A growing movement

24 September 2020 | Posted In: #136 Spring 2020,

Community gardens are flourishing in Australia. As Christopher Kelly reports, not only do they green urban spaces, they also cultivate connected communities.

Vertical living has long been on the rise in inner Sydney. You only have to look around at the skyscape to see that the only way is up. And while there are real benefits to high-density housing: greater access to recreational and community facilities; shorter, more environmentally friendly commutes; being closer to friends and family — there are also downsides, such as a sparsity of green space. Is it any wonder, then, that interest in community gardens is blooming?

Since adopting its community gardening policy ten years ago, the City of Sydney has established eight new gardens across the local government area, taking the total to 23 — an outcome that clearly delights Sydney lord mayor, Clover Moore. “It is fantastic that local residents are embracing sustainable living in the heart of the city and sharing the experience with others. Our city’s community gardens are a great way for people to work together to green our city and grow their own produce.”

One such garden — St Helen’s Community Garden — has been established in Glebe, where 620 square metres of dead land has been converted into 25 individual plots where locals can harvest organic fruit and veg. To minimise the environmental impact of the garden’s upkeep, rainwater tanks, a worm farm, and several compost bins have been installed. Local resident Jan Macindoe said the garden gives people the chance to “experience the taste of newly picked vegetables, get their hands dirty, and learn a new skill”.

And it’s not just the City of Sydney that’s promoting the concept of community gardening. “A lot of councils, especially in the Inner West, have a community garden policy now,” said Professor Linda Corkery from the Built Environment faculty at UNSW Sydney. The rising popularity of community gardening stems from “a real interest in sustainability and healthy living, eating clean, and knowing where your food is coming from”.

Whilst community gardens have existed before — in times of war and depression — the first Australian community garden of recent times was established in the Melbourne suburb of Nunawading in 1977. The first in Sydney appeared in Rozelle in 1986. Today, there are more than 600 community gardens across Australia. For people living in high-rises, ready access to green space is especially important on several levels. First, there’s the physical aspect. Gardening is good for your health: you’re using your muscles, stretching your limbs, burning calories, promoting bone density, enhancing flexibility and balance, and lowering blood pressure. In short: it’s a workout.

Toiling the land can also elevate a person’s mindset. Nurturing a garden gives people a sense of satisfaction, which is associated with greater selfesteem and decreased levels of anger. Then there’s that sense of accomplishment that comes from eating and sharing food you’ve produced from scratch yourself. “I think there’s a connection between the earth and growing and wellbeing — all of those things,” said Professor Corkery.

Numerous studies back this up: gardening has been found to reduce stress and improve mood; it contributes to better sleep and heightens imagination and creativity. Mental health experts say gardening can be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild-to-moderate depression and anxiety. Indeed, an increasing number of GPs view gardening as horticultural therapy and prescribe the activity as an alternative treatment for mental health.

Having conducted a series of landmark studies on how green space can impact health outcomes, Associate Professor Xiaoqi Feng — an expert in urban health and environment also at UNSW Sydney — agrees that community gardens are good for our general wellbeing. “Anecdotal evidence from people I have met supports what I have found in studies with hundreds of thousands of participants: that living near green space may have remarkably wide-ranging health benefits.”

Meanwhile, an evaluation of a gardening program established in NSW for disadvantaged groups — called Community Greening — found that around 85 percent of participants reported a positive effect on their health, with 73 percent saying they exercised more. And 91 percent said the program benefited the community as a whole. Overall, the participants “felt a sense of agency, community pride and achievement. The gardening program helped encourage change and community development.”

In 2018, the Waterloo Public Housing Action Group commissioned research into the gains that the estate’s community gardens deliver to tenants. Among the easily observable and tangible benefits of community gardens included access to open space and availability of fresh produce. But the researchers also found a number of less obvious and less tangible positives that community gardens can offer. Such as breaking down social isolation, which the researchers cite as “only one of a number of intangible social and psychological benefits that were observed”. The researchers added: “These benefits contribute in many ways to a better sense of community and social wellbeing.”

Community gardens also encourage intercultural interaction. The Waterloo estate has historically been ethnically diverse with high concentrations of people from Russia/Ukraine, Vietnam, China, and other Asian countries. Waterloo is also home to a significant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. The researchers found that the gardens on the estate promoted trust between residents and helped to “break down racist stereotypes as residents gain exposure to different cultures and opinions, which they might not otherwise have”.

“In some instances,” added the researchers, “the gardens have been the only common ground where Waterloo residents from different backgrounds have worked together as a cohesive community. By spending regular time working in the gardens with other residents, relationships and bonds slowly start to form and connect them into a community.” As the plants grew, so did friendships.

Furthermore, the gardens instilled a sense of ownership. Tenants working in the gardens were offered full autonomy, “which can be hard to come by in a disadvantaged, public housing context like the Waterloo estate”. Tenants can choose what to plant, decide how it is taken care of, and are able to reap the rewards of their green fingered efforts. “This sense of ownership can allow people in a socially marginalised situation to feel success, experience being part of a greater shared endeavour, and become closely connected to a place.”

Of course, community gardens don’t just benefit the health and wellbeing of residents, they also rejuvenate otherwise lifeless spaces. Eden Garden, on Raglan Street also in Waterloo, is one of Sydney’s older community gardens. Established in 1991, the site — located on the grounds of the South Sydney Uniting Church — underwent a “beautiful transformation” thanks to the grit and determination of a local group of dedicated volunteers. Today, the garden includes raised beds containing edible plants, a composting area, a wet garden — even a chicken coop. Eden Garden’s project manager, Vicki Coumbe, said the once desolate land is now “something that is productive and beautiful”.

But a community garden isn’t just for the green fingered. Tina Jackson helped set up a community garden in Mosman. The previously unused plot of land, she said, has been transformed into a bustling social hub: “Children come for educational visits from local schools; residents from the adjacent retirement home take an active interest in the garden’s progress. People who have lived in the neighbourhood for over a decade report that they have met their neighbours for the first time.”

Professor Corkery agrees that a community garden benefits the whole neighbourhood: “It provides a place of nature and beauty for everyone to enjoy. There’s a sense of community and social engagement. There’s a lot more to it than just growing food.”

According to City of Sydney guidelines, there are five components of a
successful community garden.

People. Your group will need people with a range of skills in gardening,
administration, and communication. You will need the support of neighbours
and the local community to ensure success and minimise vandalism.
Site. Your site will need to be large enough for garden beds, composting
systems, and a tool shed. It should have good sunlight, available water, and
easy access for pedestrians and deliveries.
Style. The size of the site will determine the style of garden. The City
encourages groups to have a communal garden to allow more people to
Structure. A sound management plan will provide structure for all group
members by outlining responsibilities, rosters, maintenance, and record
Promotion. Promoting your garden through open days or social media will
encourage more people to get involved and support your garden.