Life on the edge


Life on the edge

How boulevard gardens can cultivate community.

Photo by Kim Bellavance Photographe

Saba Farmand can still remember the day when he found what just might be his favourite garden in Vancouver. About 10 years ago, the landscape architect was out for a stroll in his new neighbourhood of Mount Pleasant. It was spring. Everything was blooming. And then there it was in front of a corner lot, filling up the sliver of land between the street and the sidewalk: ornamental grasses almost as tall as Farmand himself, hostas, ferns, evergreen shrubs, and perennial flowers bursting in yellows and purples and reds. “It was just like, ‘Damn, this is amazing!’” remembers Farmand.

Known as boulevard gardens, these tiny urban oases start off as scraps of unremarkable turf, the likes of which can be seen all over the city. “Guerilla” gardeners began the surreptitious practice of turning such scraps into something more appealing, but nowadays some cities, including Vancouver, actively encourage residents to transform them into more eye-catching green spaces (as long as they follow certain guidelines).

Farmand was struck by how gorgeous the boulevard garden was that he found, and also by the fact that someone would go to all of this work to beautify their community. He soon noticed other boulevard gardens in the neighbourhood, met some of the planters, and started thinking about the positive social and environmental benefits they bring. “They are subtle little interventions,” he says, “but they can actually bring a lot to a community. I really started to cherish them.”

Now Farmand has turned that love into a popular Instagram account (@eastvan_blvd_gardens). He’s also started giving annual spring walking tours to highlight some of his favourite creations. All the proceeds from the tours go to Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House (MPNH), a social services organization providing everything from childcare to programs for seniors.

Far from just presenting garden eye candy, however, both the Instagram account and tours are a way into bigger topics around environmental education, nature awareness, and urban literacy, says Farmand. Some of the Instagram photo captions, for instance, are about architecture, heritage, and the people who planted the gardens. Likewise, each tour stop is related to a larger theme. Farmand typically talks about how boulevard gardens allow more contact with nature and all the health benefits that can come from that. Then he gets into why urban biodiversity is important to environmental sustainability and how the gardens support that. The final few stops are more about the community itself, including some of its history.

From 23 participants in 2021 to about 200 last year, the walks have raised over $4,000 for MPNH so far, says Farmand. “It’s been so great to see these take off and give so much back.” And to think it all started with just a walk around Mount Pleasant, he adds. He hopes it inspires others to hit the sidewalks too. “There’s so much to uncover and appreciate just by walking around your neighbourhood. So get out there. Explore.”