In the spring of 2008, a gardener’s ensemble — Sprout Out Loud — was borne from the Roerich Garden Project. Interested in preserving green space for community use, this collection of volunteers maintained the garden year-round for three years.
Sprout Out Loud emerged from a desire to share horticultural traditions and knowledge, and to express an artistic voice through living matter. The ensemble developed into a series of on-growing activities that evolved seasonally, and welcomed anyone who wanted to come dig their hands into the dirt. Inspired and informed by guerilla gardening, permaculture, and deep ecology, Sprout Out Loud focused attention on the existence, roles, and functions of plants and the natural world in Montreal’s urban core. The ensemble sought to cultivate a relationship between residents and the land through activities that made small pieces of the city more alive and more vibrant. Actions included seed exchanges; guided botanical and historical walks; reviving the space with donated trees, shrubs, and flowers; restoring bird and butterfly habitats; giving passersby gifts of plant and seeds; and the creation of moss murals.
These events — specifically the botanical and historical walks — gave momentum to the growing sense that the field should be appropriated and maintained as a community space. In June 2009, media and political attention spiked when the Mile End Citizen’s Committee mandated that a sub-committee explore alternatives to the city’s development plan for the field — alternatives that took into account the community’s vision for the space. The 30-member sub-committee was dubbed Le Champ des Possibles — the field of possibilities. Most were residents of the Mile End: biologists, retirees, urban planners, artists, architects, landscapers, parents, journalists, photographers, designers, educators, activists, and academics. The announcement of the re-development of the St-Viateur East district provided an opportunity and a platform to advance our ideas. In late summer 2009, Le Champ des Possibles organized a charette to propose design ideas for the 2009 municipal candiates. With the subsequent election of Project Montreal, the group was appointed to advisory and design committees consulting to city officials and Mile End borough council representatives. In autumn 2010, Le Champ des Possibles became a registered nonprofit, with membership open to the public.
From the many ideas put forward, one recurring vision was to have a space with two sections: an informal public space and an urban biodiversity reserve. The public space, minimally designed, would involve modifying the paths and vegetation, and would include basic recreational amenities for children, workers, and passers-by. The biodiversity reserve implies the re-introduction of native plants and trees, creating topographical features, and designing wildlife habitats. Another popular idea was the creation of a learning centre at the field’s entrance. Care of the field and centre would be managed by volunteers and a permanent staff of local artists, botanists, and educators — all working in an in independent, grassroots manner, similar to how the legendary Liz Christy community garden began on Houston and Bowery streets in New York City. The city would appoint citizens as stewards of the space, or they could form a partnership with a citizens’ group.
The Roerich Garden, and the field it inhabits, is a meeting place, a citizen-approved place. I have met wonderful enthusiasts and professionals thanks to this urban meadow — too many to name. By attending tours and events, the public demonstrated their interest and awareness grew. The power we fed into the Roerich symbol — “don’t destroy this place: it has cultural, scientific, and artistic value” — has brought us to where we stand now: the site remains untouched. What happens in this field is beyond word or measure. Many people have contributed to improving the site. This spirit deserves to be preserved and nurtured. The site is a place for future generations, a place that will continue to provide discovery, sanctuary, and sanity in a busy, dense urban environment.