Gardening: Communities that bloom
Whisked through downtown streets in a vintage fire truck; swept across the sea to the tunes of shanty songs; driven through fields of azure flax and golden canola; and touring outdoor galleries of mural-splashed walls—these are some of the ways judges for the Communities in Bloom (CiB) program get to know the many ways that towns are greening and beautifying their communities.
As a first-time judge with a background in gardening, on last summer’s tour of seven communities from Newfoundland to Alberta, I expected to see bountiful community gardens, hanging baskets billowing with colourful annuals, and lovely neighbourhood gardens. And I did. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the broad scope of a program that for more than 20 years has been challenging towns across Canada to tidy their streetscapes; develop and enhance their greenspaces; respect the environment that sustains them; seek ways to preserve their natural heritage; and implement good stewardship practices towards their urban tree canopies. Phew! It’s a comprehensive program that encompasses not only a municipality’s own actions, but those of its businesses and institutions, its residents, and its community service clubs and volunteers. Depending on how well it fares in these endeavours, each community is awarded a rating from one to five “Blooms,” which many display prominently on welcome signs posted at the entrance to town.
As part of a team of 28 fellow judges, assessing these elements during a three-week, whirlwind tour of communities with populations between 4,501 and 9,000 involved every one of my wits—and then some. Thankful for the CiB policy requiring two judges to visit the towns in each of the six population categories, I was paired with another newbie who nonetheless knew the ins and outs of the program from first-hand experience as chair of his own town’s CiB program. During our tour, what I discovered were the myriad ways that towns across the country are using this greening program to enrich their communities.
Many of these towns have taken advantage of the natural landscapes that surround them. Extensive walking trails follow dramatic shorelines, wind through pretty residential areas, and skirt ponds and lakes. In partnership with local wildlife and environmental agencies, some towns have developed information panels identifying birds and wildflowers along the way. Other communities offer walking tours that encompass local history and traditions—this is especially prevalent in Newfoundland where music and storytelling enrich the experience, which often culminates in a taste of local food.
In some communities, the life of a once-vital downtown has been threatened by large, national retail chains that sprawl along bypass highways, diverting residents and visitors from the often historic town centres. But Business Improvement Associations are working hard to marshal resources to attract visitors by beautifying downtown sidewalks with containers and baskets, for example. As judges, we assessed maintenance practices (volunteer “dead-headers” and watering crews were often out early in the morning, before businesses opened), the condition and age of planters, and the creativity and appropriateness of plant material. But it wasn’t all about pretty posies. Points were lost for weeds found growing in the cracks of sidewalks, inconsistency in the design of benches and other public landscape furnishings, the lack of adequate garbage and recycling bins, and instances of tagging that defaced buildings, fences, bridges, and other visible surfaces.
Along with their beautification efforts, under the CiB program towns must deal with very practical and unglamorous issues such as waste disposal. How effectively they manage sewage and garbage has a direct impact on the environment, which is often, ironically, both fragile and a source of tourism. Waterways and shorelines attract campers, cottagers, and day-trippers—and their candy wrappers, coffee cups, and soft drink cans. The savvy communities we visited serviced recycling bins and garbage cans frequently, and where budgets were tight, they relied on volunteers during clean-up days and encouraged neighbourhood adopt-a-park groups to provide ongoing maintenance. As judges, we also inspected landfill sites and recycling depots, resale shops, and sewage lagoons to determine how effectively each town reduced their potentially harmful footprint on the environment.
In every single one of the towns we visited, I came to realize that success springs from the fierce pride of the residents, the commitment of town councillors, the involvement of business owners, and the vitality of service groups, all of which contribute to creating a dedicated core of volunteers who strive to make it all happen. The biggest lesson I learned from visiting these towns is that it’s people who make communities bloom.
TEXT BY LORRAINE FLANIGAN, AN AWARD-WINNING JOURNALIST AND THE EDITOR OF TRELLIS, A MAGAZINE PUBLISHED BY THE TORONTO BOTANICAL GARDEN, WHO BLOGS AT CITYGARDENINGONLINE.COM.