Fruit and vegetables taking to the streets
A couple in Ballarat one day decided to plant out vegetables on the nature strip at the front of their property and share them with the community, in an effort to ‘create an anonymous space where people could come and share’. This was done in a dead-end court in a quiet suburban area of the all-round relatively quiet regional city of Ballarat. So far, so innocuous.
Later, they received a ‘cease-and-desist’ order from the local council, who were concerned about the use of timber sleepers as edging. Timber sleepers were outside the council policy, due to trip hazard concerns. The garden was fated to be removed by the council if it wasn’t removed by the couple themselves.
In this instance, the garden wasn’t removed. But this was only thanks to a social media campaign gathering thousands of followers and eventually media and local government attention from supportive councillors. The garden remained and gained a lot of positive publicity, but preventing its removal required extensive political involvement and ad hoc council intervention.
This kind of situation is not unique. Issues often arise at a local government level over what is and isn’t allowed to be grown on the nature strip. In Victoria, local government policies on this issue range across a broad spectrum. In the City of Yarra, an ‘Urban Agriculture Facilitator’ actively encourages community engagement with the council around building street gardens. This can be compared against this quote from the City of Greater Geelong council website, which frames nature strip management in militaristic terms and is featured alongside an image of unkempt flowers creeping towards the gutter:
As the nature strip is public land, we must be vigilant when it comes to recognising when a threat to public safety exists.
Any feature that is deemed by us to be a risk to the public as a tripping hazard in a nature strip, a falling hazard, a vehicle crash hazard or other hazard will be required to be removed from the nature strip by us without consultation or warning.
Ruthless suppression of the fearsome ‘threat to public safety’ posed by nature strip planting looks good when the time comes for a council’s insurance premiums to be determined, but it also denies local communities the potential benefits of nature strip gardening. Nature strip agriculture can come with many of the potential benefits of urban agriculture generally (encouraging healthier eating, cooling the city, increased community cooperation), but they also carry their own special potential.
For one, nature strips are ubiquitous. The image above of nature strips in the area around Clarinda Rd in suburban Melbourne illustrates this. Nature strips of bare grass can be seen alongside virtually every street in this image, and this is not uncharacteristic of Australian suburbia more broadly. Moreover, the unique potential of the nature strip for urban agriculture lies in its character as being by the roadside. Nature strips are uniquely public spaces that can be used to influence the local community, open people’s minds to healthy home-grown food and even encourage sharing.
Nature strips do, of course, have limitations and specific qualities as sites for urban agriculture as well. However, simple precautions and facilitative local and state government policies can help to get around some of these limitations. Many common concerns outlined in council policies include the presence of utilities, the risk of soil contamination, ‘unsightliness’ of gardens and potential safety issues. Basic guidelines issued by councils can address these concerns by encouraging people to use the free ‘Dial Before You Dig’ service, allowing for raised garden beds to avoid soil contamination where that is a risk, providing fair complaint mechanisms and permitting gardening within reasonable safety guidelines. Given the potential benefits of urban agriculture, the limitations certainly do not justify a blanket prohibition on nature strip planting. Many councils in Victoria have successfully implemented simple, facilitative regulation.
Local government does not have to bear total responsibility for this. Given the potential benefits, federal or state government could take actions to improve the policy environment for this kind of roadside urban agriculture and urban agriculture more broadly. Recognising urban agriculture in planning provisions (where in Victoria it currently doesn’t rate a mention), restarting previous funding initiatives such as the federal Community Food Grants program which was scrapped in 2014, and the issuing of state-wide best practice guidelines for nature strip policy are all potential approaches. With health crises looming in the near future, investment in and development of the preventive health potential of urban agriculture could actually help to alleviate strains on government expenditure.
Millar, B 2016, ‘Council rejects planter boxes despite trial success’, Star Weekly, http://www.starweekly.com.au/news/council-rejects-planter-boxes-despite-trial-success.
Nelson, L 2013, ‘Colin’s garden upheaval continues’, Latrobe Valley Express, http://www.latrobevalleyexpress.com.au/story/1668117/colins-garden-upheaval-continues. Crane, C 2014, ‘Planting on nature strips a no-go’, Geelong Advertiser, http://www.geelongadvertiser.com.au/news/planting-on-nature-strips-a-nogo/story-fnjuhxh0-1226893819652?nk=105991e19c59b1c13ee16b4865fbddfe-1463744757.
 City of Greater Geelong 2016, ‘Avoiding Hazards’, www.geelongaustralia.com.au/naturestrips/article/item/8cd2a1ba5724b04.aspx.