THERE BEEN a guerilla community garden on Erskineville Road in inner Sydney for a couple years, but guerilla composters were the last thing I expected to find in Redfern.
The discovery happened one fine day after someone emailed me at the City of Sydney enquiring about the possibility of a community garden in a small reserve not far off busy Cleveland Street. I didn't know the site so after looking it up on the GIS I decided it would be best to take a look.
Old area, new residents
This part of Redfern, where it abuts Surry Hills, is a Nineteenth Century streetscape of Victorian era terrace houses... not the grander versions of those that you find in some parts but the working class version that characterised the period in much of Sydney's inner urban area.
The last 40 years has seen a new demographic occupy those old houses and renovate some of them, replacing small, poky rooms with modern open plan interiors and replacing the small, mean windows with large areas of glass to admit natural light. For the most part this hasn't been the more expensive renovation of affluent areas like Paddington, but a more modest retrofitting of the old architecture, much as is still happening in other parts of Redfern. Being so close to the CBD and adjacent inner urban areas offers advantages in living close to where people work and offers proximity to the cultural, culinary and specialist small businesses that only inner urban areas have the population density to support. It is this that makes the area attractive.
Something under the shrubs
Parking the City's Prius near the reserve, I walked over to look around. Sure, there was space for a community garden of modest scale. It could occupy part of the open space with its lawn bordered by fenceline shrubbery and trees. This would comply with the multi-purpose role of the small park, which is something that is a necessity in an inner urban area with a close-packed population and limited public open space. The terrain was flat, there was plenty of access to sunlight an there was a tap in the reserve... and there was something over there in the corner where the two fencelines met... something in the shade, tucked under the shrubs. I walked over.
The popularisation of household composting is something of a success story for sustainability educators and local government these last 20 years. Organic home gardeners had been familiar with the practice ever since organic gardening became popular back in the 1960s, but it had to await the 1990s before becoming a mainstream practice as a government supported response to the burgeoning waste problem our cities then faced and still face today. It was Peter Rutherford, now at the Kimbriki Eco House in Terrey Hills, and John Denlay, then with Friends of the Earth and now working with the government of South australia, who took the initiative to popularise domestic composting by developing the Earthworks community eduction course.
Then, fifteen or so years after Earthworks, composting went community when Chippendale sustainability coach Michael Mobbs and a number of locals
launched what would become the Peace Park and Chippendale streets community composting facility. Now, in Redfern, it was a community composting facility of sorts that I was looking at, tucked into the shade of the shrubbery.
What someone or some small group had done was to install a community worm farm in the park and equip it with instructions for use on the lid. It was one of those black plastic domestic models and was obviously cared for. What was good to see was that the City's parks maintenance contractor had let it be.
A short walk
Being a fine day an being in an area I was unfamiliar with I decided to take a short walk along surrounding streets. The first feature of interest I encountered as I walked down Stanley Lane was a old house from the small garden of which branched an overhanging avocado tree. Continuing my walk I encountered assorted citrus in tiny yards and little nooks and crannies on the streets where people has planted spare ornamentals or placed small container gardens. Is there some inherent, human propensity to plant wherever there's an opportunity, I wondered?
Turning the corner, I encounterd a short, dead end street that ended at the rear entrance to a park and that was lined with terrace houses and street trees. And here, too, those urban guerrilla people had been at work. In the small garden patches outside the terraces they had established pumpkin and vegetable with the odd herb tossed in for good measure. But those guerilla composters... they had been here, too... and had installed a big, black compost bin at the end of the street, equipped with instructions for use on the lid. Was this the work of the same crew that has installed the guerilla worm farm in the reserve, I wondered?
As I walked back to the car past that big avocado tree and down the lane, I thought how wonderful it was that people seek to improve the places they live in this way, and how good it was that they turn waste into something useful and involve others in doing so.