From above, the Docklands Community Garden looks like a small dot of green space amongst a vast volume of inner urban grey. It is a thriving little community of residents and volunteers who have turned land that was earmarked for [yet another] fast food outlet, into a haven of inner-city vegetation.

But the community now risks losing their garden. Landowners and developers have a plan for the site, and a community garden is not on their list of priorities. Rather than finding the gardeners a replacement site with long-term tenure, the garden may be asked to vacate when it’s licence expires later this year.

Much of this will happen before the community is even aware of what they’ve lost. It’s the way of big city development and progress. The economic value of a food outlet is seen by developers to outweigh the social value of a shared garden.

A project to raise awareness about the garden’s plight will begin at the garden now leading up to our LocalCocktail Party and “Save The Garden” event on 26th May 2011, inspired by the New York Restoration Project, a community garden preservation movement to protect more than 700 community gardens within New York’s Lower East Side. There are only three community gardens within the Melbourne municipality, and, while the population is admittedly smaller, the investment in community gardens does not appear to be keeping pace with people.

Like the NYRP, the campaign will use butterflies to symbolise the beauty of the garden, and the peace that comes to those who visit it. The butterfly reminds us of our human need to connect to the land, despite, or perhaps because of, the density of the cities we live in. Without open space, the butterflies simply disappear. We will be selling badges of butterflys so people can show support of the garden.

We need to recognise that building healthy and vibrant community spaces takes time. There is no formula to get it right every time. Developers and municipal councils need to understand this and provide projects like the Docklands Community Garden with the protection they need to become rooted in the community psyche. You can’t force the creation vibrant community spaces and neighbourhood identity on people. You cannot build ‘community’ into your masterplan, it’s a natural and informal process that develops as shared experiences begin to take shape over years of small, everyday interactions between real people.

Strangely, the Docklands is an area of Melbourne that puzzles visitors, and has been criticised by visitors as lacking vibrance and depth. Here’s a project trying to change that, and it’s getting pushed out.

The community garden at Docklands is important not only in providing a place for residents to meet, learn, and get active and healthy, the garden is a symbol for the path that Melbourne needs to take for a more socially and environmentally sustainable future.

Melbourne’s population is growing, but we can’t continue to rape our natural resources unabated, our dependence on far away places for food doesn’t have to continue.

This community garden has strong support from local residents, but the creation of social interactions and connection is a fragile process at the same time. The community needs to know the garden is going to be there for the long term, so they can really commit to something they know will be there in a year, or ten years time.

Climate change may mean Melbourne is a very different place in the future, one that needs to be more self-sufficient. We need to support community gardening projects now, to invest in building the knowledge capital we will need to live in the future.

March 14, 2011