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Meeting helps Leichhardt develop community garden policy

A hot, sultry and sticky night didn’t deter 45 enthusiastic people from filling the turn-of-the-century cavern that is Leichhardt Town Hall on a Monday night in late January 2011. From Leichhardt they came, some from Bondi and Ashfield and even far Avalon, journeying all this way to participate in Leichhardt Council’s public consultation.

The man bringing all of these people together was Aaron Callaghan, Council’s Senior Parks and Open Space Planner, a New Zealander living in Sydney, via the UK. With him were four other Council staff.  And the purpose of this gathering this summer evening? To harvest ideas to further develop Council’s draft policy on community gardens.

To facilitate this process Aaron had arranged for Fiona Campbell, from the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network, and myself to lead the session. Like all good consultations, food was on offer and supper was later provided as a break in proceedings… opportunity to feed the body and refresh the mind.

Planning the event

Events like this require prior discussion with organisers and a brief for facilitators on what they are to do, and in the days before the event we negotiated with council staff so that, at the end of the event, participants would be able to:

  • outline the scope for new community gardens in Leichhardt LGA (Local Government Area); Process: presentation by Aaron
  • outline the history of community gardening in the LGA; Process: presentation by Glovers and White Street community gardeners (existing community gardens in the local government area)
  • list the benefits of community gardens; Process: Russ and Fiona
  • describe different approaches by which community gardens have been established and managed; Process: Russ and Fiona.

As part of this planning process, outcomes were planned that included the collection of information for inclusion into the draft policy. Specifically, participants would be able to outline:

  • the role of community gardeners and local government in the planned policy
  • the process of implementation the policy
  • what gardeners would do when they first approach council regarding setting up a garden
  • site identification, budgetary constraints and group organisation
  • what information would need to be collated for a more formal application process and what that process would be
  • what sort of information would council need to acquire about the gardeners’ state of organisation and about the proposed garden design
  • what might be some of the community concerns that proposed gardeners would need to address.

On into the event

Rather than boring, schoolroom-like rows, the room was laid out in tables each with seven or so people clustered at them.

Tall and dressed in a conservative, neat suit, Leichhardt Mayor Jamie Parker (The Greens) welcomed all and said supportive words before leaving for another meeting. Aaron then outlined the purpose of the night and what we hoped to achieve, then we did a round robin where people introduced themselves and gave one reason why they came along. Limiting introduction to this kept the them short and snappy, as some people like to tell their life story in such circumstances. The purpose of this was to create a relaxed atmosphere and for people to feel safe to contribute their ideas.

The first part of the night was designed to introduce who was there, to provide information about Council’s community garden policy and to familiarise people with community garden practice elsewhere. Aaron explained the flow for the night and the scope for new gardens in the LGA. Fiona then asked Glovers and Whites Creek community gardeners to talk about the history of community gardening in Leichhardt, as they had experienced it. I then took people through a photo show of community gardens as a means of introducing the benefits of the practice and the different ways in which community gardens work. We have found this beneficial in other processes like this one, as  a means to introduce the diversity of forms, models and approaches that make up community gardening in Australia.

Then —a break for food… and the room filled with the hum of people talking. This was not a common, garden variety break. It was a change to relax after being presented with new information and it was also a networking opportunity, a chance for people to talk with those they do not know. For effective community gardening, networking is something of an essential activity.

Into the cafe

It’s always difficult to bring people back to the main proceedings from a break, but eventually the murmur of voices subsided as we started a World Café process to get at the core of the evening’s work – defining ideas for possible inclusion in the community gardening policy.

A theme was allocated to each table and people brainstormed ideas around it. As usual in this process, people became deeply engaged in deliberation and the 10 minutes given to each table soon sped by. Then, it was move to another table in a process that was repeated a number of times, one person staying at the tables at each change to fill in the new participants on what had been discussed. The process saw teams successively building on what previous teams had produced.

Each table was provided with a focus question on a sheet of flip chart paper and was provided with market pens. The table topics or focus questions were organised around the types of information that would be of use to Council in formulating its policy. Included were:

  1. Community gardeners and Council: How can gardeners partner with council? What is the roll of community garden groups in enabling a community garden policy? How can Council partner with community garden groups? What is the roll of council in enabling a policy?
  2. First steps: How might gardeners to communicate to council that they are interested in starting a community garden? What steps would Council take to assess the feasibility of a community groups proposal before inviting the group to follow a more formal application process?
  3. Information and group credibility: Once a site is identified and council has invite a group to apply to garden the site, what information would a group need to compile about the way they organise themselves so as to show that they are capable of responsibly managing community open space? This creates a sense of group credibility (or otherwise) with council and helps Council decide whether the group is ready to be trusted with the management of an area of public land.
  4. Next steps: Once a site is identified and Council has invited a group to apply to garden the site, what information would a group need to provide about the design proposal? How would a design be developed?

By this time the flip chart pages were full of colourful mind maps, sort of a download of the collective intelligence of the room. Now it was time for a little prioritisation… for selecting the most important and timely of that wealth of ideas now on the tables. That was done by polling. Working in pairs on each sheet in turn, participants placed two sticky stars against what they considered the most important points they would have Council put into the policy.

Just as Dave Allen says about his Getting Things Done approach to working smart, there are two critical, broad questions operating in a process like this: What do we want to achieve? What’s the next step? Consequently, you never tie up a process like this without fully addressing those questions, and, with the whole group, it was on to this task as the final activity for the evening, the task that pointed at the future for the process.

One thing I stressed to participants, one thing I always stress in consultations like this was that they play a pioneering role in participating with council in developing this policy. Community gardening is something new to local government and, because of this, community garden groups need to apply a little patience with their council and to offer to assist it in developing processes to facilitate community gardening in a responsible manner. And that’s just what this gathering had done.

So, in the not distant future we can anticipate Leichhardt Council joining those other local government innovators that, with the active and enthusiastic co-operation of citizens, have adopted policies to make public food production possible on public land in their local government area.

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