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A city farm, twenty years in the making

YOU CAN BLAME CERES in Melbourne. The environmental park has inspired teams in the different cities to replicate it and Sydney is now on its fourth attempt.

Even before a group of us got as far as being offered land for a CERES replication (it fell through because it was subject of a legal squabble between state and local government) in the late 1990s, a team had attenpted to create what they called Sydney City Farm in Sydney Park. That was around 1990 and it crashed because South Sydney Council decided not to support its application for accessing a portion of the park.

The third attempt was more successful. Macarthur Centre for Sustainable Living was constructed on Royal Botanic Gardens land near Camden, in the far south-west of the metropolitan area. That started with community participation, courses and popular workshops and a strong volunteer contingent. Then something happened, educational staff left and the enterprise seems to be continuing at a lower level of activity.

Now, what’s been around has once again come around and the Sydney City Farm name has been reincarnated to describe a new vision for a city farm/sustainability education initiative.

The original vision was to place it in the Callan Parklands in Rozelle, in the city’s Inner West, but the political wrangling over the future of the parklands cause the City Farm crew to look further afield. The generous offer by the City of Sydney to fund a $50,000 feasibility study of the City Farm led to the public consultations of mid-2010. The consultants are to report their findings to council some time in November this year.

I have attended all of the consultations and have found the level of public interest encouraging. The meetings, facilitated by the City of Sydney and the consultants, were developed to harvest information and to help identify a site for the City Farm from among the four available. As if to resurrect history, Sydney Park is one of these.

What has been missing?

When you have been around this stuff for some time, you notice what consultants leave out. Let’s be fair, though — they have been thrust into a project that may be different to their usual range of work and, like anyone in similar circumstances, their search for information, their research, will have gaps in it. It is these that the public consultation was designed to fill, among other things.

What was missing?

First, the consultant gave no indication at the consultations that they had come across some of the initiatives similar to what the City Farm might be:

  • Macarthur Centre for Sustainable Living
  • Kooragang City Farm
  • the previous attempts to start a city farm/sustainability education centre on the CERES model in Sydney
  • Permaculure Education Zone‘s moves to set up a city farm in Adelaide
  • Brisbane’s  Beelarong Community  Farm
  • Port Phillip Ecocentre.

They had not come across the publication, A Travellers Guide to Ecocentres, which reports how some of the city farm/sustainability education centres had been established. It’s more or less a manual for establishing such enterprises.

As I said, this is understandable and the itemisation above is not a criticism. Little is to be gained from that. Rather, more is to be gained from what the consultants have done well, and that’s harvesting the knowledge of those participating in the consultations.

How relevant is the interstate model?

How relevant to Sydney is the experience in setting up city farms and the like in the other states?

The model that works well in Melbourne and Brisbane (Northey Street City Farm) is that of the city farm as a regional focus. Those farms are not just local attractants. They attract people from the wider metropolitan area.

Sydney, as we all know, is a little different. It is a city fractured by nature. A concoction of harbours, inlets, ridges, river valleys, plains, uplands and similar geographical features chop the city into bits. Then there is the strong regionalism of the city — the Eastern Suburbs, inner city, south west, north west, the shire (southern suburbs), western suburbs, North Shore (itself fractured into upper and lower) and the Northern Beaches. It is with these that people identify.

What this brings into question is the whether a city arm would success as a metropolitan attractant. would people travel far and wide to attend events there?

There’s something else behind this question too, and there’s enough of it now for it to constitute a trend towards the development of smaller, regional city farm/sustainability education centres rather than towards some larger, more central focus.

For example, the City of Sydney in partnership with Marrickville Council sponsors The Watershed, a sustainability education centre conveniently located in busy King Street, Newtown. That’s like having a centre on Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, or Boundary Street, West End.

Then there’s the Randwick Sustainability Hub, the remake of Randwick Community Centre to make it water and energy efficient, to set up the PIG — Permaculture Interpretive Garden — and to use the facility for Council’s Sustainable Gardening and Living Smart courses, and the annual Ecoliving Fair, among other things. The hub will become an education centre for the public and schools. It is already a Sydney Food Connect City Cousin, where members of the community supported agriculture initiative collect their weekly boxes of locally grown, fresh foods.

Add to this the tender recently called for a food garden and sustainability education hub for Blacktown Council, and the comment by North Sydney Council that one of their community gardens could become a sustainability hub, and you have a decentralisation of what is a more centralised focus in other cities.

If this really is a trend towards regional, smaller city farm-type sustainability education enterprises, then the model evolving in Sydney is somethat different to that of other cities. The implications for the Sydney City Farm deserve careful consideration.

Also pertinent is that some of the ideas floated for the City Farm are already done by other organisations. Outreach to community gardens, for example, has been done by Eastern Suburbs community gardens and something similar may happen in Marrickville for its local gardens. There’s the Sydney Community Gardens Network which already links metropolitan community gardens in periodic gatherings and with an email discussion list.

The viability of community education

If the City Farm were to develop like CERES and offer courses and workshops on a fee basis, that would have to be done in the context of such training already being offered by local government for no cost.

Marrickville, City of Sydney, Randwick, Waverley and Woollahra are some of the councils presently offering free courses and workshops to the public. In the case of Randwick, their offerings are already attended by people who live within what would be the City Farm’s social catchment.

A business plan for the City Farm would have to take this into account when it considers economic feasibility.

A different model?

If the observations about the regionalisation of sustainability education and city farm-type operations really constitutes a trend, would Sydney City Farm be better off becoming something less ambitious and assuming this more localised role? That might be viable because the inner urban/Inner West region is population dense and that population is a well educated one, the sort of people likely to be attracted to the offerings of the City Farm.

Much depends upon the business plan developed for the Sydney City Farm, if the consultant recommends the project as feasible. This will determine the practicality of a cafe and small scale commercial enterprises mooted for the Farm.

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