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Research – Gardening communities: What can a developer do to facilitate a productive gardens culture?

Posted in Events, Models, Movements, Policies, Research, Sustainable Cities Round Tables, Visions by Ferne Edwards on June 20th, 2008

At the Sustainable Cities Round Table on Sustainable Food Systems held on 28 May 2008, VicUrban led a discussion on how developers could contribute to establishing productive food gardening in estates. The audience consisted of 78 knowledgeable, sustainable food enthusiasts who provided some very interesting feedback. I believe this information could serve as an excellent guideline to anyone who is interested in incorporating productive landscapes into urban developments. I have analysed the data from the 73 feedback forms received from the event to provide a summary for each of the three role-play scenarios.

Role #1 – You are a person who has just moved into the development. What would you want to find there to support your involvement in productive gardening?

Key issues for the new resident includes:

The pre-established layout and design of the estate

New residents desire planned space for a diversity of urban agricultural models (both for the community and individual) which are integrated within the residential zone. The location for these mixed plots must also consider access to sunlight, water, clean soil, tool sheds, and areas for animals (chooks & ducks). Varieties of urban agriculture models suggested include community gardens, private gardens, productive streetscapes, aquaculture, rooftops & shared back gardens.

Water was a key concern of the estate. Many people remarked on the need for pre-existing water storage infrastructure such as private and communal water tanks, urban stormwater drains to capture water and the use of recycled water systems.

Information about food growing

Information requested included how to establish and maintain a food garden (with specific information on seeds, seasonal growing, earth types, companion planting, soil preparation, etc), water information (cost, greywater systems, use of third pipe) climate information, a community gardener contact list and guides to indigenous plants to the area.

'Community Garden 19' by Artcatcher

This information was to be delivered in a variety of ways including on a website or virtual gardening site, as a community hub, gardening group or workshops, through a demonstration garden, or through shared, community spaces (see below) such as garden centres, notice boards, council nursery, community kitchens, school gardens or a community food coop.

Importance of a community meeting space & other shared resources

As suggested by the section above, a community meeting space was considered an essential place to meet new residents, for general support, and to store and share equipment. It could also serve as a base for a community management group for the estate ie. as a form of cooperative land ownership or as a group structure to facilitate gardeners and gardening.

Other community-shared resources were also highly desirable such as shared tool sheds, community compost sites, communal chooks and gardens, locations for harvest exchange systems, food preservation equipment and larger tools and equipment, seed banks, greenhouses and orchards.

Opportunities to introduce new onsite businesses / institutions

As with any new estate or project, innovative opportunities emerge to take advantage of new situations. In this case the focus is on creating sustainable productive landscapes with ideas for new businesses include nurseries (including indigenous plants, hire of gardening equipment) and programs for food/ seedling swaps, set-up support and skill-sharing between and for residents. Positions that could be created on-site could include a service provider for the set up phase, a body corporate for major maintenance, a Jim’s urban farm franchise , or a paid horticulturalist for ongoing support. As one respondee stated: “I would like someone to come to my door, help me to design my garden, give me the seeds and knowledge”.

Role #2 – You have been living in the development for 2 years. What would you see emerging over that time that could involve the active support of the developer?

Key issues for the 2-year resident include:

Ongoing maintenance of the estate and the role of the community

Ongoing maintenance responsibilities could be carried out by either the residents (as a body corporate), the developers (hiring contractors or “Jim’s Gardening”) or the local council to maintain communal areas, such as the meeting space, edible streetscapes, seedbank and shared storage areas, and large-scale infrastructure such as water and heavy machinery work, electricity and transport.

Although the data is unclear as to who should take exact responsibility for each task, there is agreement that the community should be involved in the management of the estate. Many respondents stated that there should be community consultation on what they need, to undertake an ongoing, review process and to ensure the maintainance of the original vision of the development. It was also perceived that the community should take a role to support new tenants to the estate and to oversee the development of self-evolving community systems on multiple layers (ie. some shared backyards, gardening in community spaces, etc.).

Introducing new services and infrastructure

New services and infrastructures to be introduced after two years include include (if not previously established) a more sophisticated community tool shed, co-ordination of the many individual actors for marketing and resource management, waste management, composting, community waste-water treatment & recycling, childcare centres, funding initiatives for a farmers market, solar panels, rainwater tanks, wind energy corridors, local restaurant (perhaps organic food only) and increased integration of the built estate into local ecosystem with bush foods, etc. Ideally, as one respondent wrote “These services should continue until the system is itself self-sustaining”.

Ongoing information resources

To further develop the productive landscape new information resources need to be provided while maintaining the required initial, information resources for new residents. Suggestions for new information more centres of communication such as gardening clubs, bringing in gardening experts, and more sophisticated methods of resource sharing such as cooking classes with local, seasonal products, school programs, building techniques, grafting, pruning, bottling, bees and organics.

One key new form of information/ service is that of methods to distribute surplus food. Suggestions included selling it within the community (setting up a gardeners / farmers / mobile market), selling the produce externally for profit, using the food within the community (ie. establishing a distribution centre, a food sharing / buying group to trade food for other supplies or by using the food in a community kitchen or for community festivals), donating the excess produce to organisations such as One Umbrella, to preserve the excess food for the winter months by establishing a food preservation hub, or to establish food wastage initiatives such as community compost systems or to feed animals, etc.

Introducing community festivals and events

Another new feature of the estate after the establishment stage is that of community festivals and events. Examples include Open Gardens and community events around food such as annual harvest festivals (ie. to provide prizes for the biggest strawberry!) and cooking/ sharing produce events such as community tomato sauce and wine making!

Role #3 – You have lived in the development for more than 10 years. What does the productive landscape look like?

Perceived key features of the estate after 10-years are:


It’s about a healthy community; it’s about my health & happiness; it’s about my family’s health.
Residents feel like they belong to the estate with demonstrated ownership and use of both private and communal areas. Key words include “strong community”, “good support system”, its “an urban farming community”, “open and inviting and heaps of sharing”. Health and happiness are paramount in terms of social cohesion, nutrition, fitness, time spent with family and economic security with greater local employment opportunties. This third role play does seem to elucidate responses of an “urban paradise” which may seem a little unrealistic, especially within ten years. One attendee commented:”There are shining, happy people running around, drinking fine wine, playing music, having fun”, while another commented, “A Garden of Eden”.


The estate-scape is green covered with seasonal crops and fruit trees with “fruit falling from trees into mouths” and busy with people – a hive of activity all year round with people talking to each other. It is also diverse with a canopy of layers “ mid-, under- and mature- stories of overflowing, productive landscapes featuring flowers, use of vertical space, pumpkins on roofs, and vibrant, seasonal orchards. There is an abundance of food “ there are edible streetscapes, vegies among natives on the nature strip, all spare land is in use while food hangs from fences. The productive landscape has become the norm. There are also many shared features – shared community gardens, orchards, backyards and spaces. Animals play a key role in this estate-scape with favourites including chooks (no roosters!), ducks and bees in additional to leaving remnant spaces for wildlife.

Additional environmental-friendly features have also emerged such as energy-efficiency strategies in housing design and the regeneration of surrounding, native landscape. The entire estate now represents a movement towards a closed-circuit of resources with self-reproducing systems such as seed banks, efficient waste-management systems, water security and soil-enrichment strategies.

Established services

There are services for surplus. Such as bulk foods co-operatives, street markets, community bottling systems, compost stations, food for trade or for rates. There are harvest festivals and fresh markets.

There are services for the community: Such as school kitchen garden programs, community bake offs, co-ordinated food production between communities, and a community cafe using grown produce.

There are service opportunities for the estate; Such as seed banks, stormwater and greywater infrastructure, soil and plant doctors, food based social enterprises and local shops. There’s “Jims EVERYTHING”, food mapping, skill sharing and market gardens. Some respondents also suggested cross-estate trading and exchanging ideas with other housing estates to form an active web of productive landscape estates.

In summary:

These three role plays portray a possible ten-year trajectory to involve developers in establishing productive landscapes. These landscapes are not just about food production but also raise important issues of community engagement and social inclusion. They also depict an environment which favours multiple forms of sharing spaces and services over individualisation, with many people suggesting not simply installing community gardens but also removing fences to share backyards. The feedback also highlights that there are several looming policy issues to address “ namely water restrictions, building codes, the ability of a community to self-govern, and the right to keep animals on urban properties. As the feedback was from an audience of urban food enthusiasts, it is also important to identify the issue of who will live in this property. Indeed, I believe one more question that should have been added to the discussion is: Would you live here?  Developers would need to consider how to market such a lifestyle to people who may not have such strong environmental convictions as our audience.

All in all, this report provides the beginning to a possible ten-year guide to implementing productive landscape communities. In a climate of change where peak oil is now recognised as a serious issue, productive landscapes are one method to ease environmental and social pressures. I believe this outline to be the start to an excellent resource for developers and for other urban planning bodies such as local councils and even local-based, sustainability groups such as Sustainability Streets. It could also be applied to pre-existing housing estates. Of course such a shift in audience would also generate a shift from new residencies to retrofitting which would welcome further research. In short, change is needed if our audience is right such a future could look in their words, “Amazing!”

Data analysed & report written by Ferne Edwards, Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab.
20 June 2008

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