Create gardens on vacant sections

The Avon-Otakaro River from CBD to ocean could be a sustainable food basket for the Garden City in changing times, writes Matt Morris.

Walking around Christchurch and seeing tenacious weeds reclaiming cracked pavements and piles of rubble, you'd be forgiven for thinking the Garden City is a thing of the past.

But a beautiful, community-driven garden vision that would make Christchurch a world leader in urban sustainability is unfolding in some of the worst-hit suburban areas of the Garden City. Imagine if the banks of the Avon-Otakaro River, from the city to the sea, were dripping with fresh fruit and vegetables?

The Avon River red zone is about 400 hectares in extent, it's unlikely it can be built on in the near future, and there's a good chance the soil is fairly rich. Together, these ingredients suggest that the river area could well become a food basket for the city.

To some this may seem like an unlikely proposal, but it would bring us in line with what many other cities around the globe are doing: preparing themselves to get more food secure in a context of changing weather patterns and potential shortages of the oil that is now so essential for moving our food supplies around.

Indeed, a recent OECD report - "Environmental Outlook to 2050: the consequences of inaction" - makes it clear that the global land requirements to meet the food demands of a growing population will continue to expand, with severe knock-on effects.

"The costs and consequences of inaction are colossal, both in economic and human terms. These projections highlight the urgent need for new thinking. Failing that, the erosion of our natural environmental capital will increase the risk of irreversible changes that could jeopardise two centuries of rising living standards."

Cities do need to get ready, and do some "new thinking". And the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has just released a report entitled "Growing Greener Cities in Africa", which stresses the need for urban horticulture to expand in African cities to feed their increasingly vulnerable populations. The report emphasises that this needs to be done sustainably, that is, with low inputs of chemical fertilisers.

Community gardens and orchards are now common in Britain, United States and Canadian cities. In Seattle, the city is creating a 2.8 hectare "food forest" in suburban Beacon Hill: the largest in the US. Then there's the endearing example of Todmorden, the British town that decided to go completely self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables. Its streets, schools, parks and even its cemeteries are now crammed with food, and it's set off a chain reaction: more than 20 towns in England are following suit.

The city that offers the greatest lesson for us is possibly Detroit; gardeners and farmers have reclaimed derelict suburbs in the wake of the city's automobile industry collapse, and a city- specific food culture is developing that is now a marketable tourist attraction.

Each of these projects has a multitude of benefits, but surely the greatest is the security of food supply they afford their cities, and this is something Christchurch residents now instinctively understand.

Certainly this was the message that came out of the recent annual general meeting of the Soil & Health Association's Canterbury branch.

It has held this vision of a relocalised food culture since its inception during World War II when, in the midst of a potential food crisis, it helped lead the national Dig for Victory campaign. Seventy years later Christchurch's food security is undoubtedly worse than it was then: not only have the intervening years seen the disappearance of quarter-acre home gardens (mini-farms, as Austin Mitchell famously described them), and the global food production system has become increasingly vulnerable anyway but, in the wake of the earthquakes, we have a very real ongoing concern about how our people - particularly those in the eastern suburbs - will eat if supplies are disrupted again.

Cr Peter Beck, who attended this particular meeting, was one voice among many endorsing the vision.

"Community gardens and other community-driven food initiatives are really needed in the east and I'm all for getting these red-zoned lands into production as soon as possible," he said. "As well as making good use of the land, these are positive projects which lift our spirits, build community and fill our food baskets!"


Despite such hearty support there are, of course, a few practical matters that need resolving first. Although there's an assumption that river soil should be good to grow on, there's still little understanding of how liquefacted soils behave, though anecdotally they seem fairly inert. We need some science to help us determine how well our organic paradise will grow. Some of the answers to this question will come out of a scholarship project over the summer funded through the University of Canterbury's Sustainability Office, and run in conjunction with the University's School of Forestry.

This then brings up the second issue: site access. At the moment there are significant and understandable restrictions around who can access Cera-owned properties within the red zone, so there is a considerable amount of finger-crossing taking place. The Avon-Otakaro Network (AvON), which has done incredible work bringing organisations together around the general concept of a city-to- sea river park, are working closely with Cera representatives to see what could be possible along these lines.

Next steps

As far as interim uses for the lands go, what could be better than gardening? Local community gardeners who belong to a Food Resilience subgroup of AvON seem confident that the next step is to begin establishing a new community garden near Banks Ave, once the above issues have been addressed. Evan Smith, chairman of AvON, believes that the site in question is "of significant heritage and botanical value. We have documented over 450 trees and shrubs in the area, about a third indigenous, a third fruit trees and the remainder mature exotics. This would make an ideal site for a mixed park, community garden initiative. There is certainly a lot of interest from local communities and schools to make this happen."

Reimagining the Garden City

This welter of activity is inducing a brand-new iteration of Christchurch as Garden City. New initiatives like Garden City 2.0 are sprouting tentatively, dedicated to the vision that our neighbourhoods could be bursting with food gardens and recognising that actually it's fairly simple to do, as long as the will is there.

Almost 10 years ago the Community Food Security Coalition's report "Urban Agriculture and Community Food Security in the United States" summarised the key issues and showed how US municipalities had embraced community gardens and other urban agriculture projects.

"To prepare for emergencies", it said, "every community should be able to produce or supply at least a third of the food required by its residents . . . Every community should have a local food system that connects producers, processors, distributors and eaters. This would demand a rethinking of agriculture."

That's the demand that is sending up shoots from Christchurch's wreckage. It's a demand we can't ignore.

Dr Matt Morris is a sustainability advocate at the University of Canterbury and national co- chair of the Soil & Health Association of NZ.

The Press