Spare Thoughts Landscape Design

Ian Fenton


The most common criticism levelled at urban agriculture is whether it really contributes to building food security. It hasn’t yet proven so, but it’s not time to throw the baby out with the bath water. Urban farming offers hope to addressing food security but probably not in the way we imagined. 


For aficionados of edible cities and vertical gardens New York City is a hot-bed for new ideas and urban gardening revolutions.  As I’m sure you can guess though New York consumes way more food than it grows. Its 8.5 million inhabitants would need a farm the size of connecticut, (which among other things would probably need to grow a hell of a lot of corn!)


Graphic courtesy of Sustain: Australian Food Network –

In fact, to feed New York’s 8.5 million inhabitants (and the tourists) requires production from a farm approximately the size of Connecticut (over 14,000km2).


As in Brooklyn so in Brunswick, St Kilda and beyond. Melburnians are climbing up the walls like fava beans to hold plots in urban community gardens; and some of them are pretty impressive. They’re not putting food on the tables of each the 5 million people throughout Greater Melbourne though. Here, we don’t need a farm the size of Connecticut but we do need one about the size of… well, Greater Melbourne to feed our city. Which is interesting given that in greater Melbourne and surrounds there are a lot of farms playing a pretty big part in what’s going on our plates, and into our economy.


Each year, food production in Melbourne’s fringe adds about 1.5 billion dollars to our state’s economy and generates over 6000 jobs, it produces between forty and fifty percent of our state’s veggies, including herbs, brassicas, berries and fruit as well as meat and cheese. Cities and farms go hand in hand, they are “fraternal twins born about the same time and closely related”. Melbourne has always depended on its surrounding region as a food bowl in the same way that food bowl now depends on Melbourne for its economy. When Batman came over here from Van Diemen’s land he came for the farmland, not the fabulous cafe culture as we might have thunk.


Unfortunately though, the farmland which attracted him and many more since is fast disappearing. In the 50’s Melbourne boasted over 2000 km² of agricultural land within its urban boundary and approximately 90 km² of land for fruit and vegetable growing. By 2030 if we keep on going none of the fruit and vegetable growing areas will be left and barely any agricultural land will remain within the urban boundary. Worrying numbers, especially when we consider that our population will have more than doubled from 3.7 million in 2005 to 9 million by 2050.


Continuing to encroach on our regional farming areas will be a double-blow for the economy, destroying livelihoods of those on fringes while impacting the price of food in the centre. Rather than doubling out what we should consider is how we can fold our population back in. Becoming no tjust denser in our inner suburbs but in our outer ones as well. We should respect that urban horticulture can restrain inner-city density and thus place unnecessary strain on agriculture lands growing food in the periphery. Accept that living in apartments is good for food security, and that if we must forsake the backyard garden to protect the peri-urban farm than so be it.


Realistically though, this isn’t just fanciful it’s also wrong. Urban dwellers don’t want to give away their green spaces and the science says they shouldn’t. Trees and gardens can mitigate the effects of urban heat build up, improving our well being. While parks and gardens around the city reduce the impacts of climate change and the severe weather events such as storms and heatwaves it will bring with it. They meet our needs to interact with nature, a condition referred to as biophilia and when used for growing food make us more conscious of the true value that the fruits and vegetables on our tables have.


For Melbourne, New York and literally hundreds of cities around the world achieving food security is more complex than simply choosing between building up or growing out. More complex than growing thousands of tomatoes in a vacant lot or declaring fringes as farmland for eternity. Environmentally, we need gardens that take up space and socially, we naturally hunger to be a part of the production of food. Given, crates and garden boxes can’t feed every soul in the city but if we invest the money in urban horticulture that we’ve invested in commercial agriculture, we’ll find that we can grow plenty more in the patch next door than we do today. In the end we’ll know more about food systems and might just have stronger communities. More adept and more resilient people part of a more complex system that can still fill our collective tummy.


Keen on learning more? Check out the Victorian Eco-innovation Lab’s report ‘Melbourne’s Foodbowl: Now and at 7 Million