...says David Holmgren
David Holmgren's address to the food security day of the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network's Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network 2007 national conference—Cities Feeding People - Grow It Where You Live—was a manifesto for urban agriculture and the permaculture design system's role in its development in Australia's cities...
Standing there on the stage and looking out over the several hundred gathered in front of him, did he momentarily reflect that this is where his thinking and collaboration, now thirty years ago in that southernmost capital city in Australia, would lead him? Did he ever imagine that he and his collaborator’s ideas would be the reason that people nationwide would come to listen to him?
He was known to more than a few in that audience. Some had known of him for most of those thirty years. For others, his writings, his ideas, were a recent discovery, uncovered on their journey in search of sustainable alternatives to making our cities humane places in which to live.
He stood there briefly, in front of that crowd, then started to talk about a design system for sustainable living and landuse, “one that’s concerned with both the production and consumption side and that is based on universal ethics and design principles which can be applied in any context”.
There’s no prizes for guessing what David Holmgren was talking about, and for those that did not know, he went on to describe permaculture as “a grassroots, international movement of practitioners, designers and organisations – of networks”
Quickly, he warmed to his topic that day in late March 2007 when he addressed the national conference of the Australian City Farms and Community Gardens Network in Collingwood Town Hall, the day set aside for food security.
That a day would be set aside for such a topic is testament to the distance from fringe to mainstream that the idea of food security has travelled. It seems just a few years ago that people would respond with a “what’s that?” on hearing those two words. Then, they were heard mainly in the isolated conversations of international development practitioners. How things change!
Garden agriculture - it's traditional, it's new
David has long advocated that the production of food in our cities, whether in home or community gardens, should be recognised as a valid form of small scale agriculture – the farming our suburbs, in fact. He coined the term ‘garden agriculture’ in recognition of this.
David distinguishes between garden and urban agriculture. “I see urban agriculture to be in some way commercial or which produces a surplus for sale. Garden agriculture I see as part of the household economy where people produce for their own needs. Of course, there’s a complementary relationship between them”.
The practice of home food gardening is an Australian tradition, just as it is for most cultures in most countries. It is not something new – how often do you hear people recalling how their parents or grandparents had a backyard vege patch or a few chooks? Such recollections indicate the problem, however - home gardening has become a memory for all too many, a memory harking back to their early childhood.
Just how pervasive home food production has been in Australian history was disclosed in an Australian Bureau of Statistics report on the subject in 1991 and, more recently, by Andrea Gaynor’s book, Harvest of the Suburbs – an environmental history of growing food in Australian Cities (2006; University of Western Australia Press, Crawley, WA. ISBN 1 920694 48 X).
For David, the challenge is to bring those memories to life in the present. It’s not a vain hope. Home gardening started to pick up as a suburban activity back in the late 1960s, thanks to the rise of the organic gardening movement in the West. Subsequent years have seen a steady growth, propelled in part by food fears such as those over agro-chemical contamination of our food through the use of farm chemicals – a concern stretching right back into the 1960s with the publication of Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring.
Other fears followed. In the 1990s, Bill Mollison started to warn about genetically modified food, something that fear and opposition has built into an international movement around the issue. Recently, home and community food gardening and the idea of eating locally produced food has been further popularised by the international Slow Foods movement and the seeking of local solutions to global warming and peak oil.
I’m trying to make permaculture central to the issue of sustainability, putting those simple, core ideas of small, local, nature, food on the table as the most important
Permaculture must take some credit for the popularisation of home food gardening. It is what attracts many to permaculture courses and it forms a major element in the permaculture design course.
It wasn’t that they needed convincing, but David reiterates the link: “Permaculture is clearly about people and food”, he tells the audience. “It’s also about our connection with nature, about tools and technology and about community. So it really covers a much wider scope than it is commonly understood as a specific form of organic gardening”.
He suggest that food issues “throw up an enormous number of opportunities. I’m trying to make permaculture central to the issue of sustainability, putting those simple, core ideas of small, local, nature, food on the table as the most important”.
What people think, what they feel
By this time, David is getting into the swing of his presentation and speaks with greater emphasis. He tells the audience that we can expand the production of food in out cities even without breaking up pavement or taking down buildings.
Households can be redesigned, too
The notion of a ‘household economy’ is something that David’s partner, Sue Dennett, raises in a workshop later at the conference. There, she discusses the economic, environmental and food value of setting aside seasonal produce preserved through a range of techniques to provide access to out-of-season foods without importing them over vast distances, with all the travel and greenhouse gas emissions that entails.
Thinking in terms of a household economy would certainly present a challenge in a culture in which ‘economy’ is money-related and entails going outside the home to procure. It would involve a mindset change that recognises that non-monetary activity has economic value. Women, of course, have been advocating this idea since the 1970s in regard to child care and housework.
Relocalising Melbourne’s food - without clearfelling Mt Dandenong
In Melbourne, says David, there’s a significant amount of public open space that could, with great social and ecological benefit, be transformed into food production.
Urban agriculture as pastiche
Just what would an urban garden agriculture that made greater use of public land look like?
New role for city parks
Wastewater a huge opportunity
The importance of small, local food markets
Needed: sensible policy for local food
Food miles are a measure of the distance foods are transported and the consequent emission of greenhouse gases – the the CERES report, Food Miles in Australia – A Preliminary Study of Melbourne, Victoria, can be downloaded as a pdf file from: http://www.ceres.org.au/node/13
Swedish research, David explains, indicates a huge saving coming from the redesign of the food system.
Reform needed: water rights for urban garden agriculturists
In Sydney, household account for around 48 per cent of the total water budget in supplying the average household’s food supply. This dwarfs any other category. When restaurants are included, says David, “It probably means that over 50 per cent of water consumption is actually being used to supply people’s food”.
Just as forward thinking people are looking at the energy embodied in the production of our food supply, so too some are starting to consider the volume of water used to produce it.
we should use water at home to produce food. Don’t let anyone, including the authorities, tell you that is environmentally irresponsible
Developing our skills – now is the time
The Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network's March 2007conference, Cities Feeding People - Grow It Where You Live, took place in Collingwood Town Hall, Melbourne, and was opened by the Victorian Minister for Housing.
The evaluation of the 4th annual Australian City Farms and Community Gardens conference, Cities Feeding People-Grow it Where You Live, is available at: www.communitygarden.org.au