This is an edited version of a presentation Joel gave at the City of Unley’s Sustainable Garden Design seminar in late 2010.
New and creative approaches to growing food are germinating in communities all over the world. These approaches demonstrate that the benefits of sustainable food growing can reach far beyond the act of gardening. Some build community or aim to improve health, while others address issues of food security or offer strategies for building sustainable local economies, and some are a combination of all of these. In many cities, grassroots food projects are strengthened by the support of visionary local governments.
Many important community food initiatives, like food co-ops, farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture and school and community gardens are now familiar and are established as important components of the movement for local, community-based food. However in backyards and street-corners other, sometimes less visible, strategies are also contributing to the transformation of our cities.
Backyard-sharing, permablitzes and the Magic Harvest
Backyard-sharing links those who no longer have the ability or time to maintain their yard with those who don’t have the space, but have the enthusiasm for growing food. In Adelaide, community group Sustainable Communities SA coordinates seven shared backyards in the eastern suburbs. Shared backyards offer a mutual benefit: sharing backyards allow residents who may have limited physical abilities to remain in their homes, while providing regular social contact and fresh produce, while the share-gardeners are provided with an opportunity to get in touch with the earth, to grow their own food and to participate in community. This process of connecting those with land to those with enthusiasm for gardening is formalised through projects like Landshare, an online network currently emerging here in Australia.
Through collaboration between tenants, designers and community, permablitzes transform conventional backyards into productive permaculture paradises over the course of a day. Volunteers are recruited to help out, and tasks are structured as workshops so participants learn valuable skills for application in their own yards. While initially emerging out of Melbourne, most cities around Australia now boast permablitz networks.
The idea that food security begins at home, and is nested within community, is highlighted by The Magic Harvest project, an initiative supported by the City of Onkaparinga in southern Adelaide. Inspired by Lolo Houbein’s book One Magic Square, Magic Harvest supports families in disadvantaged neighbourhoods to grow food on their backyards. It provides soil, seedlings and regular training and support, and emphasises growing food that the gardeners actually eat and enjoy. As the project grows, these initial households are intended to become community hubs for food growing, from which their neighbours and other community members can learn skills for producing and preparing food.
Guerrilla Gardening and public plantings
Guerrilla gardening suggests a more underground(!) approach to making urban space edible. Food gardeners covertly plant out public land with edible plants both as a political statement and a strategy for urban food production. In Adelaide, guerrilla gardeners have been active in the south-western corner of the city in recent years, with their exploits planting fruit trees and vegetables in city squares, parklands and vacant lots rating an appearance of ABC’s Stateline.
However the value of food growing in public places is increasingly recognised by some city councils. In the Sydney suburb of Chippendale, residents have transformed their local streets with council support. Concrete has been removed, nature strips and verges planted out with food plants, and compost bins located on street corners, and a local park has been planted with espaliered fruit trees. In the UK town of Totnes, a centre of the Transition movement, residents have been planting nut trees in public places since 2007 with enthusiastic support from the local council. On a broader scale, “Incredible Edible” Todmorden, also in the UK, has food plants growing everywhere from railway stations to carparks.
A more formal approach than planting out the nature strip, community orchards are another expression of the community garden concept, where public space is planted out with community-managed fruit trees. In addition to an abundance of fresh fruit, community orchards provide verdant public space and a venue for the sharing of the skills of cultivation and preservation. Many community orchards work to ensure the preservation of heirloom fruit varieties that have long disappeared from supermarket shelves.
In recent years political figures from the Queen to Kevin Rudd have been demonstrating another kind of public planting by installing vegie patches to meet their household needs. Likewise, some city councils have developed civic gardens on public land to supply the needs of their citizens. For example, the Victory Garden installed outside San Francisco City Hall in 2008, provided a weekly harvest to local foodbanks to help feed the city’s hungry. In Canada, the City of Vancouver established and maintains the City Farmer Compost Demonstration Garden. Funded and staffed by the city, it demonstrates sustainable gardening techniques and technologies to Vancouver residents, complete with an outdoor classroom for local schools and a compost emergency hotline. Characteristically, Vancouver recently declared that it would be the greenest city on the planet by 2020, and has acknowledged local food as central to this aim.
Urban farms and food policy
Small Plot Intensive (SPIN) Farming offers a strategy for gardeners to grow food commercially in the city, not on one massive broadacre plot, but rather sprinkled over numerous small plots, from big backyards to vacant land, through formal agreements with property owners. This innovative approach, now relatively widespread across North America, indicates the potential for urban food growing to genuinely support sustainable livelihoods and local economies.
The link between urban food growing and broader contributions to economy and livelihoods is strengthened by progressive approaches to policy on the part of local governments. Seattle City Council declared 2010 the “Year of Urban Agriculture”, and proceeded to pass a swag of legislation in support of urban farming. While the legislation covered a gamut of issues, centrally it officially recognised urban farming as a legitimate land use. Since the passing of these laws, the city has experience a surge of urban food growing, from backyard vegie patches to commercial market gardens springing up on vacant land. Also in the US, San Francisco recently mandated actions for the council to increase urban food production. Among a variety of strategies, all city agencies are now auditing the land they administer for food production potential, and all city events now source local, sustainably-produced food where possible. Seeking to become the “Greenest City in America” the City of Philadelphia has established an Urban Farming Incubator as part of its commitment to urban agriculture. Incubators provide large scale plots of urban land for emerging urban farmers to commercially cultivate organic food with the support of non-government organisations, educational institutions and local government. Incubator participants sell their produce at local farmers’ markets as they develop their urban farming enterprise. Once the farmers are qualified, they move into independent urban farming, and their incubator plot becomes available for other aspiring urban food producers.
Food Policy Councils offer a collaborative model for uniting council, industry and community to explore ways to cultivate sustainable food systems. Policy councils now exist in cities all over the world, and through food charters commit the city council to supporting sustainable, local, health and culturally appropriate food for its citizens.
Urban, community-based food growing is increasingly recognised not just for its health and environmental benefits, but also for its ability to cultivate food security, meaningful employment and sustainable local economies. In the familiar acts of gardening and sharing food with neighbours and friends, both established and emerging food initiatives highlight that, in the words of Bill Mollison, “while the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions are embarrassingly simple”.