Just up the road from Langford Lake and a few short blocks away from Spencer Middle School is a unique community project that recently popped up on the West Shore. It’s a “little free pantry” stocked with non-perishable items like canned goods, granola bars and more, available for community members and passers-by to take if needed.
The pantry sits at the end of Becky and Kevin Clark’s driveway. The Langford couple got together with a small group of friends from church and, with the help of their kids, built this pantry as a way to help their neighbours and foster a sense of community.
Becky Clark, a teacher in the Sooke School District, says she noticed a need for food in the community. And while she acknowledges that the pantry doesn’t replace local food banks, it’s one small way to help and provide people with another place to access food without any judgement.
After posting about the pantry on social media, Clark says it has received a lot of support, with many people coming by to keep it stocked. She’s noticed children on their way to school grabbing granola bars and has seen food cycling through the pantry as well.
“There’s been a lot of turnover in the pantry,” Clark says. “We’ve seen a lot of parents with little kids bringing food to stock the pantry.”
Placemaking as a way to build community
The concept of “little free libraries” or other variations of them is not new to Greater Victoria. Just this summer, the 500th little free library in the region was installed, according to the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network.
Little free libraries are typically small, outdoor boxes where people can take or leave books and other things. They are generally installed in front of people’s homes, on neighbourhood streets, where people will notice them as they walk by.
The network’s mission is to inspire people to participate in placemaking — the creation of spaces that encourage community collaboration and connection. That can include projects like little free libraries, but also many other things, including public art installations, neighbourhood street parties and community gardens.
Teale Phelps Bondaroff is a volunteer board member with the network and also leads its pocket places project, which organizes little free libraries around Greater Victoria. He says he’s starting to see many different iterations of little free libraries such as the pantry, seed libraries, apple stands and more.
He calls these libraries “coral reefs for community.” They create public spaces where people can meet and interact when they may not have done so otherwise.
“When you create a public place that is people-centric, people will gather there and interact and that’s the basis of community,” Phelps Bondaroff says. “We don’t actually have a lot of situations in our lives where we bump into and have conversations with strangers. Our infrastructure in our urban environment isn’t really designed for that … but that’s what placemaking does. It softens the hard edges of the city and makes it more about people.”
A map of little free libraries in the Capital Regional District shows just how widespread this concept of placemaking is becoming, and many have popped up on the West Shore, too.
Clark says she thinks initiatives like this are great to see.
“I think anything like this helps to bring out community and bring out friendships,” Clark says. “I’ve met a lot of people already this way.”
How to set up your own little free library
Clark’s advice to anyone wanting to build a little free library or something similar is to just go for it. While there is some maintenance that goes into maintaining the pantry, Clark says it has been a collaborative effort to build and keep it stocked.
While she and her friends built the pantry by hand, Phelps Bondaroff says the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network often has old newspaper boxes ready for anyone that wants a little free library in their yard. The network’s website also offers tips on where to start if you’re interested in building or installing a little free library.
Those who want to get involved in other ways can always donate books and other items for libraries, Phelps Bondaroff says, noting that the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network is about to hit the milestone of 50,000 book donations. People who are handy can also connect with the network and offer their skills to help build little free libraries for the community.
“It doesn’t take much to set one up,” Phelps Bondaroff says. “And upcycling is always a great idea.”
Municipalities can also encourage placemaking initiatives through grants, Phelps Bondaroff says. He points to the My Great Neighbourhood Grant program offered by the City of Victoria as an example.
“That kind of validation from a municipality really helps,” Phelps Bondaroff says.
And finally, getting involved with the network is a great way to encourage placemaking in the community, too. With a public Annual General Meeting coming up on Oct. 21, Phelps Bondaroff says the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network could use a board member from the West Shore.
“Sometimes all it takes is one person to encourage placemaking,” Phelps Bondaroff says.