16. Earth awareness

Reflections by Howard Jampolsky

Howard Jampolsky

Howard Jampolsky is a businessman and officer of the Canadian Jewish Congress (Pacific Region). He has also been active in federal and municipal politics in Vancouver and Richmond, BC, for over twenty years.


Earth Day 2009 prompted me to think about Earth awareness. What has sharpened my Earth awareness is the Garden City Lands, a Richmond issue with wide impact.

As I reflect about the issue, I recall how my views about it have evolved, and I realize how relevant it has become to me as a politically active citizen with a Jewish religious and cultural identity. Whatever your political, cultural, and religious identity, perhaps my account will nudge you to think about the issue’s relevance to you.

I will begin with the setting and recent history.

Garden City Lands, Richmond, BC, with mountains in background

The Garden City Lands, on the east side of downtown Richmond, are a big square field with a spectacular mountain backdrop to the north. The 55-hectare field was the site of antenna towers that became obsolete, and it looked idle after the federal government took them down. When I drove past the field or flew overhead, I saw it as development waiting to start.

The only obstacle was that the Garden City Lands happened to be in BC’s Agricultural Land Reserve. The ALR was set up 35 years ago to stop residential and industrial uses from consuming too much farmland, but the reserve is guarded only by the Agricultural Land Commission, which often lets land be removed.

In 2005, the federal government agreed to let its land disposer, Canada Lands Company, carve up the Garden City Lands with the Musqueam Indian Band and the City of Richmond, mainly for high-density residential construction and a trade centre. They just needed to get the land commission’s approval, which the agreement took for granted, presumably because the commission could hardly say no to such powerful applicants.

Citizens had other ideas. Individuals and groups spoke out to keep the field green in the ALR for community wellness, and many joined forces in a coalition. The development parties, with hundreds of millions of profit dollars at stake, spared no expense in promoting their side, but somehow the “Save Garden City” message rang truer. Despite my support for continued development, my view started to shift with regard to this parcel of land.

Some people striving to preserve the Garden City Lands suggested how a community farm there could supply food for the Richmond Food Bank, with the clients helping grow produce. Others pointed out that a provision in the federal homelessness program might also enable the lands to trigger home-building nearby for people at risk of homelessness. In a suburb with two hundred homeless persons, those are worthy thoughts.

A Kwantlen Polytechnic University proposal for a 40–50 acre urban agriculture education program won support from Richmond council, and the obviously good location for it would be the Garden City Lands. The program would be a world leader with a range of economic and social benefits.

Environmentalists saw the Garden City Lands, especially the areas with deep peat bog, as ecological habitat and a carbon sink. The sphagnum would filter greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, as it has for millennia.

In citizens’ visions, the Garden City Lands became a park, “Richmond’s Stanley Park,” a refuge from the packed City Centre area that the field is officially part of. There would be a wealth of community gardens, along with trails and gathering places around reservoir lakes. Such a park would be a legacy—a Richmond m’dor l’dor.

Meanwhile, the development rationales were springing leaks. The trade centre got cancelled for lack of funding. It also emerged that the City Centre area could reach its planned limit, 120,000 people, without anything being built on the Garden City Lands. And promotion of the development as “Smart Growth” was discredited when the executive director of Smart Growth BC wrote Richmond council to emphatically state it was not.

In the federal election of October 2008, Garden City Lands was a wedge issue, and the Richmond-riding incumbent who had advocated the development lost in a landslide to a staunchly “Save Garden City” opponent. With the city election the next month, a council that had helped try to get the field out of the ALR morphed into one that had had enough.

In February 2009, the Agricultural Land Commission—long deluged with citizen submissions against removing the Garden City Lands from the ALR—finally saw the writing on the wall and turned down the application.

This brings us back to awareness. The Garden City Lands issue is moving in a conservation direction because public-spirited citizens have put so much effort, no doubt thousands of hours of volunteer time, into promoting awareness. And other citizens have taken in the message and acted in small aware ways that are making a difference.

Naturally, I perceive all this through a Jewish prism. The “Save Garden City” movement that I have come to appreciate and embrace is respectful of the community, its individual human beings, and its partners in charting the future of invaluable land. That is in keeping with our core values.

The leaders of the movement act to achieve what is good and right. When Richmond council held a long public hearing about the ALR application, there were eighteen hours of citizen presentations, and the integrity of the “Save Garden City” presenters was inspiring. I think of that priority of doing what is right as a Jewish value.

As in Israel, which produces most of the food for so many residents in so little space, the role of local food has come to the fore with the Garden City Lands issue. Our province, I learned, was once largely self-sustaining but now produces less than half what its people eat. Meanwhile, our reliance on imported food is threatened by an enemy across the border, the worsening California water shortage.

Much “Save Garden City” support comes from beyond Richmond, and one reason is that the decision about removing the property from the ALR was seen as pivotal. If power could dictate the loss of fertile farmland, the precedent could be fatal for the ALR. Coming back to the importance of passing on value, m’Dor, I suggest that ALR land, food-producing land, is vital to bequeath to British Columbia’s future generations.

My final point is related to the complexity of the Garden City Lands issue. It was hard to grasp, especially when a well-funded campaign was confusing the issue. Similarly, an issue like global climate change is hard to grasp. I have learned that we sometimes need to go the extra mile to be aware.


  1. 1
    a. lerner Says:

    Very proud to read this. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

  2. 2
    Katie Says:

    Thanks, Howard, for writing this and giving us your valuable perspective.
    You are right – the developers want to confuse the issue; Canada Lands (which is supported by taxpayer dollars and should therefore reflect the majority view of its citizens) still doesn’t seem to want to be on the side of the people who pay its bills. CLC probably thinks it gets more $upport from private developers but soon this flawed thinking will become obvious.
    Keep up the support for saving the Garden City Lands and spreading the word. Farmland is shrinking while our appetites are growing – we need to do our best to support ourselves!

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