Clockwise from above: All ages join in the action; ‘They are in a safe place where they know they are valued’; Duncan McNaught; Duncan McNaught and Caroline Kemp. Photos by Kay Kerr
The blackboards at every corner of this neighbourhood are a giveaway – there is something at work here, bigger than the sum of its parts. In this pocket of a suburb on the Sunshine Coast of Queensland, a community project is changing the way local residents think about food and the act of eating. The scope of Urban Food Street has grown exponentially, and it’s hard to believe it started with one lime.
In 2009, residents Duncan McNaught and Caroline Kemp were inspired by the words of architect Ken Maher, at about the same time as the price of a single lime hit $2. Maher’s work pushed them to think about community engagement with the suburban landscape, and how they could add value to their Buderim environment. This led to the relatively simple act of using the road verge outside their home to grow herbs and citrus trees, for their neighbours and themselves. Caroline explained that, ‘This is an urban area, so space is at a premium. We wanted to take that dormant public space and turn it into something useable and functional.’
Improving The Soil
Duncan said it was a tough slog, at the beginning, to get the soil quality to where it needed to be, keeping in mind their commitment to growing organically; they tried to simplify this process as much as possible. ‘Generally we try for a pH around 6.5; however, we adjust this according to the crop’, he said.
Caroline and Duncan, as well as other volunteers, spend weeks nurturing the soils of newly turned verges, starting with manure sourced only from grazing animals in the paddock, compost from the neighbourhood, organic composted pellets of manure, mushroom compost, blood and bone, and rock dust. They wet down the soil and mix in the compost/ manure/additive. Then they add worm juice or seaweed concentrate to the soil concoction, before covering the area with barley straw in a layer of about 200 millimetres (to ensure minimal water loss). Then they let it sit for six to eight weeks, or longer, to allow for activation of the soil, but check regularly to ensure that it remains moist. ‘We recognise that soils are alive, so we continually feed existing beds with additional organic matter, between crop rotations or fruiting cycles’, Duncan said.
Through hard work and perseverance, the crops began to thrive. More were added as other like-minded home owners volunteered their time and verges to the project. It began to take form slowly. And as the founding couple, and their small team, nurtured the crops, a sense of community was growing too.
The project was about more than just providing fresh food for the neighbourhood; the couple wanted to effect a complete cultural change. Caroline, a subscriber to American urban design activist Jane Jacobs’ way of thinking, as well as permaculture principles, looked to the street layout for both problems and solutions. ‘We wanted to take some of the design features and enhance them, as an urban design response’, she said.
Half of the streets in the Food Street area are built without gutters, which Caroline said was beneficial: ‘We are fortunate because in this particular area there are swales. With a kerb the water is channelled and taken away, picking up sediment and chemicals, fouling the waterways.
‘Swales are multi-layered, grassed ditches that act as filtering systems. They slow the speed of run-off water initially and, as it slows, the water is absorbed back into the earth, and valuable nutrients from the plants and soil are recycled’, Caroline explained. These water harvesting ditches feature heavily in permaculture design, and the residents have fought to keep the swales and forgo guttering where possible. Duncan stressed that this was because concrete plays a part in heating up the environment, just as trees help to cool it. He has been passionate about encouraging residents to maintain established trees and plants, rather than pulling everything out and starting again.
As the months passed, more people joined in the project. While Caroline and Duncan, and other Food Street volunteers, continued to implement ways of cooling their environment and increasing the nutrient density of the soil, they were also inspired by the idea of a true ‘neighbourhood’. ‘We’ve got this magical thing – we’re in a slight valley defined by a road system, so there is a natural boundary, a footprint; but a neighbourhood is more than that’, Duncan said. He was inspired by the ‘we’ mentality of Greenwich Village in New York City, where he saw residents and businesses take real ownership of their patch.
Bringing that philosophy back to Buderim, the Urban Food Street project gathered momentum. Group planting days picked up, and residents started to plan on a bigger scale. The neighbourhood has planted a street of licensed banana trees as well as more than thirty olive trees, and has plans to produce an Urban Food Street olive oil in the near future. Residents also raised enough money to invest in top bar and ‘Flow’ beehives, and native bees. Duncan stressed that the project is a success because it’s self-sustained and self-sufficient; there has never been any financial assistance from governments.
Clockwise from top left: Neighbours and generations connect; April Forbes and Brendan Ford love the sense of community; Urban Food Street map; Blackboard signs around the neighbourhood. Photos by Kay Kerr
Since 2010, as well as the bananas and olives, the scale and variety of crops has grown to include avocados, cabbages, custard apples, dragon fruit, figs, ginger, lettuce, mangoes, melons, mulberries, paw paws, persimmons, pomegranates, tomatoes, tree tomatoes, tropical apples and peaches, turmeric and other everyday herbs; across eleven streets. There are around 200 households within the footprint, and all are welcome to pick from the verge produce, regardless of their involvement. Caroline put it best when she said, ‘Involvement is fluid, and greater than the single action of growing a tree’. She added that, ‘For some households the built environment doesn’t really allow for a verge to be planted; however, they might be involved through other means such as providing water and hoses for watering plantings; or they might do a letterbox drop, check a compost bin, tend the bees or cook a snag on the barbecue at an event. Some people are actively involved on a weekly basis, and others pop in and out according to need.’
And Other Benefits
The community benefits are there to see. People are out walking with their families and dogs at dusk, collecting herbs and vegetables for their evening meal. ‘We’re out in the fresh air, speaking to the people who live around us and getting some sunshine. Our bodies are functioning as they should be. This goes back, in a small way, to a hunter-gatherer style of living’, Duncan said.
April Forbes and Brendan Ford bought their home in the Urban Food Street footprint almost six years ago, on a whim. ‘We just loved the location, and went with our gut feeling when everyone told us not to buy the home’, April explains. ‘Apart from the obvious benefits of healthy food just a few steps from your front door, I think the biggest benefit is the community that has evolved around the initiative. Authentic leadership is hard to find, but I see it in Duncan and Caroline. And Brendan and I want to support anyone who is so genuinely passionate about their message.’ From their lounge room, the couple can see neighbours stopping for a chat and connecting in a way that has become rare in most communities.
April said that living among all the fresh produce was also a great reminder to make health and wellbeing a priority: ‘Not just in the food we eat, but the chemicals we bring into our home, and the stress experienced in our professional lives’, she said.
It’s not only professionals such as Brendan and April that see the benefits. The youngest members of the Urban Food Street initiative seem to benefit the most.
Local resident and mum Amy Diesel has two young children and couldn’t be happier to be raising them where they live. ‘As a result of living on Food Street my children are highly engaged,’ Amy said. ‘They are socially engaged with the people who live around them, they are engaged with the food that they eat and the plants their food comes from. They are engaged with the process and the land that produces their food.’
Amy values the rarity of the environment in a world that struggles with disengagement, isolation, shrinking backyards and rising childhood obesity: ‘My children know not only their neighbours, but the people who live up to three blocks away. They may only be toddlers, but they can name and eat many plants that even adults don’t know about. They can point out to you the sunflowers, and corn and melons that they have planted, and watered and cared for. They can ride their bikes in the street, or play tag, or draw on the road with chalk because they are in a safe place where they know they are valued.’
Caroline emphasised that, although Urban Food Street is an ideal model for a smarter future, she did not advocate that planting suburban verges with edibles was suitable in every location: ‘It’s not a one-size-fits-all model, but rather an example of what is possible’, she said.
Visit www.urbanfoodstreet.com for more information