Urban food systems and resilience

By jay

Emily Dowding-Smith visited Christchurch to see the new urban food systems emerging alongside the rebuild. Read on to find out more about resilience and urban agriculture.

Following the devastating Christchurch earthquakes, and now four years on from the big one, the city is starting to rebuild itself.  Many novel pop up and creative businesses have emerged, such as the RE-Start mall. We’re also seeing the emergence of a resilient urban food system.

Throughout the city are pop up garden spaces, often temporary as the sites are set to be developed on eventually. This of course leads to uncertainty for gardeners, and often modular systems tend to be the best. On a recent trip to Christchurch I visited Agropolis, right in the heart of the former restaurant area. A great example of local businesses working together is the plan to use food waste from restaurants, collect it and then turned into compost on site, using the Zing Bokashi compost system. That in turn would be used as compost in the gardens.

Neville Burt, from Zing Bokashi, is supportive of the collaborative business approach and hopes to see other businesses nationwide adopt an interconnected approach to business development like this. Neville notes:

“We welcomed the opportunity to partner with Agropolis to assist and support the concept of the Urban Farm. It is important that systems put in place are simple and robust enough to enable these to be transferable to any community.”

He adds that for success in the project “having a ‘buy in’ from participating parties is paramount”.

Walking around the Agropolis garden I felt like I was back in Havana where I undertook my Masters thesis research on seed systems in city gardens. Set amongst cracked buildings and a backdrop of infrastructure from the late ‘50s, the Cuban gardens shine like gems in the grey sand. Colourful marigolds demark the end of rows of raised beds of organic produce, thriving in the warm growing conditions and the produce supplying every barrio (neighbourhood) throughout the country. 

Agropolis and other greening the city pop up installations light up Christchurch in a similar vein. Where cranes mark the sky line and big boys’ toys dig through five storeys of rubble, constantly clearing, demolishing and trying now to rebuild, at a grass roots and ground level, there is a sign of something stronger: resilience in the city.

Throughout history this has been a constant story for urban agriculture. Gardens in the Second World War were survival mechanisms across Europe. Berlin’s allotments saved many a hungry tummy until the wall fell. Cuba’s city gardens were a top down requirement from the central government after the collapse of the Soviet Union led to its oil supply being cut off. There were no petrochemicals available for agricultural use, with supply of fertiliser and petrol for machinery gone overnight. And natural disasters – Haiti’s earthquake, Christchurch’s earthquake – all show us that in times of need gardens grow.

The key is ensuring that in between those times of crisis, or in an absence of crisis, we continually assess and transfer knowledge on gardens, seeds, and growing and making our own food to ensure that generational knowledge or socio-ecological knowledge is not lost. Moreover, what is required is strong direction from governance on the importance of enhancing and maintaining this knowledge.

Inter-generational knowledge sharing on gardens is a good example of this, where elders share gardening time with children. Enviroschools are running great education programmes on gardening for kids. But what is also needed is a city-regional approach to the food system in times of prosperity or out of crisis (such as now) to ensure that we have the knowledge, tools, skills and seeds to ensure that resilience. Stronger council planning on food systems throughout New Zealand is needed, as Christchurch demonstrates.

The Christchurch City Council has launched an impressive programme focused on enhancing city-region food systems through food resilience.  

Tony Moore, Principal Advisory – Sustainability at Christchurch City Council, says the Council has received a huge amount of community support for localising food throughout the city.

“Together with the community, the Council is embarking on an ambitious and exciting action plan to create an edible garden city. It is great to see how fast these ideas and projects can grow,” he says.

“Increasing our food local resilience and making fresh, healthy food readily available for all, is an important part of building a more sustainable and enjoyable city. It is great that localising food is also being driven by the Sustainable Business Network because business partners will be vital to our success. Only by working together, can we achieve our edible city vision.”

In 2015 the Sustainable Business Network will be working with district health boards and local councils to strengthen city-region food systems with a collaborative approach between councils and local businesses. Lessons can be learned from experiences such as Christchurch’s alongside leading initiatives such as Kai Auckland (Auckland Council).  SBN hopes professionals in this field can join together in a national network to learn from and strengthen their local leadership.  Better facilitated public-private partnerships enhance and enable businesses to thrive in the emerging food sector but also require strong planning and direction from councils and local organisations to ensure that the policy foundations support this approach.

Emily Dowding-Smith is Transformation Leader – Restorative at the Sustainable Business Network. You can find out more about our work on Restoring NZ’s Food Systems here. If you’d like to be involved in the project please contact Emily.