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.

Kelmarna Garden in Grey Lynn. Image – Mitch Parsons

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.

Volunteers working at Kelmarna Garden. Image – Mitch Parsons

Climate change

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.

Community gardens, like Sanctuary Mahi Whenua at Unitec, can be places of high biodiversity. Image – Marita Hunt

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.

Aerial view of OMG – Organic Market Garden in Eden Terrace. Image – Brick Content

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.

What’s next?

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.

Volunteers weed garden beds at Sanctuary Mahi Whenua. Image – Marita Hunt
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25 comments

  1. Good article, raises some important questions about our planning systems. Though I don’t think that it does a good job of justifying urban agriculture.

    How much agricultural land is required to feed one person? It must be a lot. If we have suburbs interspersed with market gardens then haven’t we just created a lot of sprawl?

    Who performs the labour of the farming? If it’s paid employees working at small scale then surely this makes the food expensive, excluding poor people from benefiting? If it’s volunteers who are remunerated with food then this surely excludes poor people from participating (because they don’t have the time).

    What about the opportunity cost? All that land could be used for housing instead. Surely this also contributes to the food produced being more expensive than it needs to be.

    Urban agriculture is a very appealing concept… But I have a nagging feeling that it only appeals to me because I have a secure 40-hours-a-week white collar job, no childcare obligations and live in a central city apartment. Can urban agriculture benefit society as a whole or just a privileged few?

    1. Some food needs to be transported, some can be grown locally. The mix of each is about planning.

      To understand the benefits, (no criticism intended) it might be that many New Zealanders need to consciously work to overcome the experience they’ve had living in a country where urban agriculture is under-represented. C40 have reasons for their recommending it. Perhaps get involved in a community garden, or take a course on urban agriculture that draws on international experience.

      Humans are far healthier when they get to experience food-growing in their daily or weekly lives: it can provide them with social connection (eg being a member of a community garden), put food on their table (eg an urban farm they can visit and buy from), or be a place that calms them as they walk or cycle through (many cycle lanes go past allotment gardens in cities overseas).

      When we plan a city for human needs, urban agriculture is a necessary element.

      And like we know about composting and gardening – even if just a pot of herbs on the windowsill – when people have reminders in their daily lives about the natural cycle of life, it helps them make better political decisions.

      We need parks and nature anyway. Having some of them growing food adds significantly to our experience of life; it doesn’t detract by removing that land from our use.

  2. Its probably better to just increase urban density so as to leave as much agricultural land out of our cities as possible. Any open space within our urban areas would be better as publicly accessible parks for recreation. This seems well intentioned but i’m not convinced its anything more than a hobby-horse for hipsters.

    1. Two of the examples in the photos in the post above, Kelmarna and Sanctuary Mahi Whenua, are accessible and valued parts of the open space network in their communities. Kelmarna is a well established training farm, and runs a horticultural therapy programme for people with mental health and disability needs. Sanctuary has a nationally significant collection of rare plants in its food forest and is used as a teaching garden. Both are super valuable assets for the city, and add richness to the parks they’re connected to. But hey, maybe I’m a hipster who likes gardening??

      1. There’s no value in being “accessible” if people don’t know they’re permitted to access those spaces. Both of your examples are fenced and landscaped in ways that make them look like private property.

        1. I think this is the kind of thing we are asking to be addressed in changing the planning rules; by enabling food to be a part of density planning in urban areas (as any living system requires,) small scale farms wouldn’t seem so mysterious or inaccessible. The farms don’t take up much space (dense planting etc) and still feed lots of people. We can’t say what we have now in terms of urban ag is a good system to repeat- it’s hard on growers, and frustrating for communities- but that doesn’t prove there’s *not* a case for urban farming in the city, it just shows we don’t have an enabling process for it to be done effectively.

        2. Public access doesn’t have to mean a “free for all at all hours” It isn’t a standard we currently apply to all of our community facilities. As for Sanctuary Mahi Whenua, my recent walk along the Oakley Creek path certainly made gave me the impression it was a place I could visit, given it was on all the wayfinding signs.

    2. Greater density means more people who have no space for more than a few sad pots on a verandah or a windowsill. There will be people who are fine with that but we can’t design cities just for them. If we are to have a quality urban environment with genuine choices for people living there I would think initiatives like this and space for allotment-type gardening is important. The dismissive “hipster hobby-horse” comment really bothers me as someone actually living in an apartment, simultaneously reading comments from a bunch of people who want more people to live like me but clearly have space of their own to grow things.

      And the “but that kind of thing isn’t equitable for absolutely everybody so we shouldn’t do it” is strange thinking when people’s ages, stages, and interests are different. Just because absolutely everyone isn’t able to participate in something doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be provided for people that would really benefit from it. We don’t go around saying playgrounds are simply a “people with kids” thing and we’d be better off biffing in a few more units.

  3. This resonates with me,as it was part of my childhood,the 1/4 acre section,half of which dedicated to garden,supermarkets weren’t a thing,self sufficiency was the norm. Now reduced to a Vege Pod,very prolific,though.
    The allotment idea in UK,appears quite popular, in Owairaka,admittedly 5+ years ago,a small part of the park was allocated to community vegetable plot. Protecting from vandalism, could be an issue though.
    Modern growing methods,hydroponics, vertical gardening, allow urban space to be very productive,with intensified housing,rather than a community pool,a community garden,makes more sense.
    The garden to table scheme run by some schools,engages the younger generations, so hope for the future.

    1. Community gardens are great but they rely on volunteer time which means they can sometimes only be accessed by people with “spare time” and this can lead to them being equitable/they fall over if volunteers move etc. Urban farms can still function as community spaces, but can pay living wage to farmers, provide teaching and other community building activities while also sequestering carbon and feeding people more efficiently. Win/win!

  4. Mangere still has some market gardens I see one when I ride the 36 bus. But best thing is to grow your own. Last year we saw a clown up in Northland moaning because he couldn’t bring in labour from Malaysia to pick his courgettes. Apparently they work 14 hours per day seven days per week. This year I am growing my own the surplus will be given away. The clown has gone out of business and good job. Always have celery leaks and brocoli they are easy and grow in winter. I even grow carrots in containers using compost and sheep pellets. So you don’t require a lot of space and they taste real good.

    1. Growing your own is good, but urban farms can:
      – have the scale required to be able to save seeds that retain biodiversity, using the equipment that some species need for this. So a community of gardeners in the area can use those locally sourced ecologically-appropriate seeds to grow their crops without having to forsake their entire vege garden to the task.
      – provide workshops and courses to community members by master-gardeners in spaces where the principles can be properly demonstrated over a growing season (something that private gardens are not so well suited for, due to the space requirements and privacy requirements of the rest of the household)
      – provide children with the opportunity to see techniques appropriate to larger scale operations, firsthand, in their daily lives. Instead of it being an abstraction.

      and so much more.

        1. I don’t think it matters if it’s flat, vertical, or hydroponics in your basement! Our planning rules have designated food production as a rural activity. Until that changes, any method of food growing we try (Council and commercial included) is null and void before it gets off the ground (if you’ll excuse the pun.)

        2. There are plenty of youtube videos about vertical gardening from enthusiasts, but in every experiment I’ve been part of – both at home and in the community gardens – the growing has been more successful if the plants’ roots are in the ground. So the successful “vertical” dimension has been provided by trees and vines on structures rather than in the various labour-intensive and attention-demanding pots / pipes / gutters / pockets / pallet structures that we’ve tried in a vertical arrangement.

          Technology can help, of course, but that’s not what this is about. Just as walking on an actual footpath takes up more space than walking on a treadmill, swimming in a river kept clean by wide riparian buffers along its entire length takes up more space than swimming in a concrete swimming pool, and so on, the space involved in growing things in the ground instead of in technologically-enabled structures isn’t boutique.

          It’s part of living in a sustainable society. Now, if we’re going to talk about wasted space, there’s always the parking topic to get onto.

    2. They a fickle things. Last year mine grew like weeds and we had too many. This year they are all stunted and all the leafy stuff has done well instead. I think the answer might be to mix all your seeds together and sprinkle them around at random and assume the winners will use the space where the losers die off. A sort of market forces garden.

  5. A question, perhaps for Charlotte. While I like the idea of urban gardens, I’m less enthusiastic about the prospect of eating the food especially if it has been grown besides a busy road. I know that we no longer have lead in the petrol, but we do have a lot of detritus in the exhaust pipes generally, and it is going to taken at least a couple of decades until all we have is EV vehicles. In the mean time, in places like your picture of Eden Terrace shown above, there is going be an outpouring of toxic waste onto the things growing in the soil nearby – and to be honest, I really don’t want to eat that. Our local council grow ornamental red cabbage and other plants in the local centre-strip[ plantings as well, so while it looks edible, I’m really thinking: “No way do I want to eat that.”

    Your thoughts on the subject?

    1. Good thought, I wonder if we compared the pesticides and herbicides used in commercially grown fruit and vege to this urban garden pollution (car, soil etc).

      Probably end up similar, or if the urban garden is organic, may be less harm in that garden vs supermarket stuff?

      1. Yes. In urban organic gardens there *may* be toxins in the produce. In conventional horticulture you almost certainly *do*.

        The cost of testing the soil for toxins is not too high, but usually out of reach for home gardeners. I know more community gardens where the soil has been tested for toxins than I know home gardens that have.

    2. Fair- I’ve heard that too, about the silverbeet grown in Albert Park (apparently that’s just meant to be ornamental though ;-)) In saying that, Whenua Warrior, an incredible woman who sets up planter box gardens all around South Auckland to grow kai for families, yesterday sent some photos of the boxes she’d planted with veggies along busy Bader Drive for one of our recent projects and they are absolutely thriving! She said she’s seen people getting veggies from them all throughout lockdown as well. I wouldn’t say people are choosing to eat from them because they have to, I have no idea. But veggies in the supermarket tend to be grown using pesticides, trucked in, and I don’t necessarily think they’re much healthier or full of nutrients either. We all make choices based on what is available to us (for example, I live on Queen Street and ride a bike- apparently I’m at the perfect height to inhale the worst of the city’s air pollution, but I’d still rather do it than live further out and get stuck in traffic everyday.) The thing is that at the moment we really only have a few food options to choose from- supermarkets or bougie organic places! So planning to use urban zones for more edible plants could be quite restorative, for city + for us.

  6. Auckland first needs a good Bylaw – Christchurch might have the model for that. Then AUP needs to allow easy use under the Bylaw. Replacing backyard strawberries in Birkdale with backyard bungalows after the Harbour Bridge was built hasn’t worked out too well – no market gardens left to speak of, and still too little housing.
    Treeless, weed-grown back yards waiting for a developer to buy up don’t help much either.
    Community groups supporting high-value cropping, as described in the post, whether in back yards or public or private dedicated (small) space should be effective – although not next to inefficient signal intersections, please. Leave those spaces for pre-school ECC, like we do now 🙁

  7. Great post! Also, zing: “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”. I live in town too and it certainly reflects my walking experience…

  8. Great Post, and i hope that some of the larger residential areas are turned into community gardens, though i wouldn’t recommended that many areas of the older commercial or industrial areas would be safe to convert for reasons stated below.

    However, i think that some of the reason that why you can’t just start commercializing backyards into community gardens very easily comes from national legislation to ensure that all food products sold to the public meet food safety guidelines.

    Another factor is that in the past, a lot of the residential areas near towns were old market gardens and therefore are likely to contain old pesticide residue which are still present in the soils, and in some cases can cause significant issues to human health, and likely several areas haven’t been tested to determine the risk….

    I remember that in Christchurch they found an area where people were constantly sick from their vegetables, and found that they had been overlying an old timber yard… Alot of soil had to be replaced and disposed in a Hazardous Waste Landfill.

    It’s something that my company finds out generally completing soil analysis with older homes, and often we find it when we are looking for other issues such as asbestos and lead paint traces.

    Cost for the testing is relatively cheap, but seen as expensive to someone who doesn’t know how to read the results, or find out the information regarding it. What costs is the time for an environmental scientist who has to write up the report and also review the various guidelines which relate to the proposed use.

  9. This is a fantastic article!! I’ve been wanting to write on this for a while myself and you’ve just nailed it!!

    An addition: in rebuilding London post WW2, the higher density infill distanced people from the ability to access land space for growing food. Considered an act of deliberately creating inequity to food resource, the ‘allotments act’ was then amended to require (and empower) councils to aquire land for the purpose of allotments (allotments being basically a rentable garden, in a lot, decoupled from housing), at a rate triggered by development.
    This is something that would be great to have as part of the RMA and enabling med density legislation as support for creating complete and resilient communities.
    No need to reinvent the wheel, but certainly smart to learn from others trailblazing.

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