Since 2006 gardeners have been active in areas such the Cypress and Maple Street Community Gardens along the Arbutus Corridor of the former Canadian Pacific railway line in Vancouver. These gardens arose from an opportunity that came about when a power vacuum was created by the standoff between the CPR that wanted to commercially redevelop the corridor, and the City, which wanted to preserve the corridor for future transportation and/or recreational use. The power vacuum is what ironically made these gardens so special. The railroad could not develop the corridor into a commercial-retail-residential nightmare, and the City could not “beautify” it into one of their generically boring park or bike paths. The self-governing aspect of the communities resulted in both lusciously beautiful gardens and having its members take the initiative to look after the corridor, clean up the common areas and offer public demonstrations of backyard composting and water conservation. The outcome was not just an urban space for gardeners to grow their own fruit and vegetables, but it provided the entire surrounding neighborhood with an important green space of refuge from the day-to-day stresses of urban life. The gardens and well kept surrounding naturally fallow areas created an incredibly peaceful and visually calming place to be. It was not something that could ever be produced through big budget commercial or City means. The lack of a big budget is precisely what made the self-governing efforts of the community gardeners particularly special. Their dedicated hard work and DIY solutions transformed the area into one that possessed a visually exceptional quality. Walkers, berry pickers, and lovers of nature all shared and enjoyed this space that for a few short years was a true utopian paradise.
Unfortunately this paradise could not last forever. The power struggle over the unused railway line erupted again in 2015 when CP decided it wanted to get some shareholder value out of the land. E. Hunter Harrison, CP’s right-wing American president (who was parachuted into the position through a proxy battle by a hedge fund, and who had a reputation for ruthless restructuring) was no doubt behind this move. In order to pressure the City into upping its offer for the land, CP started tearing up the community gardens and erected no trespassing signs, claiming it wanted to put the railway line back in use. What can only be called as one of the most despicable corporate pressure tactics in recent memory, eventually ended up working, and the City purchased the land from CP for $55 million in March 2016.
Initially this was viewed as a good thing as the City announced plans to turn the land into a “greenway” from Marpole to False Creek. The City additionally claimed that they would work with the community to “enhance the greenway for all users.” However, without any consultation with the community, the bicycling obsessed mayor began to pave the greenway with toxic asphalt that spanned four meters. Luckily the quick action of a small group of citizens using social media and sit down protests managed to have the paving stopped. It is hard to choose between what is worse, corporate greed or bureaucratic idiocy. Although an impossibility, it would be ideal if the land could be declared common and be self-governed by the community again. Perhaps then paradise could be regained.