Seeds of HopeWhat seeds of better futures are being sewn in tāmaki makaurau? Maddy powers finds out.
It’s 2020, and Phoebe Atkinson and her husband Dave are in the midst of getting approval to start a community garden in the council reserve on Seine Road, Forrest Hill.
The project was Phoebe’s idea. She's been an avid gardener since childhood, and sees how the community garden can bring her different vocational skills into one.
But the lockdown brings everything to a halt.
While the rest of the neighbourhood is unable to buy seedlings due to increased demand, she has plenty she’s grown herself at home.
Phoebe realises she can create what she envisioned with the community garden right outside her front door. So, she makes a seedling stand with a sign and fills it with her seedlings, free to her neighbours wanting to get into their gardens.
What grew from that, in the midst of a pandemic where supply chains were failing, people were confined to their homes and isolated from their usual social activities, was community.
Families and individuals came to take seedlings, and in doing so, had a reason to stop and talk to one another. Seeds of a resilient community were sewn, all from a roadside seedling stand.
After lockdown ended, Phoebe and Dave got the go-ahead from the council, and before long, Grow Forrest Hill community garden was up and running. The gardens are now a popular place for families and elderly people living alone to come for their weekly dose of feel-good energy at the Sunday working bee.
Phoebe and Dave created the gardens so their children could grow up having a strong sense of community, where generosity is celebrated. “I’m very conscious that we are living in a very consumerist oriented individualistic society, where that is the status quo.
"As a family, we realised that if we wanted anything to be different, we had to be the change we wanted to see in the world.”
Generosity as a value underpins what Grow Forrest Hill is about. There are no gates surrounding the gardens, which back onto a kindergarten, and despite this, Phoebe says there haven't been any problems with vegetables being taken. She thinks it is important the garden is open to the community, as that fosters the sense of inclusivity and shared ownership that it is about.
At the end of a working bee, the harvest is shared among volunteers. “It’s so rad to have a table of the haul that everyone’s harvested at the end."
What is left over goes to the community produce stand, which is part of the Pātaka kai or local street-pantry movement, providing produce and kai to people in need. The aim of the Pātaka kai movement is to encourage sharing between neighbours to strengthen community, enacting the te ao Māori concept of manaakitanga (hospitality).
Diversity and inclusivity was something Phoebe thought was important for the gardens from the start. This prompted the creation of the role of Chinese cultural liaison, knowing that a big part of the community in Forrest Hill was Chinese.
As well as running a compost hub and workshops, the organisation has plans for an outdoor pizza oven and teaching space. Agricultural emissions are a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and they plan regular plant-based pizza nights. “People need to see and they need to taste how delicious it is," she says.
Grow Forrest Hill is one of many community gardens and urban food projects popping up across Tāmaki Makaurau.
It's a phenomenon Dan Kelly, a PhD student in community psychology at the University of Auckland, says has potential to prefigure the future, creating a roadmap for sustainability not just in terms of ecology, but for people too. To see a future that is more sustainable for people and the planet sounds almost radical, compared to the dominant narrative in the media today.
Indeed, you don’t have to look far to find what Kelly calls “a tale of despair”, where human-induced climate change leads to increasing climate catastrophes, system breakdown, disruption and increasing isolation. Essentially, all the negative effects of modernity that we are seeing now continue to worsen and unravel.
But, there is an alternative tale, a tale of joy, and this is the tale Kelly says we might be sowing the seeds of now in urban agriculture and community gardens in Tāmaki Makaurau.
“We could collectively overcome the challenges. It’s an idea from community psychology that we could bring in a new world that is better, more socially just, and politically accountable.”
Kelly says community gardens can lead the way towards this new world, and be “a conduit for rebuilding the social realm, and having the space where people feel they belong, they know each other, they have some agency over the shape of their social lives".
Some urban farms in the city were ahead of their time, already preparing some 40 years ago for a future where knowing how to grow food would be important. In 1981, Paul Lagerstedt secured a lease from Auckland Council for a block of land in Grey Lynn, and started Kelmarna Gardens, now known as Kelmarna Community Farm, one of the longest running community gardens in Auckland.
The aim of the farm was to teach self-sufficiency through growing food organically, and it continues to do that and much more today, running gardening workshops, a market garden and community-supported agriculture (CSA), as well as therapeutic gardening for people with mental-health needs and intellectual disabilities.
Sarah-Lilly Moss-Baker is head market gardener at Kelmarna, having joined the team during the first lock-down, not long after relocating from the Coromandel where she lived and worked at Pakaraka Permaculture for a year. The transition was not easy, and she felt the close connection she had to her environment in the Coromandel slipping away with the easy convenience of city life.
Since joining Kelmarna, the gardens have become her way of reconnecting with the environment. “It’s been an active process of wanting to connect, getting involved in the land, helping to heal it, to grow, care, and steward.”
Sarah-Lilly, like many others, has felt the need to learn and then share the skills of growing food, and sees them as important in a future with climate instability and potential system breakdown.
“It feels like growing food and existing with food forests and market gardens is a very natural way to be. It’s not the only thing in life but it’s a huge part of sustaining ourselves and I have my suspicions that in a future where there’s a lot more change, adaptation to that will be hyper-local.”
Market gardeners don’t make lots of money, but this way of life is about more than being able to grow your own food in an unpredictable future. “I see so many enriching things about this way of life that are really, really deeply fulfilling. I don’t think that idea of security we’re sold of buying a house, and putting ex amount into your Kiwisaver, having a high-paid job, is actually very secure.
"I wonder whether in a world that is warmed by two, or three more degrees and is disrupted, and there’s more food insecurity and all sorts of disruptions to our present way of life, I wonder if that is actually a secure choice.”
Tom Scott and Jake Clarke are market gardeners at Organic Market Garden (OMG) on Symonds Street. OMG was established in 2018 on a plot of land owned by City Rail Link.
For the Love of Bees is the organisation behind OMG, and its mission is to “grow radical hope through food”. Scott sees places like OMG as part of a rebellion against systems such as industrial agriculture, which aren’t working for the people or the land.
“The biggest rebellion that you can have is to make your own systems."
OMG also runs a CSA, project which is always fully subscribed. CSAs are a partnership between the growers and consumers, where members pay up front to receive produce throughout the season.
All members will equally share the benefit or cost of the ups and downs of seasonal market gardening, meaning that if there is less produce one week, they all receive less, and if there’s more, they all receive more. This takes some of the pressure off the farmer, and is a more supportive model for those growing regeneratively, without the use of synthetic fertilisers and herbicides.
Clarke had a rural upbringing in Yorkshire, and a close connection with nature growing up. At OMG he loves that others can begin to build this connection.
“I feel like I have more purpose here doing what I’m doing in the city than if I was in the countryside. Most people are living in cities, and it’s the people that are living in cities who would appreciate and get more out of having access to the enjoyment of watching life grow.
"People in the city have less exposure to that and to how food is grown and have a certain level of disconnect.” Clarke also sees spaces like OMG as building community, which he thinks will be the most important factor in adapting to climate change.
“It’s with the help of each other that we’ll get through the difficult moments. We can have all the community gardens and urban farms in the world, but if there’s no sense of community or even sense of mana in that community, then we don’t stand a chance. I think community resilience will help us get through that.”
Spaces like OMG are also places of healing, where people can go to connect with nature, but also connect with their grief about climate change and feel empowered to do something. “It’s a solutions focused approach, which I really love, problem solving and providing answers.”
Rebecca Swan, artist and founder of Growing Point, or Dignan Street community garden in Point Chevalier, also thinks community gardens provide a way for people to feel they are making a meaningful difference.
“This does feel like action they can take for themselves and for the community, they can grow their own food, they can teach these skills and learn new skills to create a more resilient and robust food system but also community network. It’s offering solutions and action that’s on a very doable scale.”
Swan feels passionately that compost is a scalable solution for climate change, because of the way it builds soil, enables carbon sequestration, and grows healthy food. This passion led her to start a soil laboratory at the gardens, where people can bring samples of their compost, and find out if they are biologically balanced, or even alive.
Store-bought compost they tested showed no microbial life at all.
Swan says gardens have many benefits for the community, aside from the simple act of providing food. “There’s physical wellbeing, there’s mental wellbeing, there’s social cohesion and resilience, there’s growing local nutrient-dense food, [and] sequestering carbon into the soil.”
But, she says, people "come for the community”. They are mindful at the garden of meeting people where they are at, and if someone simply wants to come and sit in the sun and have a cup of tea, that’s what they want them to do.
“Some people come in and you can see the weight of their life around their head. It’s holding space for transformation. Nature just does it, she shows us if we get still enough to engage.”
Community gardens and urban farms aren’t the only voices bringing hope, and offering new ways of living in response to the negative impacts of modernity. Zero waste and sustainability educators are offering ways for people to develop a closer connection with the environment, by becoming more aware of what they are buying, and what relationship they have with the product and producer.
Kristy Lorson is a zero-waste activist and educator. She joined the zero-waste movement in Aotearoa at the start of 2015 with her husband Davian and then 2 year old daughter, Savvy.
Reading Bea Johnson’s book Zero Waste Home was a light bulb moment for Lorson because it showed the connection between environmental issues and the actions and impact of individuals.
She comes from an education background, and works as a zero-waste educator for Auckland Council, as well as continuing to run the Zero Waste in NZ! facebook group which she started in 2016.
A zero-waste lifestyle is in part about doing what you can within your own life to make a difference, and the sense of satisfaction and power this can give when things can feel overwhelming and disempowering.
“It’s a joyful thing to live consciously and in a way where you care about stuff, it’s not just what can I get out of the world, but how can I contribute. You feel a bit subversive as well, you know, sticking it to the man," she says.
Zero-waste goes against linear-economy logic, where we are taught we must keep working and consuming to be happy and successful.
“It’s nice not to be on the consumer treadmill, with the pretense that consuming has meaning or makes us feel better”. Rather than consuming, Lorson says, the key to our well-being is to realise we need each other and a sense of belonging to a community.
Kate Hall is the woman behind Ethically Kate, a conscious-living educator and advocate for living and decision making that respects and protects people and the planet. Hall thinks realising how connected we are to each other and to the rest of the world is key to changing the way we consume, and the impact of that consumption.
Watching the fashion industry documentary The True Cost led her to start sharing posts about ethical fashion and eventually, make a living out of it.
“There’s a disconnect to understanding all of the people who have contributed to all the amazing things we buy, or the fact that whatever you do, even the fact that you drive your car to work, that’s actually impacting everyone else in the world, and we are so connected."
Travelling to India to see where much of the world’s textiles are produced, was eye-opening, and revealed the ways in which consumers in the West distance themselves from producers.
“When you watch the media, the people that make our clothes are really othered.” In reality, Kate says, while they live in very different places and in different cultures, they also have concerns about the environment, and cared as deeply as she did.
'The difference was, many of them were in survival mode, just getting by.
Ger Tew, who started Re-Creators, a social enterprise that runs workshops turning waste into value in Massey, West Auckland, says the textile industry is modern-day slavery.
One of the valuable things people learn from Re-Creators workshops is the actual time, skill and care it takes to make everyday items like clothing, cosmetics, and furniture, which is often not reflected in the price tag.
Some things are surprisingly easy, like cosmetics, but others are much more challenging, such as making a garment from scratch.
Tew’s previous work involved looking at refugee outcomes across Aotearoa over time. She loved working with migrant communities, and this passion for working with the underprivileged has continued and inspires her social enterprise.
Most workshop participants are not privileged “environmentalists”, and so she engages people by giving them what they need. The main three factors Tew found were important for people were mental wellbeing, low cost/affordability, and location.
While she finds her work fulfilling, and feels she has learnt far more from running a social enterprise than any other job, she thinks a radical transformation of society is needed. “We need the next chapter of economics because neoliberalism is clearly not working.”
She says those who are not in survival mode need to get back to basics, and consume less, work less, simplify our lifestyles, as well as give back to developing countries which have been pillaged.
She says the deliberate exploitation of the Global South and of indigenous communities is something we must address. “We came out of colonisation, and we landed a whole lot of debt on them. Then we go in and get our bananas, our fast fashion, coffee and tea and are like, thank you very much.”
It is this exploitative relationship between the Global North and Global South, colonised and coloniser, that Dan Kelly says created the mess we are in. It is what makes food, and the transformation of food systems, deeply political.
“We have a global order where some places are absolutely destroyed in order for others to become really rich. When you look really closely at the histories that bring us to this point, you can’t escape the colonial and imperial dimensions.
"The thing that alienated humans from the land was the alienation of human to human, and it is also the root of our mental health crises, our sense of alienation and isolation.” Kelly says one of the biggest hurdles for urban agriculture is whether it can create access and address systemic inequality.
Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to have their own culturally appropriate systems of food production, and to produce healthy food for the people in this way. Hua Parakore is the te ao Māori system of food sovereignty and food production created by Te Waka Kai Ora (National Māori Organics Authority of Aotearoa).
It draws on knowledge passed down and held by different hapū and iwi for generations. Hua Parakore also encompasses Western concepts such as circular economy, and zero waste.
Many of the ideas people are turning to as they relearn how to be connected to the environment have roots in indigenous knowledge. Kelly locates the roots of the climate crisis in colonial hierarchies and the legacies of inequality they have left us with. "Urban food is not the end of the story but the start of the story."
What is needed, he says, are social movements built around common causes, such as food, that address those inequalities and pave the way for a just transition.