Collingwood Community Gardeners are grieving for their lost gardens
The Collingwood Children’s Farm Community Gardens have sustained generations of City of Yarra residents over 42 years. On three-quarters of an acre, next to the Children’s Farm, dozens of small plots are tended by local people of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities, who pay a modest annual membership fee and volunteer each month to participate in working bees to maintain the grounds.
The community gardeners share knowledge and expertise in horticulture, transferring organic and sustainable food growing practices to new generations. Some of the plots are allocated to grassroots community groups and there are plans to subdivide some vacant plots to broaden access to this treasured resource.
The Collingwood Community Gardens.Credit:Justin McManus
Two weeks ago the community gardeners were in a state of shock and grief after being locked out of their garden plots by the farm management, due to “safety concerns”. This decision was made peremptorily, without any consultation with the community gardeners.
The management’s stated position is that the required works to make the site safe are so extensive that “the site will need to be cleared, designed and rebuilt”. No budget or timeline has been offered for these works.
The community gardeners are not just facing lockout from their beloved gardens, but also the complete destruction of the cultural heritage embodied in the physical layout and structures that form their plots. They rapidly organised and gathered public support. Their online petition has attracted about 2000 signatures.
The gardeners searched in vain to find justification for the closure in the safety report. The issues raised were uncapped star pickets, uneven paths on a sloping site and snakes hiding in the weeds. None of these issues has led to adverse events in living memory of the gardeners. None of these issues required bulldozing, and all could be easily solved. City of Yarra Councillor Steve Jolly facilitated a generous offer by the CFMEU to fix the safety issues and make the paths wheelchair-friendly at no cost to the farm while preserving the cultural heritage aspects of the site.
Locked out: Community gardeners outside the closed gardens.Credit:Justin McManus
To date, the farm management has failed to respond in any meaningful way to written proposals from the gardeners that would solve the safety concerns and allow them to access their plots. The gardeners’ conclusion is that the lockout is not really about safety concerns at all.
What has emerged is a classic struggle between a landlord/developer and its tenants.
The landlord, being the farm’s committee of management, appears to be using a safety report as a smokescreen to lock out the tenants, so it can redevelop the site. They propose to incorporate commercial activities as part of their vision.
These events raise serious concerns about the governance of the gardens by Collingwood Children’s Farm management. It is not the first time that the Farm has staged a land grab for the Community Gardens.
In 2016 a Landscape Master Plan was developed that would have replaced 70 per cent of the garden area with an artificial billabong serving as a backdrop for wedding photos. At that time the Collingwood Children’s Farm vision seemed to be to provide children with an experience of farm animals and to rent facilities for weddings. A campaign against the Landscape Master Plan at the time saw it consigned to the bottom drawer never to be mentioned again.
Five years later the Farm’s vision, evolving from a 2020 consultancy by Dr Chris Williams, is centred around regenerative agriculture. The farm animals are mostly gone and the goat paddock next to the community gardens is a professional market garden.
The Community Gardeners are not opposed to this new vision for the Children’s Farm, but they want security and stability to continue growing food for generations to come. They are hoping this traumatic closure will be reversed by urgent intervention by the relevant state government ministers, Richard Wynne and Lily D’Ambrosio, and the sheer weight of public opinion.
The governance of the gardens must be given back to the gardeners themselves, as is standard in most other community gardens in Australia and around the world.
Tim Handfield is a community gardener.
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