Sustainable Retrofits. Can we use leftover spaces in the landscape for food production?

Sustainable Retrofits. Can we use leftover spaces in the landscape for food production?

The idea of using small areas for food production is not new.  In Europe, allotments are an established feature of residential landscapes and lifestyles.  These are under pressure from residential growth.  With continued land closure from spreading cities and towns, we need to find new places to grow our food.

In times of economic recession, we all look at ways we can save money. Growing our own fruit and vegetables is one example of cost savings, and being sure of knowing what we are eating.  The rising awareness of carbon footprints created by transporting produce around countries and around the world has made us stop and look at our attitudes towards our resources and consumer behaviour.  The further out we push our horticulture areas, the further it has to travel to distribution centres.  This in turn impacts on the carbon footprint of bringing food into urban areas, which in turn impacts on local and global resources.

Gardens for sustenance are becoming popular again with resurgence in hands-on local food production and movements such as ‘Backyard Sustainability’.  There is a large community of people growing their own food – out of their own back or front yards, The ‘Edible Estates’ movement promoting the idea of replacing suburban lawns with vegetable gardens.

Suburban residential gardens, community gardens and allotments are all actively sustainable food producing areas. It is taking the principals and desired outcomes from these pockets of nutritional horticulture and transferring them into other areas of land not previously considered.  A high density residential townhouse development based around an open space area may offer little else besides visual amenity.  The open space still needs maintenance, lawns need to be mowed, weeds removed, and amenity plants sustained.

Redevelopment will often leave ‘left-over’ spaces, or ‘wedges’, in the landscape.  Can these be used for nutritional plants instead of the typical amenity shrubs and trees? Often these spaces are left to their own devices or become empty mowed spaces. 

Food production doesn’t always mean vegetables in a traditional style garden bed such as cabbages, silver beet and runner beans.  There are examples worldwide where fruit trees have been planted in streets, parks and other public places.  Evergreen shrubs such as Feijoa sellowiana can be used as a hedge. Blueberries, raspberries, cranberries and currents are all shrubby types that could be used as we would hebes in the amenity garden.  Grapes and fruit trees could be espaliered along a fence. Sloe berries and juniper berries – these could become controlled amenity food supplies in an urban environment.  Walnut, macadamia, hazelnut are trees that can provide the strong vertical element and be used to soften or buffer developments.

Havana – Sustainable Urban Agriculture

There are alternatives to our traditional ways and current attitudes towards food production

An article by Scott Chaplow published by City Farmer, from the Canada’s Office of Urban Agriculture (‘Havana’s Popular Gardens: Sustainable Urban Agriculture’ 1996) discusses the effects the economic crisis of the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the US economic embargo had on food supply in Cuba faced between 1989 and 1993.  Together with a reduction of oil, fertiliser and pesticide imports, ‘the ongoing economic crisis had a devastating impact on Cuban food security’.  The additional petroleum shortage impacted on the ability to ‘transport, refrigerate and store food available from the rural agricultural sector’.

Without the ability to import food, or transport food from rural areas, the city of Havana was severely affected by the food shortage.  Urban agriculture in Havana or urban gardening ‘has figured critically among the many measures taken to enhance food security’

The solution to this major problem was to create urban agriculture.  There are many forms ranging from private gardens, to state owned research gardens.  However, the most widespread and accessible to the general public are ‘popular gardens’, which are ‘small parcels of state-owned land that are cultivated by individuals or community groups in response to ongoing food shortages...Garden sites are usually vacant or abandoned plots located in the same neighbourhood if not next door to the gardener’s household.’ There are a range of one to seventy people participating in each of the popular gardens, depending on the site size.

It is not just social, economical and nutritional benefits that come from growing our own food, it is an understanding and a feeling of connectivity.  The brief for amenity planting projects is to visually screen, or enhance but to be low maintenance.  Amenity planting is a backdrop, a design solution that gives good visuals but contributes little towards our involvement and demands little of our attention.

This thought leadership article by Melissa Davis, a senior landscape architect at Harrison Grierson.

(This is an adaptation of a paper that was published as part of the proceedings for the 47th IFLA World Congress, Suzhou, China 2010)

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