Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Protecting public land: why we’re refurbishing the community gardens at the Collingwood Children’s Farm

Posted on behalf of Dr. Chris Williams, a plot holder at the Collingwood Children’s Farm Community Garden, member of the (voluntary) Committee of Management for Collingwood Children’s Farm and Lecturer in Urban Horticulture, School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, The University of Melbourne.



The Collingwood Children’s Farm is nestled on the banks of the Birrarung, and close to the heart of many Melbournians. Many people have treasured memories at the Farm of milking a cow, admiring a peacock, or saying their wedding vows under the old Oak. Some have also had the opportunity to tend a plot in the Community Garden, a space which was recently temporarily closed while safety issues are addressed.


There have been some strident voices recently protesting the temporary closure of the Community Garden at the Collingwood Children's Farm, and spreading misinformation to undermine the Farm’s Committee of Management. This was to be expected when someone loses something that they feel they were entitled to, but it's not the whole story.

Technically, the Farm is a Crown Land Reserve managed by volunteers on a Committee of Management (COMs). The COM volunteers are elected by the Farm (as an Incorporated Association) but formally appointed by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. There are 1500 Crown Land Reserve COMs across Victoria managing over 100,000 hectares of public land for recreation, nature conservation and other public benefits. The Farm is also an Incorporated Association and not-for-profit organisation. The Farm's mission (which covers all the features and assets of its 20 acre landscape including the Community Gardens) is to "improve the lives of children, the disadvantaged, disabled, unemployed and marginalised persons within the Victorian community by providing inclusive services and support to build independence and quality of life for Children and Disadvantaged Persons by delivering a range of programs from a community working farm."

Government grants cover less than a quarter of Farm operating expenses. To achieve its mission the Farm seeks to charge those who can pay to subsidise those that cannot. Although seen by many as a great place to take the family to experience nature, animals and farming, the Farm exists to run various no cost programs to engage a cohort that experience adversity including children, young people and adults who may live with disability; experience mental illness; are survivors of family violence; are at risk of disengagement or are disengaged from the education system, or have experienced the youth justice system. Literally thousands of people’s lives are enriched by the Farm.

One portion of the Farm has been used as a Community Garden for the past 42 years. Before that, this land was farmed by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd (an order of the Catholic Church), and before that the land was cultivated for thousands of years by the Wurrundjeri Woi Wurrung people, who still have their head offices nearby.

The responsibilities of the Committee have developed over the life of the Farm, and the community has also dramatically changed with many more people living in apartments, without private gardens and significantly reduced access to open space. While the Community Garden has been constant over the past 42 years, the expectations for what it, and the Farm broadly, deliver has changed significantly. This is not to downplay the love the current gardeners have for the space, the soil they have cultivated, the plants they grow and the friendships they have formed. This is well understood, and the Farm has consistently said that the Community Garden will remain a space for Community Gardening, but the nature of community has changed, and the models for urban agriculture have also radically shifted.

Our understanding of accessibility has also grown over this time, and paths that are uneven and narrow and that exclude those with mobility constraints are no longer acceptable for a public institution. Similarly, the legal responsibility for the Committee to provide a safe space for visitors and staff alike is not negotiable. In the past, Community Gardeners have built retaining walls, or other structures with the best of intentions, but without proper skills and tools such that these walls are now collapsing, many structures are sharp and rusting, and it is the Farm that is left with the responsibility of addressing these concerns.

The Community Garden at the Farm is made up of 48 individual plots that Gardeners pay $105 annually for the privilege of gardening (less for concession) and the site has been considered so inaccessible for a number of years, that the Farm no longer brings groups of children or people with disabilities through, to be inspired by home style gardening. Put simply, Farm members have been subsidising the Community Garden, while being locked out themselves, for years.
 

The Farm has been working with a group of Garden representatives over the last three years to make the space more accessible, more equitable and more safe. As part of this process, the Committee recently called for an independent expert safety report to better understand what the issues were, and what response was required. Put simply, the report stated that significant works were needed to address the safety concerns, and anyone implying that this could be done over a Sunday working bee does not have a genuine appreciation of the safety issues and is trivialising them in a misleading manner. The Farm is a workplace and the Committee have a duty under Victoria’s workplace health and safety laws to provide a safe workplace for staff, the visiting public and the broader community.

The safety report was received on the same day Victoria was plunged into another lockdown. This meant a lot of change and frustration for everyone to deal with at once. The Farm itself was also experiencing the lockdown and closed to the public again, while trying to determine the best way, not only to break the news of the safety concerns and temporary closure of the Community Garden, but put in place some measures to soften the blow. Within a few days an online meeting was called with the Community Gardeners outlining the safety concerns triggering the temporary closure of the Community Garden and the commitment to reopening the Garden when it was safe and accessible, with the current gardeners being informed that they would be amongst the first welcomed back. The Farm has also arranged for pots and soil so that gardeners can dig up their plants and harvest their produce. This must be done in a considered manner. Reimbursements of annual plot fees are being processed and the Farm is keen to provide opportunities for Gardeners to return to other parts of the Farm to maintain connection and continue the practice of gardening. The Farm recognises that some of the plots help gardeners stay food secure; we’re offering these gardeners in particular the chance to volunteer at the Farm’s market garden in return for freshly grown produce.

There have been many misleading reports about the site being bulldozed for apartments and likening the Committee of Management to greedy landlords. Put simply, none of this is true: the community gardens sit is in a flood zone so no construction is allowed. We are a a not for profit organisation committed to keeping this site for community gardening and urban agriculture. Other false claims have been made about the Farm losing all its animals. The reality is that there are over 140 animals from over 11 species at the farm. This is an optimal number given the Farm’s small size and allows pasture to rejuvenate between grazing periods. Other misleading claims have been made about the temporary structures, wire trellises and old fences in the community gardens. The claim is that these are in some way heritage listed. This is not the case. The history and tradition of community gardening is of great cultural and social significance but the layout and structures have no formal heritage protection. All these misleading claims are extremely damaging and distract the Farm’s staff from their primary purpose of helping disadvantaged members of the community.

In spite of the recent vocal protest, we have also heard from the quiet voices. The people asking the Farm directly why a plot has been monopolised by a single family for 20 years when the waitlist has continued to grow; why some current gardeners were allowed to 'inherit' their plot from their relatives rather than the vacated plot being offered to the next in line on the waitlist; why

some gardeners who no longer live locally, have kept their plot; why professionals earning considerable salaries, with their own home gardens keep plots when others who rent and live in apartments don’t have access; and why the Farm is subsidising individuals who then retain effectively privatised plots for no public benefit. These questions raise the issue of equity, and how the governance of the space must focus on fair access and generating public good. The safety concerns have acted as a catalyst for this bigger piece, and now the space needs to be understood holistically so that the landscape architects can respond to a brief that satisfies the range of stakeholders.

Many Community Gardeners understand that the land is public land to be used for public good and treat the use of a garden plot as a privilege to be cherished. Others unfortunately are seeking to shut out the community and utilising the inaccessibility of the site and misleading comments on various media platforms to keep this land for themselves. The farm is not taking the land away from the Community Gardeners, but ensuring the Community Garden on this public land is used safely, fairly and productively for the benefit of the gardeners of the community, not just the lucky few.

For perspective and inspiration we might look to two local Community Gardens. Railway Garden in North Carlton is not only safe and accessible, but open for the public to visit at any time, to enjoy the eclectic display of seasonal crops, take a seat at the picnic table, and engage in conversation around food production. At Wilsmere Station Community Garden in Kew the paths are wide, there are wheelchair accessible garden beds, a communal herb patch, and the gates are intentionally unlocked. Over at FareShare in Abbotsford, volunteers come together to garden and socialise, and the fruit (or vegetable) of their labour is donated to people in need. Over at West Brunswick Community Garden a mixture of private and communal plots exists, where people come together to garden side by side. At CERES they are similarly addressing accessibility and safety in their community garden allotments.

A quick benchmarking exercise reveals that the Farm's Community Garden plots, at 20m2 is at least double the size of most community garden plots in Yarra and surrounding suburbs. At approximately $5/m2, the Farm annual fee is at least half the price of other similar and nearby gardens. At 2800m2 the total area of the Farm Community Garden takes up almost twice the area of most community gardens in Yarra but currently services less than half the number of gardeners. Let’s be clear: this is not a cash snatching exercise by the Farm, but a commitment to properly valuing the access to public land, currently used only by a select few. When the Farm has 150,000 people engaging with the site annually, giving only 40 or so individuals exclusive access to the Community Gardens is unbalanced and inequitable.

In addressing the safety concerns of the Community Garden we have unearthed a range of other access and equity concerns to which the Farm must now turn its attention. The project must be properly scoped, with input from a range of stakeholders, so that the rebuilt Community Gardens delivers the best outcome for the greatest breadth of the community. This will involve an appropriate consultation, design and construction process - not to mention fundraising.

There are no secret plans for the Community Garden. The focus is on public engagement with the broader community to better understand how this site will facilitate a connection for food growers from a range of backgrounds, a transfer of knowledge between gardeners, value the history and heritage of the area, and promote a connection with open spaces. This vision will come through over the coming months, and people who are interested in learning more about this process and contributing ideas for the new Community Garden can do so here.

The Farm is committed to re-opening the Community Gardens with appropriate consultation in a manner that is safe, open and accessible to many, not just a select few and calls for those people who are making or amplifying misleading statements to cease. The fight for the Community Gardens has been caricatured in recent media as a land grab. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Farm’s Committee of Management seeks to ensure that this public land is used not exclusively by a select few, but for the benefit of the broader community. And we seek your input and help.

Please write to us at committee@collingwoodfarm.org.au to offer your support and let us know if we can use your email as an anonymous testimonial on our website.

Please also feel free to copy into your email the following local and state politicians so they know we have broad community support:
adam.bandt.mp@aph.gov.au 
Stephen.jolly@yarracity.vic.gov.au 
Edward.Crossland@yarracity.vic.gov.au
richard.wynne@parliament.vic.gov.au
Amanda.Stone@yarracity.vic.gov.au
lily.dambrosio@parliament.vic.gov.au
Gabrielle.deVietri@yarracity.vic.gov.au
Claudia.Nguyen@yarracity.vic.gov.au
Sophie.Wade@yarracity.vic.gov.au
Bridgid.Obrien@yarracity.vic.gov.au
Herschel.Landes@yarracity.vic.gov.au

Thank you so much!
Collingwood Children’s Farm Committee of Management



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...