Environmental IQ

Food – can our cities ever be self-sustaining?/

Sue White 30 Aug 2011

“WE HAVE TWO SETS of needs as humans…sociability and sustenance,” says Carolyn Steel, author of Hungry City and lecturer at Cambridge University. “They are in conflict, because the more we cluster together in villages, towns and eventually cities, the further we get from our sources of sustenance.”

According to the United Nations Population Fund, more than 50 per cent of humanity now lives in cities and that figure is rising. But while cities are good at generating jobs and providing us with social stimulation, they’re less effective at providing food or recycling their energy, water and nutrients.

“The people who plan cities are ignorant when it comes what human beings need for survival…Cities are quite good at providing water; they are hopeless at providing food,” says author of The Coming Famine, Julian Cribb.

Rapid urbanisation means the situation needs to change, and fast. “By 2030 there’ll be many cities with 30 million people. If those cities produce none of their own food, they’re totally dependent on a river of trucks. If that river fails [due to an oil crisis, a local war, or a disaster like the Queensland floods] those cities would be starving within three days,” Cribb says.

“If we can get the world’s cities back to producing 20, 30 or even 40 per cent of their own food, and only relying on the landscape for the balance, we’ll have a more sustainable agriculture and more sustainable cities,” Cribb says.

To get there, Cribb believes we need to put in place an array of urban food producing industries and activities. But while governments lag behind, resident of the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, Michael Mobbs needs no convincing. After taking his inner city terrace off the grid in the late 1990s, Mobbs soon realised his house was sustainable but his belly wasn’t.

Urban food

Join

Food co-ops typically buzz with members who know local and seasonal food inside out.

Grow

Australian City Farms and Community Gardens Network – join or start a community garden in your area. For inspiration, check out two of Australia’s best: Northey Street City Farm, Brisbane and CERES Community Environment Park, Melbourne. While you’re there, keep an eye out for Stephen Muslin’s Micro Farmers Food Hub project, run in partnership with CERES and a recent winner of the British Council’s Big Green Idea award.

Eat

In Sydney or Brisbane? Try Food Connect vegie boxes to support sustainable urban food model.

Learn

Most councils run free courses in urban gardening or composting.

“My house saves 100,000 litres of water a year, but eating the typical Australian diet means there’s over 100,000 litres of water in my food every 10 days. I realised I needed to grow or buy my food locally. Living in a small terrace I was compelled to go onto the street,” he says.

Mobbs soon found others wanted in. “Neighbours were attracted to it and inspired; it wasn’t my plan.”

It is now. Chippendale residents have planted out six city blocks with food; provided the suburb’s 4,000 residents with community composting; and planted over 200 fruit trees, herbs and plants across the 32 hectare suburb. It’s just the start, especially now that Mobbs’ local council, City of Sydney, has recognised the value of planting the streets with food. “The General Manager came out and walked the streets and saw it as a no-brainer,” he says.

As a result, the two groups are now working together to turn Chippendale into a sustainable suburb where growing food is a key part of the picture. “We’ll paint the roads to cool the suburb by two to three degrees; put in pop up median strips that are self irrigating and shade the street; and we’d also like the first urban commercial urban farm,” Mobbs says. Space is at a premium in Chippendale, so the urban farm which could grow 33,000 kilograms of vegetables and 10,000 kilograms of fish will be “on top of a roof”.

Mobbs believes the 10 year plan could see the suburb growing 40 to 50 per cent of its own food, a huge boost on the 10 per cent they’d be lucky to get at present.

“In [less dense] suburbs, you can [easily] grow 50 per cent now – that’s what used to happen,” he says.

Mobbs considers securing even part of his food supply locally to be a smart move. “Why would you bet everything on the chain stores? Have an each way bet; put some money on yourself and your community and some on the usual methods,” he says.

Of course, Mobbs isn’t the only Australian taking action. The humble backyard vegie patch is experiencing a renaissance. Once an unremarkable part of every Australian backyard, the vegetable patch experienced a boost in the 40s, when ‘victory gardens’ were promoted to make up the shortfall as farmers turned into soldiers. But since then, perhaps because of the abundance of fresh food, the vegie patch gradually waned in popularity.

But now, says Peter Kearney from Cityfood Growers, vegies are back. His company, which provides local food growing tips, has 2,000 subscribers. Demand for plots in urban community gardens is booming, with hundreds of gardens (both formal and informal) blossoming nationwide; and Australia basks in occasional kudos from global experts thanks our status as the birthplace of permaculture.

And it’s not just Australia. Mayors of cities like Barcelona, Rome, New York and London have written strategies recognising the importance of urban food systems. In Holland, South Korea, and Japan the idea of vertical farms – hi-tech, food-growing high rises – are taking off. And projects like Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Program and Rome’s School Food Program (where 140,000 local, seasonal meals are provided every day) show it’s possible to creatively tackle the issue with adults and kids alike.

Both Cribb and Mobbs believe it’ll be hard to achieve substantive change in urban food systems without people feeling the ramifications of inaction on a personal level. “It’s hard for anyone in Australia to take what I’m saying seriously, because none of us have ever been hungry,” Mobbs says.

“My view is that the food riots we had in 17 countries in 2008 were a precursor to a complete global food shortage, which I think will happen before 2020,” Mobbs says. “I’m gardening as if my life depends on it, because I think it does,” he says.