Who would’ve imagined that photographing boulevard gardens would lead to so many interesting surprises and fulfilling community-building experiences?
But what is a boulevard garden? The boulevard is the strip of land between a road and a sidewalk. The standard boulevard is covered in lawn. Anytime a resident replaces that lawn with any sort of “garden-like intervention” it’s a boulevard garden!
I am drawn to these private interventions on these public strips of land for many reasons.
Not only do boulevard gardens provide more habitat and food sources for pollinators and birds than lawn does, they also add to a neighborhood’s character, they help to beautify our streets, and they encourage neighbourly interaction.
These positive effects help neighborhoods become more desirable places for people to want to live, work, and play, which demonstrates how boulevard gardens not only help to increase the environmental sustainability of communities and cities, but also their social and economic sustainability as well.
Upon noticing all the wonderful boulevard gardens in my neighbourhood of East Vancouver, I began an Instagram account where I post photos of every single boulevard garden that I see.
My Instagram following quickly grew — that was the first surprise. One of those “followers” asked if I wanted to host a boulevard garden walking tour as part of a project for her non-profit organization. That led to the second surprise: These tours were very well attended and there was demand for more.
The media caught on, and I even landed a cover story feature in the Globe & Mail. All this positive media attention (surprise number 3!) was especially rewarding, since not only did I make my momma proud, but I also received messages from people locally and across the country saying I’ve inspired them to create their own boulevard gardens — some of which have already been built!
I’m also surprised by particular comments I receive under some of my posts, when people proudly state their affiliation with a boulevard garden. Comments like: “Hey! I know that boulevard garden — love walking by it,” or “That’s my neighbour Bonnie’s boulevard garden,” or “This is my home and I’m thrilled to see it featured!” (These kind of comments are my favourite.) Comments such as these get replies like: “I love that blvd garden too!” or “your home is lovely, thank you for sharing and adding to this street’s beauty.”
Not only has my project connected neighbours online, but my walking tours have also connected people in real life. For example, neighbours who didn’t realize they’ve been neighbours for several years have chatted for the first time while attending my tours.
Through my “Humans of Boulevard Gardens” series, I photograph and feature the people responsible for the boulevard gardens, and I myself have connected with neighbors, some of whom I now consider to be personal friends. This community building aspect of my project was the next, and most delightful, surprise.
There have also been surprises that have highlighted the urgent need for community-building in our neighborhoods. While photographing gardens, I have sometimes been approached with suspicion, at best, or with hostility, at worst. While I am always receptive to people who don’t want their home photographed or published on social media, I believe in building neighborhoods that are welcome to all. For me, this begins with communicating with one another and approaching things openly and respectfully.
This is where the heart of the boulevard garden is for me – an opportunity to begin dialogue with your neighbours, and through this dialogue, transform our neighborhoods into welcoming environments for plants, animals and people alike.
Want to start your own boulevard garden? Here are some tips to get started: The first thing would be to make sure boulevard gardening is allowed in your jurisdiction. Not so much to “follow the rules” (although that is important!) but more so to ensure all the energy and resources you put into installing a boulevard garden won’t be in vain, since there is a risk that it has to be removed if it’s not allowed, or if it doesn’t “follow the rules”. The latter is also important for the same reason: If boulevard gardening is allowed where you live, the local government will likely have some sort of boulevard garden guidelines. Following those guidelines will ensure your boulevard garden won’t be subject to removal or edits from local officials. The guidelines are also important because they relate to health and safety, and to ensuring everyone can continue to use the streets and roads without issues. For example, here in Vancouver, the boulevard gardening guidelines mention “rules” related to plant height that make sense: For example, don’t plant things that grow too tall at the risk of obstructing street signs and vehicular and pedestrian sightlines. Or, to ensure areas along the curb edge remain open, to allow pedestrians to easily open and close vehicle doors, and cross to the sidewalk from the street. They’re also written to ensure your boulevard garden is successful: Growing vegetables on the boulevard, drought-tolerance (watering boulevards gardens can be a challenge), selecting plants that have winter interest are all touched on.
If your jurisdiction doesn’t have guidelines, I recommend taking a proactive role by writing local officials and speaking to the appropriate departments in your local government to start the dialogue of creating some guidelines. Success stories are out there, such as the one documented in CBC’s article, “How a Bylaw Complaint Sprouted into Urban Gardening,” as more and more communities embrace all the positive aspects of boulevard gardening!
Social handle: @eastvan_blvd_gardens
Saba Farmand is a Landscape Architect and a certified arborist. Separate from his full-time job in the City of Vancouver’s Planning, Urban Design, & Sustainability group, Saba began his passion project @eastvan_blvd_gardens out of his love for walking and photographing his neighbourhood.
The project has garnered local and national media attention, including a cover story feature on the Globe & Mail in April 2022, and has raised thousands of dollars for a local nonprofit, the Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House, through its by-donation walking tours.
Saba has been invited as a guest speaker at the University of British Columbia, Pecha Kucha Vancouver, and the Vancouver Interior Design Show. He’s also been a contributing writer for the Vancouver Heritage Foundation.