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Graduate students at Portland State University recently gave their counterparts from Montreal, Canada, a grand tour of the city — not of the food scene, but the urban gardens, which both cities are famous for.

Eight PSU graduate students took eight Canadian graduate students to meetings and site visits at some of Portland’s best-kept secrets: urban gardens that have sprouted in recent years to help fight hunger, empower low-income residents, educate children, and give youth and adults access to healthy food right in their backyard or neighborhood.

It’s fascinating stuff for planners, since it is a byproduct of gentrification in hot spots like Portland, says Nate McClintock, the PSU assistant professor who spearheaded the student exchange.

“Essentially, urban agriculture arises where there’s vacant land, cheap land, a low market rate or wherever food justice activity pops up,” McClintock says. “So many of these projects produce food to address the so-called food desert.”

The aim of the exchange, he says, was for students to understand “how entangled urban agriculture is with processes and change and gentrification.”

Throughout the study, students have been posting updates to their class blog, and at the end of the study they’ll prepare a report on their findings.

Many of the gardens they visited last week were in the Cully neighborhood in Northeast Portland, including the Cully Neighborhood Farm, Side Yard Farm and Simpson Street Farm.

There’s also the Blue House Greenhouse Farm on North Williams, and the rooftop garden at Noble Rot restaurant on East Burnside.

As urban gardens like this spring up, McClintock says, “they contribute by helping to aesthetically improve the neighborhood.” But most aren’t permanent fixtures in the city’s landscape.

Many gardens find themselves being driven out by development, as is the case of Blue House Greenhouse — which is now penned in on three sides by the condo being built on North Williams Avenue, which will shade their space.

The temporary nature of the space presents an interesting dynamic, McClintock says: “A lot growing kale is a lot less valuable than a lot growing four stories of condos.”

That’s what happens without setting aside properties as parks or an agriculture land reserve, he says.

Urban ag and activism

Often, urban agriculture leads to activism, McClintock and his students have found.

Living Cully and the Urban Farm Collective have engaged the homeless camp nearby.

The Cully Neighborhood Farm is bringing neighbors together to talk about the issue of displacement.

At what’s known as the Goat Blocks at Southeast 11th Avenue and Belmont Street, the goats that used to be a big attraction have since moved to Lents, but their legacy lives on through images of the goats on the crane and construction signs.

“The idea of urban agriculture has been folded into the construction project itself,” McClintock says. “Urban agriculture is paving the way for development in some places.”

The group also toured the Urban Farm Collective — a program of the nonprofit Oregon Sustainable Agriculture Land Trust that transforms vacant lots into neighborhood gardens and uses a barter system for sharing goods and labor.

They also stopped in to investigate food security and food justice initiatives like Outgrowing Hunger (with sites in East Portland and Gresham that allow gardeners to trade work for produce); Village Gardens (a Janus Youth program that lets kids and adults work at garden sites and harvest food for their Village Market in St. Johns); and Growing Gardens (which installs raised garden beds at low-income residents’ homes in Northeast Portland and provides support and mentoring).

With study and work experience in France, Canada and other French-speaking countries, McClintock has visited Montreal for the past four years to do comparative research.

After his last visit and lecture, he and his counterpart struck up the idea for an exchange, which he hopes will grow into a tradition.

Urban agriculture is taking root in cities across the United States and the world. The city of Atlanta just announced it will hire its first urban agriculture director, in hopes of being a leader in the movement.

McClintock feels Portland has done a great job with its community garden program, helping to give rise to the movement.

One study he did revealed that between 20 to 30 percent of city residents do some urban gardening.

In Montreal, that figure is at 43 percent.

Both cities — while much different in size — share the same latitude and a population that is “environmentally oriented,” McClintock says.

The two-week, binational field course and exchange was funded by grants from the Government of Québec and PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions.

“For a lot of people, access to green space, understanding where food comes from, it really does connect neighbors,” McClintock says. “I have an 83-year-old man next door who brings food over. We can talk shop about gardening.”


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