Life on the verge

Life on the verge

Life & Style

How one small neighbourhood in the Sunshine Coast hinterland is working to dissolve the gap between ‘paddock to plate’.


THE pavement rises up to greet our soles as we slowly stroll the streets of Buderim. The air is crisp and clean - winter has brought a freshness to the suburban surroundings.

Partners and guerrilla urban re-modellers, Caroline Kemp and Duncan McNaught are by my side, guiding me slowly as we twist and twine from one sidewalk to the next.

The once naked council verges are now a bountiful feast for the all the senses - offering themselves up to whoever is in need.

The residents of the hinterland warren known only as Urban Food Street have invested in their food future - planting sweet and sour delights in lieu of lawns and freely sharing the harvest among their neighbours for the past seven years.

“Taking care of one another has evolved - everyone knows everyone and the connection is amazing,” Duncan says, adding the Urban Food Street ethos of ‘love thy neighbour’ has taken a little bit of time to catch on.

“There was just a couple of us and the growth in interest over the past 12 months has just been meteoric.”

Borne one unremarkable day in 2009, the urban design initiative has grown to include six residential streets - incorporating around 200 homes and countless people in the process.

“We had to change the culture and it was a laborious task.”

The culture, Caroline says, was one many have come to expect from city-dwellers.

“We want to challenge the way people understand how we live in the suburbs.

“We basically planted it out and just did it because we live in a system where, if you ask for permission, you're going to be denied.

“I think we're an exemplar of that whole concept - it can be done sensibly and the neighbourhood can look after it and maintain it and it's not destructive to any of the verge surfaces or resources.”

For many, the idea of embarking on a project such as the one Urban Food Street have successfully attempted would be far out of reach.

The pair put the lack of similar projects in the country down to a simple lack of action.

“There's a lot of speak but not a lot happening,” Caroline says.

After the initial idea in 2009 to use the public verge as a paddock plot, Duncan said he had to dig deep to find some patience.

“We were going to do the naughty and just throw them in like fence posts - even though my background is farming.

“But we soon realised the soil near the road was sterile, so we prepped it for a whole month.”

Using a mix of “whatever we could get our hands on”, Duncan, Caroline and their intrigued neighbours persisted in creating a safe and nutrient dense home for their lime trees.

“If you don't put the ingredients in in the right order it's not going to turn out and then you're going to become disenchanted with the whole experience.”

Although the group now have a wealth of helping hands, Duncan said the responsibility for the plants lay with whoever planted them.

“Both Caroline and my backgrounds are, if you're wanting to do something, you take ownership and full responsibility in all aspects.

“Even though people wanted to put money in in the beginning, until it was proven, we said no - that the responsibility stays with us. The approach has to be very simple so the job gets done.”

Caroline says now people pay for their own trees with neighbourhood barbecues and working bees helping to raise any extra funds for maintenance.

“If people believe, they will willingly contribute - regardless of age,” she says, adding Urban Food Street was about bringing what you do in your backyard, into a public location.

“There are a lot of places around the country wanting to know more about this concept and are very supportive of it.

“So there's a wave of thought out there that we need to change what we're doing.”

Duncan adds the idea is grand, but the commitment is the sticking point.

‘We operate within industry, so we need to be aware of that to keep things clean and maintained and there's a lot of work that goes into it,” he says.

“You don't plant the tree and then walk away and people should understand that.”

Two blocks over we stop near a long line of banana palms, the earth beneath them a mass of sweet potato vine. I ask about sharing and fairness and their answer stops me in my tracks.

“You don't create fences with 'fairness', it just evolves,” Duncan says, adding there is a long list of words the people in the USF neighbourhood are averse to using, including ‘investing and community’.

“We're not a community, we're a neighbourhood. Community includes everyone, but ‘neighbourhood’ starts in your own street,” Duncan says.

“It's amazing how the old farmers knew that, if your neighbour wasn't doing well, then you weren't doing well. Society had to be self regulating.”

Due to the unquantifiable need of those within the neighbourhood, Duncan and Caroline have set up a few general rules.

‘People in the neighbourhood are able to pick what they need for 24 hours, so there's no wastage,” Caroline says.

“We don't talk 'fairness' because we have people who are 90 years of age who are growing avocado trees and that's their entire contribution, so how do you measure that against someone who can dig for half a day?”

In the event of an abundance from a certain tree, in this case bananas, the fruit is distributed at working bees with the elderly made a priority.

“This offers them connection and engagement with their neighbours. Some of our neighbours have come from farming backgrounds so they know when to plant certain varieties and how to work the soil,” Duncan says.

“It’s an amazing resource - their knowledge and instinct can’t be recorded.”

With a wide variety of high producing plants including tomato, citrus, avocados, lettuce and herbs, I ask whether there is any fear of outsiders coming in and harvesting without permission.

“There’ll always be people who come in and we have to let them know we’re a sharing society and we only pick what is needed for immediate consumption and that nothing happens by chance - people have done a lot of hard work to make it what it is,” Duncan says.

With more and more people in the Urban Food Street neighbourhood wanting to contribute, Duncan and Caroline say their working model is already a success.

“It’s showing people that you can make a model work and do something alternative and make it work,” Caroline says.

“It’s an organic evolution. The more people you get doing their verges, the more produce you get - it’s self perpetuating,” she says, adding plans usually just get in the way of work.

“Rather than sitting down and wasting time creating a masterplan and a set of guidelines and a strategy...we talk to people.

“We do it in the moment and when someone says, ‘I want to do something’ we say, ‘alright, here’s a verge. What do you want to grow?’”

“It’s not an endless dialogue - you have a chat and then you make it happen.”


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