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Concrete to cornucopia

Directions to McGill University’s Burnside Hall? Well, first you pass the cherry tomato patch, then proceed through the runner bean arch, straight past the rainbow chard and the herb planters. It’s probably best to leave a little extra time for wandering around in a sensory daze.

Anyone who was familiar with the concrete plaza outside of Burnside Hall before 2007 can attest to its former bleakness. It was the epitome of underutilized urban space—hot, ugly, and neglected. Enter the Edible Campus, a joint project of the McGill School of Architecture’s Minimum Cost Housing Group and two Montreal community organizations—Santropol Roulant and Alternatives—that focus on social justice and food security. These groups worked together, alongside myriad volunteers, to transform this forgotten corner into a productive and inviting urban garden that now supplies fresh produce to some of Montreal’s neediest residents.

“We wanted to show that it is possible to cultivate even the smallest piece of urban land,” says Leila Marie Farah, a research associate with the Minimum Cost Housing Group.   

And indeed they have. The Edible Campus, which encompasses over 1,000 square feet of productive growing space, is made up primarily of planting containers that use an innovative self-watering technique to minimize maintenance. The entire garden is designed to be welcoming to pedestrians—enhancing rather than interfering with the function and use of the space. Every season, the Edible Campus produces hundreds of kilograms of fresh vegetables, most of which go directly to Santropol Roulant to be delivered in weekly care packages—by pedestrian and bicycle volunteers—to isolated and vulnerable members of the Montreal community.

“Each and every year the harvest is so abundant that the Edible Campus provides more than 1/3 of the fresh organic vegetables that Santropol Roulant uses during the summer,” explains Tim Murphy, Santropol Roulant’s Sustainability Coordinator. The garden has also recently begun to supply a market in Montreal’s Little Burgundy neighbourhood.

For the partners who dreamed up the garden in the first place, these are accomplishments to savour. After just a few years, the Edible Campus has already been heralded for the way it integrates applied student research and encourages people to think about where their food comes from—and where it could. Perhaps most importantly, news of the Edible Campus’ success is spreading, inspiring similar projects both here and abroad. 

“That’s what makes us proudest of all,” says Farah. 

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