at the farm.

“When the kids are out there,” Ondevilla says, “they get noticed in the community, people want to see what they’re up to.”

The Bowery Project has a fairly short but complex life cycle — landing a new site, setup and planting, care and maintenance, harvesting, working with the community, and finally enjoying the fresh produce — and then, sometimes, wrapping up next spring and moving somewhere else.

A "before" photo shot from above at the Oben Flats vacant lot at Sherbourne and Gerrard, now filled in with an urban farm producing more than 400 pounds of produce annually. (Photo courtesy of Chris So)
A “before” photo shot from above at the Oben Flats vacant lot at Sherbourne and Gerrard, now filled in with an urban farm producing more than 400 pounds of produce annually. (Photo courtesy of Chris So)

Asked which part is her favourite, DelZotto’s quick to reply.

“The people we engage on the site. It’s so incredible,” she says. “Our impact is more than the growing of food — it’s really the community engagement. That was so huge this year, with the kids coming. I would say it’s been really meaningful.”

“Every site has its own story,” she adds.

Bowery Project
Greens, herbs, beets, tomatoes and more jewels of the earth harvested from one of the Bowery Project’s urban farms. (Photo courtesy of Bowery Project)

DelZotto points out that there’s a bacterium in soil that produces similar effects as an anti-depressant, and getting dirty on the farm can actually make you happier. She calls it “horticultural therapy.” In an increasingly negative world, she says, building something that brings people together and feeds them is a bright spot. Her “utopian Toronto” would be filled with urban farms.

‘I just think that every rooftop or vacant space with the right conditions should have more urban farms,” DelZotto says. “We should just grow more food in the city.”

Anyone interested in donating or volunteering can email info@boweryproject.ca.

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