Interview raises questions around footpath gardens and councils

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Story by Russ Grayson, May 2016

I NEVER planned to get involved in the politics of growing food on footpaths.

It was an imaginative idea, I thought, when it started to attract a greater number of practitioners a few years back. Quickly I saw a few problems developing and wrote a short ebook — Farmers of the Urban Footpath — as a compilation of design ideas and to set out a social and urban development rationale to support the practice.

But there's nothing like writing a book to become billed as an 'expert' by the media. Print and radio media interviews followed over the years and interest has grown such that now people are doing their masters degrees and PhD dissertations on the practice.

That is how I came to meet Jesse, a PhD student presently in Japan and previously living in Hawaii. And that is how Jesse came to make his way to the classroom used for courses in community resiliency at Randwick Sustainability Hub, the name given the community education program at Randwick Community Centre.

Being interviewed by Jesse made me realise how far the idea of urban agriculture and urban food security has come this past decade. Footpath gardening has become a minor subset of public land management and urban food security.

I hoped to get across a few points about turning nature strips from lawn to food during our conversation. One of these was that footpath gardening is presenting councils with something new and their response is varied, ranging from support, through indifference to opposition to demolition.

The question of freedom to choose

The expectation of local government that householders will freely maintain the footpath outside their property boundary raises questions of fairness and freedom of choice.

People point to a glaring contradiction in local government's approach. Councils expect citizens to donate their time, energy, mower and mower fuel to maintaining footpath lawn at their own expense, yet they are denied any say in how those footpath nature strips are used. For those wanting an alternative use for the footpath outside their front gate, this is viewed as an exploitative relationship, as neither fair nor democratic. If they are expected to subsidise councils by mowing their public land, then they should be given the freedom to choose how, within limits of safety and public access, it is used.

This argument has been a common response when councils have demanded the destruction of footpath gardens. What people are asking is for a say in how their footpath nature strips — the lawn monocultures between paved footpath and street — are used. They see the issue as one of equity and fairness, one of gaining a return on their free services provided to councils. It is about freedom of choice over how to use land that citizens are expected to maintain at their own expense.

The question of insurance

There is much to clear up here. Councils need to let citizens know whether they are covered by either public place or by workers compensation insurance while maintaining this public footpath land. The same goes for equipment people use to do this work — who insures against damage? Does household insurance cover the damage or loss of equipment being used to maintain public land? Or is this free service to councils provided at personal risk and expense if injury occurs?

The work, at council insistence, is voluntary. Yet, in NSW, volunteers are considered under worksafe legislation to be 'workers'. So if citizens maintaining footpaths are considered volunteers for councils, then are they covered by worksafe legislation and does council have to be insure them if public place insurance does not cover do so?

The question of productivity

Once, a noted permaculture designer and educator added up all the open space in Melbourne and suggested it could be used for food production. No doubt some of it could, given a national food crisis and if people's valid used of open space for passive recreation, sport and nature are ignored. We could add the considerable space used to cultivate frequently low-grade lawn on footpath nature strips to this total even though much of it would prove unusable due to space, access and soil contamination.

Despite whatever potential footpath food production might have, the contribution of food-producing footpaths to the food security of a city would probably be minor compared to that of community food gardens, home gardens and the commercial market gardens found on the urban fringe.

On social media we often encounter comments about planting parks and streets to food-bearing trees and shrubs. However good the idea it is not so simple. Unlike the street and park trees planted for their ornamental, shade or microclimate modification values (such as street trees planted to ameliorate the urban heat island effect and reduce energy use for domestic heating and cooling), plantings of edible fruiting species requires the presence of people to monitor them for insect pest and plant disease infestation and to take appropriate action so that trees with insect infestations do not become pest vectors for nearby home and community gardens. Also required are people who can recognise when the fruit is ripe and harvest it, a process known as gleaning. Planting, maintaining and harvesting are three main components of edible public place plantings.

The question of justice

Councils do not have fair or due process to adjudicate complaints about footpath gardens and what people plant in them. Their solution is simply to take the word of plaintiffs and order gardens removed on receiving complaints.

The result of this lack of due process is to hand over to vexatious people de facto control over what citizens can and cannot do on the footpaths councils insist they maintain at their own expense. There is an issue of justice conspicuously missing here and it is directly attributable to councils.

The question of guidelines

Jesse and I talked about how the practice of footpath gardening has been going on long enough now that we have a good idea of what works and what doesn't, and that this is sufficient for local government to formulate enabling policy and design guidelines.

Guidelines would ensure:

  • walkways are kept clear of overhanging vegetation for a width of a minimum of 1.2m and a height of three metres so residents have access to the road to board vehicles and to move their recycling and other wheelie bins onto the street and back
  • that there is a setback of around 300 to between the streetside edge of the footpath garden and the kerb so people can open vehicle doors to board and disembark easily
  • that larger plants are spaced sufficiently to allow for the passive surveillance of footpaths by neighbours so as to ensure public safety.

There's more that would need to go into guidelines of course, however we didn't have all day for our interview so we could discuss them all.

The question of what happens with research

Research like Jesse is doing deserves wide distribution so that people engaged in footpath gardening and so local government can learn how others think and how they are acting. The community and home gardening milieu, of course, cannot commission its own research, so that of university students becomes the only source of reporting on the practice and of feedback to those involved.

We need this research to fully comprehend what in some municipalities remains an underground practice, an undisclosed repurposing of the footpath nature strip into spontaneous gardens as people seek to reassert some control over the commons.

A few links...

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