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Canberra – the Food Garden Capital

Julian Cribb is an author, journalist, editor and science communicator. Julian provides specialist consultancy in the communication of science, agriculture, food, mining, energy and the environment. Julian has worked across the world, but more recently has prepared a paper on how Canberra can become Australia's first and leading Food Garden City.

Read Julian Cribb's paper below.

Canberra – the Food Garden Capital

A proposal for urban greening, renewal, health and wellbeing

Julian Cribb FRSA FTSE



In August 2019 it was proposed that Canberra become a centre for sustainable urban food as an essential step towards its zero net emissions target by 2045.

Hitherto renewable food, food waste and the local recycling of nutrients and water have been largely missing from the public discussion on the city’s future. Their role in building local business, improving the health of the community and making Canberra more self-sustaining into the future have been largely overlooked.

This paper supports that plan with a proposal for Canberra to become Australia’s first and leading Food Garden City, a fountainhead of new ideas, learning and thinking about renewable local food to Australia and the world.


What is a Food Garden?

At its very simplest a food garden is a vegetable plot in a home back yard, in the grounds of a school or community centre, in the heart of a suburb, on the roof of a big building or on spare land adjacent to public or sporting facilities. Its essential feature is that it produces plenty of clean, healthy fresh fruits and vegetables at a low cost – and teaches sustainable living.

It can range from simple cultivation of natural soil, to raised garden beds, to quite sophisticated hydroponic, aquaponic and aeroponic set-ups.  It can supply fresh healthy food to a family, a community, a school, a hospital, a restaurant, even a supermarket.

A food garden brings city people back into contact with something they have lost over the past century - how to grow, prepare and enjoy their own fresh food.

A food garden city, however, is much more. It offers better diet, health and fitness for its citizens. It teaches sustainable living principles to children and adults alike. It can be a source of economic growth. It tackles the problems of food and organic waste by recycling them. It makes better use of city water, including runoff and grey water. It makes more productive use of urban spaces. It offers individuals a hopeful ‘hands-on’ way to respond to the issues of climate change and sustainable living.


What are the benefits?

The benefits of a Food Garden City are many. They include:

  • A local supply of food is essential to the sustainability of any city. At present most rely on long, fragile transport pipelines and may easily suffer if global food shortages arise.
  • Food Gardens are a living demonstration of the health, fitness and wellbeing benefits of fresh food to individuals and the community at large.
  • They educate the young to prefer sustainable healthy food, creating a cadre of consumers who will value fresh, safe, local and healthy food in future.
  • They reinforce local economic growth and employment. If Canberra grew a tenth of its food locally, this would add $200 million a year to the urban economy.
  • They promote enthusiasm and interest in the wider community for healthy living and eating, which in turn can help to reduce the burden of noncommunicable disease. At present three quarters of all Australians die from a diet-related disease, and three quarters of the healthcare budget is devoted to treating these diseases.
  • Food Gardens are more resilient to Climate Change as they are usually protected from the extremes of climate, drought, heat, frost etc. They thus supply more food, more reliably.
  • Food Gardens are a vital way to recycle the nutrients and water current wasted by cities. They can help eliminate food waste.
  • Food Gardens, large and small, are thus an important step towards Renewable Food
  • Food Gardens empower individuals to take charge of their own future.
  • Food Gardens offer relief from urban stress and mental ill-health.
  • Food Gardens are a way to provide the poor and underprivileged with fresh, healthy food – and even engage them in its production.
  • Food gardens reduce the amount of toxins, fats and chemical additives in the modern diet.
  • Food gardens help make a city green, attracting birds, insects and other wildlife.
  • Food gardens are an important part of ‘agritecture’, the worldwide trend towards buildings and cities that grow food and recycle waste.
  • Food gardens create local demand for goods and services in horticulture, food production, marketing, cooking, catering, marketing, delivery etc.

There are no significant drawbacks to being a Food Garden City.

Indeed, many cities around the world are busy repealing out-of-date ordinances that ban the keeping of bees, poultry, small livestock, the recycling of organic wastes, and health regulations which enforce the use of toxic preservatives etc.


Designing a Food Garden City

Food gardens are now a worldwide trend, finding roles in hospital care, restaurants, supermarkets, large apartment complexes, retirement villages, community gyms and ovals, schools, allotments, suburban community, poverty alleviation, dietary improvement programs and many other institutions.

Food gardens are inexpensive to set up. One capable of supplying a family with most of their fresh produce costs only a few hundred dollars. A school food garden can be built for a thousand or so and will repay the investment in two to four years.

The key to a successful Food Garden City is the wholehearted support of its governing body, in our case, the ACT Government. This sends an important signal to the wider community that food gardens are valued, approved of and encouraged for all the reasons listed above.

There is no single formula for establishing a Food Garden City. It may require:

  • Permission for food gardens to be created on both public and private lands and buildings
  • Replanning of water and waste disposal systems to service a renewable food sector
  • The provision of trustworthy professional advice on how to establish and run a food garden
  • The removal of regulatory and other obstacles which may discourage food gardens
  • The provision of small loans and grants to community bodies and organisations wanting to establish food gardens
  • Public advocacy of the food garden concept by Ministers, the organising of conferences, workshops, tours, educational and information events
  • The establishment of food gardens in all junior and senior schools and the incorporation of healthy, sustainable food principles within the curriculum.
  • The fostering of marketing networks, markets, online sales and other outlets for surplus food garden produce.
  • The subsidy of a skilled gardener to supervise each individual garden, and/or the organising of a corps of volunteers from ex-farmers, horticulturalists and keen home gardeners.


Educational values of Food Gardens

Food Gardens are one simple way that a city can future-proof itself and its citizenry. Not only do they provide renewable food, they also instil the principles of renewable and sustainable production in consumers of all ages, of not wasting precious food or resources, of working with nature not against it.

It is essential for the health of the coming generations that they learn how to eat and live safely and sustainably. How to eat for health instead of sickness. How to value food as the substance that keeps us alive, instead of throwing it in the trash. This is imperative for an economic transition in which consumers are willing to pay the higher prices involved in producing food by sustainable methods – instead of the low prices that result in the mining and destruction of the landscape, farm livelihoods and wildlife.

Many schools have observed that children will eat healthy foods like broccoli and brussels sprouts if they have first grown them themselves. That disruptive students who hate book learning often respond to practical, hands-on tasks like growing their own food. Food Gardens can thus instil an essential life skill and perspective. And children, once they have seized the idea, will very often educate their parents.

School food gardens in particular teach the connective role of soil, water, microbes, fertility, plants and animals in food production – issues now largely unknown to the world’s four billion urbanites, whose food arrives packaged, on trucks and ships, and who have no concept of the impact of their consumption on the Earth.

Put simply, every single meal costs the planet 10 kilos of topsoil, 800 litres of water, 1.3 litres of diesel fuel, 0.3g of pesticide and 3.5 kilos of carbon dioxide. And those resources are wasted 24 billion times a day, 8 trillion times a year. This food system cannot be sustained past the mid- century: it cries for a rediscovery of food and how we produce it.

The Urban Food Garden has a vital role to play in that rediscovery because it engages individuals at grassroots level in an activity that absolutely everybody does: eating.

By encouraging cities to recycle both their organic waste and water, Urban Food Gardens also help provide the essential raw materials for an industrial-scale urban food industry operated by companies, corporations and supermarkets. In all, urban food production, large and small scale, is capable of providing from one third to a half of the world’s food, renewably. [1]

The renewable food revolution will be even larger than the renewable energy revolution. It will create more jobs, bring health and wellbeing and blaze the way for the sustainable culture of the future.



Canberra is ideally placed to become the Australian Food Garden Capital.

It has a fair climate, with adequate water, soil and space. It is a city with a high level of technical, scientific and teaching skills and a growing sustainability ethos, strongly encouraged by Government. It has a number of imaginative and well-established food gardens as models to draw on.

Canberra also imports most of its food needs at an annual cost of $2 billion which is subtracted from our local economy and added to those of giant supermarket chains and distant cities like Sydney, Melbourne and overseas. Any food Canberra grows locally thus represents import replacement and a net increase in the city’s wealth. A saving of ten per cent would put $200m a year into the local economy.

Food Gardens can also help to check or even reduce burgeoning medical and mental healthcare costs, and lengthening patient queues, by steering the community towards a healthier diet from childhood. Australia urgently needs a large community model for preventative healthcare through diet, which Canberra can provide.

Urban food production is emerging as a trend worldwide, and Canberra has the opportunity to capture a leading position as an exporter of knowledge, education and technology.

The cost of proclaiming and planning Canberra as a Food Garden City is minuscule in comparison to the benefits.

Above all, the value of a Food Garden City lies in its power to engage almost every citizen at some level, as a producer, a processor or a consumer. It has the power to inspire, engage and empower individual citizens in a culture that values sustainability, health, wellbeing and enjoyment.

It is a clear statement of who we are, and what we can contribute to humankind.

[1] Cribb JHJ, Food or War, Cambridge 2019.

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