When Liz Hitchins and her husband first moved to the Stewart Street neighbourhood in downtown Peterborough in 2008, the area didn’t feel safe to the couple.
“It had this really bad stigma about it,” says Hitchins. But, after scouring Peterborough real estate listings, “we found this beautiful diamond-in-the-rough house and fell in love with it.”
For the first few years the couple was afraid to even leave their front door, Hitchins recalls.
The Stewart Street Park was just down the street but it was barren, containing little more than two swings – one of them slightly broken – and a basketball court with no basketball net. Hardly anyone ever spent any time in the park.
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Planting the Seed of Change
In 2011, after stumbling upon a blurb online that talked about the benefits of starting a community garden, Hitchins reached out to Jillian Bishop, community food cultivator at community organization Nourish.
The following year, a community garden comprised of 16 plots and a living fence of bushes and climbing beans was installed in the park.
Community gardens serve a multitude of functions, says Bishop. They improve food security, they beautify spaces and they provide a central gathering place for the local community.
“Community building is one of the biggest impacts that we see – just bringing together people who may not have known each other before,” says Bishop.
Soon after, neighbourhood residents raised $5,000 via a lemonade stand to have a new playground installed for the kids. The new playground structure – which the city also put up money for – contains two slides, a rock climbing wall and more.
A New Community Vibe
Change in the neighbhourhood has been dramatic, according to local residents. Kids are always playing in the area, there are annual barbecues in the park and the area feels safer because there are always people around, says Hitchins.
“Everyone talks now,” she says. “Nobody is scared of each other. Everybody waves hi when they walk by each other in the streets … it’s really drawn this community together very tight.”
A Positive Impact on Prices
Grassroots, community driven change like this can have a positive impact not only on residents’ lives, but also on real estate property values.
Take, for instance, a recent real estate listing for a home on Sherbrooke Street that advertised the home’s proximity to the Stewart Street Park.
“The house itself virtually backs on to that park, and the real estate listing said ‘Adjacent to a beautiful community garden, kid friendly playground,’ and almost half the photos on the real estate listing were of the park,” says Bishop.
“Probably five years ago if you had taken pictures of the park there would have been empty beer bottles and dirt – definitely not something you would have put on your real estate listing.”
Grassroots Projects Not a Bandaid Solution
Of course, the neighbourhood is not without its problems. Bishop says unemployment rates in the area are still high, bringing with them a slew of other issues such as poverty, crime, drug abuse and mental health.
“I wouldn’t pretend to say that to community garden erased all of those problems, by any means, nor would it ever have the potential to do so,” says Bishop. “But it’s certainly improved a lot of those things. When you talk to the residents, many of them say they feel safer and that the neighbourhood looks nicer and that positive change has taken place.”