Bowery Project: Mobile Urban Farms in Vacant City Spaces

Using that now iconic building block of urban life, the milk crate, Bowery Project engages communities in transforming vacant lots into productive, literally blossoming spaces.Their mobile urban farm model — all the food is grown in the crates, anywhere from a 250 to 5000 crates on a site — allows the Bowery Project to bring the capacity to grow fresh, organic produce into the heart of a neighbourhood.

Bowery co-founders Deena DelZotto and Rachel Kimel began their innovative urban agriculture project on the site of the then just completed but still unlandscaped Toronto Vanauley Street YMCA Centre, an emergency shelter for at-risk youth. The pair’s concept, born of walking by desolate, chain-linked and boarded up spaces growing nothing but weeds, sprouting nothing but posters, is to line re-purposed milk crates with landscape fabric before filling each one with healthy soil and then getting the crops in.

Growing above-ground in this way not only avoids cultivating food in the mostly heavily contaminated soil found in cities, it also allows the manageably sized mini-plots to be whisked away to another location in just 24-hours when the land finds another purpose.

The benefits to the YMCA youth shelter which provides meals to 200 youths every week are obvious — the 1,500 crate farm produced close to 400 pounds of produce for the shelter’s residents — and also less obvious. Local volunteers and the youth using the YMCA’s facilities helped tend the crops providing some urban agriculture education, a sense community, and purpose.

Since then Ms DelZotto and Ms Kimel have worked cooperatively with developers and landowners in sites around Toronto, creating a healthier, better looking and more connected city. Over the past three years, Bowery Project has grown almost 1800 lbs of produce and engaged hundreds of volunteers.

This season Bowery Project relocated to downtown Toronto’s Alexandra Park where a total of 2,000 milk crates now make up the urban farm there. The harvest was shared with volunteers, Alexandra Park residents and some produce was sold to local restaurants.

Teaming up with Summer Lunch+, a charity that provides healthy lunches to the kids in summer camp at the Alexandra Park Community Centre, Project Bowery helped 100 city camp-goers, become camp-growers.

A true appreciation of food comes from growing it and in lessons that will stay with many of them for a lifetime — and that may sow the seeds to future careers — the children helped to harvest some of the fresh produce used in their community centre kitchen.

A child will never eye a tomato the same, perhaps suspicious way, after they’ve grown one.  With the help of the Bowery Project, these kids learned, in a the most fundamental way, how to make their own lunches.