Condos vs. Cottonwood Garden: How City Hall’s viaduct removal plan would make it harder to eat in the Downtown Eastside

City Hall is taking steps towards removing the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts, leaving high-cost housing and new traffic problems in their place. The City claims that these new traffic problems can be solved by expanding one of the streets into the historic neighborhood of Strathcona. The two sites that are under threat of displacement are the Cottonwood and Strathcona community gardens, two of the oldest and largest in community gardens in town. The newer Purple Thistle Food Forest at Vernon and Charles streets, only a few blocks away, would also be threatened.

These gardens provide some of the city’s most peaceful green space and essential food sources for many Downtown Eastside residents. After this growing season and generations of use, the last thing many gardeners want is to have to struggle to protect their community from a major construction development.

The proposed street expansion on either Prior or Malkin would pave over significant portions of the historic gardens. The bulk of Cottonwood Garden’s three acres is spread along the length of Malkin street (see image below). In the expansion plans, Malkin would widen to six lanes, not including the bike lanes and dividers which gardeners estimate would reach up to eight lanes of space. According to City plans, this would destroy the majority of the garden. If the remaining space is spared by redevelopment, gardeners are concerned that this final sliver would be flooded with noise and air pollution.

Road Allowance – Image by Oliver Kellhammer

Cottonwood Garden itself was originally squatted by gardeners in the early 1990’s on the site of Strathcona’s aborted highway system. A recent piece by Oliver Kellhammer in the Vancouver Observer tells a well documented history of why and how residents converted the industrial dumping ground into what is today Cottonwood Garden. Cottonwood is built on the abandoned remains of a highway system that once proposed to displace scores of residents from their homes, plans that were scrapped only after militant opposition from Strathcona residents in the 1960’s and 70’s. The only major component of the highway eventually built is the very viaduct system now slated for removal. At the time of construction this section of the viaduct displaced the historic Black community of Hogan’s Alley.

Across the train tracks from the Cottonwood Garden is the The Purple Thistle Community Food Forest, a youth-run initiative that puts food and common green space in the heart of the working class neighborhood industrial area. According to its website, the food forest is an “ambitious permaculture project” working to create a self-maintaining polyculture of perennial fruit and nut trees, native berries, medicinals, and perennial and annual vegetable crops which, much like Cottonwood and Strathcona gardens, will act as a community gathering space. Importantly, the project also remediates a trashed wetland, which is of great ecological importance to wildlife in the area, birds in particular. The Malkin Connector would drown out the food forest in shade and pollution, if not potentially pave over major tracts of it.[1]

Food Security for Low-Income residents of the Downtown Eastside

While many community gardens have a visibly white and middle-class dominated constituency, multiracial working-class and low-income gardeners are among the community gardening movement’s active long-term membership, especially in the greater Downtown Eastside.

Indeed, community gardening is a vital strategy for low-income people’s food security. BC welfare offices take money off peoples’ cheques when they get paid work to meet their basic food needs. With the $610 per month for an able-bodied adult’s social assistance payment, that leaves little for food after shelter, transit, clothes and a phone for finding work. This leaves a maximum $26 per week that the government says should be left for food after these minimum expenses. That is less than half the conservative amount deemed necessary by the Dietitians of Canada in order for an adult to sustain a basic healthful diet.

Cottonwood Community Gardens

Many people spend vast portions of their time in lines to get food to survive. It is often the case that meals acquired this way consist of the least nutritious foods around, resulting in people losing more and more of a say over what they feed themselves and their families. The dollar value of carrots people grow, however, is not deducted by the welfare office. Democratic, grassroots community gardens function to enfranchise their members, unlike many of the charity-model food sources that so many people on social assistance depend on.

Land and Property

Few community gardens on public or private land have real tenure or right to the land. As long-time Cottonwood gardener Len Kydd explains, “We have a license to garden. It’s about akin to a ball league having a right to use a ball field.”

The gardens that do have tenure are in fact owned by the landowner and do not operate under the democratic grassroots principles that define community gardening. Condominium developers often run their own gardens, or allow groups to garden the land in the short-term. To use one example, the Onni Group of Companies ran its own community garden in downtown Vancouver while using the space to advertise for its V6A complex in the Downtown Eastside. In addition to the green-washed public relations benefit of this practice, these gardens provide developers tax breaks while their land increases in speculative value. This means gardeners often volunteer their time and hard labour in greening the space so that the developer has an easier time down the road evicting those very gardeners, and at a higher profit.

UBC Geography Ph.D. candidate, Noah Quastel, has described this process as part of a general eco-gentrification problem in Vancouver. He sees a merger in Vancouver between the problem of gentrification, on the one hand, and the problem of “the language of sustainability stripped of its social justice concerns,” on the other. “The result is projects that promote high-rise development in the centre of the city without due concern for issues of social housing and community input.”[2]

The land under and surrounding the viaducts would be opened for high-cost housing and park space, according to the city. The largest landowner in the impacted area is condominium developer Concord Pacific, whose developments span Yaletown and other similarly invented high-cost neighbourhoods in the inner-Vancouver area. The municipal public land would be sold for private housing developments, with 1,000 units on two blocks alone. Gardeners have been told by Vision Vancouver insiders that the land swap “is already a done deal,” begging the question whether a decision between a particular developer and any Vision or City Hall body has been made in advance of a legitimate public vote. Twenty percent of the units might — although without guarantees — be reserved for “affordable” housing, as defined by affordability at incomes ranging from $20,000 to $90,000. This is a far cry from affordability for the quarter of Vancouver’s population living in poverty and has been described by the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) as a missed opportunity to build some of the city’s direly needed social housing.

Green for All, or Green for Some?

Amidst discussions among community gardeners about how they could organize to defend this historic community asset, there is a realization about the politics behind City Hall’s potential willingness to sacrifice the garden. Vision Vancouver, which dominates City Hall together with the NPA, revered Cottonwood in its previous election campaign literature. The entire viaduct removal is in fact listed as part of City Hall’s branding initiative to make Vancouver the Greenest City in the world by 2020. The same policy strategy even lists the expansion of community gardens as a priority. Many gardeners at Cottonwood had voted for Vision on the basis of the party’s green mandate. Yet in their many letters to City Hall, they overwhelmingly articulated feelings of betrayal.

Kevin Matheson, a member of the youth collective at The Purple Thistle Center, and one of many involved with its gardening projects, highlighted similar ironies with the proposed Malkin Connector. “One thing people involved with the Food Forest have been talking about is how even the name — Malkin Connector — implies that something will be connected by a big highway going through the neighborhood. Ultimately, it’s a car culture vision of Vancouver that would isolate people rather than connect them.”

Cottonwood gardener Beth MacLaren also thinks Vision Vancouver’s Greenest City policy contradicts itself. “We’ve already got [a community garden] that’s established, it doesn’t need any start-up money. We’re self-sufficient and we’ve created this beautiful space.”

“But I think it comes down to money, to development, and what the City can get out of it.”


As this article goes to press, it has come to the attention of gardeners that on October 30th, 2012, opposition councillors will be bringing a motion to City Hall requesting that:

“staff report back on options to increase the long term security of Vancouver’s Community Gardens, especially older gardens such as Cottonwood Garden. FURTHER THAT staff include in its report the cost of foregone property tax revenue from temporary community gardens on land slated for development.”

Peter Driftmier is a Cottonwood gardener, a collective member of Redeye on Vancouver Co-operative Radio, and works at the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House in its Right To Food initiatives.

Interested in learning more?

Cottonwood Gardeners invite you to come take a guided tour. Some of the long-time gardeners give tours every Saturday from 10:00am to 12:00 noon. You’ll be amazed at the biodiversity and people-power at work. They also have an online petition on their website at


Images courtesy of Oliver Kellhammer

[1] For more information on the Purple Thistle food forest and other related gardening projects, see here.

[2] Personal communication with author.