The lucky country? Social space and community gardens in Australian cities

Alec Thornton
The University of New South Wales, Australia

‘Australia is a lucky country, run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck.’
Donald Horne, 1964

Picture 1
Community garden under threat of council closure in Erskineville, Sydney, Australia.  Image Credit: Author

In 1964, Donald Horne ironically described Australia as a ‘lucky country’, having exceptional opportunities for wealth creation, largely due to its natural resource-base and vast spaces for expansive development. He was being critical of what he perceived to be a ‘lack of innovation’, compared to other modern societies, and challenged decision-makers to be more ‘proactive’ and ‘clever’ (Horne, 1964). Horne’s concerns are relevant to contemporary issues in Australian cities, in an era of urbanization (internal and international migration) and backlash against the global food system. Unlike many other western cities, these concerns have yet to unleash the potential for city-community partnerships in Australia, for advancing social equity and local food production through urban agriculture (UA). Based on recent research, this article will highlight ideas in critical urban theory within the context of UA in Australian cities, where urban densities are, globally, comparatively low. In doing so, it will highlight the structural and actual experiences and outcomes of social movements in producing urban food spaces, independent of—or despite—city involvement.

Boston RKG
Boston’s Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway (2008): Removing freeway infrastructure to create more public green space in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. A major infrastructure project in the early 90s, creating a tunnel bypass under the city, inspired a civic and political partnership (50/50 public-private funding) for a 15acre, 1.5mile stretch of recreational green space connecting a historic neighborhood (North End) to key areas of tourism (Quincy Market) and city government (Hay Market/Govt Plaza). Image Credit: Author.

Recently, UA is being discussed with a more critical lens and is increasingly viewed as an important component of local food production and social equity (Eizenberg, 2012; McClintock, 2014). As a field of study, perhaps UA requires a more robust theoretical grounding that can pull these varied and localized insights into a clear ontological space for its critique as a transformative social experience and advancing social equity. This social experience can be understood as marginalised communities or groups (re)claiming neoliberal urban spaces to meet a goal or purpose that is shared in-common. For example, in cities that have experienced post-industrial decline (McCarthy, 1997) UA has emerged as a ‘lived’ social space produced by residents who share, in common, a desire to overcome limitations in access to fresh food (‘food deserts’), poverty and urban blight. This view reflects Lefebvre’s (1995 [1968]) critique of space as socially and politically produced. This is partly constructed from his interpretation of Marx’s historical materialism and dialectics, where spatial inequality is, on the one hand, driven by scarcity and contradictions in the modes of production, but is also a result of socially planned spaces that tend to neglect the poor (Elden, 2004).

In reflecting on Lefebvre social production and collective rights to the city, urban agriculture could be conceptualised as the social and physical embodiment of this ‘right’ in creating ‘fully lived’ and more ‘just’ urban landscapes. In the wider literature, it appears that local councils in some western cities are willing to respond to demands for locally based urban and peri-urban food production and marketing at a point when community and market gardens activities reach a critical mass, alongside consumer support and broader advocacy for these activities. Once integrated into formal urban planning spaces, it is not quite clear to what extent that these local and alternative food system activities continue to satisfy needs for social, food and environmental justice. In the literature, some city councils (e.g., Boston and Detroit) were identified as proactively engaging with community groups in low-income neighborhoods to facilitate local food and marketing systems for local economic and community development. As McClintock (2014) observed, contradictions between neoliberalism and alternative food systems, such as UA, need to be understood as both existing within the capitalist market logic and as a public good, particularly in striving for social equity.

Roxbury (Boston) community garden. Managed by The Food Project, this CG, along with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative are well established sites for city food production. These gardens originate at the tail end of urban flight from Boston’s inner city areas. A city land trust opened the door for neighborhood control of vacated lots of land. Image Credit: Author

In the United States, several cities have tangible UA systems in place, with the cities of Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Antonio, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Seattle, Portland and, more recently, Detroit currently zoning for urban agricultural space (Hodgson et al, 2011). These cities will each have differing geographical, economic and climatic conditions and population densities, which will likely influence city policy planning for UA. For example, in Detroit, a city experiencing rapid urban decline in the wake of the global financial crisis, it is estimated that 5,000 acres under tillage could provide up to 28,000 jobs and 70% of the city’s food needs (McCarthy, 1997; Detroit Free Press, 2011). For the City of Boston, the Conservation Law Foundation (2012) claims that UA could reduce the city’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; with 50 acres (over 20 hectares) of properly managed soils sequestering about 114 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, and potentially enabling an additional CO2 reduction of up to 4,700 tons per year, and generating approximately 1.5 million pounds of fresh produce for sale into local markets.

Chippendale street verge
Chippendale (Sydney) street verge gardens. This Sydney neighborhood took action for food security and a sustainable Sydney suburb. This is a good example of urban horticulture, featuring native plants, fruit trees, vegetables and compost bins. Image Credit: Author

Many of these cities in North America have passed legislation for urban agriculture that ensures its legal status, despite significant urban population densities, economic priorities and environmental considerations. For example, in December 2013, the City of Boston established ‘Article 89’, which essentially legalised, through a two-year zoning and community consolation process, various forms of urban agriculture, including rooftop gardens, in the inner city and wider metropolitan area. This process included consultation with local communities and an urban farm pilot project. In Boston, community groups and city planners emphasised that urban agriculture is a participatory, proactive response from the city to address issues of social, economic and environmental and food justice (Boston city planner, 2013, pers. comm).

Although zoning processes appear more ‘top down’ than demonstrative of Lefebvre’s appropriation of space, they raise interesting questions regarding the long-term implications of community-city council partnerships, where socially ‘appropriated’ or produced spaces become ‘dominated’ under the purview of city bylaws and neoliberal policy (Lefebvre, 1991, 2003). Although the notion of reconciling neoliberal ‘dominance’ and social ‘appropriation’ of space through community-city council partnerships may appear contradictory to core ideas in radical urban theory, it is, perhaps, a necessity for imagining a more sustainable and socially equitable urban future. In any case, UA is one form of social transformation taking place in cities, globally. City or official support for hitherto grassroots movements for socioeconomic change can be beneficial through removing legislative barriers and providing infrastructure improvements and upgrades.

Recent research in Australian cities is telling a different story. Unlike the experiences in Boston and Detroit, forms of alternative food systems (e.g., community gardens) are, for the most part, working within existing neoliberal structures, as opposed to a Lefevbrian appropriation of space. This is particularly the case where local councils have yet to recognise the social use value of space, nor consider it on par with economic use value when making land use decisions.

Randwick CG
Randwick (Sydney) community garden working bee. Dating back to 1993, the Randwick Community Organic Garden has 80 members, and occupies a corner of Paine Reserve. It consists of communal and individual allotments, for fresh produce, as well as chickens, seed raising and composting.  Image Credit: Author

Australia is one of the world’s most urbanized countries, with 90% of the population currently residing in cities and towns. Sydney and Melbourne have populations over 4 million; and by 2030 this figure may reach 6 million. The ability of Australia to feed its share of the global population is already challenged, and will become even more so given the population growth trends. In 2010, a senate enquiry into food security and the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC) drew attention to these issues. Australia already imports much of its food supply, and a ‘just in time’ supply chain from global producers to local supermarkets is vulnerable to global shocks in production and distribution. The combined impacts of global warming, soil erosion, desertification, drought and population increase are also significant challenges for this country, leading to continued loss of arable land, which makes up less than 6% of this country’s total land area (Lawrence et al., 2012).

Picture 2
Historic Chinese Market Garden under threat of cemetery expansion. La Perouse, Sydney, New South Wales. Image Credit: Author

Australia’s agricultural space in the built-up and peripheral ‘fringes’ are being lost to housing developments, in particular to those that do not plan for open green space. Despite this, UA is getting a closer look by city planners, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney, as a form of local food production. In Melbourne’s suburbs, city officials have approved street side planter boxes and several city councils are employing officers to facilitate the application of urban agriculture. In Sydney, the Environment & Heritage Committee is funding an investigation into potential sites and models for a ‘Sydney City Farm’, sited on council land, and Green Living Centre (Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network, 2011). Similarly, Canberra City Farm, part of the Urban Agriculture Australia Network, is attempting to negotiate with the ACT Government (Australian Capital Territory, ACT) on potential land grants for a city farm and sustainability education centre in Canberra, the nation’s capital city.

In terms of the spatial and physical capacity of Australian cities and peripheries to produce enough vegetables in relation to real consumption patterns, Australia is one of 22 countries (from a sample size of 165 cities) that would require less than 10% of their cultivatable urban area to satisfy urban vegetable demand, due to low urban population densities (Martellozzo et al, 2014). This can be placed in the context of cities with high urban densities, such as New York City and Boston, where extensive zoning for urban agriculture have been prioritised by city officials and supported by residents to expand local food production.

Solanger CG
Solanger (Sydney) social housing community garden: This community garden is one of three located in the Waterloo social housing estate, est in 1996 as an initiative of the NSW Department of Housing, South Sydney City Council and the University of New South Wales (UNSW, Faculty of the Built Environment and Soc Sci). The study assessed the socio-cultural significance of CGs for urban neighborhood renewal. Image Credit: Author

Research survey results suggested that many Australian city officials do not proactively engage with local food producers, community or market gardens and larger peri-urban farms, to develop frameworks to preserve productive urban and peri-urban agricultural lands as part of a strategy for sustainable urban development. Respondents emphasized that the main barrier to community garden groups in starting up or maintaining established activities was working with local councils.

Although some city officials are sympathetic and supportive of neighbourhood efforts to start community gardens on public lands, these are considered as community initiatives and are assessed by officials on a case-by-case basis. In Sydney, such assessments use criteria developed, largely, by planning departments at inner city and suburban local councils. On the other hand, Canberra and its suburbs fall under the jurisdiction of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), which is entirely comprised of Crown land with leasehold rights (up to 99-years), as opposed to state and private land rights in Sydney, and other states and territories. Therefore, the ACT federal government, in lieu of local councils, should play an active role in regulating community and market garden initiatives.

Overall, community gardeners and grassroots civil society organizations in Australian cities are calling for increased access to public, council or state land to create and facilitate resilient and equitable local food systems. Currently, this call is largely ignored, as prevailing attitudes from policymakers still reflect Horne’s ‘lucky country’ critique, where urban land use decisions appear fixated on serving neoliberal interests, at the expense of innovative social and environmental uses.


Dr. Alec Thornton is a Senior Lecturer in Development Geography at the UNSW Canberra campus of the University of New South Wales Australia. He is also vice president of the African Studies Association of Australasia and the Pacific.

Header Image: An urban garden in Tarragona, Spain. Credit: Diego Moreno Delgado /


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