Each month, Morgan Koegel, Claire Hetzel or Michelle Calleja, all from 3000acres, discuss an issue that the local food movement should be thinking about.
- Biophilic design.
- Land use inheritance and soil contamination.
- Carbon farming.
- Urban food production and crop diversity.
- The enablers and barriers to community garden participation.
- How much food does urban agriculture produce?
- Council support of local food production.
- To fence or not to fence – a council conundrum.
- Renters and food growing.
Biophilic design (November)
Recently I (Michelle) attended a lecture on biophilia by Dr Neil de Wet at the Melbourne School of Design. If the concept is new to you (as it was me), biophilia is the innate human tendency to seek connections with nature. Or, more simply put, a love of living things!
This concept is intuitively relatable to urban dwellers as we find ourselves seeking out every available crumb of nature in our daily lives. However, as our cities grow more dense and urban, our contemporary daily experiences of place are at threat of becoming increasingly disconnected from nature.
The intent of biophilic design is to restore or weave nature back into places as a kind of antidote to urban living. As described by Dr de Wet, this ‘urban greening’ employs a diverse range of passive and active interventions or ‘patterns’ to connect people with nature, place and one another. The aimed-for restorative side effects are improved natural environments, and better health and wellbeing for people and the communities (both human and little critters) that inhabit them.
So, what is the role of urban food production in biophilic design? It was interesting to learn that urban food growing is an important component of biophilic design’s multilayered approach given its ability to connect people to local, seasonal foods while supporting active engagement with nature, living organisms, and community.
If we measure our cities and the places we inhabit by their biophilic qualities, then urban food growing sits comfortably at the ‘nature loving’ end of the biophilic design spectrum.
Land use inheritance and soil contamination (October)
Healthy plants are grown on productive soils and, while it is important to note that not all soils are ‘born equal’, we can influence soil/plant health factors by how we manage land and grow our food.
Soils contaminated with toxins are perhaps the hardest land use ‘inheritance’ to remediate. Urban soils often contain substances that are toxic to plants and/or humans at certain concentrations. The presence of these contaminants may relate to a history of industrial activity, heavy road or rail traffic, pesticide use or applications of lead-based paint on buildings.
It is important to investigate soil contamination risks before beginning a new growing project. Be sure to research the history of your site, investigate the physical soil make-up, and undertake a low-cost test for heavy metal contaminants.
If land is found to be contaminated, there are a range of strategies available to minimise the potential for harm, including:
- Installing raised beds or ‘no dig’ gardens with soil barriers.
- Raising pH levels above 5.5 to limit the bioavailability of toxins e.g. by applying lime, biochar or manure.
- Reducing contact with the soil by wearing gloves, growing ground covers and applying mulch.
- Choosing crops that are less likely to uptake contaminants (whilst fruits and seeds are largely protected from metal accumulation, plants grown for their leaves and roots are at higher risk).
Notably, both CERES and the Melbourne Food Hub are former quarries and landfill sites with potential contamination risks. For both, effective safeguards/ workarounds have allowed for safe food growing and revitalised previously under-utilised urban spaces.
Carbon farming (September)
In August, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report entitled Climate Change and Land. Along with presenting some stark figures on agricultural emission rates, it discusses how changes to agricultural practices can help to produce healthier land, healthier food and healthier people, while also acting to reverse climate change.
It is not alone in seeing the potential for practice change to manage risks and reduce vulnerabilities in land and food systems. Close to home, there are some examples of regenerative agriculture initiatives that not only reduce emissions but also utilise living systems to capture carbon from the atmosphere. These include Gippsland farmer Niels Olsen, who is even getting paid for his efforts!
On a smaller scale, even our choices around local food production practices can potentially support reduced emissions and active drawdown of carbon. As research demonstrates, allotment soils in cities can show higher concentrations of organic carbon than arable soils.
So, as we tend our gardens this Spring, it would seem that we can cultivate more than food through simple practices like using living mulches, incorporating compost and diversifying annuals with perennials. Happy carbon farming!
Urban food production and crop diversity (August)
I (Claire) recently harvested my first crop of Oxalis tuberosa, commonly known as New Zealand yams. Washed clean, the tubers were aesthetically mesmerising, a shiny pink with dimpled skins drawn across the most unusual of shapes. Roasted beside garlic, they were out of this world!
Experimenting in my kitchen with this new found tasty, beautiful and versatile food crop made me ponder the issues that surround urban food production and crop diversity. I spoke with Dr. Chris Williams from the University of Melbourne to learn more.
Chris told me: “Across the globe there are hot spots of agro-biodiversity, places where traditional people developed diverse crops over thousands of years in landscapes as varied as the Andes, Papua New Guinea and the Middle East. Many of these crops have great potential to provide new growing opportunities for farmers and gardeners across the planet even though they are rarely seen outside their indigenous ecosystems. These crops, such as New Zealand yams, also have substantial genetic diversity which provides indigenous farmers with options for growing them in specific climatic or soil niches. It is this adaptability to the contingencies of climate, soil or altitude which is at the heart of using crop genetic diversity as a resilience strategy in the face of climate change and the genetic narrowing of mainstream crops by industrial agriculture.“
Given the multicultural nature of the city in which we live, it would seem there is great opportunity to share knowledge and experiment together about the possibilities of growing diverse crop cultivars in the face of Melbourne’s changing climate. Time to try something new?
The enablers and barriers to community garden participation (July)
A recent study by a team of researchers at Swinburne University has revealed some interesting data on the why behind community gardening. 23 participants from 6 community gardens across Melbourne were asked questions exploring their motivations for joining the community gardens, and how their participation could be better facilitated given the barriers and enablers to community gardening.
The six themes emerging as enabling participation were: family history, childhood and passion for gardening; productive gardening, sustainability and growing fresh produce; building social and community connections; community and civic action; stress relief; and building identity, pride and purpose.
The barriers to participation included: time commitment; garden governance; and vandalism of the gardens.
Activities such as communal composting were cited as having strengthening effects on community connections, collaboration and enhancing leadership. One participant stated: “I’ve been working with the Council representatives … I came up with a community composting plan for other community gardens and, as a result, I’ve just been appointed to [the Council] urban agricultural consultative committee … Out of my one metre little plot, I couldn’t have anticipated anything like that.“
How much food does urban agriculture produce? (May)
Many of the benefits of urban agriculture are distinct from the amount of food it produces – such as gains around human health and sustainability. Even if growing food in urban spaces were to produce a negligible contribution to gardeners diets, it would still justifiably be a beneficial pursuit and a policy driver. But for many policy makers and detractors there is that nagging question – how much food does urban agriculture really produce?
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates that 800 million people worldwide are practising urban agriculture. In Australia, the Grow Your Own report asserted that around half of all Australian households grow some amount of their own food.
For all of its benefits, urban agriculture is often criticised for being inefficient in terms of energy and labour use compared with conventional agriculture. But some dedicated urban farmers have worked to interrogate this assertion by taking meticulous notes of their inputs and yields, including Angelo Eliades (from Preston) and Kat Lavers (from Northcote). Over in the UK, one man even set out to prove that his entirely concrete courtyard could provide significant yield. These are impressive statistics that, in my experience, are often surprising to policy makers.
Council support of local food production (April)
Over the past decade, we’ve seen parts of local government take on a larger role in proactively reacting to social and environmental change. For example, some councils have been responding to climate change, welcoming refugees and meaningfully acknowledging Indigenous Australians.
In some cases, this work has expanded to the facilitation of urban agriculture within council, as part of climate change mitigation/adaptation, improvements to waste services, or community development and resilience. Some councils are creating relevant policies (for example, nature-strip gardening in Darebin), offering financial and practical support to urban agriculture groups, or even employing specialised urban agriculture staff. Depending on where you live, your council might have an Urban Agriculture Strategy (e.g. see Moreland’s).
In our increasingly built-up environment, public space for urban agriculture is at a premium, and some council strategies are calling for greater collaboration between planning and community development departments. This collaboration could support forward-thinking developers and architects to design housing with incorporated urban agriculture – such as communal gardening areas and green roofs. There is no specific requirement for green roofs on buildings but, as Melbourne marches towards 8 million people by 2050, our rooftops may (hopefully!) adapt to play a larger role in our lives.
If you want to learn how your council is supporting local food production, or you want to encourage them to do more, I suggest that you start by contacting their sustainability or community development team.
[Editor’s note: from my discussions with Morgan and others, it is clear that much more is happening on all this stuff in the inner Melbourne councils than in those further east!]
To fence or not to fence – a council conundrum (March)
At 3000acres, we spend a lot of time talking to councils about possible community garden projects. There are many aspects of community garden designs that councils are happy to leave to the community to decide, but one component that they sometimes have strong feelings about (on both sides!) is fencing.
Fences can represent different levels of protection for a community garden – dog-proof, possum-proof or even people-proof – but some councils are resistant to fence new community growing projects at all. For some, even if a fence is unlocked, it represents a barrier to what is intended as public space and, with allotment gardening, even a privatisation of public space.
On the other hand, in some built up areas where community gardens are desperately needed for residents without their own growing space, a fence can deter vandalism. While we haven’t yet seen a significant amount of damage in open gardens we’ve worked with, there have been issues with graffiti, theft of tools, and the systematic pulling out of seedlings by a disgruntled local.
While fencing can be polarising at a management level, we’re interested in some of the emerging compromises – such as a fenced veggie patch and unfenced surrounding orchard. West Brunswick Community Garden has an open food forest and a low fence around their garden which still allows for compost scraps to be passed over. Rushall Community Garden has both composting and growing space outside of their fenced area. We hope that these combinations of fenced and unfenced growing can serve as examples to councils newer to community garden builds.
Renters and food growing (February)
More and more Australians are renting, and renting for longer. As wages fail to keep up with rising house prices, many young Australians are finding themselves priced out of the market, and instead renting properties or joining share houses. What do these changes mean for food growing on private land? Through our search for gardens to join the current program of open gardens that we have been jointly organising with Open Gardens Victoria, we were excited to find renters growing substantial food on their properties despite the lack of security. The rental gardeners had a number of interesting strategies for making their garden productive despite the temporary setting:
- Alanjohn is growing in-ground at his house in Coburg and signed an memorandum of understanding with his landlord so that there wouldn’t be any issues with the changes when he vacates.
- Alex and Julia in Clifton Hill have opted to grow a lot of their food in straw bales so that there is less work to do to return the property to its original state.
- In order to add a beehive to her Northcote rental garden, Morgan bartered home-harvested honey with her landlord.
- While many renters were managing tightly pruned fruit or espaliered trees in pots, Greg in Fawkner focussed on sharing the future garden by planting straight into the ground.