The Australian Conservation Foundation has just released its From Paddock to Plate: Rethinking Food and Farming report. Along with lots of recommendations about how we should do food production in rural and peri-urban areas, it also contains a number of recommendations about food production in urban areas. For instance, it talks about food sensitive urban design, which includes how we might design new housing estates, but also, where urban planning calls for consolidation and medium-density housing, it might be useful to factor in community gardens, roof gardens and so on.
But this would surely require a change in the current approach of local councils and planning authorities. For example, a vibrant urban food production system directed at household self-provisioning would require some relaxation of current water restrictions. Here in Melbourne, water restrictions serve as a restriction on water use, rather than a restriction on water consumption, and water use for household provisioning rather than commercial profit is severely restricted.
Melbourne resident Marika Wagner has set up Friends of the Vegie Patch, a lobby group asking the State government to allow more watering time for domestic vegie growers. The group had a local MP table a petition with three and half thousand signatures in State parliament, asking for revised restrictions for domestic growers.
Meanwhile, the Diggers Club, a mail-order heirloom seed business based on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, has made even more incendiary claims. The government, it says, ‘has taken away our rights to grow our own food’. In response they suggest a civil disobedience campaign. They invoke the spirit of their namesakes, the 17th century English revolutionaries led by Gerrard Wistanley. Those Diggers seized public land ‘when greedy landlords denied them the opportunity to grow food to give to the poor’.
They go on to rile against the injustice imposed on ‘many of the poorer members of our community, who rely on their gardens to put food on the table’.
Yet I’m not sure that it is the poor who rely on growing their own food. Sometimes I like to think there was a transition in Australian urban life, when households went from being ‘urban peasants’ to being caught up in an industrial-consumer complex whereby food increasingly came from the supermarket rather than the backyard, and the backyard became a site for swimming pools and ornament rather than productive activity.
And talking to people of my parent’s generation or reading their memoirs, I’m struck by the reliance on backyard chooks, local dairies, rabbits brought down from up the country, vegetable gardens and backyard fruit trees (plums in Melbourne, mango and pawpaw in Cairns, figs everywhere). George Seddon has suggested that the pre-War backyard functioned as a gesture towards functional self-sufficiency, not complete but not totally dependent on a web of urban services as we are today.
But this was not necessarily a working class phenomenon. As Andrea Gaynor points out in her informative history of domestic food production, Harvest of the Suburbs, maintaining a vegie patch meant secure tenure of good, productive land, expenditure on tools and other ‘inputs’, and an inclination toward a diet of fruit and vegetables rather than meat: each of which was in short supply in the urban working class.
By the 1940s, Robert Menzies was able to declare that ‘the best people in the world are those who by thrift and self-sacrifice…hope one day to sit down under their own vine and fig tree, owing nothing to anybody’.
The reference to the ‘vine and fig tree’ was biblical, taken from the Old Testament Book of Micah. In its original context, it was a call for the equitable distribution of property within a peaceful polity (it comes just after the ‘they will hammer their swords into ploughshare, their spears into sickles…there will be no more training for war’ line). Menzies ditches the anti-militarism of the biblical exhortation, and in his hands it becomes a call to individualism, an appeal to what Judith Brett has dubbed the ‘moral middle class’. And in the context of mid-century suburban Australia Gaynor suggests the biblical verse might have been better glossed by Menzies as each person sitting down under ‘his own passion fruit vine and lemon tree’.
Has the ‘community garden’ worked to undo this individualism? When I first moved into my current house over 15 years ago, I discovered a nearby urban farm and environmental park which also included allotment gardens. I was bowled over by the patchwork of rickety self-made fences, because I had not seen anything like it:
Today, if I catch the train from the city to my suburb I go past at least three other community gardens, and within a stone’s throw of a large public school that pioneered Stephanie Alexander’s kitchen garden scheme. These community projects allow those households which would otherwise be unable to maintain a garden some access to the pleasures of food production, but do they represent a genuinely co-operative endeavour? Instead they are often organized on the basis of individual allotments, what Gaynor refers to as transplanted patches of backyard that allow greater opportunities for people to ‘perform’ their independence in a public space.
Until recently, and counter to the model proposed by the ACF, local council regulations seemed to be closing in on these projects, and on ‘guerilla gardening’ initiatives in the inner suburbs more generally. One council report recommended the removal of all community gardens amid fears that toxic soils could make people ill and that the council would be held liable. But this past week, that same council (Yarra, which covers the inner eastern and northern suburbs of Melbourne), voted unanimously to support ‘creative gardening’.
By the by, one shift in suburban food production over the past forty years or so has been the decline of animal husbandry: again indicative of middle class values about how suburban land should be used.
But nearly ten years ago Belinda Probert pointed to another shift in the class refraction of domestic vegetable gardening. As the aspirant middle class, who now gain their higher salaries by way of more working time, become ‘time poor’ they have moved away from high-maintenance productive gardens to low-maintenance ‘hard’ landscaping. Current water restrictions and council planning guidelines might only exacerbate this trend to downgrade the productive garden, and suburban food production is more than ever in danger of becoming history.
(An earlier version of this post ran in Arena Magazine no 94, April-May 2008)