Communal garden in Hawthorn, Melbourne

TV presenter Kevin McCloud is currently visiting Australia and has a “radical plan” for urban parks. He reckons the roofs of city buildings and up to 30% of urban parkland could be used for communal food production.

To grow food within the city is enormously rich and life-enhancing. It’s a great education tool, the kids love it…Parks could be used for food growing. Why not?

Mr McCloud is well known to Australian TV audiences from Grand Designs, but he’s also known for his 42 unit Triangle development in Swindon. It incorporates a “village green” and a private communal garden.

I like the idea of using roofs for growing food. They’re mostly private spaces so if the owners want to grow vegetables, rear chickens and keep bees, that sounds like a fine idea (no roosters please).

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There’re also building sites, vacant allotments and land in buffer zones that could potentially be used for more communal gardens (like these ones in the Melbourne suburbs of Camberwell and Hawthorn).

But at the same time as residents here in Melbourne are fighting the prospect of parkland being taken for freeway interchanges associated with the East-West Link motorway, I’d want to see a good argument for why nearly a third of parkland should be given over to farming.

In the case of Melbourne, I’m not sure residents would take kindly to seeing a large part of Edinburgh Gardens converted to cultivation; or bushland along the Yarra Trail cleared for grazing.

Re-purposing 30% of parkland implies a scale of production much larger than the sort of neighbourhood communal gardens popularised in the media (e.g. see The kids are all right).

It’s highly doubtful that latent demand for neighbourhood communal gardens in Australia’s suburban cities comes even remotely close to Mr McCloud’s 30% target. That much land suggests serious agricultural production.

Growing crops might sound like it’s consistent with traditional park uses (after all, most have trees) but this isn’t something you’d do just for the short-term. It’s for the long haul; it’s effectively a change of use from passive or active recreation to a productive – and most likely commercial – activity.

There’s a long history in Australian cities of parkland being turned over to other activities. In Melbourne, land was excised from both Albert Park and Fawkner Park in the nineteenth century for housing along St Kilda Rd. Over the years more parkland was lost to roads, railways, tramways, high schools, zoos, research establishments, universities, housing, and more.

Parkland has also been “re-purposed” for gated facilities like bowling greens, tennis courts, sports stadia and club houses. Enclosed facilities like the National Tennis Centre (Yarra Park) and the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre (Albert Park) replaced open parkland.

Turning over large areas of public open space for agricultural production would amount to the same thing.

Some might argue that Mr McLoud’s idea is justified on the grounds that urban farms reduce “food miles”. However that’s a specious argument, as I’ve discussed before (e.g. see Is local food more sustainable? and Does being a locavore add up?).

UK environmental activist Greg Sharzer points out in his recent book, No Local, that “the distance between farm and market isn’t an accurate gauge of environmental costs”. He cites the example of frozen fish; large-scale container and rail shipping means importing it to the UK emits less carbon than growing fresh fish locally.

Only around 4% of the total carbon emissions from agriculture are due to transport. Almost all emissions from farming occur on farms and in factories.

If urban parkland were to be the sort of serious food source envisaged by Mr McCloud there’d inevitably be pressure for fencing, fertilisers, machines, trucks, and night-time operation. Maintaining the amenity of residents and providing economic inputs (e.g. reliable water supply) would add to costs and make it difficult to be competitive compared to non-urban locations.

We are not so short of agricultural land in Australia that we need to convert urban parkland to farms. Even ignoring the scope for trade, we’ve been able to reduce the area of land used for farming while increasing the productivity of agriculture (e.g. see Is sprawl undermining food security?).

Probably the key issue is what park activities (or which parks) would be displaced by agriculture. Both active and passive urban parklands already serve a range of valuable community purposes for which there aren’t easy substitutes. I rarely hear anyone complaining there’s too much public open space in cities.

There’s a place in our cities for small-scale neighbourhood community gardens to meet the recreational and social needs of nearby residents (1). Existing ones are mostly located on private land or on small spaces with compatible uses.

Whether or not any communal gardens should be located in parks might be arguable, but conversion of parkland on the scale proposed by Mr McCloud isn’t. It’s not necessary, it’s not likely to be viable, and the price we’d pay would be too high.

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  1. The Collingwood Children’s Farm and the CERES Community Environment Park in Melbourne give city schools and families an opportunity to introduce children to the wonders of agriculture. If there’s a need for more venues, e.g. for residents of middle and outer suburbs, they could be located on (actual) farming land on the edge of the city.

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Jess
Singapore

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