SCN – Seeding health and food citizenship through community gardens

Worldwide we are seeing a deep yearning for a reconnection with food and a closer relationship with urban growing initiatives– this growth in interest and curiosity about where our food comes from and how it is produced is driving a movement known as food citizenship.

A dominant narrative over the past years has been to see the community as merely the consumers at the end of the food supply chain. The UK New Citizenship project (2014) demonstrated that even exposure to the word ‘consumer ‘significantly decreases our sense of responsibility in shaping the world around us.

What we are seeing now is a shift from being food consumers to being food citizens – reconnecting with food, understanding how to be in a relationship with food and actively contributing to the wellbeing of our food environments and the livelihoods and health of those who grow and make our food. The Australia Institute conducted a study in 2014 and found, Australia-wide, 52 per cent of households reported growing at least some of their own food in their backyard. There is an evident growth in urban growing from weekend growers in their backyards to community gardens and sharing initiatives to semi commercial farmers.

A key success factor for food citizenship is connection. Only through connection comes curiosity, and through curiosity comes learning, and through education comes a sense of responsibility and care. The designer’s role is key in considering how we can design our retail centers in a way that reconnects communities with food and not only the consumption of food but also in where food comes from and what food means to our local communities, seeding health into the fabric of our society.

With the emergence of Food Halls and Food Markets that resonate with citizens seeking food experience and dining destinations, we see the potential to take this one step further with the inclusion of onsite food gardens and shopping centers incorporating urban farms and growing projects onsite, seeding health in the heart of these spaces.

The world-class exemplar regenerative retail project that demonstrates the effectiveness of connecting community with top-quality fruit and vegetables onsite is Burwood Brickworks shopping centre. The International Living Future Institute recently awarded the project Petal Certification. The rooftop urban farm acts as a destination and experience but also produces food for the acreFarm restaurant while also serving the Crossway LifeCares customers suffering hardship during the recent COVID pandemic, seeding health in both sustenance and support.

As communities continue to seek out food experiences, shopping centers across the country, large and small, will need to continue to enhance their offerings to remain competitive and exciting, while also considering the importance of seeding health through food connections.

One destination I personally love is the Dandenong Market, in Melbourne’s southeast, which has successfully integrated food gardens within the landscaping surrounding the historic market to reflect the living international food culture that exists there. Dandenong’s population includes more than 150 nationalities (the highest ethnic diversity in Victoria), with over 60% of the population born overseas and 64% speaking a language other than English. These food gardens are not only a beautiful representation of the international community and culture but when the crops are ready they are given to a local charity – helping to support those families in need within the surrounding community, while also seeding health and nourishment.

Connecting the community with the source of their food and enabling an urban experience of a farm and market is not only a day out and worthwhile experience but it can also be a valuable contribution to the cities food supply as we see our food bowl’s diminishing as a result of over development and urban sprawl.  What if where shoppers once strolled between clothing outlets, jewellery shops, and sporting goods stores, they could instead walk amongst gardens growing greens, herbs, and tomatoes for sale to families and restaurants. The gardens would draw customers through a memorable experience to the other businesses within the retail centre.

We must look at systematic ways to improve our connections, make our places greener and better and offer opportunity and fair access for all. As Rob Rees CEO of Cultivating Community says ‘By keeping a green thought the first thought we have potential at scale to connect our experiences in improving well-being and we will see a social return on investment.  This shouldn’t be the exception but the norm. ‘

Within retail centers, there is a vast opportunity to reconnect communities with the source of their food. In my experience, communities that reconnect with food are able to reconnect with each other. When people are brought together over food, new relationships are formed, people connect, and ideas are generated and shared more quickly. New community possibilities emerge. It is this emergence that builds resilience and vibrancy, seeding health and well-being in the process.

This article by Associate | Regenerative Development Lead Claire Bowles was published in the July 2021 edition of SCN magazine.

Claire Bowles

Claire Bowles

Purpose Director