In Britain, if you want to have an allotment of common land to grow vegetables, theoretically you can have one. There is a long history of legislation that comes out of very old commoners rights (and to some extent compensation for their loss with large scale enclosure of land in the 18th and 19th Centuries) and the ‘Dig for Victory’ response to the food crisis of the Second World War. I had one once, a plot of absolute Thames River waterfront in Oxford where I could sit drinking cider and trapping crayfish while the spuds and onions grew.
In Australia, while we also have some strong and culturally diverse traditions of home-grown veg, it has tended to centre on an assumption that you can come up with the land yourself amid all of our space, most likely in your own garden. But that doesn’t work so well for a lot of us in the cities now, jammed into apartments or houses whose extensions have taken up all but a paved courtyard. This space issue, combined with forceful trends about how we value food, its freshness, origins and ancillary impacts, has come together to do a lot of the fuelling of the recent rise of community gardens. You might call it a ‘movement’, but that implies a direction away from the mainstream, whereas what is happening with vegie growing these days is precisely the opposite. Community gardens are ‘in’; while perhaps not the ‘new black’, they are certainly a far more fashionable shade of green.
At the community garden where I am a member, the interest in membership, the time it takes waiting for a plot to become available, and the conditions of use for retaining one have been subject to consistent and continuing growth. Around the corner from me, a community plot started up a couple of years ago that was initially something of a ‘guerrilla garden’ in that some perfectly civil and upstanding members of the local community appropriated some Council land without permission. It then became something of a Council darling – something they could get behind with little effort but with positive effect. The common impression is that had they been asked, Council would have said no if only because of bureaucracy and liability-phobia. But with it appearing almost overnight, the same local government inertia would have made opposing it the path of most resistance.
In Sydney’s Inner West, traditionally our more alternative area, community gardens big and small have been founded and continue to grow. There also, as described by Kirsten at Milkwood, a street in Dulwich Hill has gotten together and done a lot to communally take over the verge for vegies. Back in the East, a North Bondi community verge garden has become the best known of all because it is run (and regularly televised) by Costa Georgiadis, host of ABC’s Gardening Australia.
It is some very public gardening, and that seems like unmitigated good, right? I would say so, mixing things up in the continuum between public and private, between communal and exclusive. But it is important that we are clear about what sits where. The land ownership, the idea and much of the aesthetic value is public, but the gardening and its produce is necessarily private. Food production is inevitably a calculation of return versus effort. It is owned; it might be by a community, an individual or a corporation, but it is owned.
Sitting somewhere in that continuum up in Randwick, Barrett House tends a vegetable garden on the verge that actively invites people to forage from it. But notably it is explicitly a trial, calling on anyone who might take them up on the offer to only do so cursorily. And notably, these public fruits are coming from a community body, such that we shouldn’t ignore the real start and end of investment and return. Were you to pop along to Costa’s verge and knock off a head of broccoli, let’s not pretend that anyone involved would not view it as theft. These aren’t lemons over the back fence we are talking about, they are vegies, carefully tended crops, the fruits of labour.
Out of all of this, something that interests me a great deal is the fact that everything described above involves the assertion or allocation of some kind of right. And with this it is interesting that a lot of community vegie growing doesn’t really have any particularly sensible framework that we manage those rights in. Usufruct (‘a right of enjoyment enabling a holder to derive profit or benefit from property that either is titled to another person or which is held in common ownership, as long as the property is not damaged or destroyed’ according to Wikipedia), a word I have used before with only a passing attention to accuracy, is something that exists in our legal heritage, although not specifically in our law. I am not suggesting that governments should regulate our rights at different levels of community as entitled usufructuaries (holders of specific rights); but the long term sustainability of the social and political structures of community gardens cannot be secured by simply leaving well enough alone to keep moving forward much as we are somehow doing now. We think that these things are ‘democracies’ but ignore the fact that democracy is not a way of managing things, but a way of creating accountability amongst our managers.
My community garden has actually alienated some public land behind a locked gate beyond which only vetted and paying members can enjoy benefits. In it, although I do spend a lot of time just on the community side of things with that involvement itself being the return, my major food focus is on getting my plot to provide for my family on what is essentially your land. On the other hand, our contribution at the start of the local verge garden always left me uncertain of my entitlement to harvest, so I never did and now just enjoy the fact of its existence as a passer-by. My feeling is that it now works with a small enough group to run quite well. But for me it often turns out that there is too much inequality (and/or inequity) in the passive organisation of many community gardens that wrongly supposes some kind of communalism is at work rather than what is strangely best described as oligarchy. Bunches of left-leaners ironically come together and choose a community structure where laissez-faire free-market governance reigns at the expense of socially equitable returns.
At home I tend a small strip of herbs and greens with variable productivity in the common grounds of an apartment block. It is still not exclusively mine, but I certainly know where I stand with it. Personally, and quite reasonably, I prefer to make my investment knowing the conditions attached to the return.
Most recently, two workmates and I had a tiny version of a permablitz. We have made a salad garden, the explicit intention that it will provide lunchtime salad greens (lettuce, rocket, cress, etc), raw veg (radishes, carrots) and fruit (tomatoes, strawberries) for any and all of the ten people in our office (based in an old house and therefore with a garden). The company contributes most costs and as for the other inputs, the opportunity to duck out from some mind-scrambling report-writing to water some seedlings or attend to some weeds is a lot more of a personal return than an investment. I like this, my newest of gardens, the most likely of any that I know to have only winners.
At our monthly community garden working bee, I would typically spend perhaps a couple of hours tending the communal plot from which I very rarely harvest, really just gardening for the hell of it and the social engagement. I then generally come home with less food than I took there. Instead of communal harvests (an exception here) we have common rights to harvest; the difference being that the former would involve shares divided out and the latter involves shares taken – in the process tending to reward takers over dividers. To be honest, the process has alienated me and I increasingly eschew involvement with the communal vegetable plots in favour of areas where I feel more equitably engaged (or personally engaged, as with the aquaponics). Conveniently enough the oligarchy is benign and this can still work.
Community gardens in Australia are, in my view, in their youth; and as is often the way of youth, they are heady with ambition, socialism, fashion following and limited attention spans. And perhaps most importantly, with that insistence of making its own mistakes to learn from. There is no great need for them to get a haircut, or a real job, or settle down and start worrying about just how much gets brought home after tax. There is a good argument for staying young, having fun and not bothering about efficiency. But youth is also capable of philosophy and organisation; and it is important if community gardens want to have long term sustainability, that rights, responsibilities and entitlements are made clear, or at least structures made to allow for this. As people (or just as animals), we are backed up by a hell of a lot of evolution hard-wiring us to appreciate food returns against effort.
These youthful gardens properly enough think that they are going to change the world; educate their communities, challenge corporate agriculture, set up local food systems and feed a brighter future. But they won’t do it meaningfully unless they do it with long-term sustainability, and they won’t do that unless there is some kind of structured understanding of usufructuary rights and firm efforts to build the returns side of the equation to match investments. Which isn’t to posit a dire prognosis – in the meantime they are social clubs, community hubs, hobby centres, and those are good things. Were I to posit a successful future for community gardens, it would be where the very core of society and its history, inclusive of those with no interest whatsoever in personally growing their own veg, was in majority favour, and laws existed to support (or at least defend) them. As it happens, this is the British allotment system in many ways.
So this I know: Community gardens are a fantastic thing in the fabric of Australia’s big cities, and its most recent history; but the time has come for allotments.