Story by Russ Grayson, April 2015
Local government is critical to the future of community food production in public places such as city parks, on disused land and on urban footpaths.
Councils have regulatory authority and are the sole determinant of whether a community garden on public land goes ahead. Those enlightened enough to have discerned that there exists a social trend toward greater personal involvement in food production have adopted policy that enables the creation of community gardens and, in a few cases, community-managed gardens in footpath nature strips.
Doing this, enabling a community-based urban agriculture to develop, brings opportunity to councils in implementing ideas that might already exist in city plans and in environment, health and community development plans. Community food enterprises are best seen as a means to implement those plans.
Despite many councils being supportive of community gardening and, for some, of community use of footpaths for gardening, councils and their staff continue to struggle with this emerging trend in community-based urban agriculture. This is because…
1. The idea of community gardening and edible footpaths is relatively new.
Councils engage people outside of local government who have a thorough knowledge of the practice to educate staff and councillors.
2. Councils seldom have staff with the education and experience to understand this new trend and to make connections between it, urban food security, urban development and the political-economic dimension of food sovereignty.
- councils engage people outside of local government who have a thorough knowledge of the practice to educate staff and councillors.
- councils write into their planning document and policies the creating of opportunity for community-based urban food production.
3. Council staff, usually working in their specialist silos, commonly take a regulatory rather than a socially entrepreneurial approach to matters coming up in their work.
Councils engage staff with abilities to work directly with communities and who have a thorough understanding of the role of community food production in creating resilient cities, in community nutritional health and social opportunity.
Such staff and their employing councils take an affirmative, positive approach to the development of community-based urban agriculture and approach their work as civic entrepreneurs working with communities to enable their ideas become reality. While they might not engage in urban agriculture directly they facilitate citizens doing so.
4. The formal education of council staff at university and TAFE seldom prepares them to properly comprehend the new social movement around food and community involvement in its production and distribution.
Councils engage suitably experienced people as advisers or consultants in decision making around urban agriculture.
Caution, risk adversity, regulation, tardiness and bureaucracy are all part of local government culture in Australia. All too often they come as a type of default, public service mindset. This is unfortunate and is a poor fit for citizens used to taking initiatives rapidly in professional and personal life. It brings to councils a poor reputation as sluggardly organisations mired in the old, hierarchical organisational structures and decision making processes of the 1950s.
Councils need to discard this old mindset, critics say, and adopt more of a cross-disciplinary, cross-silo team-based approach for decision making.
The occasional council has experimented with this. One staffer with a coastal council at the time described to me how her department included staff from different council silos and how this made for a more comprehensive approach to decision making and to their work. Unfortunately, a new general manager, lacking insight into this improved structure or simply not liking it, re-silod council in what must have been an unimaginative, backward-looking step. One senior council staffer I interviewed, a sustainability manager, refused to create a silo and, instead, sat on all council departments with decision making power in areas he saw relevant.
Council mentality is sometimes manifested in the approach of council staff to requests to make productive use of public open space, as publicly-accessible council land is called. It is too-often bureaucratic and complicated. Sometimes, councils attempt cost recovery with fees which less-financially-well-endowed community garden groups find difficulty or impossibility in raising.
How do we deal with this and reform council process? Here's my proposal:
- Councils adopt policy that simplifies the process of applying for access to land for urban food production and that takes less time in seeking approval. It include a simple application form.
- Councils abolish application fees for applying for land access and remove community garden development from the costly development application process in the interests of community development, community health and creating new community opportunities.
- Councils set up an ad-hoc community garden assessment team consisting of staff focused on community gardening, landscape management, community development, community health and planning. Possibly advised by someone outside of council familiar with urban agriculture, the team would confer on community garden applications and, if needed, meet with community garden applicants.
Democratising council procedures
When we consider community food production in our cities, one particular area in desperate need of reform in local government is its anti-democratic approach to dealing with complaints.
Two cases I know of involved people making footpath gardens. What happened was that one person on the street complained and council decided that, on the basis of this single complaint rather that the large number who signed a petition to retain the garden, the gardens had to go.
This was a unilateral decision by council that ignored due process in negotiating disagreements among citizens. Citizens saw it as profoundly unfair.
In failing to develop an opportunity to treat such cases with justice and fairness, as would be anticipated in a democracy, councils have instead left themselves open to their decisions being made for them by complaining, vexatious people. This is the curse of NIMBYism — the Not In My Back Yard brigade who selfishly deny their neighbours the opportunity to engage creatively with public open space and with each other.
Worsening the situation is local government secrecy in denying the public knowledge of the identity of the complainant.
This defective, ad hoc council approach is in need of urgent reform so that fairness and democracy rather than cranky individuals and authoritarian council staff impose an opportunity cost on citizens. Taking this negative approach is a great way for councils to make enemies of potential supporters and to degrade their public reputation and that of their staff.
- set up a fair and open hearings structure to independently assess and adjudicate complains made by plaintiffs, who will be identified in accordance with proper due process and council openness
- apply due democratic process to council decision making so that where a community or footpath gardening initiative is supported by greater number of people than oppose it, it goes ahead or continues.
A TIME FOR REFORM
Councils are strange entities that frequently demonstrate just how little communication there is across silos. The reason people continually point this out is testament to its universality. Also perplexing is the variable behaviour of council departments. People encounter some departments doing good work with communities, while others come across as uncaring, bureaucratic and the source of negative interaction. All within the same council.
This has been the experience of people attempting to set up community-based food production initiatives. As people approaching those councils without enabling community garden/footpath gardening policies have reported, the response you get from councils depends very much on who you talk to. That response also very much depends on the values and attitudes of staff. It can be something of a chancy process. Avoiding that is why the idea of councils adopting enabling, straightforward policy on community and footpath gardening, then waiting for communities to approach them for assistance under the policy (the demand-led approach, rather than building community gardens on the chance people might use them) is the better option.
The defective council behaviour I describe is real. I have encountered much of it directly in my role with the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network, in my work in researching community food production for council policy direction documents and working in local government itself.
The good news is that it can be reformed and that there are good staff in councils, the challenge being to find them. Often those staff sympathise with council critics but are unable to do anything because the cause of problems, while it might sometimes be individual and obstructionist staff, is usually systemic. It is built into the structure of councils themselves and their processes.
This argument for council reform to enable new and innovative community initiatives in urban food production I see as important to building resilient communities and resilient cities… cities of opportunity, that is.
It is unlikely any move to improve council performance will come from council staff or from elected councillors. Councillors are quarantined from staff to reduce the risk of corruption, which has happened in the past. Councillors often agree not to intervene in the running of councils, effectively blocking any move towards reform by elected representatives. It's a comfortable, clubby arrangement that blocks improvement and that perpetuates tired, expired old structures and processes.
That leaves the only place from which pressure for reform can come being the electorate.