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Thursday, 13 March 2008

Discuss: growing food in cities, and using the internet to learn how

During the course of my work this week I had reason to visit a school in north-eastern New South Wales. That region has a reputation for attracting and fostering people with "alternative" views and values, particularly in regard to environmental protection and sustainable living. So it was that one of the teachers, knowing beforehand that I publish this blog, introduced me to a student who has a keen interest in permaculture and who is also active in a group centred around the Transition Towns concept (see link in my "highly recommended" sidebar).

Now, not that this blog has a huge world-wide audience or anything, I would like to give that student the opportunity to remain anonymous but at the same time see if I can't get a bit of discussion going here around a couple of the ideas that have come to mind as a result of our meeting.

I put that TT link over there ages ago and haven't looked at their site in months. I think they're clearly world leaders, forging a path to the future. What I'm not so sure about is how to make that path into a highway wide enough to take the cities along with the towns. I should revisit their site and see if there's been any progress on that subject.

One of the obvious things (to me) is that people in cities will need to grow food for themselves and their immediate community. More than that, they'll need to do so sustainably, recycling nutrients in efficient closed loops and doing it all with an absolute minimum of external energy inputs. In other words we need permaculture cities. Unfortunately the vast majority of city dwellers know nothing about growing anything.

Take me as an example: I have a borrowed copy of the 2nd edition of "Introduction to Permaculture" and recently bought the Digger's Club's "Australian Fruit & Vegetable Garden". I've been experimenting in the back yard for the past year or so, but so far have very little to show (or eat) as a result.

So, you thus-far anonymous student, if you're looking for school project ideas that combine IT with permaculture, you might consider starting an online library of training/instructional podcasts or other resources to help city folk like me with no horticultural knowledge transform our backyards and balconies into productive, sustainable food gardens. Seriously - was there ever a period in history prior to the present day where an entire generation of a civilisation had no idea how to grow their own food? We need that knowledge back again, and the internet provides a platform unlike anything else in human history for the distribution of knowledge.

The internet might well be our best defence against falling into another dark age as oil production falls. We stand to lose a great deal of our personal mobility. It just won't be feasible for people like me to travel hundreds of kilometers in a single day just to provide some brief specialist service. But if we can maintain and build on our communications infrastructure and the library of publicly-accessible knowledge then the physical isolation won't necessarily be a barrier to skills and ideas.

What I would like to do now is to invite you all to hit the comments and have a bit of a discussion about those two ideas and their intersection. Will city people need to grow their own food in the future? Can the internet be used effectively to deliver training in the essential garden skills and design principles? If you're a city person, what kind of online resources do you think would help you? If you're a gardening guru, how could you best capture and share what you have learned?


Ian said...

Another resource for developing growing skills in cities is the community garden. There are plenty around Queensland including some that are well established and close to the city centre.

Crazy Mumma said...

Like Ian, I think community gardens are the way to go. I don't have one close by to me unfortunately so I personally, would love to see podcasts and/or videos set up for Australian gardeners, the same way as they have in the UK (such as the Alternative Kitchen Garden podcasts). Books just don't do it for me, they are a great starting point, but a segment on Gardening Australia beats anything I've read hands down.

TB said...

Community gardens are wonderful and I would love to see many more of them. The problem is they need a particularly skilled and dedicated core group to get them established and to maintain them successfully.

That's where I see the advantage of the internet: it dramatically multiplies the audience who can learn from one skilled person's knowledge, and in the form of on-demand materials it gets around the barriers of time and scheduling.

Julie, your point about books not doing it for you is also very relevant, especially for young people who I suspect are much more likely to "tune in" to a podcast than to learn effectively from paper.

Gardening Australia is also great but what I have in mind is more like a curriculum and less like weekly infotainment. I will definitely check out the Alternative Kitchen Garden podcasts you mentioned.

Thanks for your input!

Eloise Dunwell said...

Yes, community gardens are good, but the fact remains that a community garden will not - in the face of an emergency, supply a whole city with food. It is a good starter point in fact I went to a post carbon food conference in Lismore on saturday and and was sitting next to a member of the city council, who was attending in order to develop her idea for supporting a community garden. She said the project was part of a "protecting cities against climate change" program.
Perhaps they aren't the exact words, and I can't find any corresponding website, only the minutes of their meeting which didn't include the phrase... but I think they were the gist of her words. My input to her was to keep it organic, using local hybrid seeds, and to have a section as a nursery for those wanting to bring small plants home. My opinion is that a structure for a community garden is very probably available on the net already, I visited CERES in melbourne and they are highly successful on a permaculture based community garden. But what seems to be lacking is yes, an instructional process for home gardens. I've been passionate about creating something similar to this, and have been researching bit by bit subjects on this matter... The most inspiring things I have encountered thus far are a) Permaculture Design Course. b) ‘Sustainable Settlements’
Contemporary International Examples
Presented by Gabi Bohnet ( a powerpoint showing suburban towns and cities drenched in greenery including balconies and rooftops. ) c) Jude Fantons talk on local hybrid seeds.

I would love to make it a project to create a blog to gather this information together. Just looking now to see if any one else is on the same track (highly likely ) I have seven other tabs from the google search "suburb permaculture." I'll look at these, ask eliot about making more than one iweb project, and get back to you


Gavin said...

Hi Terry, well said. I have been producing my own food for about a year now, and not only does it partially feed my family, but it gives me immense satisfaction to know that when the crunch comes, my family and I will be able to provide for ourselves. Catch my exploits at my blog. I learnt a lot from the internet, and by reading many, many books from the local library.

- Gavin