IT HAS BEEN 20 years since the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network bloomed into existence like a seed in fertile soil. It started when Fiona Campbell and I called a meeting at the old (and now demolished) Randwick Community Centre of what we imagined would be the mere handful of community gardeners in Sydney.
We knew that, down south, CERES had started a community garden at its Melbourne site and that there were others in existence both in that city as well as one or two in Sydney.
The first dawning of community gardening in Sydney had been over in Rozelle in the Inner West where Glovers Community Garden had been operating on Health Department land at Callum Park for the previous decade. It is still there.
That was followed by Angel Street Permaculture Garden (it has had several name changes) in 1991. The garden was started by the group that South Sydney Council (later incorporated into City of Sydney) had turned down when they asked to start a city farm in Sydney Park. The group, which included permaculture educator, Bronwyn Rice, who was then running permaculture design courses in Sydney, found the patch of disused education department land behind a high school where the garden continues to be cultivated.
As if to validate the comment by Mark Twain that "History does not repeat itself. But it does rhyme", Sydney Park is where Sydney City Farm is soon to be built.
Randwick Community Garden, then in the grounds of the old Randwick community centre on Bundock Street, came into existence around the time of the meeting at the community centre. It was started as a partnership between the community centre management and students of the urban Permaculture Design Course we ran at the community centre through the 1990s.
But that Saturday afternoon meeting at Randwick Community Centre in 1995… one of those who attended was a PhD student from the ANU in Canberra who had been researching community gardens, city farms and enterprise centres. He told us that, yes, there were a number of community gardens out there but they were disconnected, they didn't know of each other and existed in isolation. It was almost as if we needed some kind of network to bring them together, suggested Darren Phillips.
I was working then with a small international development NGO — APACE (Appropriate Technology for Community and Environment) — based at the University of Technology, Sydney. We had farming system education, food security and village micro-hydroelectric electrification programs in the Solomon Islands and PNG. One day in the office, someone answered the phone. Not that this was unusual, but what was about to be proposed was. "It's for you, Russ", she said.
On the other end in not-so-distant Canberra was Darren Phillips. "That idea for a network to link community gardeners I mentioned at last weekend's meeting… ", he began. Morag Gamble and Evan Raymond in Brisbane (who were among the crew that started Northey Street City Farm in 1994 and who are now resident at Crystal Waters Permaculture Village behind the Sunshine Coast where they offer permaculture education) and Ed Wilby in Salisbury, Adelaide, all received a call from Darren. How about we go ahead with that network idea, he asked?
So it was in 1995 that the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network came into being.
First, see what's out there
Our first project was the appropriate one of making a reconnaissance to see what was out there. And there were some. The first edition of the Australian City Farms, Community Gardens and Enterprise Centres Inventory (Australian City Farms, Community Gardens and Enterprise Centres was the original name of the organisation, later shortened) listed 37 enterprises when it went into print in 1996.
New gardens then started to make their presence known and an updated edition with the additional gardens was published around a year later.
Like plants, community gardens grow
The idea of community gardens and city farms as a type of community-based, DIY urban agriculture has only grown since 1995. Where there were 37 there are now more than 650 listed on the map on the Network's website. And that's just those that have bothered to list themselves. There are many more and the total number remains unknown.
So, after 20 years, what are the achievements of the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network? I decided to list those that come to mind.
A practice validated
One of our aims was to see community gardening, city farming (the names are somewhat interchangeable in Australia, though not necessarily in other countries) viewed as valid urban landuses by local and state government, by social institutions and the public.
The evidence that this has been achieved comes through:
- the growing number of local governments adopting enabling policy around community gardening
- the existence of city farms/community education centres like Northey Street City Farm, Perth City Farm and CERES
- the go-ahead in the 1990s by NSW and Victorian government for community gardens on social housing estates
- educators, facilitators and advisers being paid by local government and institutions for assisting to start community gardens and train those involved in gardening
- landscape architects with community consultation skills being employed to design community gardens
- a growing literature on community gardening
- a growing volume of research being carried out by tertiary institutions into community-based agriculture and food systems
- invitations for the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network to appear and speak at conferences
- increased media coverage of community gardens and related community food projects
- the growing number of community gardens and city farms, including those listing on the online mapping system offered by the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network
- the growing number of visitors to the website of the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network and in the number of people accessing its educational content.
The most populous part of the community food movement
Where does community gardening fit into the fair food movement? If we look at the non-commercial side of the community food movement, then community gardening is its most populous, most organised practice. It is the most populous thanks to being the oldest component, tracking its start in Australia back to 1977.
For some, the community food movement includes the small, for-profit social businesses using a business model to deliver good food, what they call their 'social goal'. There are also the social enterprise initiatives like the community supported agriculture schemes of CERES Good Food (CERES also hosts a community garden), Brisbane Food Connect and Ooooby that use a business model so as to be self-sustaining but are structured as not-for-profits. Then there are the food co-operatives that have been part of our cities since the 1970s. Others confine their definition of the community food movement to include only non-commercial food production and distribution initiatives — the so-called 'community sector'. This narrows the definition significantly.
The longest-running of these civil society food systems is community gardening. Since its birth at Nunuwading Community Garden in 1977, community gardening has bloomed into a national movement that is repurposing as productive land, areas of public land as well as land in some schools and churches. Community gardening has become a means of people reclaiming the land commons.
Developing an advocacy capacity
At a conference on community gardening at Canberra University five or so years ago, a prominent federal politician advised the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network to develop an advocacy capacity so as to safeguard the practice of community gardening.
The Network had already started this. The politician said that her kind paid attention to numbers when it came to making decisions, so it would be a good idea to document the number of community gardens in Australia and estimate the approximate numbers of people involved in the practice.
That gave birth the the Network's online mapping system on its website. The map discloses the broad geographic distribution of community gardens and similar urban agriculture enterprises, however it is far from documenting the true number.
The Network also became involved in advocacy through its annual community gardens award. That was set up to give moral and organisational support to community gardens threatened with closure. The Network continues to write letters of in-principle support for threatened community and footpath gardens.
The ACFCGN website and social media
The Network's website is also a success. Most popular, judging from website statistics, is the educational material accessed there. There is now an enews distributed by email to those interested in receiving it.
Day-to-day news and conversations keep the Network's Facebooks alive — both a Facebook Page through which the Network distributes its organisational information and a Facebook Group that serves as an open-access forum. The Sydney subgroup of the Network have a Facebook Group and South Australians have set up their own sub-website hanging off the Network's website, as has Sydney's Glovers Community Garden.
Every year or two, community gardeners get together for a national meet-up. These have proven successful and a useful face-to-face supplement for the Network's social media.
Building resilient communities
The Network sees its work being that of increasing the resilience of individuals and of our neighbourhoods and cities.
Advocacy, education and sharing are the means towards community resilience. The Network offers communications channels and meet-ups through which knowledge and information can be shared and solutions developed, and through making educational material available online.
Additional to this is advising local government about the nutritional, educational and community-building values of community gardening.
A distributed network
Across Australia, community gardens and similar voluntary, community-based food systems constitute the nodes of a geographically distributed network. It is the role of the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network to link these initiatives and provide the channels through which they can share their experiences so that all might benefit.
Our aim, here at the Network, is to contribute to community development, food security and the food sovereignty of members by assisting convivial community enterprise that make ours' cities of opportunity.