Community gardeners at the Dashmesh Culture Centre. Photo courtesy of Dashmesh Culture Centre

What community gardens tell us about inequality

In Calgary, this amenity isn’t available to all.

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This year, the COVID-19 pandemic brought about a resurgence of urban agriculture to cities around the world, and Calgary was no exception. In the spring, many Calgarians turned to their backyards and community gardens and began growing their own food.

Green-thumbed Calgarians enjoy the many benefits of collective gardening in the 150 community gardens scattered across the city. Community gardens can help support a strong sense of community and promote physical and mental health—they seem to be especially effective at combating social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Natasha Guillot, executive director of the Calgary Horticultural Society, community gardens are “one of the few places that are safe” for people to gather during the pandemic.

But like many things in Calgary, community gardens aren’t an amenity readily available to all. Earlier this year, a group of University of Calgary researchers published a paper that made an unsettling (yet unsurprising) finding: areas with a higher percentage of visible minorities are less likely to have a community garden.

“The communities where [community gardens] were found were less diverse than the average,” said Noel Keough, co-author of the research paper and associate professor of sustainable design at the University of Calgary.

Areas with a higher percentage of visible minorities are less likely to have a community garden.

In Calgary, there are 47 census tracts where nearly half the population identify as a visible minority—mostly in the northeast—but only seven of these tracts have a community garden.

Strikingly, the 92,694 Calgarians who live in Ward 5 got their only public community garden just this year at the Dashmesh Culture Centre in Martindale.

The 'Deerfoot divide'

Ethnically diverse communities in Calgary are concentrated in the city’s northeast—specifically east of Deerfoot Trail.

The “Deerfoot divide” has long been discussed, as communities located east of Deerfoot Trail tend to lag behind the rest of the city when it comes to infrastructure and amenities. “There are many challenges faced by community groups,” said Cesar Cala, a Calgary community activist. “Particularly in that part of Calgary, compared to other places in Calgary.”

As the second wave of COVID-19 started its rise in October, Ward 5 Councillor George Chahal highlighted the disparate reality of Calgary’s northeast communities. “Some areas, and some people, matter more than others in Calgary,” he wrote in the Calgary Herald. And more recently, these communities have even been singled out as a culprit of rising COVID-19 cases by audacious politicians.

Residents of Ward 5 face higher unemployment rates and lower incomes. Most notably, three out of five residents of this ward are immigrants, and nearly 80% identify as a visible minority.

Strong social supports are essential to the long-term success of immigrants as they start their new lives in a new country.

Given the demographic characteristics of this area, community gardening can offer some of the tools newcomers need to build the social connections that will help them thrive, and to develop a sense of belonging to Calgary and to their neighbourhood.

Strong social supports are essential to the long-term success of immigrants as they start their new lives in a new country. For instance, developing social connections that bridge across communities and cultures allows them not only to improve their employment prospects, but also to feel like meaningful members of the larger community.

And community gardens have proven to support these aspects. Community gardening is an activity that can increase social involvement, civic engagement, and community building. Gardeners (including immigrants and refugees) report feeling more attached to their neighbourhood and consequently they’re encouraged to become more involved and make positive contributions to their community.

For these reasons, cities across North America often encourage gardening as an activity to help integrate newcomers. In Calgary, the Immigrant Education Society (TIES) embraced gardening for this very reason.

“[Community gardening] was a familiar activity that was a viable way to go about bolstering our programming,” said Cesar Suva, director of research and program development at TIES.

If there aren’t community gardens in certain quadrants of the city, it’s not because the City of Calgary hasn’t planned any for that area.

Kristi Peters,

Food systems planner, City of Calgary

The organization started GROW, a gardening skills program, in an attempt to do something beyond skill-training and language, and community gardening fit the bill. “It was an activity that is familiar and at the same time works towards their integration and their familiarity with each other,” he noted.

Suva emphasizes the importance of having a “universal activity” like gardening for newcomers as they struggle to find their footing in a new country. “They’re not familiar with the climate, they’re not familiar with the environment, they’re not familiar with the language,” he said.

But this program is only available to TIES students—not to the community at large. So when participants complete their studies, the community gardens are no longer available to them.

Rooted in community

Non-profit organizations like the Immigrant Education Society, the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society and the Alex Community Food Centre are bringing the benefits of gardening to marginalized communities in Calgary. Yet the uptake of community gardens in northeast Calgary has been slow.

In Calgary, community gardens are usually grassroots efforts led by residents and supported by their community association.

“If there aren’t community gardens in certain quadrants of the city, it’s not because the City of Calgary hasn’t planned any for that area,” said Kristi Peters, a food systems planner at the City of Calgary. “It’s because the community association hasn’t expressed any interest.”

Community associations are not that rooted yet.

Cesar Cala,

Community activist

To start a community garden on public land, the city requires the support of the community association. But for residents of northeast Calgary, starting a community garden is not as simple as heading over to their community association to ask for support.

Unlike the rest of the city, community associations in this quadrant are not as robust.

“Community associations are not that rooted yet,” Cala said. “Many of the neighbourhoods, especially north of McKnight, are new neighbourhoods compared to the more established places in Calgary.”

This is another big difference between northeast Calgary and the rest of the city. “With new immigrants their associations tend to be the immigrants association, the church—and that’s not really community [association] based,” Keough explained. “Their social affiliations are not so much with the community geographically based but based on their ethnic origin or their church.”

With limited time and resources available, and with a strong preference to support religious organizations, it can be difficult for a group of immigrants to organize and start a community garden themselves.

“Ironically, many of them come from farming or gardening cultures,” said Cala. “You would intuitively think they would gravitate towards community gardens, and I think they do, but there’s too many hurdles.”

The community garden formed in Martindale this year is an example of the importance of such scaffolding.”

“You need to have an organizational mechanism—I call it a scaffolding—to support you as a group of gardeners. There’s many things involved like access to water, a regularity of land stewardship and all of those that often you take for granted. If it’s just gardening, easy. But…” Cala trails off.

The community garden formed in Martindale this year is an example of the importance of such “scaffolding.”

When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March, the Dashmesh Culture Centre and the Martindale Community Association joined forces to create the only public community garden in Martindale. The main goal was to keep seniors active during the lockdown. “It was a real struggle for them,” said Raj Sidhu, director of operations of the Dashmesh Culture Centre.

Swiftly, members of the community got together, and with in-kind donations and volunteers the garden was started. “Once the idea came about, it grew,” Sidhu said. “Within a few days we had material on site, the prepping was on site. Within a week or two it was up and running.”

Once you start it, the community really gravitates towards it.

Raj Sidhu,

Director of operations, Dashmesh Culture Centre

When I asked Sidhu if they had faced any challenges, his response was blunt: “Absolutely zero obstacles.”

In his view, the main reason why there aren’t more community gardens in the northeast is just a matter of initiative. “Once you start it, the community really gravitates towards it,” he said.

But for others the reality is much more complex.

The Dashmesh Culture Centre is one of the largest faith-based organizations in Calgary and they are well-versed in kickstarting grassroots initiatives. They have the resources necessary to successfully plan and execute their projects.

Their success is an exception, not a norm, and starting a community garden requires more than initiative. “From the social capital point of view,” Keough said, “it has to do with access to resources, has to do with social connections to agencies, to city departments, just having that capital to be able to negotiate all of that.”

The challenge of connection

Social capital is a key determinant of upward mobility for immigrants. So even if they initially face difficulties, newcomers should be able to develop the connections necessary to achieve a higher standard of living.

But this can be difficult when everyone around you also faces precarious employment and de-professionalization. When everyone else in your network is also struggling and working two or three jobs it becomes harder to build the bridges that can help everyone out of poverty.

Many Calgarians lack the community connections they need to ask for the resources that will help them thrive.

Religious and settlement organizations may be strong and helpful, but they’re not enough. In an area where more nearly 70% of immigrants have been in Canada for more than 10 years, the concentrated precariousness should be unacceptable.

(Research shows that it can take up to 10 years for an immigrant to become established and build a social network and access opportunities comparable to Canada-born folks.)

The slow uptake of community gardens east of Deerfoot may hint at a larger problem: Many Calgarians lack the community connections they need to even ask for the resources that will help them thrive.

“That [scaffolding] continues to be a challenge in that part of the city,” Cala said.

“It just reflects some of the social economic inequities already in place, and then if you put the overlay of community gardens then you will see how this is.”

Ximena González is assistant editor of The Sprawl.



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CORRECTION 12/10/2020: We originally used the previous name of the Immigrant Education Society. The Sprawl regrets the error.

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