Hamilton’s McQuesten neighbourhood is a multicultural cornucopia with a large immigrant population, but its lack of a nearby grocery store that sells fresh produce made it difficult for residents to put nutritious food on their tables. That’s about to change with help from U of G’s landscape architecture faculty and students, who worked with the community to develop a plan for a new urban farm.

“When you have a very mixed neighborhood, food brings people together,” says landscape architecture professor Karen Landman. “When people share food, it’s just a natural way to overcome any personal or cultural barriers.”

Patricia Reid, a member of Hamilton’s McQuesten neighbourhood association, contacted the Ontario Agricultural College for help with creating an urban farm. Landman has been researching urban agriculture for the past eight years and developed a “visioning workshop” for McQuesten.

The seven-acre piece of land designated for the farm was briefly used as a landing strip to train pilots during the Second World War. A diverse immigrant population now lives in the social housing that was built for returning soldiers.

Before construction could begin, the site needed to be safe for development. The city conducted an assessment to ensure the soil was free of contaminants and underground gas tanks from its previous use as an airstrip.

Community engagement was an important part of the visioning process, involving residents, city staff and landscape architecture faculty and students in a “design charrette”. Participants were invited to work in small discussion groups and come up with ideas for the farm. Students asked them to think about what the farm would be used for, who would use it and how it would benefit the community.

“When people share food, it’s just a natural way to overcome any personal or cultural barriers.”

Ideas included using the garden to educate local schoolchildren on where their food comes from and proper nutrition. The garden could also be used to host community events. “It’s been well-documented in community gardens in urban areas that people who show up are often new immigrants who know how to grow food that is familiar to them but that may not be readily available in the neighbourhood in which they live,” says Landman. That knowledge often stems from growing food in their home countries, which could be put to use in a community garden or through urban agriculture.

Construction of the $350,000 farm began this past summer and will include a teaching garden, food trees and shrubs, an irrigation pond, canopied picnic area and a storage structure.

The success of any community garden or urban farm depends on the people who maintain them. “If you want real food production, you need a farmer who’s there to make a living,” says Landman. “You can’t necessarily rely on urban residents to be able to grow food for themselves.” A farmer will be hired for spring 2016.

She says the McQuesten community is considered a “food desert” because of the long distance residents have to travel to buy fresh food. A convenience store in the neighborhood is considered to be the most profitable in the city because it’s the only nearby store where residents can buy groceries.

“You can imagine what they’re eating,” says Landman. “The ability to walk a short distance to buy fresh vegetables – that was something that people were really interested in.” The community’s large population of immigrants from Southeast Asia would also benefit from an urban farm that grows produce they’re familiar with, she adds.