Food for Thought: Edible cities

Dive into the cultural, political, and personal significance of food

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Greenspaces should prioritize agriculture over aesthetics. Illustration: Alyssa Marie Umbal / The Peak

By: Meera Eragoda, Editor-in-Chief

Thanks to TikTok, a partner with botanical knowledge, and a workshop I took at the UBC Botanical Garden, my plant identification skills have been growing and growing (pun intended). I, like many, used to think all green things could be classified in three ways: plants, shrubs, or trees. When I went hiking, I enjoyed the forest feel, but I didn’t appreciate the little details and mostly did it for the view. I definitely had no idea anything around me could be edible. Now, I’m starting to get a sense of what’s edible and what’s in season. 

For instance, at the start of spring, all the coniferous trees — cedars, hemlocks, and douglas firs — start putting out new shoots. These tips are edible and taste citrusy

The beginning of summer brings the emergence of all sorts of berries such as salal, salmonberries, huckleberries, thimbleberries, and blackberries.

Even in urban areas, I notice much more than I used to. Despite city planners exclusively having aesthetics in mind, I’ve started realizing how many of the plants around us can be used in edible ways. 

Alexis Nikole Nelson (@blackforager on Instagram / @alexisnikole on TikTok), whose fame has skyrocketed this past year, makes content alerting viewers to things around them that are edible. Though she lives in the Midwest, there is still some overlap. I’ve learned from her that magnolia petals taste gingery and can be pickled or baked into cookies. I infused them into simple syrup for cocktail-making purposes. She also taught me that elm seeds taste kind of nutty and can be eaten as a snack.

There are so many ways plants can be used, but I’m only starting to learn about these now because Western scientific principles teach us to separate ourselves from everything around us. This is unlike Indigenous knowledge systems, which prioritize staying connected to the land and being sustainable.

This separation manifests in how little people know about the native plant life in BC and the importance of conserving natural resources — like old growth trees, which are important to local ecosystems. It also shows the lack of imagination those in power have when it comes to city planning.

Given the amount of introduced plants and trees, why not try and use that to make food more accessible to people? Joshua Zuenert, an Australian landscape architect and lecturer, has been advocating for over 10 years for public spaces to integrate food into their design. He highlights UC Davis as a leading example of this. Their edible campus includes gardens used to teach people what they can grow and how to use that food in cooking. There are also salad gardens where people at the school or at work can make their own fresh meals.

Coupled with education, urban food architecture would bring us closer to the plant life around us. This would lead to a greater connection with the land, a greater understanding of what it takes to grow something, increased social connections, and a better environment for pollinators.

Vancouver already encourages community gardens, personal gardens, backyard chickens, and beekeeping. However, these still rely on individuals’ implementation and are not always accessible. Even if you are able to make use of community gardens and teach yourself the skills, the waitlist to get a plot can take years.

Imagine instead, a city where you could walk to a park and pick fruit off a tree to have as a snack, or, during your walk home through a public food space, you could grab some basil to make a pesto. The possibilities could be endless.