East Van Boulevard Gardens tours plant seeds for community growth

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      The little scrap of city land between the sidewalk and the road may not look like much, but with some careful planting they can be home to thriving boulevard gardens. 

      It’s these interactions between public land and private gardening that intrigued landscape architect Saba Farmand, who in 2019 started documenting “each and every” boulevard garden in East Vancouver on his Instagram account, @eastvan_blvd_gardens

      “It started out as my love for walking through my neighbourhood of Mount Pleasant and taking photos of cityscapes: all the things I see on the streets that I found interesting, like the architecture, landscaping, the street trees, basically all the quirky great things that are abundant in some of our more hybrid, city-but-suburban neighbourhoods in Vancouver,” Farmand told the Straight over the phone. 

      Over the past few years, the Instagram account has steadily risen to several thousand followers—and Farmand has taken the digital project to the streets, organizing walking tours to show participants the more off-beat sights of Mount Pleasant landscaping. 

      The next batch is happening through the end of April, to coincide with Earth Day and raise money for local charity Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House. But this isn’t your typical garden tour, as Farmand discusses environmental education, nature awareness and urban literacy alongside hyper-local history. The gardens are microcosms of place and community.

      “Everything that you see on our streets is built. It wasn’t pre-existing, it all came after colonial contact,” Farmand said. Much of landscape architecture is done on a big, planned scale—but boulevard gardens let individuals exercise a little bit of that planning. 

      While boulevard gardens might seem like an odd choice of passion project at first, talking to Farmand makes it clear that the extra planting room serves to do more than just make the neighbourhood look nicer in photos.

      “I really do believe that boulevard gardens contribute to the three pillars of sustainability,” he said. 

      True sustainability has to be environmentally, socially and economically sustainable, Farmand explained.

      “When you replace the lawn on a boulevard with flowers and shrubs, you’re increasing food habitat and cover for a wide variety of beneficiary species like birds and pollinators. Socially and economically, boulevard gardens encourage neighbourly interaction, they help to beautify our streets, and they help to add to a neighbourhood’s character.”

      While he focuses on East Van, Farmand’s documented boulevard gardens all over the world—in the U.S., across Italy and France, and the ritzy west side of town too. All over, the type of boulevard garden you see reflects the area’s vibe. 

      “More often than not on the west side, more affluent communities, you’ll see more of the trim and proper type of boulevard gardens,” he said. The gardens everywhere generally match the adjacent homes, making them extensions of each resident’s yard and extending that family’s personality into these communal spaces.

      Although the city does own the boulevards, planting on them isn’t some guerilla act of civil disobedience: Vancouver, like many cities, has guidelines in place that encourage boulevard gardens. You can’t plant anything too close to existing street trees—or put down anything that might grow too tall to obscure sightlines or road signs—but native flowers and shrubs are fair game. 

      Farmand said since he started the project, he’s had people tell him they started planting their own local boulevards up thanks to him. He hopes to keep growing and spreading the word, raising money for local charity—and helping people better understand the city they’re a part of. And he has enjoyed getting to know more about the residents, too. 

      “The anecdotal stories, the local history stories, those have been the best surprises to come out of this whole process,” Farmand said. “I’ve been able to connect with members of my community who are complete strangers. I’ve been able to have pretty deep connections with them, learning about their childhood… I never would have imagined something like that would happen [from] me taking photos of every single boulevard garden I saw.”  

      East Van Boulevard Gardens walking tours take place on April 22, 23, 28 and 29, beginning at East 13th Avenue and Windsor Street. Tours are by donation to the Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House. You can sign up here.