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Guerilla Gardens & forward-thinking councils

Posted in Movements by Kate Archdeacon on December 7th, 2009

Source: Friends of the Earth Melbourne

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Image: ubrayj02 via flickr CC

From “Guerilla Gardeners Get a Green Light“, by Sue Jackson

At its regular monthly meeting in August, Melbourne’s Yarra Council won itself a green star for forward thinking. Instead of razing local unauthorised street gardens as it had threatened to shortly before the meeting, it did a complete about-face, voting unanimously to become a champion of such initiatives instead.  Yarra, like quite a few other municipalities, is increasingly becoming dotted with community-initiated gardens. These include registered, secure community gardens that councils approve and support, but there are also others — guerilla gardens located in places like planter boxes in the street or on abandoned public land, which are established without prior council approval. As their survival relies on councils turning a blind eye, the future of each individual garden of this type is always precarious.

Guerilla gardeners live with this knowledge, but tend to push it to the back of their minds. At least that had been the case for me and my fellow renegades at Windmill Foodgarden @ Tramstop 22 in the inner-city Melbourne suburb of Clifton Hill — right up until the axe fell in early August. The story of what happened next — the spontaneous campaign which overturned a silly decision so successfully that enemies of guerrilla gardens are now its friends — might be useful to anyone else out there trying to bring change on this issue at a local level.

Our plot, established on an ex-nature strip next to a busy thoroughfare, had been flourishing for over a year. Locals regularly collected greens for their dinner and pulled weeds as they passed, the kitchen staff at the nearby Recreation pub fed the plants with their rinse water and neighbours organised working bees to keep the plot in shape.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that there are no security fences and the garden is open to all, it had never been vandalised. Instead it had developed into a small but beloved community hub, whose first birthday we had just celebrated in July. That day the guest of honour had been resplendent in violas, herbs, salad greens and veggies, with a stylish girdle of thigh-high fig branch fencing. Guests stood amidst the flapping flags in the icy winds, eating and drinking and talking food. But the birthday cake had barely been digested when out of the blue the directive arrived from the council.

We were told to either remove the garden ourselves within 30 days or council officers would pull it down. This notice, which was sent to all unauthorised street gardens in the City of Yarra, was ostensibly concerned about issues of “contamination” and “public risk”. It made no sense to us.

The creators of the Windmill Foodgarden were experienced food growers who knew what they were doing. One of their main motivations was the need for food security, and they put a lot of research, thought and effort into ensuring that their organic produce would always be in peak condition.

They used deep biodegradable trays for planting, which were dug into place and filled with certified clean soil. Since then the trays have regularly been topped up with compost. As an added security, only shallow-rooted plants are ever used, deliberately avoiding the risk of root interference with any pipes that might be laid beneath. The Council’s concern about contamination seemed misguided. As to risk, we were left guessing as to what they could have meant by that.

We wondered if there might have been concern over dangerous objects like syringes being tossed into the garden, but that had never happened. Besides, people always make a point of removing any rubbish at working bees and when they come to pick produce. And because the garden abuts the main road, only low-growing plants are used to make sure it doesn’t block visibility for motorists or pedestrians.

It was a no-brainer; and there was no way we were giving up our garden without a fight. But with less than a week until the council meeting, there was no time to lose.

Read the full article by Sue Jackson on FoodFreedom.