This is a guest post by Charlotte Billing. Charlotte is a place strategist at Place Creative.
In Aotearoa there’s little urban agriculture, even though people are excited by the concept of urban farms. Mayor Phil Goff this week released an ambitious Climate Action package that specifically champions more māra kai in the city. And, the C40 network, of which Auckland is a member, recommends “cities oversee urban land use for local production and […] encourage more local production”. But in spite of the momentum of this growing public mandate, urban agriculture has struggled to gain a foothold anywhere.
Why is this? Is it a lack of available land or labour? Or is it something else?
New research has just been published that gives some answers; that our planning regulations are the major barrier. Planning the urban foodscape: policy and regulation of urban agriculture in Aotearoa New Zealand comes out of Te Kura Aronui – School of Social Sciences at The University of Waikato, Kirikiriroa, from researchers Christina Hanna and Pip Wallace. They assessed urban farms and market gardens in Aotearoa’s most populous cities, and the resource management policies that govern them.
Their research found that there is no clear pathway to urban farming or urban agriculture in any of the cities they assessed, because the definition for such an activity doesn’t exist in our legislation.
Hanna and Wallace explain that food production has been divorced from urban planning, and it is treated as a commercial activity that needs to be managed at a large scale. Because of this, any activities related to agriculture are relegated to the city fringe or rural zones. Even the smallest scale of food production for commercial purposes is outlawed in our housing and residential zones: meaning, you can’t grow veggies in your own backyard to sell to your neighbours without a resource consent. Which is, in my opinion, bananas.
This research is timely, for a few reasons.
Covid-19 and the supermarket monopolies
Hanna and Wallace explain that due to the lockdowns of the last two years, people’s trust in supermarkets as their main source of food has become even more deeply entrenched. Supermarkets continued to deliver an uninterrupted supply of food, therefore people come to believe that they must be the best system for accessing food.
For local producers and small-scale sellers, the 2020 Level 4 lockdown left them unsure if they were able to operate. Many had to stop production until the levels changed. It was a missed opportunity: with people being encouraged to stay local and limit their movements, the benefits of having market gardeners in every suburb seems obvious.
Climate change is going to affect our food system in predictable and unpredictable ways. Regenerative, organic, local-scale farming methods have been used for thousands of years to sustain soil and communities all at the same time, but require polycropping (growing more than one crop species in the same space, to mimic the diversity of natural ecosystems) and other techniques that don’t suit the large-scale industrialised food system that has come to produce most of what we eat today.
Decentralised food systems can keep production and waste management local, minimise carbon used in transport, and sequester carbon from the atmosphere, all while providing communities with nutrient-dense food. These benefits are lacking in the food available from large supermarket chains. Communities who don’t have the luxury to choose not to buy from big supermarkets tend to be poorer and more marginalised, and they are also the ones who are going to be hit the hardest by climate change.
The local challenge
The study is also relevant at a local level: earlier this year I led some research about urban farming in the Waitematā Local Board area. We produced a high-level feasibility study for the Local Board, who are looking for a site for another urban farm in the city centre.
We found, however, that Council will have to follow a complex and uncertain planning process in order to start a farm in the city. The legislative and regulatory components involved in changing the use of council-owned land into an urban farm (one that can sustain wages by selling food) was going to be a hugely expensive undertaking. But the main problem with this process is that there isn’t one.
Our recommendation was that, instead of trying to establish a new farm, the WLB should invest in legal expertise that could help unravel the regulatory and compliance components, and then, with urban farming experts, establish a leasing or licensing process for anyone wanting to do urban farming.
It was undoubtedly disappointing for the local board to hear that a lot of groundwork needs to be done before the local community can see a park converted into a farm. But the study was a useful one because it identified the systemic problem: all projects like this are clearly going to face the same battles.
Who’s got the mandate?
Even though Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri: Auckland’s Climate Plan specifically states urban agriculture is part of its key move around food, there’s no legal mandate to make it happen.
It’s a bit like the NO PARKING signs in shared spaces in downtown Auckland: they are of little use unless AT decides to enforce them. The sign is to parking what our climate plan is to urban farming. A half-hearted attempt to solve a problem for which more deliberate and transformative action is needed. Hanna and Wallace point out that Christchurch is the only city to have bylaws that allow for market gardening, as a result of an urgent change-up of its zoning after the 2011 earthquake. Backyard urban farm Crofty’s Crops, and the larger market garden Cultivate Christchurch, are some of the practices being enabled in the city as a result of the rules being updated for residential zones to include commercial horticulture.
In Auckland, the expensive and uncertain resource consent process is out-of-reach for many community groups seeking to establish an urban farm. Because there is no guidance from Council or Government around the issue, there is what the researchers call a “policy vacuum,” where because it’s not being planned for, unregulated urban farming isn’t able to make the impact it could.
This new research shows how Aotearoa has a big food-shaped gap in its urban planning. I’d love to see this problem go open-source, and a brief handed back to Councils about the legislative changes they should be advocating for, in order to use green space more efficiently and equitably in a city that urgently needs to evolve its relationship to food and land.