Dialogue: Gardeners tossed out of an inner city Eden

By PETER MURNANE*

It is said that God drove Adam and Eve out of a garden. The Hobson community board has expelled a whole garden from the Basque Reserve in Newton.

By a narrow vote, board members decreed that St Benedicts Community Gardens, after seven years, must move to an alternative location. The decision raises deep questions about democracy in Auckland.

Back in 1993, the community board had enthusiastically encouraged the small justice, peace and development group from St Benedicts parish who wanted to start an urban farm in Basque Reserve. The group had support and small donations from about 250 people.

These people dreamed of improving the inner-city concrete jungle while helping local people, especially the jobless, to learn how to grow their own food and enjoy the fruit of shared labour.

And this happened. They began with a wasteland of solid clay, kikuyu and dockweeds but were soon composting richer and deeper soil. They had no water supply but a local factory owner gave them the run-off from his roof.

Soon, many species of vegetables, fruit and flowers were flourishing and insects and birds came to join in the party.

The "farm" - later called St Benedicts Community Gardens - grew with minimal funds but lots of goodwill. The community board granted money.

There were community days when adults gathered with food and music. The children - guided by a local artist - painted the water tank. The garden became a delightful spot where passers-by sought refuge during lunch hours. There was no fence and anyone could stroll through. Many shared the vegetables and fruit.

Some workers in the garden were paid by the Government's Task Force Green or volunteered to work off their community service penalties among the veges.

In 1997, after a winter when weeds almost triumphed, a number of new young people came to the garden. They were trained in permaculture skills or had been volunteers overseas. A few moved in to live beside the garden.

Negotiations with Auckland City Council officials had for years remained smooth. The gardeners cooperated fully with every request. But a few neighbours were not amused and nursed a long-term dislike for the garden.

From the beginning, some had lamented losing part of the level ground where they had played - and could still play - impromptu games of cricket. One neighbour feared the lowering of his property values if the "untidy" garden were to remain.

But the neighbourhood made its preference clear. When the city council began to draw up a new plan to turn Basque Reserve into a park, public meetings were well-attended. People spoke their minds and it became obvious that a majority could happily allow St Benedicts Community Gardens to remain in the overall plan.

The garden would have to move to the other end of the reserve to make room for proposed stormwater settlement ponds, but the gardeners accepted this and began to plan the difficult task of shifting a half-acre of topsoil and countless plants.

This, however, was not good enough for the garden's few obsessive and vociferous opponents: they wanted the gardens out of the park altogether.

The city council ruled that the final decision about the garden's future belonged to the community board. After all, community boards should represent a neighbourhood better than the centralised council. The Hobson board, like the city council and the mayor, had been generous in giving the gardeners time to explain themselves.

But the critical question remains: after local residents had been consulted in two public meetings and after a workshop to understand what the garden is doing, why did the community board not follow the wishes of the majority?

By five votes to three the board decided to snuff out the gardeners' dream. Its decision hardly inspires confidence that it listens to its electors.

The expulsion of St Benedicts Community Garden shows the lack of imagination of some members of our city council and the Hobson board. What prevented them from sharing the vision of the many young Aucklanders who designed and worked at this project?

One board member demonstrated this lack of imagination. She said that she had often voted for "open green space" but did not want it cluttered with such things as gardens.

Auckland urgently needs long-term environmental vision. Many scientists point out that if all the world's people began to consume as many resources as we "developed" nations, our planet would be dead within a few years.

The Earth faces huge breakdowns in its major systems (clean air, water, soil and biodiversity) in the next 50 or 100 years.

The young gardeners of Basque Reserve share the vision of permaculture, which proposes reshaping our methods of agriculture into a sustainable, permanent base simply so that our culture can survive.

They have created in an Auckland park a small recreational area that is different and imaginative. Already their garden has taught children - mostly from deprived backgrounds - where our food comes from, how things grow and how to recycle waste. There have also been permaculture workshops for adults.

Most members of Hobson Community Board are well-off. They live in Remuera, Parnell or Mt Eden. The collapse of previous cultures shows that an addiction to property, profit and the status quo can blind us from seeing the wider picture beyond our own backyard.

Young people, as yet unencumbered by such baggage, note the gap between rich and poor growing scandalously wider. When wealthy people have foiled their attempts to help those in need, they reasonably suspect that such people are living in denial.

How long before our city's decision-makers begin to see this small "fruitful jungle" as a prophetic service to the city? What will it take to bring our elected leaders to get real?

Another community board - Mt Albert - has allowed young people to plant fruit trees in a park.

The Hobson board put both feet into its collective mouth when it stopped the young gardeners from serving Auckland with vegetables and ecological example in just 10 per cent of Basque Reserve. No doubt the board will be hearing from the many young people in its constituency next election day.

* Father Peter Murnane was formerly the St Benedicts parish priest.

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