Australia Communities and society, Public health

Urban agriculture: strengthening the nexus of research, policy and practice

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Photo by J Garget on Pixabay

Until the mid-twentieth century, the question of how a city should feed itself was an urgent concern for city governments and urban planners. Municipal markets were once considered vital urban infrastructure. Today the capacity of the major supermarkets to meet the food needs of city dwellers has become the accepted norm. Yet this approach is failing us on many levels as our cities face a constellation of intractable and interconnected crises: food insecurity, health inequity and climate change.

The pandemic made the vulnerabilities of the industrial food system acutely visible to policy-makers. As people lost livelihoods and supermarket shelves emptied of food, local councils swung into action, working closely with community to support food relief initiatives. Over three years later, levels of food insecurity have not declined as expected. The current cost-of-living crisis is making it even harder to put good food on the table. Under-resourced food relief and social support agencies are stretched to breaking point as demand for services continues to grow and community needs become more complex.

It is clear we are not “building back better.” Never before has the need to bring food systems back to the centre of municipal policy and planning been more urgent.

Yet, unlike Scotland’s visionary Good Food Nation Act legislated in July 2022, Australia lacks an overarching policy mandate to guide food systems transformation. This leaves many councils facing complex food system challenges in the absence of an integrated, whole-of-government policy framework to support action at the local level. This may explain why Sustain: the Australian Food Network has been inundated by requests for support from local councils to undertake food systems research, community consultation and policy development that helps respond to the issues facing their communities.

Working at the nexus of food systems research, policy and practice, Sustain’s mission to support the transition to a healthier, fairer and more sustainable food system requires us to wear many hats. As researchers, we contribute to building an evidence base for the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of food systems transformation. As policy experts, we work with local and state government to develop food system policy that supports the social and ecological well-being of their communities. As connectors, we facilitate events and communities of practice for sharing knowledge and fostering collaboration. This includes Sustain’s quarterly Local Government Food System Network which introduces local government staff to leading food system research and policy and provides a safe, supportive environment for participants to troubleshoot their food systems work, whether they are well into their food systems strategies, or just getting started.

We believe our research and policy work must be grounded in practice. Urban agriculture is one way to ensure that Sustain’s theory of change is, quite literally, grounded in the very earth that nourishes us. Projects like our Oakhill Food Justice Farm are how we demonstrate in the here and now that, yes, a better food future is within our grasp.

So how can urban agriculture create more nourishing cities and towns and foster more socially and ecologically just urban environments? Urban agriculture is increasingly recognised by municipal and regional governments as a legitimate mechanism for developing urban food systems that support public health, circular economies, climate change mitigation, food security and community wellbeing.

Sustain’s own research supports this. Our 2020 pandemic gardening survey found that, for over three-quarters of the 9,000 respondents, growing their own food greatly or significantly improved mental health. People shared powerful stories about gardening as deeply therapeutic – in their own words, “the best medicine,” a “balm for the soul” and “cheaper than therapy.” These sentiments not only applied in the context of the pandemic but also to other acute life stressors such as chronic illness, chemotherapy and bereavement. This suggests why urban agriculture merits serious consideration as a powerful intervention in planning for municipal health and wellbeing.

Sustain’s more recent study of the urban agriculture sector in Victoria also found a sector motivated by social and environmental values that are strongly aligned with many existing legislative and policy commitments in local and state government. Creating a healthy food system, contributing to healthy urban environments, enabling more self-sufficient communities, and responding to climate change were important objectives for over 90% of survey respondents. Our 2022 report Growing Edible Cities and Towns presents a roadmap to guide local and state governments in expanding urban agriculture to address many key social, economic and environmental challenges facing us right now.

Sustain does not propose urban agriculture as a silver-bullet solution to the policy failures that are driving climate change and food insecurity. However, we do believe that urban agriculture can empower communities and government in co-creating more edible cities and towns that are vibrant, socially inclusive, biodiverse, healthy and delicious.

Local councils can play a leading role in supporting urban agriculture by enabling policies backed up by resourcing and investment. As an early leader in this space, the City of Yarra launched its first urban agriculture strategy in 2014, building on an existing grassroots movement and appointing a dedicated urban agriculture facilitator to support others in creating spaces to grow food. Since its establishmThis article explores the expansion of urban agriculture in municipalities and its impact on public health, circular economies, climate change mitigation, food security and community wellbeing. It also explores food systems transformation at the local level.ent in 2015, Sustain has worked with many other councils in developing food system strategies that embed urban agriculture as a key pillar for local action in partnership with communities. Local government has multiple, important roles to play, including network-building, providing advice and facilitating access to public and even private land. For example, Darebin City Council acted as an intermediary in Sustain accessing privately-owned land for its Oakhill Food Justice Farm while also providing affordable public land to Sustain and other urban food initiatives at its Bundoora Park Farm.

For councils interested in deepening their understanding of the role of urban agriculture in food policy, Sustain’s upcoming national Urban Agriculture Forum in Sydney is an opportunity for policymakers, practitioners and researchers to learn from leading local government policy innovations. Keynote speaker Rabekha Siebert from the City of Dallas will present how Dallas’ Comprehensive Urban Agriculture Platform aspires to create a local agriculture ecosystem that enables climate action and racial equity.

In holding the UAF at the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence in Redfern, we are also reminded that Australian cities and towns have always been, and always will be, Country. Redfern’s rich legacy as a centre of Aboriginal intellectual culture, political leadership and activism provides fertile ground for exploring how urban agriculture can honour Country in the city and support Indigenous self-determination. Gardening Australia television presenter and proud Bundjalung man Clarence Slockee will share his experience as co-creator of the South Eveleigh Community Rooftop Garden, demonstrating an innovative approach to embedding Indigenous cultural cultivation practices into edible urban design.

For Sustain, the nexus of urban agriculture research, policy and practice is where we do the messy, joyful and profoundly meaningful work of imagining a more flourishing food future and bringing it to life in the present. As one respondent to the pandemic gardening survey captured so poetically: “There is a future when you garden.”

The UAF will be held on 17-19 November 2023 in Sydney in collaboration with Community Gardens Australia. To find out more, visit uaf.org.au. The Call For Presenters is open until 15 August 2023.

For more information about Sustain’s Local Government Food System Networking Forum, contact [email protected].



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