Récoltes citoyennes opens up the agricultural potential of the urban streetscape

In recent years, horticulture has occupied pride of place among Quebecers’ hobbies. As waiting lists for community gardens only get longer, where—and how—can you plant your own vegetable garden?

It’s this question that Marie-Pier Lafrance and Noémie Benoit are seeking to answer with Récoltes citoyennes. Selected as part of the 2022 Cohort of the Maison de l’innovation sociale (MIS) Civic Incubator, their project aims to facilitate urban agriculture initiatives.

Récoltes citoyennes ouvre le potentiel cultivable des bouts de trottoirs - Une actualité de l'Incubateur civique de la Maison de l'innovation sociale

Photo credit: courtesy of Marie-Pier Lafrance and Noémie Benoit

Reclaiming public space

According to the Urban Agriculture Laboratory (AU/LAB), one in five people in Quebec discovered, or rediscovered, the joys of horticulture during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many turned to it as a source of well-being—as a hobby with benefits for their mental health. Reconnecting with the living world and greening our living spaces has broader social benefits as well. But how can residents of the city enjoy those benefits, in particular those without access to private land?

It’s not that easy to find a space to plant tomatoes,” notes Villeray resident Marie-Pier Lafrance, who felt the first stirrings of a desire to grow her own vegetables in the spring of 2021. But the options for space in the vicinity of her apartment were, as she discovered, extremely limited. She was faced with two impractical choices: waiting indefinitely for access to a community garden, or attempting to cultivate vegetables on her (unfortunately) shaded balcony.

Photo credit: courtesy of Marie-Pier Lafrance

But she did have a public space directly in front of her apartment on rue Drolet, with its wide, recently renovated sidewalk extensions and tree patches. It was, she thought, a potential bonanza for the greening of the neighbourhood. If ornamental plants were already commonplace there, what about edible plants? Would it be possible to appropriate these spaces and plant… an entire vegetable garden?

Regulations differ from borough to borough, and Villeray’s, she discovered, are far from clear on the subject. After much research, Marie-Pier obtained the answer she was hoping for: growing fruit and vegetables on a tree plot is permitted, provided that the land shows no traces of contamination, as per the City of Montréal’s guidelines.

As she got to work, she was surprised both by the yields of her small garden and by her neighbours’ positive reactions to it. There was tremendous curiosity and enthusiasm; before long, the street’s residents were discussing the possibility of replicating the experiment on a series of sidewalk extensions.

Récoltes citoyennes ouvre le potentiel cultivable des bouts de trottoirs - Une actualité de l'Incubateur civique de la Maison de l'innovation sociale

Photo credit: courtesy of Marie-Pier Lafrance

“Although my vegetable garden is the fruit of individual experimentation, it has turned into a pilot project and awakened a capacity for collective action geared towards the socio-ecological transition! It has given me the momentum to share my findings on a wider scale, and to guide others who are interested in participating.” — Marie-Pier

Experimentation, then transfer

Noémie Benoit joined Marie-Pier to create Récoltes citoyennes, an organization whose goal is to promote urban-agriculture initiatives with a social and collective vocation. While they were aware that some boroughs already offer the possibility of gardening in sidewalk extensions, the two friends want to democratize this practice in neighbourhoods where urban horticultural services are lacking. Often distant, less privileged, and largely concreted, these neighbourhoods lack green spaces and suffer greatly from the effects of heat islands. Extending cultivable plant cover is a solution that meets the challenges of both climate change and food security, while also encouraging citizen participation and creating social capital—a vector of resilience.

“We told ourselves that by creating a turnkey service for eco-districts, we could provide existing organizations in the boroughs with a set of tools to help them develop nourishing gardens, recover existing sidewalk extensions, and support demineralization to create more space.”— Marie-Pier and Noémie

But where do you start when it comes to removing asphalt, while respecting each borough’s own regulations? These questions followed Noémie and Marie-Pier when they joined the Civic Incubator’s 2022 Cohort, and it wasn’t long before the duo began to question their approach.

Demineralization is certainly necessary, and municipalities must move in this direction to support the socio-ecological transition; however, it’s a long and costly process. As project leaders, did Noémie and Marie-Pier feel like plunging themselves into it? “No, that’s not what motivates us!” they say, before revealing that the program has actually led them towards a different approach. “We decided to focus instead on existing spaces that were underutilized, starting in our own neighbourhood.

Piloting their project in an area where the conditions for success have already been met will help make Marie-Pier and Noémie’s work snowball. By optimizing the civic use of existing spaces in Villeray, they will create representative, inspiring examples of their vision, and encourage the gradual roll-out of the initiative in other boroughs. Boroughs that recognize the widespread interest in greening and market gardening will have reason to demineralize concrete spaces, which are particularly costly to maintain.

“The moment our approach was clarified, everything fell into place. We’d been stuck on the structure of the project, unable to imagine whether Récoltes citoyennes would serve the eco-neighbourhood or the citizens, and therefore what its relation was to the stakeholders. When our intervention strategy became clearer, so too did the form for the project.”— Marie-Pier and Noémie

Photo credit: courtesy of Marie-Pier Lafrance

An interactive map

To achieve the desired impact, it’s essential to publicize the practice of urban agriculture, specifying the where and the how, then to highlight initiatives in progress to encourage adoption and support motivation. Marie-Pier and Noémie thus devised a digital platform featuring an interactive map of available cultivable (as well as already-cultivated) spaces to establish a broad portrait of a given neighbourhood’s horticultural activity. The online tool also includes educational resources and information on regulations and logistics, such as accessible water points and available compost.

People using the platform will be invited to identify an available space on the map and indicate their intention to develop it. Meanwhile, anyone with unused arable land on their property can, if they so choose, offer free access to it.

“Récoltes citoyennes seeks to lift constraints on the accessibility of urban gardening for all. Although this practice is tolerated and even encouraged, we want to promote civic motivation around this initiative in a practical way. Thanks to the Civic Incubator, we feel we’re equipped to identify the transformative actions that are needed to make our vision a reality.”— Marie-Pier and Noémie

Aiming—above all—for impact

As summer 2023 begins, the life trajectories of the project leaders have led them to pause the deployment of Récoltes citoyennes. The last few months have given them an opportunity to reflect on the project’s place in Montreal’s environmental-action ecosystem, which has become increasingly crowded over the past two years.

While Marie-Pier and Noémie remain convinced of the utility of their initiative and the solution they have devised, they’re skeptical about the necessity of establishing yet another NPO. Instead, they think it might be more appropriate to create a joint venture with an existing organization that’s looking to expand its activities in this field. This kind of joint venture, by avoiding duplication of structures and operating costs, would provide more efficient funding to the community, as well as help to achieve targeted impacts and reinforce the contributions of existing players.

In the quest for maximum impact, projects sometimes take alternative pathways in which the people who initiated the process, defined the vision, and validated the concept pass the torch to others—all of them eager to see the project’s realization. It is in this spirit that Marie-Pier and Noémie seek to give new momentum to Récoltes citoyennes: by playing an advisory role in the project’s adoption by a new organization.

Does this proposal appeal to you? Get in touch with Marie-Pier!

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