Little did Michelle Mulder know that planting tomatoes could be seen as a disturbance, let alone a controversy.
The children’s author included the anecdote in her newest book, Home Sweet Neighborhood: Transforming Cities One Block at a Time, released this month through Orca Footprint.
It happened a few years ago when she planted them in their designated parking spot for their apartment building. One woman, in particular, cited the additional conversations that gardens create as a hindrance to her quality of life.
Mulder hadn’t considered this, having “planted the tomatoes for salads, not for conversations.”
“I had lived in buildings before but had never bothered anyone before, the way I bothered her,” Mulder said.
Sure enough, people would stop to talk about the tomatoes, either with Mulder there or on their own accord. And Mulder accepted the truth. Tomato talk was too much for some people.
“The tomato fiasco has given me courage to do more,” Mulder said. “I’ve gone on to do much more controversial things.”
These things include transporting her daughter in the cargo box of a bike, allowing her daughter to bike on city roads, and choosing, with her husband, to raise their daughter in a two-bedroom apartment.
As part of their car-free, low-impact style of life, the couple had one of the first cargo-box bikes in Victoria and some drivers just couldn’t wrap their heads around choosing this over a 5,000-pound box of metal that uses GHG emissions.
“I’ve had people yelling at us that we’re putting our child in danger on the bike, saying ‘why are you doing that, I can’t believe you’re letting her stay in there,’” Mulder said. “I’ve been told we’re not raising her properly, because we have an apartment and not a big house.
“I should say a lot of people also said, ‘that’s cool,’ about our [cargo] bike,” Mulder said. “And now that my daughter is cycling on her own, we’ve been told, ‘Wow your daughter’s an awesome cyclist.’ That was the most recent experience, so hopefully the tide is turning.”
Through it all, she’s been an author, a parent and a dedicated community member. In particular, she’s taken to the concept of placemaking. In Victoria, most know it as streets that bear a Little Free Library, some boulevard gardens, an annual block party and other features, such as a sitting bench (not a bus stop). All things that take people back to the pre-car era of the 1900s, before streets were dedicated to moving cars as quickly as possible and were where people congregated.
Mulder consulted with members of the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network to create the book. It has a few Victoria mentions but also uses a global approach.
“People are changing the built environment all over the world to make them more community oriented, and there are examples of it all over Victoria,” Mulder said. “It’s become kind of a weird thing to get to know your neighbours these days.”
A few years ago Mulder helped assemble community members to shut down Collinson Street and paint a street mural on the asphalt. The gang actually arranged to do it again last week but rain interrupted their work. Even then, passersby took note but none stopped to say hello to the kids and adults huddled under the tent with paint supplies.
The Collinson mural, if you haven’t seen it, glows bright just 10 metres off Cook Street.
It has completely changed the vibe on the street. Mulder said it slows traffic, encourages walkers to stop and chat, and it’s become a landmark.
“I have a neighbour and when she’s asked where she lives, she says ‘On the road mural street off Cook.’”
Home Sweet Neighborhood: Transforming Cities One Block at a Time, and Mulder’s other works The Vegetable Museum and Going Wild: Helping Nature Thrive in Cities, are available at Bolen Books and other local independent book stores in town as well as online at orcabooks.com.