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The Tale of a Local Community Network (Melbourne, Australia)

I attended the Community Gardens Conference in Canberra in 2010. Myles Bremner, CEO of Garden Organic, Europe’s main organic gardening organization, was speaking about how surprised he was that in Australia there was no unified network of Community Gardens. In fact in Australia no one even knows exactly how many there are. This highlighted for me the importance of building local networks to improve the credibility of local food growing and share experiences and resources.

I wanted to share my experience of The Moreland Food Gardens Network (MFGN) in Melbourne, Australia, to show how a local network can work. It began with a group of people all somehow involved in community gardens and there are now a wide range of organisations and individuals involved, such as horticulturalists, community members, local schools, community health organisations, local council and academics.

The official aim of the network is:

To provide an opportunity for people of the Moreland community to come together on a regular basis to share information & experiences as well as strategically plan and collaborate in a variety of ways to improve food access and urban agriculture in Moreland.

It sounds formal but the main benefit of the network has been allowing people with similar interests to connect and share information about existing projects and experiences and work together on new projects. The group has an email network and website and interested members meet once every two months at a different garden. It’s a fluid network where people participate in a way that suits them, and in projects that are of interest. Meeting in a garden is important as it allows people to get ideas and contextualise what we are doing so the group doesn’t get too academic or theoretical; we also allow time for a casual catch up about how tomatoes are growing or innovative chicken feeding ideas before the official meeting begins.

It seemed best not to get bogged down in complex organisation or structures. The network is non-hierarchical, minute taking is rotated and this person also emails out the minutes. So far one person has taken on the convener role for a full year, this involves organising meeting agendas and facilitating meetings to make sure they run on time. This role was originally supported by Merri Community Health Services and has now been passed on to a garden support worker with Kildonen Uniting Care. It was decided the convener role would not be held by anyone employed by the local council to ensure the group remains independent. As members of the network only need to get involved in the things that interest them, smaller working groups of 3-5 people are usually formed for particular projects. This way groups are autonomous and meetings are usually more precise with groups reporting back on projects and minimising group decision-making (which can be time consuming).

The network also tries not be too demanding on people’s schedules so they don’t get burnt out. Essential has been having a clear vision, keeping meetings concise (no more than 1.5hrs) and people following through on any action they volunteer for.

Like the PRI’s website the MFGN website is a forum to share inspiration but is also a central place to promote local urban agriculture events and opportunities — food swaps, grafting days, gardening workshops and festivals are often listed. The email network is the first point of connection for people to informally share knowledge and enables more discussion than the website.

Garden Open Day Flyer example

Recently, for example, one member mentioned they wanted to set up a composting site at a sports ground for local residents and to deal with waste from the canteen. Other members of the network were able to advise on how best to approach council and provide a connection to a community composting hubs trial being run at another location, which she wasn’t aware of. This provided a composting model, with existing guidelines already approved by council, for her to model the new proposal on.

Some promotion of the network has been done at community days, festivals and food swaps but word of mouth has probably resulted in the most connections being made.

Pepper Tree Place community garden has organised bulk buys, for network members, of lucerne bales and cheap vegetable seedlings grown in partnership with a women’s correctional facility. The women were then provided with stories and photos of the seedlings as they grew, helping to create a sense of community connection and worth.
Groups also share resources such as shade tents for events, a rotary hoe and hopefully some bee-keeping equipment in the future. These things are expensive and not every group needs their own. The request for a honey spinner has created linkages with local experienced beekeepers to support those just starting out. A bike tour of edible street plantings is also being organised.

Some network members interested in advocacy have formed working groups to make submissions on various policies. They advocated for the local council’s Open Space Strategy to include urban agriculture and The Street Landscape Strategy to include edibles. Consequently included in the actions of the Moreland Council Street Landscape Strategy 2012-22 was to

Investigate the feasibility of the planting of fruit/nut trees in low risk residential street nature strips including the benefits and issues. Include researching appropriate species, and suitable methods of management in the public realm.

Partly as a result of these submissions, Moreland council is also now developing a Community Garden Policy and Guidelines which aim to make it clear to community groups how they go about applying to use council land for urban agriculture projects. MFGN will be assisting council to draft these guidelines.

Some of the members also organised a ‘conversation’ to contribute to the People’s Food Plan, an alternative vision to the Australian Federal Government’s National Food Plan, being led by the Australian Food Sovereignty alliance.

MFGN People’s Food Plan Conversation, video by Rasha Tayeh

So in just two years the network has been able to make some important achievements. There are more linkages between community gardens in the local area and amongst community members interested in permaculture and sustainable living. I think it’s been successful as people can be as involved as they choose from garden problem-solving, sharing local events or engaging in advocacy for a different food system. People have been able to draw on each others’ experiences and specialities and be inspired by the projects others are involved in, even if they don’t have the time to be directly involved themselves.

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