Photography lesson

The tiny gardens of East Vancouver Boulevard are a lesson in reclaiming urban space

Saba Farmand leads a walking tour of Boulevard Gardens in East Vancouver on April 22, Earth Day.Photograph by Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

Saba Farmand never planned to become a tourist guide.

A landscape architect and arborist, he can be a little cheesy when it comes to urban design and streetscapes. When he moved to the Mount Pleasant neighborhood in East Vancouver five years ago, he was fascinated by the community’s boulevard gardens, so he began photographing them. He created an Instagram account, @eastvan_blvd_gardens, to showcase the colorful and creative displays.

“I really enjoy walking around the neighborhood, and I started noticing how many great gardens there are on the boulevards here and how they dance with the surrounding streetscape,” Farmand says.

Boulevard gardens are what some people create in the tiny strips of land crammed between the sidewalk and the street. Ordinary residents, faced with these empty spaces in front of their homes and in commercial areas, take them over to plant flower gardens or grow vegetables. Some are simple flower beds or neat rows of polka dots. Others are ornate works of living street art, mixing flowers, shrubs and trees. More than a few are homes for gnomes.

In a city like Vancouver, where land prices are skyrocketing, gardens provide a means for ordinary citizens to claim some ownership and pride in their neighborhood and satisfy the need to maintain land.

“Public gardens… often don’t have the same personality as a lot of boulevard gardens,” Farmand says.

Tulips near Windsor Street and East 28th Avenue.

As his enthusiasm for these little gardens grew, so did his supporters. Last July, a local environmental non-profit organization asked him to organize a community walking tour. He agreed, on the condition that the money raised go to Mount Pleasant Neighborhood House, a group that supports recent immigrants and refugees.

It was a one-time event, but Mr. Farmand still tours on his own, publicizes it on his Instagram account, and donates the proceeds. The tours are becoming a neighborhood staple and a regular opportunity for Mr. Farmand to share his many thoughts on his favorite subject.

“Boulevard gardens help increase the sustainability of a community,” he says. And it’s not just about environmental benefits, such as providing flowers for pollinators and habitats for birds. It refers to the social and economic sustainability of neighborhoods.

“You’re more likely to meet a neighbor and talk to them if you’re gardening,” he says, adding that he notices people tend to be friendlier in neighborhoods with more boulevard gardens.

A boulevard garden surrounds a tree near Prince Albert Street and East 20th Avenue.

Close to Glen Drive and East 11th Avenue.

Close to Fraser Street and East 54th Avenue.

This garden has tiny gnome houses on Comox Street in Vancouver’s West End.

An old tire and free library near East 37th Avenue and Ridgeway Street in East Vancouver.

Hedges and grasses under moody skies near Prince Albert and East 23rd in East Vancouver.

A fascinating fact about these little gardens, Farmand says, is that most people assume they’re illegal. Many are surprised the city of Vancouver actually encourages it, he says, as long as gardeners follow published guidelines.

Hayden Kremer, the green thumb behind one of Mr Farmand’s favorite street gardens, says when he started he thought he was probably breaking the rules. “I was completely in the dark that everything was okay.” Mr. Kremer has come to appreciate the community-building elements of gardens like his. His neighbors plan to create their own boulevard garden next spring.

But not all cities allow boulevard gardening. For example, some municipalities in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland are still working on developing their own guidelines for allowing it, Farmand says.

Boulevard gardeners Hayden Kremer and Megan Reiter.

Gardening on public land can also present challenges. Some have told tales of tomatoes mysteriously vanishing, he says. And two years ago — just months into the COVID-19 pandemic — there was a spate of thefts of trees and flowers from residential gardens in East Vancouver, including a case where the assailant was filmed ripping a Japanese maple straight from someone’s front yard. .

But Megan Reiter, one of the gardeners whose land is part of Mr Farmand’s walking tour, says thefts are rare. “With tulips, for example, if I have particularly exotic ones, sometimes they disappear,” she says.

As the popularity of Mr. Farmand’s tour grows, he hopes to eventually expand beyond East Vancouver. While he has so far focused on photographing the gardens themselves, he plans to start a series of portraits of the gardeners behind them and maybe one day write a book. In the meantime, he is planning more walking tours over the summer and will continue to look after its thriving Instagram community.

Mr. Farmand continues his visit on foot.

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