Productive Landscapes

I am leading a tour to the University of British Columbia (UBC) Farm on Hallowe’en. Some of you may know the long struggle that has been going on to save that farm, the only remaining market farm in the city. The administration wants to pave it and put up some condos. The entire campus has been heaving with development in the last decade. Soon there will be nothing left to develop. Although the University recently conceded that they would keep the entire 24 hectare farm in tact, the Friends of the Farm claim it probably still isn’t safe and it is best to keep the Farm in the spot light.

A couple years ago, I attended a lecture by Kongjian Yu, Dean and Professor at the Graduate School of Landscape Architecture, Peking University and President of turenscape, an award winning firm from Bejing. He claims that the natural landscape should be the primary driver when designing landscapes or buildings or communities. He calls ancient infrastructure, “art” and modern day structures simply “engineering”. Think weirs, a small overflow-type dam commonly used to raise the level of a river or stream or adjust flow rates versus a big concrete hydro-electric dam. We have lost the artistic ways of working with nature, he says and we need a new vernacular. His designs work with the elements in creative ways to manage storm water and control flooding.

His minimalist design approach, and integration of ecological principles with modern art is maybe best demonstrated with the “Red Ribbon” project. A single red steel structure weaves through a natural park site. The red ribbon contains all the lighting, provides seating and displays native plants. But perhaps the most striking project was the “Golden Rice” design. He transformed a university campus into rice paddy fields. Native plants lined the boardwalks cutting through the paddy fields and small cul-de-sacs were created where students could gather to talk and study. Every spring the professors and students gather to plant the paddy and every fall again to harvest. In this way, sustainable food production is demonstrated and an ancient part of the culture is preserved. “We need more productive landscapes like this,” says Dr. Yu.

He delves back into history for an image to convey the shift that has occurred. In ancient China, women used to wrap their feet, he explained. Small feet were a symbol of the elite class. Big feet were ugly and rural. Labourers. Farmers. He says much of the engineered infrastructure and cosmetic gardens in vogue now are “small feet”. But they have no productivity, no fertility. He displays a photo of the ideal woman in ancient China, pretty, small feet, “flat”. “No breasts,” he says. “Not productive. We need more big feet. They are beautiful.” He got a lot of laughs by repeatedly contrasting these two images, but we all got the message.

Seems to me there is an opportunity for UBC to create a new language and cultivate its own productive landscape.

Productive Landscapes. A Guided Tour of UBC Farm.
Sat. Oct 31, 1:30 pm to 3:30 pm

Why should city people care about farmers and farmland? We look at our very own west side urban farm and its vital role at the University and in our community. We discuss how important farmland is to our food system. Catch the Saturday Farmers’ Market beforehand, then tour the market garden that supplies the market. We’ll talk with gardeners in the Mayan and Aboriginal Gardens. Learn about the intergenerational landed learning project and other innovative programs operating out of this local productive landscape.

Part of the Exploring the Food System on the West Side series of tours. Presented by Garden Heart Productions and the Westside Food Security Collaborative. Walking tour, limited to 20 participants. Meeting place provided upon registration. $35 per person. To register, email

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