Things aren't too sunny these days for curbside gardeners in the picturesque Sunshine Coast suburb of Buderim in Queensland, Australia. Officials there have destroyed a slew of fruit trees in the wildly popular Urban Food Street neighborhood.
Founded in 2009 by architect Caroline Kemp and horticulturist Duncan McNaught to “push the boundaries of suburban living by redefining the traditional role of the residential street,” the Urban Food Street precinct spans an impressive 11 streets and is the only neighborhood in Australia in which residents are encouraged to grow large quantities of organic fruits, vegetables and herbs along the edge of the road. Just think of it as an Aussie take on guerrilla gardener Ron Finley’s beautiful, community-bettering edible gardens that have blossomed in South Los Angeles, but at a much larger scale.
Buderim’s meant-to-be-replicable Urban Food Street — showcased in all of its leafy splendor in the video below — isn’t simply about growing hyper-local greens where fresh produce is seldom found. Rather, it’s “about creating suburban streets for people to live in that are socially active and engaged, environmentally sustainable, climatically comfortable and aesthetically and functionally rewarding. Streets that promote optimal health and wellbeing in the suburban context by making the act of daily living healthier. Put simply, Urban Food Street is a proven project model for growing suburban neighbourhoods that people love to live in.”
Do you have a permit for that food?
Those living in the Sunshine Coast’s most agrarian-minded ‘burb are indeed smitten with their edible streetscapes — and no so pleased with the recent actions of the Sunshine Coast Council (SCC).
Sparked by a complaint six months ago, the council took the green-thumbed residents of Urban Foot Street by surprise by demanding that they take out public liability insurance and obtain free permits to keep growing food along the sidewalks and on the "verges" — Aussie-speak for the turf-covered expanse located between the curb and sidewalk that’s also commonly known as a parkway, berm, boulevard, sidewalk strip, curb lawn, tree lawn, park strip or grassplot, depending on where you are in the world. Collectively, the produce grown on the verges feeds more than 200 people, according to ABC News. Anyone living in the community, not just those who grow the produce, are welcome to the street-side bounty.
Last week, 18 fruit trees on Clithero Avenue were unceremoniously felled and mulched by council workers in the early morning hours. The trees were located on three adjacent properties where a single landowner had failed to secure a permit. The council reportedly moved in with little warning, giving residents no time to transplant the trees or even harvest the remaining fruit.
Chef and Urban Food Street resident Chris White tells ABC that the removal of the trees was “devastating” for the community.
“I think it’s the kids that are going to be impacted greatest here because they’ve nurtured these trees and now they’re not here,” he says.
He also notes that one quick-thinking neighbor actually climbed a lemon tree to prevent it from being chopped down. But because everything happened so quickly and so early in the morning, residents were unable to gather en masse and save additional trees. Workers also reportedly kept residents from gathering fallen fruit from the ground.
Edibles vs. ornamentals: Discrimination at play?
Urban Food Street resident Gail Felgenhauer tells ABC News that she believes the council is “discriminatory against food,” noting that the citrus fruit from the felled trees could have been used to make a 12-month supply of jam. “It’s just such a waste.”
“We have grown food here to share with the elderly in the area, with couples and families, and we’ve grown this for seven years,” explains Felgenhauer. “And all of a sudden the council tries to bully us into getting permits and then there were difficulties with insurance.”
“Our position was that there are ornamentals [on verges] all over the Sunshine Coast area, so why discriminate against vegetables and fruit?”
Alison Foley, a Buderim resident who doesn’t live within the precinct but supports its mission tells ABC: "It's the future of our environment, it's an education source, it's a demonstration of what communities can do in a sustainable, collaborative and educational way.”
Councillor Ted Hungerford explains to ABC that while he sympathizes with the community’s frustrations, the non-compliant landowner had already racked up fines for not seeking out the required permit — a permit which 23 neighborhood residents had sought out over the past several months. In lieu of obtaining permits, other property owners decided to relocate their fruit trees to private property or remove them altogether.
Coarlie Nichols, director of community services for the council, is quick to point out that the SCC is supportive of the “fantastic initiative” and hopes that other neighborhoods across the Sunshine Coast roll out similar edible landscaping schemes.
“The issue is that we want to set some standards for how it is rolled out, what it looks like, how safe it is, and we do that through a permit system and that's governed by our local laws,” she tells ABC in a follow-up article published in the aftermath of the initial round of tree-cutting.
The council is downplaying accusations of discrimination against edible plants, saying that the issue is with potential public safety risks. "Some of them have overplanted the verges and made them obstacle courses and hazards for people using it," Hungerford explains. "In some instances people can't even walk along the verge and they've got to walk along the road. Cars and people don't really mix."
Buderim, a tranquil mountainside commuter town, was historically an agricultural powerhouse where pioneering farmers grew a variety of crops including bananas, coffee and ginger. Although Buderim's farms have given way to housing in recent decades, Urban Farm Street serves as a respectful — yet fully modern — nod to the area's agricultural roots.
More felled fruit trees to come?
The recent actions by the council could be viewed as a warning shot of sorts considering there are still a handful of other property owners on Urban Food Street that have failed to secure the now-compulsory permits including Chris White, who refuses to do so on principle.
"Why is food the reason you have to get a permit when people can grow ornamentals and rock walls wherever they want and not get a permit? That's the issue," White says.
Across the Australian continent in Bayswater, a suburb of Perth, the local council has fought to make it easier for residents to avoid bureaucratic red tape and grow fresh fruits and veggies along the street.
"That is just so harsh," says Bayswater councillor Chris Cornish. "In Bayswater, any resident can do whatever they want on their verge in terms of planting things, including raised garden beds. They don't need approval, they don't need to get insurance because we've sorted that out. It is possible to do it and it's really sad to hear what's happened over in Buderim."
Sunshine Coast Mayor Mark Jamieson is keen on taking a different and overly cautious (some might say draconian) approach. He tells the Sunshine Coast Daily in a statement:
This is at the heart of what local laws are all about to some extent. Whether it's managing dangerous dogs or managing scarce parking facilities, this is another example of council trying to work with the community to get a favourable outcome. And to the credit of a large number of people in that area, they've applied for a permit, which council has provided to them free of charge, and they can continue to enjoy ... the footpath gardening.
Despite Jamieson's insistence that he supports Urban Food Street and that the council is only looking out for the best interests of the community, a poll conducted by the Sunshine Coast Daily found that the recent tree removal incident didn’t sit well with readers. Forty-five percent of respondents found the actions to be “a real shame, very heavy-handed from the council,” while only 11 percent found them to be “fair enough, public liability is important.”
The response from 42 percent of respondents? “I don’t understand why it was a problem in the first place.”