Changes on the Horizon: The Pearson Dogwood Redevelopment and Farmers on 57th, Part 3 of 3

This is the third in a series written by Daniel Sax, edited by Karen Ageson. See Part 1 & Part 2.

The timeline for the Pearson Dogwood redevelopment remains murky. Since the rezoning application was passed in 2017 phase 1 construction has begun on some parcels. However, the western wings where the residents of George Pearson Centre (GPC) live will be the final site element to be demolished in phase 4 and 5 of construction. This means that Fo57 likely has many years of operation left before it must navigate another relocation. The question remains however, how can Fo57 make the most of their time at their current site and what will the farm’s future look like when Cambie Gardens becomes a reality? My time at Fo57 has made one thing clear: good relationships are essential to the continued success and growth of Fo57.

Photo credit: Daniel Sax. Cherry tomatoes grown for Harvest Box Program members and Urban Farming Learning Program volunteers. Some crops are planted into reclaimed lumber wrap which warms the soil, increasing soil & plant metabolism and suppresses the growth of unwanted plants, aka weeds.

Over its thirteen years of operation, Fo57 has worked tirelessly to foster respectful, mutually supportive relationships within the Marpole community and beyond. The breadth and strength of these efforts became obvious to me after a few weeks of volunteering. In addition to the constellation of staff, volunteers and CSA members who return year after year to support the farm’s vision for community, outreach and education, Fo57 has strong involvement from its neighbors at GPC. The garden club and community kitchen programs were unable to operate when I volunteered during the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I heard countless stories about the space created for residents to experience the joys of gardening and home-grown food with friends and neighbors. The programs facilitated by Fo57 builds community, fostering meaningful relationships within the neighbourhood. It’s clear that the farm is about far more than food production — it is a community hub that inspires connections.

GPC and Vancouver Coastal Health have been supportive of Fo57 in return for the impactful work that they do. The farm has access to an acre of land featuring a variety of pre-existing fruit and shade trees, various indoor amenities — including a community room, a bathroom, a kitchen and a seed starting room — and water at no charge. For many urban farms these elements represent major expenses and barriers to establishment and success. In addition, years of collaboration have streamlined communication and allowed for the farm to propose several changes to physical infrastructure including the introduction of sheds, hoop houses and a greenhouse. Fo57 and GPC exist in symbiosis, but the Pearson Dogwood redevelopment and the introduction of Onni and the Vancouver Parks Board as stakeholders and land managers threaten this balance.

Although on paper the 1-acre urban farm proposed for Cambie Gardens seems like an ideal site to continue the community building work of Fo57, the new farm will operate in an entirely new context. Beyond having to grow within and cater to a community of in-moving residents potentially unfamiliar with the history and legacy of Fo57, the farm will be surrounded by condos and high-end retail amenities. This raises many questions about the expectations that developers have for the farm and the extent to which Fo57 will have to adapt its operations to meet them. It is essential for Fo57 leadership that the farm be able to maintain its identity as a neighborhood-scale farm that connects people to food, the soil and their community, but this may not be possible within the context of Cambie Gardens. As one farm volunteer so aptly pointed out, where do you put the pile of compost in a multimillion-dollar development? Farming is a messy practice and only time will tell whether this aligns with Onni’s vision for Cambie Gardens.

What’s more, the question of who will pay for the farm lingers. Matching and maintaining the infrastructure Fo57 enjoys at its current site — e.g., bathroom and indoor space, greenhouse, water access, seed room, drainage — will be expensive, but are necessary for the farm to operate. Who will pick up this tab and, when the true expense of the farm is known, will developers still support its inclusion or simply decide that a smaller-scale community garden and additional housing is a more worthwhile investment? Whether Onni or Parks Board will be responsible for supporting the new farm financially is unclear, but regardless, there is a need for further dialogue between these stakeholders and Fo57 leadership to get an accurate idea for the needs of the farm and the investment required to meet them.

The importance of improved communication between Fo57, VCH, Onni and Parks Board goes beyond the nuance of site design. At this point, there is no guarantee that the proposed 1-acre farm will even come to fruition. In conversation with developers, the new farm was described as the “million-dollar farm” — this is an indication of the value of the land but also a warning sign that developers may opt to cash in on this potential profit through alternative land uses. In other words, despite Fo57 leadership’s efforts as both advocates and consultants on the Cambie Gardens farm project, they have received no confirmation about plans for the development and, moreover, have been kept in the dark about several planning decisions relevant to their future land tenure at the site.

Although it is unreasonable to expect that the farm would engage in all decision-making, it is important that Onni, VCH and Parks Board respect Fo57’s history on the site and their position as an essential community asset, in particular for the residents of GPC, many of whom will be rehoused within Cambie Gardens. As Parks Board steps into their new role leading the planning and design of the 1-acre farm they should hold themselves accountable to Fo57 leadership. This is not to suggest that Parks Board has the decision-making power to determine the future of the Pearson Dogwood site, but rather that they can lead the way with open, honest and transparent communication to support Fo57 and help the farm plan for its future. Fo57’s advocacy work is far from complete but a focus among Parks Board staff to build relationships with farm leadership will go a long way as Fo57 plans for its next chapter.

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