Twelve questions: Urban pantry founder Emily Harris

By Jennifer Dann

Urban Pantry founder Emily Harris threw in her law career to help community groups set up inner city food gardens like the vegetable gardens in Aotea Square for ‘Summer in the Square’.
Emily Harris with her city-grown veges in Aotea Square. Photo / Doug Sherring.
Emily Harris with her city-grown veges in Aotea Square. Photo / Doug Sherring.

1. Why did you set up your voluntary organisation Urban Pantry in 2010?

I started out with the idea of putting edible gardens on central city rooftops, inspired by places such as New York and London, but it was harder than I thought. Engineers Without Borders did some calculations for me and lots of Auckland's buildings aren't designed to carry that sort of weight.

You've also got to get the building owners on board and there were concerns about things like potential damage to the waterproofing on roofs. The stars didn't align with speaking to the right people at the right time.

2. What did you do instead?

I used GIS maps to identify some green spaces at ground level in the CBD and fringe and worked with the council to get in touch with the owners.

The community development team connected me with places like the Library Cafe in Onehunga where we worked with a local residents' group called Tableside to set up an edible garden.

The community was supposed to continue looking after it but that didn't really take off. It's just been looked after by the cafe owners since then.

3. Have you managed to get other communities to take ongoing care of their gardens?

The one at Freemans Bay Community Hall was better because we reached out to the community groups that use the hall like the Brownies and an adult literacy organisation which now uses the garden as part of their teaching programme, so that's pretty cool.

4. Did you ever do a rooftop garden?

Our first project was on the fifth floor of a building in High St. An architect invited us to create a garden on the deck of his studio.

We got a few funny looks trying to get these big wooden planter boxes and bags of soil up the lift of a commercial building during the day when people were trying to go to their offices.

It was probably just luck that they all fitted. Now we focus on putting the gardens in places where lots of people can see them and get excited about them.

5. What does the Aotea urban garden project involve?

We invited the public to plant the gardens in December. Quite a few people saw what was going on and joined in. They've survived the Christmas break which was pretty good.

People may have picked bits but they haven't been pulled out. We've been running weekend workshops there through until February 19 on things like growing micro greens on windowsills and an introduction to organic gardening.

6. What has been your favourite project?

An event we held called Crowd-Grown Feast. We worked with some really interesting chefs called Pop Up Dining who were doing themed meals in weird spaces around the city.

We asked them to create a menu based on vegetables that could be grown in urban gardens. We then recruited Aucklanders to grow the ingredients and then come together and have a feast.

You had to sign up six months in advance to give everything time to grow. Lots of people were really excited about the concept. We were oversubscribed but managed to squeeze 110 people on to long tables we set up in the silos down at Wynyard Quarter.

7. Why undertake such a massive logistical exercise for one night?

It was such a cool way to elevate backyard-grown produce and show it's not substandard in any way. The chefs produced this amazing seven-course gourmet meal out of stuff people had grown in their backyards and balconies.

Also we brought together 110 random people who had a great time being thrown together with complete strangers for a meal. One of the best pieces of feedback we got was "you've revived the art of conversation".

8. Have any projects fallen over?

At the start we'd approach groups with proposals and work with them but later we started responding to requests. Some fizzled out when the group's concept was too vague, they weren't prepared for the amount of work involved, key people moved on or access to a particular space was blocked.

I'm only doing a handful of projects each year, just the ones that excite me. I couldn't afford to do Urban Pantry full time any more so now I also work part-time at Eco Matters Environment Centre in New Lynn doing events and fundraising.

9. Do you come from a "green" family?

Not at all, just a regular family from Invercargill. Dad was a school principal and mum's a radiographer. They had a vege patch and I used to like to get in there and help out. You can take for granted how much you learn growing up with a garden.

Some people who come to our plantings are really quite nervous because they have no experience whatsoever.

10. What do your parents think of your chosen field - do they wish you'd get a "real job"?

Their minds boggled a bit at first as to why I would study at university for five years, get a law degree and work for two years only to become a full-time volunteer, which is understandable. They're used to it now. I still haven't paid off my student loan but I've just managed to scrape through without needing to call on them for money.

11. Why did you leave your legal career?

I really enjoyed studying law. I did my dissertation on climate change and the international legal response. But I couldn't see how I was going to be able to achieve any tangible environmental outcomes within the legal field at that time.

I got really excited about urban good growing because it's a key gateway for getting people engaged with environmental sustainability. It all connects up because people growing food consume less supermarket packaging and are more likely to compost scraps and collect rainwater.

12. How worried are you about the future of the planet?

It's hard not to be worried but I try not to because that just gets you bogged down instead of taking action. I'm seeing more and more people aware, engaged and doing things. I really do feel like everything's going in a good direction.

- NZ Herald

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