Local government and public place gardening — imposing limitations?
Story by Russ Grayson, April 2015
Local government is critical to the future of community food production in public places such as city parks, on disused land and on urban footpaths.
Councils have regulatory authority and are the sole determinant of whether a community garden on public land goes ahead. Those enlightened enough to have discerned that there exists a social trend toward greater personal involvement in food production have adopted policy that enables the creation of community gardens and, in a few cases, community-managed gardens in footpath nature strips.
Doing this, enabling a community-based urban agriculture to develop, brings opportunity to councils in implementing ideas that might already exist in city plans and in environment, health and community development plans. Community food enterprises are best seen as a means to implement those plans.
Despite many councils being supportive of community gardening and, for some, of community use of footpaths for gardening, councils and their staff continue to struggle with this emerging trend in community-based urban agriculture. This is because…
Councils engage people outside of local government who have a thorough knowledge of the practice to educate staff and councillors.
Councils engage staff with abilities to work directly with communities and who have a thorough understanding of the role of community food production in creating resilient cities, in community nutritional health and social opportunity.
Such staff and their employing councils take an affirmative, positive approach to the development of community-based urban agriculture and approach their work as civic entrepreneurs working with communities to enable their ideas become reality. While they might not engage in urban agriculture directly they facilitate citizens doing so.
Councils engage suitably experienced people as advisers or consultants in decision making around urban agriculture.
Caution, risk adversity, regulation, tardiness and bureaucracy are all part of local government culture in Australia. All too often they come as a type of default, public service mindset. This is unfortunate and is a poor fit for citizens used to taking initiatives rapidly in professional and personal life. It brings to councils a poor reputation as sluggardly organisations mired in the old, hierarchical organisational structures and decision making processes of the 1950s.
Councils need to discard this old mindset, critics say, and adopt more of a cross-disciplinary, cross-silo team-based approach for decision making.
The occasional council has experimented with this. One staffer with a coastal council at the time described to me how her department included staff from different council silos and how this made for a more comprehensive approach to decision making and to their work. Unfortunately, a new general manager, lacking insight into this improved structure or simply not liking it, re-silod council in what must have been an unimaginative, backward-looking step. One senior council staffer I interviewed, a sustainability manager, refused to create a silo and, instead, sat on all council departments with decision making power in areas he saw relevant.
Council mentality is sometimes manifested in the approach of council staff to requests to make productive use of public open space, as publicly-accessible council land is called. It is too-often bureaucratic and complicated. Sometimes, councils attempt cost recovery with fees which less-financially-well-endowed community garden groups find difficulty or impossibility in raising.
How do we deal with this and reform council process? Here's my proposal:
When we consider community food production in our cities, one particular area in desperate need of reform in local government is its anti-democratic approach to dealing with complaints.
Two cases I know of involved people making footpath gardens. What happened was that one person on the street complained and council decided that, on the basis of this single complaint rather that the large number who signed a petition to retain the garden, the gardens had to go.
This was a unilateral decision by council that ignored due process in negotiating disagreements among citizens. Citizens saw it as profoundly unfair.
In failing to develop an opportunity to treat such cases with justice and fairness, as would be anticipated in a democracy, councils have instead left themselves open to their decisions being made for them by complaining, vexatious people. This is the curse of NIMBYism — the Not In My Back Yard brigade who selfishly deny their neighbours the opportunity to engage creatively with public open space and with each other.
Worsening the situation is local government secrecy in denying the public knowledge of the identity of the complainant.
This defective, ad hoc council approach is in need of urgent reform so that fairness and democracy rather than cranky individuals and authoritarian council staff impose an opportunity cost on citizens. Taking this negative approach is a great way for councils to make enemies of potential supporters and to degrade their public reputation and that of their staff.
Councils are strange entities that frequently demonstrate just how little communication there is across silos. The reason people continually point this out is testament to its universality. Also perplexing is the variable behaviour of council departments. People encounter some departments doing good work with communities, while others come across as uncaring, bureaucratic and the source of negative interaction. All within the same council.
This has been the experience of people attempting to set up community-based food production initiatives. As people approaching those councils without enabling community garden/footpath gardening policies have reported, the response you get from councils depends very much on who you talk to. That response also very much depends on the values and attitudes of staff. It can be something of a chancy process. Avoiding that is why the idea of councils adopting enabling, straightforward policy on community and footpath gardening, then waiting for communities to approach them for assistance under the policy (the demand-led approach, rather than building community gardens on the chance people might use them) is the better option.
The defective council behaviour I describe is real. I have encountered much of it directly in my role with the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network, in my work in researching community food production for council policy direction documents and working in local government itself.
The good news is that it can be reformed and that there are good staff in councils, the challenge being to find them. Often those staff sympathise with council critics but are unable to do anything because the cause of problems, while it might sometimes be individual and obstructionist staff, is usually systemic. It is built into the structure of councils themselves and their processes.
This argument for council reform to enable new and innovative community initiatives in urban food production I see as important to building resilient communities and resilient cities… cities of opportunity, that is.
It is unlikely any move to improve council performance will come from council staff or from elected councillors. Councillors are quarantined from staff to reduce the risk of corruption, which has happened in the past. Councillors often agree not to intervene in the running of councils, effectively blocking any move towards reform by elected representatives. It's a comfortable, clubby arrangement that blocks improvement and that perpetuates tired, expired old structures and processes.
That leaves the only place from which pressure for reform can come being the electorate.
In wartime, every available inch was cultivated in the United Kingdom. I believe something similar happened here. Seems we have to be faced with a catastrophe before elected officials in their ivory towers (is silo a new word for ivory tower?) bow to community pressure.
We need to get our local council motivated but I have no idea how.
What's your local council, Lissa?
I actually have sympathy with councils...I know bureaucracy rules but gardening in public spaces is problematical. I have a 'garden' on my verge and had to weather two anonymous complaints to defend it. It doesn't look so good and I know what goes into maintaining it just to reach that level.
The main challenge is water. So if any verge garden depends on annuals straight away there's a sustainability problem. In inner city areas where space it at a premium, verge gardens make a lot of sense. But in quarter acre block suburbs their rationale falls off a bit.
The logic seems to suggest perennial plants -- food forest type plantings -- but straightaway you may have a problem with underground cables and plumbing.
But then it is so much wasted space we are expected to mow and maintain ...and for free! Mine's big enough to fit a suburban house on!
Similarly, fruit and nut trees along pathways may litter any paths with fallen items which could obstruct traffic and cause injury (eg: slipping or tripping)....and the councils (the most frequently sued sector in Australia) are liable.
So I reckon the question is what to do with verges so that they are sustainable strips of real estate? And if you plant, what do you plant other than grass? It then follows -- and also begins -- with the question: who maintains them?
And once planted and the shrubbery or whatever grows, how do passing traffic 'see' and find the house behind it? When cars back out of driveways, how good is their line of sight for pedestrians and other approaching vehicles because of the verge growth?
You'll notice that councils have begun to solve the open space problem in roundabouts and parks by planting various ribbon grasses et al accompanied by heavy mulching. These have low water requirements, and displace weeds and the need for mowing.
In the early nineties, the Brisbane City Council explored Permaculture options for public spaces but rejected the protocol. The workaround has been various regeneration projects of native flora, sometimes supported by bushcare or similar groups. When you do tour the suburbs over the past 25 years-- and I'm familiar with BCC on the northside -- you have to respect what has been down in the city's open spaces.
That doesn't 'solve' the verge issue though, especially if you decide to 'build' a little something as well as plant something else.
So I reckon the getting of wisdom has to start with a discussion about what to plant rather than plant per se. In Fremantle, local Italian migrants planted a lot of olive trees on the verges. I think Mulberry suits Brisbane for instance. Brazil Cherry. Maybe Macadamia Nut...I mean there's a possible list of options that could be integrated. Allowed in the list of approved species.
Similarly, if a neighborhood wanted to plant out their street you'd expect some form of incorporation sponsored by council....but then how can you reach a local consensus? You'd need draft plants, consultations, approval processes....You'd also need already existing examples that people could reference in the same area.
Having raised all these issues I also think the community gardening dynamic may have reached a hiatus ...and I suspect that councils have gone cold on the movement.
My feeling instead, is that what may be needed is a sort of guerrilla gardening process where folk come together and garden on public land in partnership with council. Not so much one single community garden but community spaces which may be planted out with either natives or exotics and may not be food. I think there is a space for the allotment options for folk without land -- just like the British gardens -- but allotments are really a bit different from community gardening.
This then comes back to a core debate that has been going on in Britain for some time: the question of the Commons and here that relates to land rights and aboriginal sovereignty as well as environmental campaign issues -- like fracking.
Is this land 'theirs' or is it ours?
Whose stewardship are we going to depend on?
So in regard to reform my preference is that councils should employ localized ecology and sustainability officers that work with and consult with local communities. So many houses per brief sort of thing. And verge gardening would come under that same responsibility.
In the mix :
...in short looking at the whole locale as a total environment entity that can be tweaked and developed so that it is more liveable and, here's the rub: safer and more sustainable. That means flood abatement. Security against the consequences of storms and cyclones.Protecting the locale's environmental assets.Engaging people in working in their community changing the environment...and water harvesting.
My favorite permaculturalist does this sort of work and it makes a lot of sense to me:
I will bet that the footpath garden down south in Randwick would still be there if they paid more on their rates,not suggesting though that anyone should have to pay for that priviledge.Until the council can find a way to make money on this it wont be easy for anyone this really is the harsh reality,if they did watch the gardens happen.
If a government (local or state) representative comes out and is scratching their heads as to why a complaint was made, make sure you suggest/request that the caller is placed on a vexatious caller list.
I believe that government departments may have a process to register vexatious callers (for future filtering before action) due to unnecessary costs incurred on a department by these types of complaints.
I did not experience that for a verge garden, but I did get whoever complained about a perfectly installed hot water system onto a list by stating to a State Government inspector something like - this person is wasting your's and my time as well as good tax payer money and is diverting you from investing real complaints.
The inspector who was baffled as to why he was there, stated that he will gladly have the caller placed onto a vexatious callers list, he explained that if they're a multiple offender the department deals with them differently as to non-list complaint calls.
Um … how can anyone complain about a hws in someone else's yard? They are hardly noisy contraptions!
It was totally bizarre, less than 2 weeks after the plumber installed it, I received a call from the State Gov Dept. that dealt with such things, saying that there had been a complaint made about the install being illegal or unsafe, I forget which one.
Post inspection, he said something like This system has been installed correctly, and very neat too, so I cannot understand why there was a complaint made, or who could have seen it clearly without entering your property. I told him that there may be a disgruntled plumber who did not get the job, I discussed a few odd things that were said to me by the Plumber when he did not get the job.
The complaint does not go against the house or owner, it goes against the plumber who installed. It's a good safety net, that, when used properly protects residents against unsafe installs. If the inspector identifies issues with the install, the installer is obliged to return and fix and the installer's expense.
Good grief, I've heard it all! Never had any contact from a beaten quoter. Some folks need more to do with their time!