Community gardens are a fantastic thing in Australia’s big cities, but has the time now come for allotments!!??


Yesterday I spent a wonderful day at the Community Gardens at Bundanoon, evidently established on an old caravan park site. They’ve also worked hard as group to save a host of local plant varieties, specific to the Southern Highlands and Bundanoon.

But as we know, community gardens are nothing new, I can remember as a child wandering through my grandfathers allotment along the railway line in Crewe in the UK back in the late 50’s. The plots were only small but all year round they were bursting with produce that was swapped for many other useful items of the day.

My grandfathers allotment came into the family during the second world war, when every available patch of unused public land was utilised to grow food for the war effort by the Ministry of Food, and strict rules applied to this food too. Anyone caught selling or plundering someones allotment were harshly treated and made examples of for good reason.

In Australia community gardens are fairly recent arrivals, but going back to when I first arrived in Australia as an immigrant in the early 70’s, there were market gardens close to Sydney, flourishing food markets right in the city and most people had a vegie patch in the burbs and grew a lot of their own Tucker.

In fact, because of the tyranny of distance in my adopted land I found most fresh food was grown and very much distributed locally, and in the country people still jarred and preserved their food too in times of surplus, but inner city living and apartment dwelling begged the question could we not utilise vacant public land to grow food as in Europe and what of all the rooftops in our cities totally unused?? It’s so refreshing too see some amazing roof top gardens now across Australia, and their numbers are growing! Excuse the pun!

As mentioned community gardens have been a traditional land use in Europe and the UK since the early nineteenth century.

As early as 1819 in the UK, and the 1830s in Western Europe, allotments were set aside for the urban working class. These provided a breathing space in the crowded industrial cities and their produce supplemented the food supply of families.

Later, a working class gardening movement in Europe provided an important social and organisational underpinning in the pre-World War One period. It served as a part of the counterculture promoted by the socialist movement within different countries.

Economic hardship imposed by the economic recession of the 1930s, followed by World War Two, brought a renewed interest in community gardening as a means of food production. During world War Two, ‘Victory Gardens’ flourished in most urban landscapes.

It was self sufficiency and sustainability before these words became fashionable.

Post-war decline

Despite a decline in the community garden movement after the Second World War, community gardening persisted until the present day. It is now a popular urban activity. Community gardens are much sought after in in Europe as ‘urban retreats’ (Kleingarten) and in the UK and USA as ‘allotments’.

The demand for garden plots is increasing. With one million believed to be in existence at the present time, the waiting list for allotments in Greater London alone is estimated by the Civic Trust at 10 000. Nationally, the waiting list is reported to be around 100 000.

Germany has more than 500 000 allotments, with around 35 000 each in Switzerland and Sweden.

Community gardens are, in general, established on vacant or unused parcels of land. In the UK Europe and the USA, they are community managed.

Australia’s first

The first Australian community garden was established in 1977 in Nunuwading, Melbourne.

At about the same time, negotiations between community groups and local government paved the way for the Collingwood Children’s Farm, also in Melbourne and a city farm in nearby Brunswick.

The subsequent popularity of city farms and community gardens led to the establishment of similar community enterprises in Melbourne.

A global movement

The origin of city farms and community food gardens in Australia lies in the 1970s, a decade characterised by increasing concern over environmental conditions, greater leisure time and changing recreational activities. The role of these factors in the development of community based urban agriculture has not been measured.

The UK, Western Europe and the USA now have well developed and cohesive city farm and community garden movements. In the UK, community gardens and city farms are backed by the National Federation of City Farms. The organisation has received funding from the Department of the Environment offers valuable support and advisory services to groups seeking to secure access to land.

The Federation was an inspiration to Dr Darren Phillips in setting up the Australian City Farms and Community Gardens Network – later to be shortened to the Australian Community Gardens Network – in the mid-1990s.

City farms today range in size and complexity from small, low-cost neighbourhood enterprises to larger establishments such as Collingwood Children’s Farm and CERES, both in Melbourne, and Fairfield City Farming south-western Sydney. These larger enterprises offer a range of farm and craft-based activities for adults to young children and employ paid staff.

Todays community gardens and allotments in Australian cities

In Britain, if you want to have an allotment of common land to grow vegetables, theoretically you can have one. There is a long history of legislation that comes out of very old commoners rights (and to some extent compensation for their loss with large scale enclosure of land in the 18th and 19th Centuries) and the ‘Dig for Victory’ response to the food crisis of the Second World War.

In Australia, while we also have some strong and culturally diverse traditions of home-grown veg, it has tended to centre on an assumption that you can come up with the land yourself amid all of our space, most likely in your own garden. But that doesn’t work so well for a lot of us in the cities now, jammed into apartments or houses whose extensions have taken up all but a paved courtyard. This space issue, combined with forceful trends about how we value food, its freshness, origins and ancillary impacts, has come together to do a lot of the fuelling of the recent rise of community gardens. You might call it a ‘movement’, but that implies a direction away from the mainstream, whereas what is happening with vegie growing these days is precisely the opposite. Community gardens are ‘in’; while perhaps not the ‘new black’, they are certainly a far more fashionable shade of green.

At the community garden where I am a member, the interest in membership, the time it takes waiting for a plot to become available, and the conditions of use for retaining one have been subject to consistent and continuing growth. Around the corner from me, a community plot started up a couple of years ago that was initially something of a ‘guerrilla garden’ in that some perfectly civil and upstanding members of the local community appropriated some Council land without permission. It then became something of a Council darling – something they could get behind with little effort but with positive effect. The common impression is that had they been asked, Council would have said no if only because of bureaucracy and liability-phobia. But with it appearing almost overnight, the same local government inertia would have made opposing it the path of most resistance.

In Sydney’s Inner West, traditionally our more alternative area, community gardens big and small have been founded and continue to grow. There also, as described by Kirsten at Milkwood, a street in Dulwich Hill has gotten together and done a lot to communally take over the verge for vegies. Back in the East, a North Bondi community verge garden has become the best known of all because it is run (and regularly televised) by  Costa Georgiadis, host of ABC’s Gardening Australia.

It is some very public gardening, and that seems like unmitigated good, right? I would say so, mixing things up in the continuum between public and private, between communal and exclusive. But it is important that we are clear about what sits where. The land ownership, the idea and much of the aesthetic value is public, but the gardening and its produce is necessarily private. Food production is inevitably a calculation of return versus effort. It is owned; it might be by a community, an individual or a corporation, but it is owned.

Sitting somewhere in that continuum up in Randwick, Barrett House tends a vegetable garden on the verge that actively invites people to forage from it. But notably it is explicitly a trial, calling on anyone who might take them up on the offer to only do so cursorily. And notably, these public fruits are coming from a community body, such that we shouldn’t ignore the real start and end of investment and return. Were you to pop along to Costa’s verge and knock off a head of broccoli, let’s not pretend that anyone involved would not view it as theft. These aren’t lemons over the back fence we are talking about, they are vegies, carefully tended crops, the fruits of labour.

Out of all of this, something that interests me a great deal is the fact that everything described above involves the assertion or allocation of some kind of right. And with this it is interesting that a lot of community vegie growing doesn’t really have any particularly sensible framework that we manage those rights in. Usufruct (‘a right of enjoyment enabling a holder to derive profit or benefit from property that either is titled to another person or which is held in common ownership, as long as the property is not damaged or destroyed’ according toWikipedia), a word I have used before with only a passing attention to accuracy, is something that exists in our legal heritage, although not specifically in our law. I am not suggesting that governments should regulate our rights at different levels of community as entitled usufructuaries (holders of specific rights); but the long term sustainability of the social and political structures of community gardens cannot be secured by simply leaving well enough alone to keep moving forward much as we are somehow doing now. We think that these things are ‘democracies’ but ignore the fact that democracy is not a way of managing things, but a way of creating accountability amongst our managers.

My community garden has actually alienated some public land behind a locked gate beyond which only vetted and paying members can enjoy benefits. In it, although I do spend a lot of time just on the community side of things with that involvement itself being the return, my major food focus is on getting my plot to provide for my family on what is essentially your land. On the other hand, our contribution at the start of the local verge garden always left me uncertain of my entitlement to harvest, so I never did and now just enjoy the fact of its existence as a passer-by. My feeling is that it now works with a small enough group to run quite well. But for me it often turns out that there is too much inequality (and/or inequity) in the passive organisation of many community gardens that wrongly supposes some kind of communalism is at work rather than what is strangely best described as oligarchy. Bunches of left-leaners ironically come together and choose a community structure where laissez-faire free-market governance reigns at the expense of socially equitable returns.

At home I tend a small strip of herbs and greens with variable productivity in the common grounds of an apartment block. It is still not exclusively mine, but I certainly know where I stand with it. Personally, and quite reasonably, I prefer to make my investment knowing the conditions attached to the return.

Most recently, two workmates and I had a tiny version of a permablitz. We have made a salad garden, the explicit intention that it will provide lunchtime salad greens (lettuce, rocket, cress, etc), raw veg (radishes, carrots) and fruit (tomatoes, strawberries) for any and all of the ten people in our office (based in an old house and therefore with a garden). The company contributes most costs and as for the other inputs, the opportunity to duck out from some mind-scrambling report-writing to water some seedlings or attend to some weeds is a lot more of a personal return than an investment. I like this, my newest of gardens, the most likely of any that I know to have only winners.

At our monthly community garden working bee, I would typically spend perhaps a couple of hours tending the communal plot from which I very rarely harvest, really just gardening for the hell of it and the social engagement. I then generally come home with less food than I took there. Instead of communal harvests (an exception here) we have common rights to harvest; the difference being that the former would involve shares divided out and the latter involves shares taken – in the process tending to reward takers over dividers. To be honest, the process has alienated me and I increasingly eschew involvement with the communal vegetable plots in favour of areas where I feel more equitably engaged (or personally engaged, as with the aquaponics). Conveniently enough the oligarchy is benign and this can still work.

Community gardens in Australia are, in my view, in their youth; and as is often the way of youth, they are heady with ambition, socialism, fashion following and limited attention spans. And perhaps most importantly, with that insistence of making its own mistakes to learn from. There is no great need for them to get a haircut, or a real job, or settle down and start worrying about just how much gets brought home after tax. There is a good argument for staying young, having fun and not bothering about efficiency. But youth is also capable of philosophy and organisation; and it is important if community gardens want to have long term sustainability, that rights, responsibilities and entitlements are made clear, or at least structures made to allow for this. As people (or just as animals), we are backed up by a hell of a lot of evolution hard-wiring us to appreciate food returns against effort.

These youthful gardens properly enough think that they are going to change the world; educate their communities, challenge corporate agriculture, set up local food systems and feed a brighter future. But they won’t do it meaningfully unless they do it with long-term sustainability, and they won’t do that unless there is some kind of structured understanding of usufructuary rights and firm efforts to build the returns side of the equation to match investments. Which isn’t to posit a dire prognosis – in the meantime they are social clubs, community hubs, hobby centres, and those are good things. Were I to posit a successful future for community gardens, it would be where the very core of society and its history, inclusive of those with no interest whatsoever in personally growing their own veg, was in majority favour, and laws existed to support (or at least defend) them. As it happens, this is the British allotment system in many ways.

So this I know: Community gardens are a fantastic thing in the fabric of Australia’s big cities, and its most recent history; but the time has come for allotments.

Renewed interest

The 1990s and 2000’s brought a surge on interest in community gardens in Sydney and other cities and this interest is still growing.

Having served populations through depression and survived times of affluence, it seems that community gardens and city farms are now finding renewed vigour worldwide.

References –

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s