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Urban community food systems and the role of permaculture design

Morag Gamble and Evan Raymond,

Sustainable Futures, Crystal Waters College

Urban agriculture is one of the fastest growing agricultural sectors in the world, and as the global population becomes increasingly urbanised it will be of even greater importance in sustaining our communities.

In many cities around the world, neighbourhood residents are coming together to create community gardens, city farms, school gardens, farmers markets, food co-operatives and community supported agriculture programs. These projects provide communities with access to fresh healthy food, and are accessible to a diversity of people from a variety of cultural, socio-economic and educational backgrounds.

The gardens provide a platform for community revitalisation, integrated environmental education, and restoration of the urban environment. They also provide valuable opportunities for people to develop skills in inclusive decision-making, participatory planning and community responsibility.

Community-led urban agriculture projects facilitate positive change on many levels. The projects not only help to create a of sense of place and ownership, but help to strengthen ties between community members, between residents and their local environment, and between residents and the regional businesses, institutions and governing bodies.

A case study: Northey Street City Farm, Brisbane, Australia

In the heart of subtropical Brisbane, a community group has transformed one hectare of city park into a diverse and educational food forest. In the process of growing food, this group has also successfully cultivated community and sustainability awareness.

Northey Street City Farm is an open and accessible garden where edible plants from Australia and around the world are grown — fruits, nuts, vegetables, herbs and flowers. It has become an edible botanic garden and a vibrant community centre for those seeking sustainable solutions for their city and neighbourhood.

The city farm is firmly embedded within the local community. It was designed and is managed by the community to meet local needs. People of all ages, nationalities, educational background and abilities work side by side. The farm and its projects continue to change and evolve over time as new needs are identified.

Northey Street City Farm’s main aims are to provide a demonstration site of sustainable urban living and share this knowledge with others. Since it’s inception in 1994 it has inspired almost a dozen other communities in the region to create gardens in public open space and the farm has contributed to the growing ecoliteracy now evident in Brisbane.

The community food forest

The original vision for the city farm landscape was to create diverse chemical-free gardens including areas of food forest. As the food forest became established, various breeds of poultry were introduced and rotated through the area.

Water features were developed for aesthetic purposes, micro-climate moderation, ecological restoration and pest management. The ponds attract birds, frogs and beneficial insects into this urban landscape. Also, bird and bat boxes have been constructed and placed high in the trees. The ecology of this urban park is being restored.

Currently the farm is also working in partnership with a local aboriginal group to further develop the bushfood gardens (indigenous food forests) and document this information.

Food is shared amongst the workers and traded in the community. Children delight in this wild adventure playground. Paper making and other workshops utilise the on-site plant fibres. Excess timber is used to fire the cob pizza and bread oven. Bonfires are lit as a central focus of the equinox and solstice community events. Money raised from the local food feasts is donated to a sustainable community development project in other parts of the world.

These feasts link the community globally with other community groups. Connections have been made this way with groups in India, Africa and Asia. This process helps people to see and understand that they are not just a small group of people growing a food forest in inner urban Brisbane, but that they are actually part of a global network — a vast grassroots network of people working to create a sustainable future. This is an empowering and inspiring realisation confirming the notion that we can make a difference.

City farm as a platform for social change

Northey Street City Farm is obviously not just a garden. It has become a platform for positive social change. By bringing people together to work co-operatively and discuss the future of their community, many initiatives have been started such as the organic farmers market, a nursery of edible plants, and a community green waste recycling centre.

The city farmers connect with many other groups focused on sustainability in the Brisbane region and are linked nationally with Australian City Farms and Community Gardens Network. As local residents become more involved in their broader environment, there is a growing sense of community ownership and responsibility. As a result, issues beyond the farm’s boundaries are also being addressed — creek clean-up, catchment management, bush rehabilitation, campaigning against GMOs and food irradiation, bicycle rallies, and sustainable living festivals.

Many young unemployed people are gaining hands-on training and permaculture accreditation through 6 month programs. University students have been undertaken on-site research and practicums. Primary and secondary school groups regularly visit to participate in programs about the environment and urban sustainability, and artists have facilitated community art installations. The outdoor meeting spaces are also used for community tai chi, yoga, painting classes, childcare groups and discussion circles.

Open and effective communication is central to the project’s success. Volunteers not only learn practical sustainability skills, they also develop vital communication and interpersonal skills.

This is a community shaping itself — creating a focal point for community interaction, environmental education and food system awareness. Through active co-operation and a strong partnership approach, the group has been able to have a significant impact within the urban community and has helped to put sustainability firmly on the agenda.


Permaculture has been central to the successful development of numerous urban food systems including Northey Street City Farm.

Permaculture (permanent agriculture/permanent culture) is an internationally recognised and integrated approach to sustainability. First developed in Australia 25 years ago, there are now approximately half a million permaculture graduates globally and permaculture is being widely practised and taught in over 120 countries. The principles of permaculture design are applicable at any scale in both urban and rural contexts.

Permaculture addresses the social, economic and environmental needs of local communities. The positive solution-oriented approach provides an accessible method of environmental planning and design that enables communities and individuals to create appropriate strategies for their local situation and regain a level of self-determination. Such locally adapted strategies are directed at meeting basic human needs and addressing issues of food security, clean water supply, environmental quality, health and nutrition, shelter, and the strengthening of local economies.

Permaculture design teaches us how to:

  • observe nature and become more aware of ecological systems
  • restore the land, forests, waterways and local ecologies through integrated catchment management
  • develop sustainable farming methods and food production systems that have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecological systems
  • maintain and improve soil fertility and prevent erosion
  • use water wisely — conservation, collection, storage, reusing, cleansing
  • reduce pollution and waste and utilise resources responsibly
  • plan and design sustainable houses and human settlements
  • utilise appropriate technologies and design for energy conservation
  • strengthen local economies, create local employment and work co-operatives
  • develop fair trade networks, mutual aid and ethical investment organisations
  • build on strengths and abundances within the bioregion
  • share this knowledge with others.


Gamble, Morag and Raymond, Evan (2002) Permaculture Design Course Handbook.

About the author

Morag Gamble is an international ecoliteracy and ecodesign consultant and educator. She is Director of Sustainable Futures, Director and co-founder Crystal Waters College. Advisor to Indonesian, Filipino and Korean environmental education, permaculture and ecovillage networks, and is Queensland Coordinator and Co-founder of the Australian City Farms and Community Gardens Network.

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