I hugged a koala
I suppose it can’t be surprising that a lot of my blog posts begin weeks before I finish them. (Although secret: there is this nifty function on the admin side of this website that allows me to set the date I publish my blog posts, so I can make it look like I’m more on top of things than I am.)*
But indeed, while I’m still wrapping some of my Singapore blogging, I’m now in Brisbane**—where I’ve been so surprised to see laksa on the menus in so many restaurant windows! Despite my current proximity to Asia though, my eating focus here has been to catch up on my vegetable intake, now that I’m a bit more distanced from so many delicious ($2) noodle and rice dishes. I’ve been making good use of my lovely accommodation’s (“a hostel for adults,” as an internet review describes it) cozy kitchen and common space, which has also provided a nice opportunity to reset back to my flexitarian eating habits. My research focus, on the other hand, is back to urban residents who grow their own food, through community gardens and at their homes.
I began feeling under the weather right before I arrived down under (couldn’t resist), but I’ve somehow struggled through my mistakes taking non-drowsy and drowsy Actifed at the wrong times of day and had a busy first few days here. My first two research days, I was shown around to a number of gardens in different Brisbane districts by the Community Development Coordinators from Brisbane’s City Council. This weekend, I met with some passionate home growers who represent the thriving local growing community found at localfoodbrisbane.ning.com. I’ve also ridden on my share of long suburban bus rides to visit other community gardens and farmers markets, where I’ve spoken to local farmers about various other local food networks in Brisbane.
When I haven’t been doing my research, I have really enjoyed using Brisbane’s bike share program to get around. The buses here are 5 dollars—okay, 4 USD—for a 10-minute ride from my hostel to the city center. So, the gorgeous river-side bike paths are the obvious best-choice. Brisbane is indeed a gorgeous city, and it feels way more relaxed than Singapore or Tokyo. Plus, don’t tell my Singaporean acquaintances, but I think Brisbane beats out Singapore for the most sparkly (pristine) city I’ve ever visited, despite that Singapore is often cited as being the cleanest city in the world.
And on Friday, I hugged a koala, so that was great. (I unfortunately did laundry Thursday night though, I might be smelling like Rodney for a few more weeks now…)
Other Margot life updates include that I’ve found a fantastic yoga studio just five minutes from where I’m staying (which had an even more fantastic Groupon deal!). Over the past nine weeks of traveling, the importance of maintaining my physical and mental health has become increasingly apparent.*** Given the broad geographic and research scope of my trip this summer, it’s nearly impossible to maintain any sort of a daily routine for longer than a week. Given my usual satisfaction with keeping busy and scheduled, I’m happy with how I’ve become more and more comfortable spending my in-between interview time aimlessly wandering rather than having any specific goal. (And I refuse to yet think how this will apply back to my life at Northwestern in the fall.) Regardless, setting an hour out of my day to walk around, or yoga, or whatever without my backpack nearby—thus eliminating any possibility of me sitting down to type any fledgling section of a blog post—has been really important to help me maintain some sort of groundedness within a whirlwind summer of travel and constant change. Furthermore, I’d prefer the welcoming, community vibe of yoga over my attempts to time my YouTube yoga sessions to when many other dorm are out of the room.
Back to Budapest – Community Gardens & Their Challenges
When I was in Budapest, I spoke with Zsuzsanna Fáczányi, a doctoral candidate in Corvinus University Budapest’s Faculty of Landscape Architecture. Fáczányi, who studies community gardens in Budapest, helped me make sense of the various leadership structures of different gardens. You can find some more detail on the various community garden management structures here.
But for a brief recap anyway, most of Budapest’s ~30 current community gardens were developed by two nonprofit organizations. One of those organizations, KÉK, is an established nonprofit with many projects aimed to increase Budapest’s sustainability and community development. Two people at this nonprofit manage its community garden program, and they work primarily with private and for-profit enterprises to open their gardens (although in a few instances, they have worked with the local government.) The other nonprofit, VKE, was created and is led by Rosta Gábor. Gábor reaches out to local district governments and communities to spawn interest in creating a community garden, and the district governments then commission VKE receives funding to help create it. Other community gardens in Budapest were founded by grassroots organizations and community members who’ve worked closely with private businesses and local governments to create the gardens.
All gardens I visited in Budapest struggle to maintain their positive community presence and impact overtime. Some gardens have difficulty securing their physical presence (keeping their land), and nearly all of the gardens struggle to uphold their community development goals and activities. Gardens dependent on private organizations for land, like those founded by KÉK and other grassroots organizations, are vulnerable to their land owners’ changing leadership and development plans. Gardens sponsored by local governments, like a few KÉK gardens and the VKE gardens, have secure land tenure, yet they still may not have ensured access to sufficient funding for other garden input costs. Furthermore, all gardens I visited faced the same challenge: maintaining the gardens as lively, social spaces for people to connect and share experiences. None of the gardens I visited had paid employees, and the responsibility to create community activities largely fell upon a few volunteers. When those volunteers were unable to unwilling to keep up with social activity scheduling or general garden communication, the gardens’ positive social functions diminished.
Fáczányi suggested that an ideal form of garden creation would be for community members to join together and then petition the local government to help them create the garden. That would avoid community development challenges that manifest when gardens are created in a “top-down” manner—when gardens are set up and presented to the community as a means to increase community development. If community members have the initiative to join together and petition for a community garden, it might be indicative of that community’s long-term sustainability.
Community Gardens in Brisbane
Many of Brisbane’s community gardens were created exactly how Fáczányi proposed. Many Brisbane community gardens emerged from motivated community members’ passion and drive to create their own community, food-producing spaces. Yet, garden leaders still often struggle with the same challenges experienced by their Hungarian counterparts, such as maintaining a cohesive community vibe, applying for and securing proper funding, ensuring adherence to city legislation, and ensuring all members are equally committed to the garden work and the community atmosphere. Most garden leaders/coordinators whom I spoke to in Brisbane do their work on a volunteer basis. Therefore, despite these gardens’ founding stories, in which community members joined together, galvanized neighborhood and political support for the garden, and created gardens based on shared, community principles, each Gardens day-to-day functioning still has a precarious dependence on a few individuals who are able to put it in so many volunteer hours each week.
Certainly, many gardens I visited in Budapest do not struggle with day-to-day management challenges because of the dedicated individuals they have running them. However, these gardens cannot provide a universal example of how to solve these challenges because of these gardens’ key demographics. One Google review of the Yoorola Street Community Garden describes this phenomenon well: “Lots of old people,” wrote internet user with screenname Berlin 1945. Sure, I did see a few families working on their plots at Yoorola Street the Sunday morning I visited, but as the garden commenced their monthly meeting (following the “highly encouraged” weekly volunteer event) everybody under 50 (but me) left.
Beyond the necessary private and/or government funding, any community organization requires extensive, donated time and energy resources by community members, specifically by the garden leaders. Securing garden leaders who are able to consistently put it in those resources is a challenge for local food organizations worldwide. In Brisbane, I encountered two potential solutions to this challenge for community gardens: one, appoint retirees to lead community gardens and two, have an external organization (nonprofit, private, or government) pay garden coordinators. However, neither of these solutions are easily doable or universal by any means. The former does not necessarily maximize community gardens’ potential development to serve broader populations and benefit people who don’t have access time and financial resources. It also may still unfairly strain the garden leaders’ time resources, whether or not they have any other work obligations. And the latter poses the question of how well a paid community organization leader can guide the organization to best serve the needs of the community.
Another Type of Garden — for Refugees
Green P Farms, located literally in the middle of Racing Queensland’s Deagon racecourse Sandgate, Brisbane, depicts the success of the top-down effort to construct a community garden that benefits marginalized populations. Creating a community garden specifically for vulnerable or marginalized community members is a potential way to maximize that garden’s contribution to its members’ food security, food literacy, social engagement, and general livelihoods. So often, however, my research has demonstrated that top-down community building/community organization development can often be misdirected and ineffective.
Michael Crook, Sandgate local, founded the first community garden by the Deagon racecourse in response to a suggestion by another politically active community member, who bought Crook a beer “in a union tent [Crook] didn’t like.” Despite Crook’s disagreement with certain political beliefs of the union tent he sat in, he recognized a community garden’s potential to provide for his community with minimal political or bureaucratic obstructions. Nonetheless, the farm was supported by Brisbane City Council, which provided the initial startup funding.
Green P Farms has since evolved through multiple iterations with a few different locations, supporting organizations, and auspices. Most recently, the majority of the land area of the farm has been converted into plots for 47 Nepalese, Bhutanese, and Burmese refugees grow their own food. The remaining farm area is managed by volunteers, and the produce is sold at a local market each Friday. Those produces sales provide a weekly income of $200 to $400 and sustain the farm’s general expenses.
Green P Farms is a unique example of a community garden that directly increased its members’—refugees—expendable income and food security. Furthermore, employees at the local Housing Service Centre have noted significant improvements in certain refugees’ mental health since their started their plots at Green P Farm. Indeed, Green P’s refugee members produce significant amounts of food, which may have reduced their grocery budgets so significantly that they can now purchase medicines they previously couldn’t afford. Furthermore, the refugees have gained a valuable community space, which is especially important to their wellbeing given cultural and language barriers they face in other Brisbane community spaces.
Crook, Green P Farm’s founder and manager is very liberal, very political, and very dedicated to Green P Farm’s mission. Nevertheless, he is looking to soon move on to other work. With the funds from the weekly market sales, Green P recently hired a part-time a person to keep in change of the administrative tasks of the garden—specifically, communicating with the garden’s auspice and coordinating with the landowner, Racing Queensland. Yet, further management of the garden will soon be necessary, which includes more hands-on activities and coordinating with the refugee plot owners. Despite these persisting challenges (like those of many community gardens), Green P Farm notably increased the livelihoods of 47 refugees in Brisbane.
Thus far in my blog, I’ve extolled all of the positive impacts of community gardens on people’s mental and physical well-being, plus the broader potential community- and city-wide impacts on civil society, local governance, and food systems infrastructure. At first thought, community gardens may seem like the perfect way to benefit refugee populations, specifically those who might suffer from lack of social and political support and services. Yet this idea could lead down a slippery slope. What are the risks posed when people create a community organization intended to benefit people unlike and/or unfamiliar to themselves? As a community organization, community gardens require the active engagement and dedication of their members. Is it okay if the organization’s ultimate members/beneficiaries aren’t present during the garden’s development? Will their needs and interests be accurately reflected and met?
Recently, multiple community gardens in Budapest have been created specifically for Roma people. Yet these gardens have been overwhelmingly unsuccessful in positively impacting their Roma members, which reflects the challenges of creating supposed community-based garden intended to benefit a certain subset of community members who did not instigate the garden’s creation—but whose interest and active involvement is necessary to sustain the garden in the long-run. Fanny Bársoni, community gardens researcher at Corvinus University in Budapest cited two main reasons for these gardens’ failure. First, Roma populations in Budapest have no historical or cultural connection to agriculture. Second, current, struggling Roma gardens have a top-down structure: they were created by individuals who lack insight into the garden beneficiaries’ cultural backgrounds and present needs and interests. The gardens’ resources have been poorly allocated.
In contrast to Roma people’s lack of historical connection to agriculture, Green P Farm has specifically benefited refugees with significant agricultural histories and experience. Indeed, on the first day Green P Farm held a meeting for potential refugee garden participants, almost fifty people (rather than the five or ten expected) showed up. Yet, Green P Farms has still only predominantly served refugees from three countries, Burma, Nepal, and Bhutan. Crook has engaged with other refugees, from many African and Middle Eastern countries, yet they haven’t had much interest in starting their own plots at Green P Farm.
Nonetheless, Crook’s mindful, cautious management of Green P Farm has allowed Bhutanese, Burmese, and Nepalese refugees to manage their plots and farming activities as they see best fit. Each group of refugees has their own informal management structure, and all has gone very well thus far: the plots have been divided fairly, 47 refugee member have happily, consistently shown up each week, and harvests have been bountiful. Crook and the other Green P Farm volunteers created a community organization to serve a group of marginalized people who do not speak the same language, hold the same cultural values, or have the same political experiences as themselves—no easy feat.
*This is actually all the more relevant now, since I first wrote that a few weeks ago, but now I’m finishing up this post with my one-hand typing back in Chicago.
**Now, in Chicago.
***This part of my blog is a particular bummer to re-read and copy edit now, but I’m doing my best. At least I have none of the same struggle find good blogging cafes in Chicago, which I experienced in most countries I visited this summer. I’m currently chilling alongside a bunch of hipsters in Ukranian Village with speedy wifi and unlimited coffee refills.