Opinion

Regulating (sub)urban agriculture: Why can’t we just grow food wherever we want?

“It is this function of planning that means we cannot just grow and sell food anywhere we like in the city. Instead, we have regulations that attempt to ensure food-related activities only occur in areas where such a use is compatible with the surrounding uses.”

Food provides the foundations for human flourishing and the fabric of sustainability. It lies at the heart of conflict and diversity, yet presents opportunities for cultural acceptance and respect. It can define neighbourhoods, shape communities and make places.

Although food is a fundamental human need, the way food is consumed in many countries, including Australia, is harmful to the environment and ourselves. Primarily through the planning function of land use regulation, including land use zoning, town planners can help to shape sustainable and healthy food systems. Good planning can help to protect peri-urban agricultural lands, encourage farmers markets, road-side stalls and community gardens, prevent the co-location of fast-food outlets and schools, and regulate food advertising environments.

Due to various built, cultural, economic and environmental shifts, we’ve recently seen increased interest in the use of land within the city for fresh food production, making it a good time to reflect on some of the ways town planning interacts with suburban agriculture. This is primarily through town planning’s role in the allocation of land for different uses across the city.

Town planning originated in the 19th century out of the need and ability to separate unhealthy, polluting uses from the places where people lived. This was a direct response to the industrial revolution which brought with it both an upscaling of the noisy, smelly and dirty uses to be avoided, and the emergence of new ways to travel relatively long distances away from these uses. As a result, our urban areas today are made up of a mosaic of what we call zones. Within each zone, certain uses are permitted and others are prohibited. If a piece of land is zoned as commercial, for example, that land can be used for a shop, but cannot be used for a house or a hospital. While this might seem logical to us today, to those living in housing scattered amongst the factories and tanneries of Manchester in the 1800s it would have been quite radical.

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It is this function of planning that means we cannot just grow and sell food anywhere we like in the city. Instead, we have regulations that attempt to ensure food-related activities only occur in areas where such a use is compatible with the surrounding uses. Incompatibility might relate to safety – for example in some cities it is prohibited to locate a community garden on a main traffic generating road due to concerns around contamination of produce. It could also be related to amenity – for example, in some areas, local produce cannot be sold on the roadside due to concerns for additional traffic and parking generation. These are two fairly obvious examples, but problems arise when definitions of what is safe and amenable differ within the community. Does a verge planted out with an over-enthusiastic pumpkin vine detract from, or enhance the visual appeal of the streetscape? Should a locality embrace a roadside produce stall even if it means traffic is slowed and parking is less available? Town planner attempt to grapple with these issues by developing new policies and regulations to respond to changing demands or assessing applications for food growing and distribution uses on a case by case basis. Of course in a city that is growing and densifying as rapidly as Sydney, and in a cultural environment where growing one’s own produce is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance, it’s not surprising that some local authorities are struggling to keep up.

This struggle is ostensibly the result of local authorities failing to recognise and prioritise their role in supporting sustainable and healthy food systems. There are immense benefits – biophysical, economic and social, to be gained from local government prioritisation of urban agriculture. Yet the results of a recent study of the content of local community strategic plans across NSW found that only 10% of strategies mentioned anything about food systems as a community priority. Surprisingly, most of these came from regional Councils who saw food security, and the opportunities presented by local food production, as urgent issues. There is obviously room for our metropolitan councils to catch up and capitalise on increased cultural interest in farming our suburbs.


Jennifer will be speaking at  The Suburban Harvest … food in our own backyard – the last seminar in the 2017  Food [at] Sydney seminar series. For details and to register, click here.

Jennifer Kent is a University of Sydney Research Fellow in the Urban and Regional Planning program at the University of Sydney. Jennifer’s research interests are at the intersections between urban planning, transport and human health and she publishes regularly in high ranking scholarly journals. Her work has been used to inform policy development in NSW and Australia, including Sydney’s most recent metropolitan strategy – A Plan for Growing Sydney. Prior to commencing a career in academia she worked as a town planner in NSW in both local government and as a consultant. Jennifer will be talking about the links between suburban agriculture and planning at Sydney Ideas on the 11th of July.

Image: Lukas via Unplash.com, CC0 license, embedded image supplied.