Renew Newcastle’s Green Spaces

Most people are familiar with Renew Newcastle’s game changing project of negotiating the use of disused and vacant buildings in the city CBD for artists, cultural projects and community groups. The concept has not only brought colour and movement to Newcastle’s centre, but other cities around the country(and beyond) have picked up the template to great success.

A group in Melbourne known as 3000 Acres are essentially doing the same thing for the outside spaces and gardeners as Renew is doing for artists indoors – taking weedy vacant lots and offering them to local communities for food growing.

The idea came to founder Kate Dundas after seeing first hand the green space liberation work by ‘593 acres’ in New York City. By turning city data into information about particular pieces of land, the organisation connects people who are interested in vacant lots in their neighbourhood to one another through social networking, and help clear hurdles to access the land. The result –acres of orphaned scraps of property turned into gardens, performance spaces, and community hubs.

It’s one of those concepts that reminded me with a smile of the English comedy The Good Life – suburban farmers in dungarees pushing wheelbarrows of soil down busy streets, while chooks cackle in the background and neighbours look on bemused. I immediately loved it.

Last week I met with3000 Acres Executive Director Michael Hands down the road from where a dozen garden wicking beds stand in stark contrast to the gritty Jewell station entrance they border.

“We’re essentially a bridge between people who want to grow food, local councils, developers, and other organisations who hold the keys to vacant land,” says Hands.

The keys have already been handed over to dozens of community farmers since the start of the project almost two years ago, as well as funding secured from multiple councils and Vic Health.

“The streetscape has enormous capacity to sustain large cropping - urban agriculture could form significant part of our fresh food equation. There’s not much research done yet, but it’s definitely an emerging area,” he says.

As well as providing fresh food, Hands acknowledges that it’s as much about creating a more pleasant living environmentใ

“People long for gardens that offer a bit of respite from the urban chaos.”

“We’re only getting more built up and urban food solutions could form an important counter to that.”

On a balmy Melbourne evening I accept Michael’s invitation to the Saxon Street community garden where a dozen volunteers are gathering for a Christmas party. Long-term supporter Ellie Blackwood is busy laying out freshly picked flowers and food on a wide timber table under a spreading liquidambar.

“I like being part of something that has set its goals really high, and that’s not just advocacy but is out there and getting its hands dirty.”

“It’s about food growing and sustainability and community, and that combination is awesome.”

Settling in with a glass ofMornington Peninsula red, I survey the picture of community action in front me, and raise my glass in a private toast.