Dense Surrey centre needs more community gardens, residents say

Waiting lists are the only thing growing

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By MARILYN REICHERT

With increasing concern over rising food and housing costs, Surrey residents want access to community gardens. But there are few options in the city’s densest neighbourhood.

Kathie Handley spent four years growing food in the Chuck Bailey garden before it closed in spring 2023. 

“Construction was supposed to have started before the new year… the rec centre doesn’t know when it’s going to start again,” Handley told the Voice.

The garden was shut down for the planned expansion of the recreation centre. One growing season has been lost and there is still no sign of construction. Handley fears it will be a long time before her neighbourhood gets its garden back.

“I was looking for something outside my apartment, and there are a lot of apartment dwellers around here. I’ve always had a little garden of some sort, but last year nothing. Just my little balcony which is pretty small,” Handley said.

The estimated 2024 population of Surrey is 684,485, up from 659,126 in 2023. If the population projections are right, Surrey will surpass Vancouver in population in 2029, when Surrey’s estimated population will be 785,619. And much of that increase is in the city centre.

Yet, there have been few community gardens added to match the growth. The two existing city centre community gardens are not walking distance to many city centre residents.

Handley misses the benefits of walking to the garden each day, along with the fresh tomatoes, beans, beets and onions. There were always enough fruits of her labour to offset food insecurity issues. Each year she would freeze the excess vegetables and those would carry her through the winter into the next growing season.

Community gardens should be accessible, sizeable

Previous to gardening at Chuck Bailey, Handley had a plot in another community garden, but it was too far to walk. As she aged, she found it was too large to handle. She liked the Chuck Bailey garden because it was a close walk to her condo, had raised beds which were easier on her body and made getting to know her neighbours easy.

“I did phone around and try to apply for other gardens, but the waiting lists are very, very long so it could be years before I get into another garden.”

There are approximately 20 people on each waiting list for the two existing community gardens in North Surrey, which are not in Surrey Centre.

Dan Nielsen, Surrey’s Manager  of Landscape Operations and Park Partnership, receives community garden applications. Before the January 2024 deadline there were three requests, two of which are for the city centre area.

“We would endeavour to build one a year right now within our budget,” said Nielsen. This year’s budget is $80,000, enough to establish one community garden in the whole city. 

“It’s when you get that community capacity and interest like residents saying, yeah, I want to be involved, and you find the appropriate space as well, then that’s where you think you’re lined up for success,” he said. Each application requires a list of 12 citizens’ names.

Once location is determined by Nielsen’s department working in partnership with city planners, the city builds the infrastructure for the garden. Nielsen’s department will oversee digging up the land, or placement of raised beds, measure off the garden plots and put dividing wood rails around each section, bring in appropriate growing soil, pipe the water from the street, install security fencing around the garden perimeter, and add a secured shed for storage.

The garden is expected to be run by the community, not the city. 

“Our model is that it will operate independent. It is not city staffed. It is the community coming together to manage it,” Nielsen said. “The city is not involved in the day-to-day operations. If they need something, like something fails with the irrigation system, we can assist.”

Gardens can improve physical and mental health

Dawn Climie lives on the eastern edge of Surrey’s city centre. Her plot in the Cedar Grove Organic Garden is a short walk from their home, but not for the residents in the core of the city. Climie discovered the garden while walking in the neighbourhood and has been growing vegetables and flowers there for 11 years. 

Originally started in 1999, the garden’s vision had been to influence food accessibility for people near the city core. Although the garden works in partnership with Surrey, it is run solely by citizens. 

“I think community gardens are incredibly valuable. They give a person a sense of community,” said Climie. “For sure I would say the community garden has a significant impact on my family,” with the provision of fresh seasonal vegetables and the capacity to freeze the excess for use during winter months.

The size of the plots — almost five metres by five metres — is what attracted Climie to the garden. A previous plot in Guildford’s Holly Park community garden was much smaller and incapable of producing enough to address food insecurity.

“I think the city needs to realize that those dinky tiny plots are fine if you live a block or two away … If a person is having to drive to get there, any environmental benefits have just been washed down the drain.”

Climie believes the success of her current garden, which has functioned for more than 20 years, is because “it is a good enough size that people are willing to stay around.” 

Surrey City Counsellor Linda Annis loves to garden. “I wish I had more time because I love getting my fingers dirty and really getting into it,” she said.

“There should be a few more community gardens in our city centre area … particularly as the city is building, and we’re densifying, a lot more people don’t have a place to garden any longer.”

Annis said community gardens improve the mental health of area residents.

“Community gardens bring community together, while it gives people an opportunity to grow their own food for food security, but more importantly, it provides the social interaction element.”

The increasingly dense city centre with more towers being constructed “needs community gardens the most,” Annis said.

“We know our city is growing between 1,200 to 1,500 people each and every month. We need to be keeping up with green space and specifically gardens for people to be able to enjoy the outdoors and some of the fruits from their labours.”

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