Sydney symposium explores urban agriculture

THE URBAN AGRICULTURE SPACE is diverse, spanning commercial farms, community gardens, food security and sovereignty organisations, academia, indigenous peoples’ organisations, permaculture educators and activists and heath institutes and interests.

That was evident in the range of attendees at July’s urban agriculture symposium at Pocket City Farms, a small, commercial market garden built on the site evacuated by a bowling club that had fallen into disuse thanks to the changing recreational preferences brought by demographic change. The seminar filled the meeting room at Camperdown Common — Pocket City Farms utilises the old bowling greens there — with somewhere between 50 and 60 attending. It was organised by staff from the UNSW law faculty, one of whom has her own home garden — a lawyer that eats what she grows.

The diversity of urban agriculture

Farm managers, Emma and Michael, were the first speakers. They described the social enterprise structure of the inner-urban farm, how start-up funds were crowdsourced and how the farm survives through sales of produce to restaurants and individuals, through supplying Ooooby (Out Of Our Own Back Yards), the hybrid-community-supported-agriculture enterprise that links urban eaters to regional farmers, and through offering workshops to the public.

From Melbourne came Nick Rose, lecturer in food systems at the William Angliss Institute of TAFE and director of the food advocacy organisation, Sustain: The Australian Food Network. Also from that city came Ellie Blackwood of 3000 Acres, a social enterprise that connects people and urban land for urban agriculture.

Adding to the broad interests present were two staff from Inner West Council and one from Randwick City Council’s sustainability unit. Jon Kingston, a horticulturist working with the Wayside Chapel’s rooftop garden, and Steve Batley, landscape architect and horticultural and permaculture educator from Sydney Organic Gardens, were there, as was a woman from Panania Free Rangers. Visiting from Aotearoa-New Zealand were permaculture educators Jo Pearsall and Bryan Innes who are also involved in the community food and new economics scene in that country. Carolyn Suggate described her ORIC Co-op, a regenerative agricultural investment start-up focused on good financial returns to farmers and securing access to agricultural land. Also present were two ‘robotanists’ developing automated devices for productive gardening.

A number of people from the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network attended. Of interest were the number associated with the New Economics Network Australia, a new start-up organisation networking people active in social (‘ethical’) investment, community economics such as the social credit system, LETS (Local Exchange and Trading System), new forms of workplace organisation like platform co-operatives, social enterprise, worker and other co-ops and those seeking a new and better economic future for Australia. Their presence highlighted the need for an economic foundation to facilitate the development of a viable urban agriculture, just as the presence of the university law faculty staff signified the need for a strong legal basis.

Oliver Brown, from Sydney, once an archeologist now a home food producer, captured the audience’s imagination with his year-long experiment in living off food that is home-grown, hunted, fished and foraged. He has reciprocal arrangements with other fishers, hunters and home poultry keepers. Oliver participates in Crop Swap Sydney, an urban produce exchange.


The symposium is the latest in a chain of continuity in urban agriculture evident in capital and regional cities. Organisations come an go in this chain, one succeeding another as new challenges and opportunities appear.

Any consideration of urban agriculture must take into account the market gardens, orchards and poultry enterprises on the urban fringe, where city meets country. This was pointed out by Nick Rose when he recalled the earlier work of The Sydney Food Fairness Alliance in advocating the retention of urban fringe farmland for agricultural production rather than paving it in new housing developments, work that attracted the support of a number of state government MPs. The Alliance also advocated for the formation of a state food council to address food security and the future of urban fringe farmland.

That a seminar like this could attract such as mix or people demonstrates how urban agriculture is working its way into our urban landscapes and urban mindsets as a valid landuse. Community gardening has already travelled that route and is supported by local government policies and land allocations. Now it is the turn of small-scale commercial farming.

This seminar and others, such as that organised by the Royal Botanic Garden last year and a series at the University of Sydney  indicate that a momentum is building around cities feeding themselves. What is different now is the coming together of agricultural, legal, local government and economic interests that have the potential to give this incipient movement the oomph, the momentum, it needs to become a political, economic and public health force that has the potential to produce tangible results and increase the fitness of our cities to meet the challenges we will face in the coming century.

More on urban agriculture and food systems

Sydney Food Fairness Alliance:

Plains to Plate food conference Adelaide, South Australia 2010

More on urban agriculture

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