A Green Light For Guerilla Gardeners


At its regular monthly meeting in August, Melbourne’s Yarra Council won itself a green star for forward thinking. Instead of razing local unauthorised street gardens as it had threatened to shortly before the meeting, it did a complete about-face, voting unanimously to become a champion of such initiatives instead.

Yarra, like quite a few other municipalities, is increasingly becoming dotted with community-initiated gardens. These include registered, secure community gardens that councils approve and support, but there are also others — guerilla gardens located in places like planter boxes in the street or on abandoned public land, which are established without prior council approval. As their survival relies on councils turning a blind eye, the future of each individual garden of this type is always precarious.

Guerilla gardeners live with this knowledge, but tend to push it to the back of their minds. At least that had been the case for me and my fellow renegades at Windmill Foodgarden @ Tramstop 22 in the inner-city Melbourne suburb of Clifton Hill — right up until the axe fell in early August. The story of what happened next — the spontaneous campaign which overturned a silly decision so successfully that enemies of guerrilla gardens are now its friends — might be useful to anyone else out there trying to bring change on this issue at a local level.

Our plot, established on an ex-nature strip next to a busy thoroughfare, had been flourishing for over a year. Locals regularly collected greens for their dinner and pulled weeds as they passed, the kitchen staff at the nearby Recreation pub fed the plants with their rinse water and neighbours organised working bees to keep the plot in shape.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that there are no security fences and the garden is open to all, it had never been vandalised. Instead it had developed into a small but beloved community hub, whose first birthday we had just celebrated in July. That day the guest of honour had been resplendent in violas, herbs, salad greens and veggies, with a stylish girdle of thigh-high fig branch fencing. Guests stood amidst the flapping flags in the icy winds, eating and drinking and talking food. But the birthday cake had barely been digested when out of the blue the directive arrived from the council.

We were told to either remove the garden ourselves within 30 days or council officers would pull it down. This notice, which was sent to all unauthorised street gardens in the City of Yarra, was ostensibly concerned about issues of "contamination" and "public risk". It made no sense to us.

The creators of the Windmill Foodgarden were experienced food growers who knew what they were doing. One of their main motivations was the need for food security, and they put a lot of research, thought and effort into ensuring that their organic produce would always be in peak condition.

They used deep biodegradable trays for planting, which were dug into place and filled with certified clean soil. Since then the trays have regularly been topped up with compost. As an added security, only shallow-rooted plants are ever used, deliberately avoiding the risk of root interference with any pipes that might be laid beneath. The Council’s concern about contamination seemed misguided. As to risk, we were left guessing as to what they could have meant by that.

We wondered if there might have been concern over dangerous objects like syringes being tossed into the garden, but that had never happened. Besides, people always make a point of removing any rubbish at working bees and when they come to pick produce. And because the garden abuts the main road, only low-growing plants are used to make sure it doesn’t block visibility for motorists or pedestrians.

It was a no-brainer; and there was no way we were giving up our garden without a fight. But with less than a week until the council meeting, there was no time to lose.

The first step was to open up the lines of communication with the council, especially to reassure councilors that gardeners had taken measures to protect against contamination. Strategy-planning meetings were organised across the municipality — meetings to which councillors were invited. The town hall was blitzed with emails and phone calls and a petition was circulated.

When I received several prompt and conciliatory replies from councillors in response to my distressed protest email, I felt a twinge of guarded optimism. But the council’s original draconian stance was uppermost in our minds as we approached the meeting, and we were also anxious that only a handful of other protestors would turn up.

It was a thrill to find the council chamber packed. Clearly such a large public presence was exceptional, and extra chairs had to be brought in to accommodate the 60 or 70 gardeners attending. The council’s offer to bring forward the "Street Gardens" item on the agenda was the first gesture of good will — an attitude that was to characterise the whole meeting. All the participants who wanted to were given ample opportunity to speak to their submissions, and their wealth of experience was warmly acknowledged by the council. I was relieved and I must confess a bit disappointed that the battle we had expected was looking more and more unlikely to eventuate.

When the irrepressible Glenda Lindsay used her submission time to break into her calypso number "Eat de Street" and the councillors joined in the Mexican wave, it became obvious our prospects were looking good.

Soon after, the council conceded that only two "minor" complaints had been received about community gardens and there had been no reported cases of anyone becoming ill from eating street garden produce. Before we knew it, and with no opposition, the council had dropped its decision to destroy our gardens and instead voted unanimously to foster "creative gardening" across the municipality.

The audience went wild. No doubt this was partly due to the victory for our own individual gardens, but many of us were also thrilled by the whole experience of people power. With little lead time, a bunch of fired-up enthusiasts had managed to get the bureaucracy to do a complete about-turn, enabling us to save something precious to us. It doesn’t get better than that. And we can all sure do with some wins on the environment front.

As Rebecca Solnit, the inspiring San Francisco-based activist, concludes in her book Hope in the Dark: the Untold History of People Power, there is no point waiting for governments, be they local or otherwise, to initiate change.

She insists that it’s from the margins that new and radical ideas always emerge and get translated into action. And the margins are certainly where you’ll find guerilla gardeners. I’m sure Solnit would appreciate why we didn’t need our bikes and cars after the meeting — we all went home walking on air.

Although on occasion guerilla gardeners have received council support, this tends to be for individual gardens, especially famous ones like the Liz Christy Bowery Garden in New York, which was established way back in 1973. It is much more usual for local government to operate from a position of, at best, indifference, or at worst active opposition to unregistered street gardens.

Yarra council, by contrast, had the prescience to totally reverse its negative stance (with the help of some popular opposition to help them change their minds), and to come out in support not merely of a single garden but of guerilla gardens across the municipality.

I imagine it’s only a matter of time before you’ll be able to sign up for an Edible Street Gardens of Yarra walking tour. We can guarantee you a warm welcome at Windmill Foodgarden.

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