Essay

Creating sustainably productive cities

THE SCHOOLBOYS LAUGHED when they were told apples grew on trees. ‘Well, where do you think they come from?' I asked. Looking at me as though I was from another planet, one replied slowly, ‘From the supermarket, of course, Miss.'

It is a funny story, but also a tragic one. Do many of us really no longer know where our food comes from, before it fills bags in Woolies or Coles?

For a long time, it might not have mattered. But as we face the challenges of climate change, spiralling population growth and serious resource depletion, there is a need to reconnect with what we eat and where it comes from.

In 1972, a group of scientists rather pretentiously calling themselves the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth, in which they predicted that if the world continued to grow and consume at the same rate, we would face social and economic collapse within a century. There was much debate about the report at the time, but only in 2008 were its predictions tested. The CSIRO scientist Graham Turner compared them with data on what had actually happened to consumption levels and resource depletion. He concluded that we have continued on a ‘business as usual' pathway and, almost forty years down the line, the Club of Rome's predictions are still the most likely scenario. We have reached a point of crisis. Climate change, as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said in his concluding statement at the 2020 Summit, is ‘the overarching issue this generation and those to follow must address'.

Richard Eckersley, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University, says our reaction to a crisis can manifest itself in one of three ways: nihilism (it's all hopeless so let's enjoy ourselves while we can); fundamentalism (falling back on the likes of religion or the free market); activism (there is hope if we apply ourselves to the problem with sufficient urgency).

The Transitions Network may be a starting point for activism. Based on a concept developed by Rob Hopkins in Ireland, five years ago, Transitions revolves around the idea that the combination of climate change and peak oil will mean we have to radically change the way we live in wealthy countries. The Transitions Town Initiative is ‘a catalyst for community-led responses' and sets out strategies for ‘regions, counties, cities or even neighbourhoods' to formulate a plan and retrain themselves to live in an oil-free, carbon-neutral society. Hopkins describes it as an ‘extraordinary opportunity to reinvent, rethink and rebuild the world around us'.

At a Transitions Network East Brisbane meeting, fifty people gathered in a local park to discuss The Age of Stupid, a film about climate change, and formulate a collective response to deal with the issues it raised. The man beside me came up with four words to describe how the documentary made him feel: present, clear, focused, determined. Those words seemed to sum up the mood. Alongside lobbying and creating local networks, one of the key ideas proposed was local food production, something The Transitions Handbookdescribes as ‘the most sensible place to start'.

Rob Cross and Roger Spencer, in their book Sustainable Gardens (CSIRO Publishing, 2008), suggest one of the key messages is to eat less meat. This view was echoed in the Stern report, which pointed out that our attitude to eating meat is going to be one of the most important elements (alongside energy and transport) in efforts to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. In Australia, we produce and eat an awful lot of meat. As the author and animal-liberation campaigner Geoff Russell, citing recent CSIRO research, points out, Australia's meat industry generates more greenhouse gases than the transport sector. Tim Flannery says, ‘we should be eating what is good for the planet, as well as what is good for us' – and that is definitely a lot less meat. And if we are to eat less meat, we should be considering eating more vegetables, grown in a sustainable way.

 

I MENTION TO a neighbour that I'm thinking of replacing the strip of lawn outside my house with tomatoes and rosemary – a sort of nature-strip tease, if you like. ‘Oh, you can't do that!' she says in horror. ‘It's illegal.' Now, I'm not an anarchist, but when someone tells me that I can't do what I want with a piece of land outside my front door, I get a bit indignant. I protest, but am told in no uncertain terms that, although I must look after it, that patch of grass is council land and the council wants it kept as grass.

Another neighbour sidles up to me and whispers, ‘Do you want to buy some eggs?' His tone is conspiratorial, as though he is trying to sell me an illicit drug. ‘Of course, if anyone ever asks, you'll have to say you didn't pay for them.' He winks. ‘Just say you were given them and you paid a donation for the chickens' upkeep.' It seems that council policy doesn't allow locals to sell their eggs to each other. You can give them away, but you can't sell them.

This is part of the problem. We need to create a green revolution within our urban areas, promoting the idea of organic-vegetable growing and urban agriculture, but bureaucracy is thwarting us. Brisbane City Council has a vision for creating ‘Food in the City', promoting ‘healthy and active lifestyles' and providing grants for new community gardens across the city. And it is developing a new policy on street trees; they can be productive food trees, so long as your neighbours agree and the trees don't cause a mess or a pest hazard. It's a start, but it is still a way behind cities in other parts of the world.

In San Francisco, the mayor's office called in mid-2009 for all council departments to audit land suitable for, or used for, food-producing gardens. The city has established a Food Policy Council, incorporating everyone from the mayor's office to the parks department, local restaurants to the retail food industry. The Department of Recreation and Parks will co-ordinate urban agriculture, including access to gardening materials and tools, and food-production and horticulture education is being undertaken within the city, especially on city-owned land.

 

SOME GREAT THINGS are happening here with our kids, at least. My local primary school, Bulimba State School, is the Queensland showcase for the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program. The program, started in Victoria, teaches primary-school students how to grow and use vegetables. In 2009 it went nationwide, starting in thirty-seven schools around Australia and attracting $12.8 million in federal assistance. Each week schoolchildren spend at least forty-five minutes maintaining a vegetable garden they helped to design and build on the school grounds. The program revolves around growing and harvesting, preparing and sharing, and aims to provide enjoyable food education to young people.

Sara Breckenridge is working with prep and grade-one kids at the Bulimba school. She has overseen the conversion of a central area of the school to a stepped garden growing everything from broccoli to sunflowers. There is even a school scarecrow. Everywhere you turn in the grounds, there seems to be a pot in which something is growing. There are plans to establish a bush-tucker garden and convert more of the grounds to vegetable production.

I went along in late 2009 to help make beetroot dip. We picked, washed and grated the beetroot, mixed it with garlic and natural yoghurt, and ate it with bread. Yes, I did need to pinch myself when I saw a roomful of five-year-olds polishing off a bowl of beetroot without a peep of complaint. A mother told me that her son loves the garden, and can't wait to get out and work in it. These are kids who know where apples come from.

What about those mums who turn up at the school gates in truck-like cars: will they be persuaded by their eco-kids to start growing their own? One mum I know sat on the edge of her kid's sandpit at home and triumphantly told me she'd ripped out all the vegetables put in by a previous owner, because they were ‘too much trouble'. It's an understandable attitude given how far we are from the days when we all grew our own.

Australians have a long history of growing their own vegetables. Home gardens and Victory gardens were a necessity during the Depression and world wars. My friend Pat is typical of that generation. She has grown vegetables all her life, and although elderly now, she still has a little bit of the backyard to grow a few plants: a pawpaw, tomatoes, some greens. In my letterbox the other week, there was a small envelope with seeds from Pat's rosellas, along with a handwritten guide to planting them. My daughter and I had spent an evening with Pat months earlier, tearing the leaves off her last crop and boiling them up to make delicious rosella jam, and now she was giving us some seeds to grow our own crop. This is how things used to be done: a neighbour passing seeds or cuttings on to a neighbour, friends exchanging excess produce, each connecting with the land and the seasons and helping the other along.

Today, we seem to have lost that knowledge. The president of the local senior citizens' group told me that one of her neighbours rested a pin-striped arm on her gatepost on the way back from the office and asked what the lovely plant was in her patio garden: ‘The one with the green leaves and the red flowers.' ‘You mean the geranium,' she replied. She told the story while rolling her eyes skyward. ‘Fancy not knowing what a geranium was – it's probably the most popular flower in Australia.'

 

IF WE ARE to tackle climate change and make a difference at a community level, we need to educate all Australians about how to live sustainably. We will need to educate people who drive cars and have mortgages and jobs, and all the pressures that go with them. We need to learn how to live locally, to eat less meat, and grow our own fruit and vegetables a lot nearer to home than we do at present.

So here's my idea: urbaculture. It's based on permaculture – a neologism formed from the words ‘permanent' and ‘agriculture' – which is the system for sustainable agriculture developed in the 1970s by two inspirational Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Urbaculture is permaculture for the city dweller. It is a blueprint for sustainable, food-producing cityscapes, where food is grown locally and organically within communities and suburbs.

One of the first steps to establishing such a system will be thinking about how we bring food production and food education in to our cities.

Could we use our public parks?  Brisbane's Botanic Gardens were originally set up as experimental gardens, trialling crops and plants to determine their suitability for the local climate. They were used to feed the colony.  Could we do the same with bits of our public parks today?

Every suburb of our cities has a park: a large open space, bordered by trees and carpeted in grass. There is often a small playground in one corner, and on Saturday mornings children might be seen playing soccer and fathers frying sausages. During summer, the council sends along a big tractor to mow the grass, but most of the time most of the park sits there unused and baking in the sun.

Inner-city public parks date back to Victorian Britain, when governments were keen to provide diversion and healthy exercise to the workers from local factories. In far-flung parts of the Empire, they often included a tearoom and rose gardens to remind the expats of home. The model no longer serves the needs of either urbanites or our environment.

Some of our parkland could be used for productive food growing, or as education gardens where we teach communities how to grow organic vegetables. Not all of it, of course – we need to keep some space to kick a ball and have a barbie – but there are unused corners of our parks and parts too exposed to be enjoyed.

My local park is Bulimba Memorial Park. It was originally swampland, and the journey to Bulimba from the city was an arduous series of boat trips around the swamp. Just over a century ago, the swamp was filled in and made in to a park. After World War I, the park was designated a Memorial Park and eighty trees were planted around the perimeter, each one commemorating a soldier or sailor. The park was renowned for its cricket oval and grandstand. Over the years, there have been some modest changes, but ostensibly it has stayed the same for close to a hundred years.

I have proposed that we develop a community-education garden in the park. I have the backing of a lot of local residents, businesses and community organisations, as well as local politicians, but it's a heritage park and the council is, so far, reluctant to change. One day, however, I hope it will be seen as a model for all our public gardens: as parks for people, parks for pleasure, but also as parks for food production and education.

Some people may wonder whether all this is really necessary. But as Richard Branson says, ‘I'd rather be an optimist and proved wrong than a pessimist and proved right.' Growing our own food within our cities may be small beer compared with the radical things we are going to need to do to address climate change and the likelihood of peak oil, but it is something we can do now – and do relatively easily. And when someone asks where apples come from – where they really come from – our kids will know the answer.

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