I'm going to plant my berm. Turns out it's not even illegal, if you do it right. Except, it's almost impossible to do it right so probably I'll just do it anyway. Vegetate the city, right? For the birds and the bees and for carbon capture and because it's nice.
Presumably, now Auckland Council has declared a climate emergency, it won't be long before we're all officially encouraged to do it.
Sorry, enough of the fanciful nonsense. Auckland Transport (AT) has rules about berms and basically the answer is no. This is what they say.
First, you need a permit. But you are very unlikely to get a permit unless "the berm is behind the footpath", according to AT spokesman Mark Hannan. Not between the footpath and the roadway, but hard up against your fence. Not the actual berm.
Next, no trees. No shrubs, either, unless they're going to stay very small. The guidelines declare:
• Low level planting (less than 300 mm in height) may be done between adjacent vehicle crossings or around mail boxes and street trees providing it does not encroach onto the footpath and does not exceed a total area of 2sqm.
• Plants shall have a shallow root mass so they won't damage any underground utilities.
• Ground cover shall not include loose materials such as bark, rocks or stones which can be displaced onto the footpath or carriageway.
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That reference to the existing street trees does seem to contradict Hannan's edict about "behind the footpath", but you get the idea. Keep it very small and out of the way and you might be okay. Fruit trees, tall flowers and any but the smallest shrubs are forbidden.
Hannan explained there are several reasons the berm has to be kept clear: "It provides an easily accessible corridor for buried utility services (power, phone, water, gas and wastewater), it provides a place for people to get out of vehicles, it provides an easily maintained green space and a location for appropriate street trees."
Also: "Private plantings require on-going maintenance by landowners. If landowners lose interest or properties change hands, then there is the risk that plantings will not be maintained and will have to be removed and the area re-sowed in grass at Auckland Transport's expense."
None of which makes any sense to Amanda Eason. She lives on a corner site in Mt Albert and has planted a small part of one of the berms. Auckland Transport is demanding she dig out the plants and restore the grass.
It's rather lovely, what Amanda has done. There are daisies in three different colours, lavender, a puriri tree, a feijoa, two kōwhai, a cabbage tree or tī kōuka, a dwarf mānuka and cuphea starfire, also known as rabbits ears, which provides shrubby groundcover.
She's proud, not just of the look of the garden, but of its ecological value: bees, tui and other birds will all be supported by it. The kōwhai will be gorgeous in spring; the puriri, she points out, provide "a whole ecosystem … with flowers practically all year". The starfire also flowers nearly all the time and bees love it.
The feijoa produces fruit, which kids on their way past after school pick and eat.
"The garden," she says, "is a gift for everyone walking by."
The streets are wide and the planting is such that it's not credible people lack the space to step out of cars. Amanda says she will prune the trees as they grow so they do not impede driver sightlines.
She did have an edging of bricks and rocks, but she accepted they might be a trip hazard so has removed them. The problem with that: bark chips can spread onto the footpath.
Is AT's position reasonable, in regard to Amanda or more generally?
Let's take those points one by one. It says planting shouldn't impede access to underground services, or have roots that damage those services. But most services are under the roadway, not the berm. And surely the trees on berms, which AT does not object to, are a much bigger issue.
The disruption caused by small-scale gardening is almost irrelevant compared to the damage already being done by tree roots. But we put up with that. Why? Because we like the trees.
AT says planting has to be kept under 300mm in height. That's far lower than it needs to be if driver sightlines are the issue.
It says you can't use ground cover like bark but also complains about homeowners failing to maintain their plantings. That's rich: we are required to maintain the berms already. I'm quite keen to stop mowing mine.
And what are "appropriate street trees"? The tree on my berm is an ugly misshapen thing – a garden would be far more "appropriate".
It's not easy striking a balance between communal good and individual initiative, but to my mind, AT's approach isn't reasonable. It suggests they are stuck in a mindset: citizens are people who cause problems, so we have to control what they do.
Many people have planted the berms outside their properties. Wildflowers are popular. In my street there's a bank of thick glossy agapanthus that would have once been a berm, but the street is far better for having the shrubbery. Another neighbour has planted hydrangeas and they're pretty nice too. In fact, if all the berms were hydrangeas, like a living Karl Maugham painting, how cool would that be?
We don't own "our" berms, just as we don't own the car park spaces outside our front gates. But we are supposed to look after the berms, so there is some implied sense of responsibility.
Some local bodies take a different view from Auckland Transport. They don't view citizens as problems to be managed. Rather, they see us as the people who pay rates so council and its agencies can help us live well in the city. They see themselves as enablers.
So street planting is encouraged, and not only because it helps bring the birds and bees and makes the neighbourhood more attractive. It helps reduce pollution from car exhausts. It helps build communities. The street that plants together has barbecues together and gets the traffic slowed down and has its kids play safely in the street. Heavens, where would that all lead?
Auckland Transport should lay off Amanda Eason. They're being a bully and she's not hurting anyone. If there are issues – bark chips on the footpath or whatever – they're surely not unresolvable. AT will thank the Amandas of this world one day.
We could all plant our berms. AT could help us, with advice and support. Why not? Wouldn't that be a good use of our rates?
I'm thinking a lemon tree and also kitchen herbs, which neighbours will be welcome to. Ground cover plants: perhaps some chamomile. Native grasses? I'm partial to cornflowers and I like the idea of colour. Also, tui hang out further along the street and I don't see why those people should have all the fun, so something for the birds.
I may not have a big enough berm. Perhaps my neighbours will join in. I suppose I should take care not to let AT know where I live, but I'm not too fussed.
If they do come calling, I could escalate the issue. A little bit of berm liberation is all very well, but I could ask them about proper communal gardens. I would tell them, berms are just the beginning.