Sharing backyard gardens; turning neighbourhoods into agrihoods with food for everyone


    By Dominique Hes (with input from Jane Toner)

    Our home gardens hold the promise of peace and rest from the hectic pace of modern life, and maybe, if the sun, wind and rains align, the satisfaction of fresh home-grown food. Many of us love our gardens yet might look out over them with a heavy feeling of not having enough time to tend them. Some people pay for gardeners, others pay their kids, and some resort to concreting the lot, but most of us end up caring for our patch on our own – peaceful but alone.

    What if there is a different way, a way we can all enjoy our gardens, share the work, and build a stronger, more resilient community? 

    David Holmgren in RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future, paints a picture where fences are pulled down, gardens merge and people work together to cultivate food. David, the co-originator of the permaculture movement, calls this approach ‘unifying gardens’. 

    A new development proposed in North Queensland has adopted this idea, referred to in a recent ABC article as an ‘Agrihood’, an agricultural neighbourhood that merges food production and housing. This concept is booming in the United States, with the article noting that over 200 agrihoods have been established, particularly as new developments.

    Closer to home, we have a thriving agrihood at The Paddock in Castlemaine. This 26-home development has been designed and built to allow enough space for all homes to have a small private garden. Additionally, residents share a spacious common area featuring a greenhouse, make-it shed, chicken run, orchard, and vegetable plots. All of this works together to create a sense of belonging, security, and the benefits of a village. 

    This vision is easy to plan for in new developments, what about in existing suburbs?

    Back in the US, there are promising initiatives where urban areas are merged and adapted to cultivate food. Cities like Detroit and New Orleans have turned disaster and population decline into positives by repurposing land between homes for productive food growing and communal use. A 2023 article on Detroit suggests these retrofitted agrihoods are a timely revival of the tradition of WWII “victory gardens”. Food security and access to fresh food are obvious advantages, but these initiatives also create green space, enhance neighbourhood aesthetics, offer recreation space, while fostering a sense of community.

    The Victorian Eco Innovation Lab (VEIL) investigated similar scenarios in the mid-2010s. They argued that if we are to deal with future climate-induced pressures, supply chain disruptions and the need for local food production in cities, combining yards and growing food together makes sense. 

    I can imagine the area where I live, which is made up of about 30 or so homes in South Kingsville, as an agri-block. Without fences we could create productive areas for veggies, orchards, green houses, a playground, a pizza oven, chickens, bees, some pergolas to sit under and a whole lot more. There could be an urban farmer service, we could jointly employ, if there weren’t enough green thumbs between us. Imagine the abundance, the sense of community coming together to share food, work together, and become a village. 

    Dr Dominique Hes is the Zero Building Carbon Lead at the City of Melbourne. Dominique mixes theory and thinking, with doing and testing to discover how we can best contribute to the well-being and thriving of place, people and planet.

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