1985 – Our West End Rooftop Project

Leslie Scrimshaw, standing, residents Tillie Ages and Don Allison.

Leslie Scrimshaw, standing, residents Tillie Ages and Don Allison.

Green Fingers oN the roof

The Vancouver Sun
By Joanne Blain
June 8, 1985

The greening of the concrete jungle has begun.

On the roof of the Manhattan apartments at Robson and Thurlow in Vancouver, tulips and daffodils now compete for attention with the urban skyline. Later in the summer, residents of the building will feast on vegetables and herbs grown in large wooden boxes.

Although the residents themselves tend the gardens, a non-profit organization called City Farmer got the project going. The Manhattan garden is one of several innovative undertakings of the seven-year-old group, which was set up to help urban residents grow food.

A demonstration food garden at Sixth and Maple, started in the fall of 1981, is used to show city dwellers how a small space can be used for intensive year round food production.

New projects still in the planning stage are a community garden in Chinatown, for which the group has just received a parcel of land on a two year lease from the city parks board, and a display garden at the University of B.C. to demonstrate how different ethnic groups grow food.

The Manhattan building, which was built in 1907, became a co-op after it was saved from demolition in 1979. Residents of the building came up with the idea of a rooftop garden about a year ago and approached City Farmer for help.

From there the idea mushroomed. The city’s planning department asked City Farmer to develop it as a centennial project. A Canada Works grant came through to pay for two City Farmer staff members to work on the garden.

However, the co-op has to raise the cost of materials to complete the garden on its own.

City Farmer’s community garden coordinator, Leslie Scrimshaw, became personally involved in the project. While it was still in the planning stages, she became a resident of the Manhattan.

Scrimshaw says urban dwellers should take advantage of any opportunity to bring some greenery into their surroundings. This is what the Manhattan’s rooftop garden does.

Right now the garden is in its infancy. Part of the roof is covered in wooden decking. Wooden boxes and barrels housing flowers and herbs are grouped in random clusters.

Eventually, the entire roof will be decked to protect the roof membrane. And co-op members are now looking at several designs for the layout of the garden, put together by UBC landscape architecture students.

The students’ designs range from ambitious ones which include orchards and hot tubs to simpler ones that make good use of the space and provide open areas for the residents of the building to enjoy.

Scrimshaw says residents will put some of these ideas to use when deciding how to lay out the garden.

The design chosen will be flexible enough to allow the roof to serve a number of different uses, and to be adapted to future needs. “As new people move in, the garden can change and grow to suit them,” she says.

Right now, the process of deciding what to grow is underway. In addition to said greens and vegetables, Scrimshaw says they may try to grow exotic produce such as kiwi fruit to see if it can be done successfully.

Already, co-op members are enthusiastic about the garden. The Manhattan has few common areas for residents to get together, so the roof has quickly become a social centre.

“It’s an oasis. I come up here at least once a day, even if it’s raining,” says resident Don Allison. Other residents regularly bring their meals up to the roof.

The garden will also be a bonus for workers and residents of surrounding high-rises, who until now have had to look out on to a desolate, gravel-covered rooftop.

The Manhattan was the perfect place to try out the concept of a rooftop garden, Scrimshaw says. The roof is easily accessible, and building height restrictions in the area mean it gets a day-long source of light, which is unusual in an urban setting.

Residents of the building already work together to maintain the building, so working on a garden is a natural extension of this.