“No one is so brave that he is not disturbed by something unexpected.”
– Julius Caesar
Important Announcement: There will not be an All Nations Food Forest project!
Our contribution: We the founders of the project Angelo Eliades, John Pinniger and Charlie Si created the All Nations Food Forest project concept for a council built food forest in public space, and wrote the proposal with the support of the local community members who joined our team to help us put it together. John and I created the plant and tree selection lists, and volunteered our time supporting the project right through over a three year period. I even supported the community planting event of this other project that displaced our own by teaching the community how to plant fruit trees.
Something went terribly wrong with this project, but we should have heeded the warning signs that were there from the very beginning…
In our first All Nations Food Forest proposal meeting with council, we were told by the landscape architects manager that they “…would get their guy to design it…” because “…he knows fruit trees”. Okay then, where do you go from there? Denial, disbelief, surely someone would not do that to us? We were gobsmacked but we refused to believe it, and stuck with the project, hoping for the best all the way to the end. Regrettably, they were true to their word and that’s exactly what they did.
So, for some strange reason, still unbeknownst to us, the council’s landscape architects got cocky and decided to take over our project (as they promised to do from the start), thinking they could in fact design a working food forest on their own! Why? We still don’t know why. Disappointed? Most definitely, considering that we were the only people on the project qualified to design a food forest. Council produced a design with only token consultation and built something which we did not agree with, under the banner of our project, which made things really messy and confusing for everyone, including the audience of this case study.
What they did build instead of our project could best be described as a landscape architect’s attempt at a food forest designed using aesthetic design principles only. Predictably they made a right royal mess of it too, which is sad, as there were many wonderful people in council who supported us and many members of the community who were really looking forward to seeing All Nations Food Forest built.
So what did they build? A description reads like a case study in “How NOT to build a food forest”! As a quick overview, the replacement project that was created for $70,000 was 72 sq. m narrow bed in an exposed location and , wait for it… planted beside a row of large established 12m tall eucalypt trees. Everyone who has ever worked in a community garden with eucalyptus trees in it knows that almost nothing grows under eucalypts, but no this is not some kind of a cruel joke, this is serious. But it gets better, or is that worse…
So what does a garden created over the root zones of existing eucalypts need? You guessed it, more eucalypts of course! I’m serious here, an extra bed was created 3m away from the main garden bed, running parallel to it, about 57 sq. m in size, in which six more eucalypts were planted planted closely in a row. This was a ‘native garden bed’ – somehow a native garden bed managed to sneak into our food forest project, and no, they are no native edible plants or bush foods in there, just ornamentals! In effect they surrounded a garden all round with eucalypts, planted in a line, 3m from all sides of the garden. My objections were immediately overruled when I was asked to review the landscape architects design, indicating the token nature of the consultative process. The first thing every horticulturalist who visited the site asked was “Did they consider what will happen and how it will look in ten years time?” I’ll let the readers be the judge of that.
The Review Process
After construction, as the professional horticulturalist on the project, I conducted a review and produced a detailed and extensive report on my findings. The importance of conducting a review as critical part of the design process and as the key learning phase of the project was discussed in the previous article All Nations Food Forest – Understanding the Design Process. The report also included some options to remediate any problems identified in case council wished to pursue them.
The assessment (which can be found here) identified:
- 17 horticultural issues, the majority of them related to inappropriate tree spacing and the rest being issues of inappropriate plant location.
- 4 major design issues which were identified to pose a significant risk to the success of the project.
- 4 critical issues which are definite ‘red flags’, which, if unaddressed will definitely lead to the failure of the garden.
Council acknowledged the problems raised, but did not wish to accept the extent of the critical issues, and chose to not pursue the suggested solutions to remediate the problems. They also declined to have the council arborists verify the technical veracity of my assessments in the report.
Curiously, we the project founders were further requested to advise council how the outcomes outlined in our All Nations Food Forest project proposal which was not built could be delivered through this other project which we did not design without making any of the critical changes we recommended. Regrettably we were unable to assist further as we had already suggested a possible redesign solution which was declined by council.
The Good News – Our Achievements!
- The merits of the All Nations Food Forest Project proposal were recognised by council resulting in approval and the allocation of $70,000 of funding.
- The events geared around public consultation and the launch of the project had an overwhelmingly positive response from the community who showed great support for the idea.
- Two of the project founders, Angelo Eliades and John Pinniger, were awarded by the council in the Darebin Sustainability Awards for recognition their ongoing work in the community and their work on this project.
- Working with the supportive members of the council, the project founders were able to generate huge community support and worked collaboratively to generate significant momentum to commence a project that no council in Melbourne had attempted before, to push the boundaries of urban agriculture and food security in public space.
- A copy of the 9 page All Nations Park Food Forest – Tree & Plant Selection Guide was produced and has been made available for reference purposes for community groups to use. It details suitable low-maintenance tree and plant species for use in community gardens and public spaces in temperate Australian climates and the rationale for their selection.
- This case study was produced as far as was technically possible, to provide information on understanding the design process in respect to functional garden designs.
From the review document, the conclusion that can be drawn is that the replacement project failed because it was an attempt by council landscape architects to design a food forest system using aesthetic design principles, which they are formally trained in, rather than permaculture design principles, which is what a permaculture designer is trained in, and which are required to build a functional, living ecosystem. The error of judgement was that the council landscape architects grossly underestimating the design skills required for the ecological design of a food forest garden, and refused to heed advice from the project’s technical advisors. As the French proverb states “Good advice is often annoying – bad advice never is.”
The prevalence of basic horticultural errors appear to stem from a lack of basic plant knowledge and insufficient plant design skills, a criticism commonly levelled at the landscape architecture profession, a position supported by a study within the profession itself, a self-admission if you will, see – “ Perceptions of the Importance of Plant Material Knowledge by Practicing Landscape Architects in the Southeastern United States” by Robert F. Brzuszek, Richard L. Harkess, and Eric Stortz – You can view the full study here. This is no great revelation as landscape architects are not horticulturalist (plants specialists that are formally trained to design with plants).
The important lesson for council here was that landscape architects can’t design food forests and don’t know edible plants (unless they have had additional training). If you’ve ever wondered why our cities public spaces are ‘food free zones’ and why cities are a food security risk, ask yourself which profession is responsible for designing public landscapes – your answer lies there…
From this case study it can be concluded that there is still considerable resistance within certain councils to stepping beyond purely ornamental design of public space and pushing the boundaries to experiment with more ecologically sound designs that represent evidence-based and appropriate responses to food security, climate change and many other challenges facing urban communities in the short and long term future.
As a result, this represents a significant missed opportunity to create a landmark urban agriculture project in public space that innovatively addresses the issues of food security and community education through food forest design, and as such, the title of “Melbourne’s First Council Built Food Forest” remains unclaimed!
The council has indicated that they will persist with this project to deliver some outcomes, so I do encourage the community to use this available public space to garden, and the All Nations Food Forest team wish them luck with this endeavour and sincerely hope that council can deliver the benefits they hope to for the community.
Council has also expressed interest that they are still interested in pursuing a food forest project at a different site, at a future date, and we have continued to extended the goodwill by indicating that we are still willing to work with the council on such a project, albeit under radically different conditions and agreements in order not not repeat the mistakes of this project.
This project and my attempts to document a useful case study for the community, all of which I have been doing for free, has left me in a very difficult position professionally. If I tried to explain the situation publicly, including in this case study, I would be seen to be critical of the council by drawing attention to a questionable series of decisions. If I did not, I would be associated with a project which I do not endorse and am not responsible for designing or building, which would reflects badly on me professionally, and more importantly I would also be complicit in hiding something from the community which they are entitled to know in terms of public transparency and accountability – what happened to the All Nations Food Forest project? We promised the community the project, they supported it, they contributed their ideas, and it was allocated public money so they have every light to know.
I trust I have chosen the most ethical path of action to provide the community and the readership with as much practical and useful information that can be drawn from this project as possible, and I sincerely hope that others can learn from our mistakes. All projects have their challenges, and one such as this provides many learning opportunities for all parties, the council, the project team and the audience of this case study. Let us learn and move on.
This article concludes this case study.