Duncan Chambers

 
City Beet Farm
Urban Farmer and Co-Operator
St. Catharines, Canada
Vancouver, Canada
2021
 

What are your main responsibilities or activities in your current position?

My partner and I plan and manage 12 fruit, vegetable, and flower gardens in Vancouver's Riley Park, Mount Pleasant, and Southlands neighbourhoods. These front- and backyard sites make up our half-acre urban farm, which provides fresh food for around 200 people between June and October. I plant seeds, pull weeds, and make sure theres enough food to harvest each week to sell to our 86 veggie box subscribers.

How does your current work relate to your graduate degree?

My favourite course from my MLA was LARC 541, Landscape Planning and Management. In that course, students learn how to design healthy ecosystems, and the practical measures required to sustain, restore, or create them. In my work operating an organic farm, I have to think about soil quality, insect control, the movement of water, environmental gradients, and how each component can be best designed to meet diverse plant needs.

What do you like and what do you find challenging about your current position?

Crop planning - deciding what types of vegetables to plant, in which garden, and at what time - is always a new challenge. Some gardens are far away and work well for low-maintenance crops like potatoes, garlic, squash, or onions. Others are better for head lettuces or spinach, but rotating crops helps make each garden more diverse and resilient. I create scale drawings and diagrams to visualize space, and synthesize complex information into a management plan. Occasionally I make a photoshop rendering to convince a homeowner that their garden would look much nicer with rows of vegetables instead of grass.

Is your current career path as you originally intended?

When I decided to study garden design, I didn't expect to return to urban farming, which I had been doing already for four seasons at that time as a worker on someone else's farm. I wanted to learn to make gardens that provide wildlife habitat, educational opportunities, and aesthetic or experiential value for people. I realized at some point that creating food gardens can meet all of these needs with the added bonus of feeding people.

What motivated you to pursue graduate work at UBC?

I met my partner in Ontario and she had been accepted to UBC's MCRP program in the School of Community and Regional Planning -- I didn't apply to any other landscape architecture schools. Once I visited I was completely enamoured of the plant life on boulevards, in gardens, and in forest and wetlands, and so excited to learn from the plants and animals, and from the people who have worked to sustain these landscapes for millennia. I now feel more connected to this landscape than the ones in which I grew up.

What did you enjoy the most about your time as a graduate student at UBC?

The highlight of my graduate work at UBC was serving as a teaching assistant in garden history and ecology courses each term. I feel the greatest joy when I learn something that I can then share with others and support or inspire them on their educational journey. The culture in SALA is quite collaborative, and fellow students are often excited to discuss ideas and possibilities that may be fantastical, quite pragmatic, or sometimes both.

How did the graduate degree at UBC help you achieve your career and/or personal development goals?

Design thinking is applicable in any career in which you have to frame and solve problems creatively. Spending time as a student at SALA helped me to consider diverse perspectives, possibilities, and historical and spatial contexts, to think through them quickly and iteratively, and to review and revise approaches to check whether or not they work in practice. Finally, practicing written, verbal, and visual communication helped me to articulate ideas and share them with others through drawings, oral presentations, and reports.

What key things did you do, or what attitudes or approaches did you have, that contributed to your success?

In design education and practice, projects and proposals always have an ethical component. Always having a strong reason for asserting or suggesting what should and could be happening in a place (i.e. a garden or landscape) helped me stay focused on my values and explore how I can use my unique talents to most effectively improve our world.

What is your best piece of advice for current graduate students preparing for their future careers?

No human being has ever done anything that they didn't choose to do. No one can force you to learn anything, take any job, or follow any order. You always have the power to choose what you learn, who you help, and how you act in the world. I think the UBC motto has something to say along these lines.

 

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