Urban Sydney is experiencing a back-to-basics food-harvesting renaissance in community gardens across the city, but the planned 2014 City Farm will cement local food production as a Sydney-wide norm, writes Sarah Kamenetz.

The City of Sydney is supporting urban gardening as part of the Sydney 2030 sustainability effort by encouraging community gardens and installing a City Farm on the Powerhouse Museum grounds.

Community gardens are pieces of land gardened collectively by a group of people. As long as community gardeners help harvest the fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers, they can take whatever their work produces. Community gardens are becoming an important aspect of urban farming, which is the practice of harvesting food produce and potentially raising livestock in a town or city.

By opening more community gardens and the City Farm, the City of Sydney is trying to alter Sydneysiders’ idea of urban gardening from a passing greenie trend to something that is a permanent fixture in their lives.

“Community gardens have been around for about the last 15-20 years, but it has become trendy in the last few years,” said Sydney resident Maria Chara. “The people who started will still be doing even after the trend passes.”

Student Marianne Jaques, who grew up on a farm but currently lives in Bondi, also believes that urban gardening is trendy.

Jacques said, “I think because I have always had a veggie garden with my family, it would be weird for me to not [garden], but I think it is trendy at the moment.”

While Sydney community gardens have existed for over 20 years, several have been formed in recent years and more are planned. The oldest Sydney community garden is the Luncheon Club Eden Garden in Waterloo, which started in 1991.  On the other hand, the newest Sydney community garden is located on Phillip Street in Waterloo, which opened in March 2012. The next planned community garden will be located at Marconi Terrace at Town Hall to promote green produce in a small space.

The Sydney City Farm has a budget of $1.5 million, but is so far in the planning stage and won’t be open until 2014 at the Powerhouse Museum carpark.

Meanwhile, the City of Sydney will run a test Summer Garden in Sydney Park, St. Peters from January-March 2013.

“Details around the summer garden are still being finalised at this stage,” said Sydney City Farm Project Manager Andrew Ridge. “However, the Summer Garden is intended to demonstrate what the final City Farm could include.”

Despite innovations in technology and a global food market able to overcome seasonal food limitations, city dwellers across the world have chosen to get their hands dirty for several reasons in the last few years.

Urban farms and community gardens are considered the solution to industrialized agriculture’s excessive pollution and cost. They decrease our reliance on fossil fuels, create healthier citizens eating better quality food, and form a shift towards self-sufficiency rather than relying on products from far away places.

World famous urban farms include CERES, in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Brunswick; City Farmer in Vancouver, Canada; and Little Donkey Farm in in the Haidian District of Beijing, China.

The City of Sydney has set an ambitious goal for 2030, promising that “by 2030, every resident in the City of Sydney will be within a three minute walk (250m) of continuous green links.”

That is good news for community gardeners who will be supported by the government as the City tries to increase green space throughout Sydney.

Speaking at a recent City of Sydney event, Lord Mayor of Sydney Clover Moore said that both the 16 city-wide community gardens and proposed City Farm are crucial components of the sustainable food movement.

“The sustainable food movement is not just about access to good quality food product,” said Moore. “It is part an emerging cultural change that challenges the fossil fuel model of growth and failure to counter those environmental considerations.”

Sally Hill of the Youth Food Movement, also speaking at the Sydney 2030 event, said that urban gardening in Sydney would reduce the impact of the Malthusian Moment- the theory that population growth will outpace food production.

Hill also believes that there are too few hands in control of Australia’s food system, but sees urban farming as the solution to both issues.

“The solution is as simple as it sounds- [backyard gardeners] producing food locally in our communities,” said Hill.

They might not wear capes or fly, but Hill believes, “The backyard gardener will be the hero of humanity in the crisis we are looking at.”

John Reegan is one of these heroes. He has been growing tomatoes, onions, herbs, lemons, and limes for four years in his 10 m long x 750 mm wide home garden just outside the CBD.

“I do this stuff to lower my carbon footprint to help save the world,” said Reegan.

Not only does local gardens improve food security and reduce environmental impact, but they also allow communities to reclaim space.

Community gardens will become more common in Sydney. Pink Sherbet Photography / Foter / CC BY

For example, James Street Reserve Community Garden in Redfern opened in 2010 because local residents wanted to fix up a public site of regular crime and drug usage. The space had been a grassy patch littered with drug paraphernalia behind a parking lot.

“We turned an antisocial park area into a positive site of community integration,” said Russ Grayson, who led a tour of James Street Reserve Community Garden.

James Street Reserve Community Garden visitor Heidi Curtiss echoed Grayson’s point of view.

“I think a lot to do with the community gardens here in Sydney has to do with reclamation and saying what is and is not ok,” she said. “Even with this space, the neighborhood is kind of coming back.”

Instead of encountering a used syringe at James Street, visitors encounter families eating lunches supplemented by the garden produce, friends meeting for a healthy afternoon snack, or volunteers harvesting a plot filled with plants like red corn, bananas, and rocket.

Community gardens have also become places where people can learn about sustainability- meeting one of the City of Sydney’s Sydney 2030 goals.

Alexandria Park Community Garden has school gardens and outdoor classroom learning areas so that kids from the Alexandria Park Community School student cultivate lifelong habits by learning how to grow fruits, vegetables, and flowers from a young age.

Despite the positive changes that community gardens have sprouted throughout Sydney, there are still problems with some community gardens plagued by food theft and negligence.

Russ Grayson cited theft- eating food but not farming- as a completely different problem for James Street Reserve Community Garden. Although members must pay a small yearly fee and donate a few hours per year farming plots, there is no way to prevent trespassers from hopping fences to steal mandarins and other produce.

In fact, the high level of produce theft has the amount of produce grown unknown. Sydney Community Gardens and Volunteer Coordinator Raewyn Broadfoot said, “We can’t ever record how much produce is grown because we lose so much to pilfering and vandalism.”

Sometimes volunteers devote their time to growing produce that never gets picked or gardens that are forgotten.

For example, during an early November visit to the Greg Hewish Memorial Garden in Redfern, a volunteer found an over-sized rat festering with maggots in the middle of a plot of unpicked and overgrown herbage.

When gardens are left unattended for even brief periods of time, the land returns to its natural state: some plants may live while others die; plants become overgrown; and weeds and wildlife invade. Gardens need regular water and weeding maintenance to continue producing viable fruit, vegetables, herbs, and flowers.

Yet, theft and negligence can be reduced if the community is properly educated about community gardening and how to properly tend to the gardens. Sydney 2030 learning initiatives may make this sustainable education change a reality so that the gardens function at optimal levels.

Perhaps by 2030, Sydneysiders truly will become the heroes of humanity.