Can the humble footpath win the war on food shortages?

Max Güldenpfennig Max Güldenpfennig
Senior Electrical Engineer
10 May 2022
6 min read

It was the 1970s and ordinary civilians were throwing bombs all along New York City streets – seed-bombs, that is. A Greenwich Village artist and a Bedford-Stuyvesant environmentalist formed the Green Guerrillas in response to the grey, urban decay around them and the depressing emptiness caused by the absence of trees and plants in poor neighbourhoods. They were changing the face of the City by throwing seeds over fenced-in vacant lots and putting flower boxes on derelict, abandoned buildings. Soon, the seeds sprouted and fruit and flowers flourished into a vibrant, silent protest.

Today, the Hattie Carthan Memorial Garden cultivates an entire city block in Brooklyn. In addition to greening neighbourhoods and providing oases of biodiversity within cities, these community gardens reclaim urban land, revitalise city blocks and connect people. Where other people saw dead, vacant lots, the Green Guerrillas saw living community gardens.

Could this be the kind of lens we need to solve the wicked problems our cities are facing?

The humble nature strip or ‘verge’, or ‘berm’ as it’s more commonly known in New Zealand, is a strip of land along roads and motorways, often dedicated to grass that needs to be mowed and watered but produces no yield. They’re often underappreciated, ignored and rendered useless but the amount of space they take up is no joke.

In the UK alone, road verges account for 2 579 square kilometres of land, which is almost as big as the county of Dorset that has a population of around 750 000. Imagine how productive and efficient our cities could be if we consider these as more than just patches of grass, and transform them into a sustainable resource and wildlife habitat.

Can we possibly do the same guerrilla movement and make use of these useless patches of land to bring more life and productivity to our cities today?

From lawn to lunch

According to the United Nations, the Earth’s accelerated trends in urbanisation and population density (from 751 million in 1950 to 4.2 billion in 2018) places enormous stress on the availability of agricultural land and contributes to growing food insecurity. The world will need to close a 70 per cent “food gap” between the crop calories available and expected demand in 2050, when nearly two-thirds of the projected 10 billion people will live in cities.

Fortunately, the movement to turn sterile lawns into fertile, edible landscapes has been gaining momentum with gardens becoming smarter and wilder. Edible landscaping, or foodscaping, is found to be “a much more noble use of the soil”, moving beyond the constraints of garden-box growing to turn larger areas into food-producing ground.

As added benefits, locally grown food doesn’t come with any packaging, food-miles or generate the environmental pollutants associated with conventional agriculture, which relies so heavily on toxic pesticides.

It is reminiscent of the “victory gardens” during World Wars I and II when people ploughed front yards, back yards, lawns, flower gardens and vacant lots to grow vegetables in an effort to prevent food shortages. When COVID hit, we saw panic buying and panic planting as food shelves emptied. Now with the war in Ukraine, more shortages are threatening the globe.

While scaling is a consideration, verges converted into veggie gardens could make inroads into creating local produce to help feed our communities.

Putting nature back into the nature strip

Verges could support a myriad of wildlife as well as a wide range of ecological functions such as pollinator support, carbon sequestration, air purification, local climate regulation, noise reduction and flood risk management.

Singapore implements routes planted with trees and shrubs called Nature Ways to make paths cooler and to help facilitate the movement of birds and butterflies between two green spaces. It has four layers to replicate the structure of forests as much as possible – the canopy layer, emergent layer, shrub layer, and understorey layer.

Besides this, gardens trap huge amounts of CO2 in the soil, with trees sequestering or storing the most carbon because of their large root systems, effectively turning cities into carbon sinks.

In Leicester, England, the carbon sequestration of its green areas account for 231 000 tonnes of carbon – roughly the same amount of the annual emissions of more than 150 000 saloon cars. Even if only 10 per cent of the city’s lawns were planted with trees, its carbon storage would be increased by 12 per cent.

The big exchange

In contrast to this beautiful diversity is the monoculture crop of the urban lawn. Lawns are the largest irrigated crop and require more equipment, labour, fuel and harmful chemicals than industrial farming, making it the largest agricultural sector in the US.

Each year, more than 77 million litres of fuel are spilled during the refilling of lawn and garden equipment. They require 41 billion litres of water per day, around 41 million kilograms of fertiliser and 34 million kilograms of pesticide per year. But what if we made cities more productive and sustainable by exchanging these often useless and harmful patches of land for something useful, and make community gardens part of the design process?

According to the Urban Agriculture Network, city gardens now account for 15 per cent of world food production. A new housing development near Melbourne is including a 5000 square-metre garden for vegetables, herbs, berries, an orchard as well as composting and potting benches. It is estimated that the garden will produce more than AUD 150 000-worth of produce each year. Perhaps all new housing developments should have a food production plan, similar to solar energy solutions?

Soul food

However, maintaining and making the most out of these nature strips is more complicated than it looks. Verges are technically owned by the government, ruled by councils, but maintained by residents; so, it will take all these parties to work together to make the transformation happen. While this may be challenging, governments, local councils and residents are given a great opportunity to engage and collaborate with one another to create a better community.

Cities like Bayswater in Western Australia, gave the go-ahead for residents to plant whatever they like on their verges without needing a permit or insurance. The City of Sydney encourages residents and businesses to transform their nature strips into edible gardens as part of its 2030 vision for sustainability.

Studies confirmed that gardening is indeed becoming an important policy strategy for sustainable urban development and that it might play a key role in preventive health, both in urban and suburban areas. A recent study also found that the mental health benefits of community gardening is significantly superior to that of individual gardening.

Ultimately, it is not only about growing gardens, but also about growing individuals and communities. The real beauty of a community garden lies in exactly that – the community. Growing food at home is one thing everyone can do to fight climate change, reduce the environmental impact and help mitigate impending food shortages. Wouldn’t it be great if the humble verges indeed become agents of guerrilla warfare: tiny patches of land overcoming some of society’s biggest challenges, one seed at a time?

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Max Güldenpfennig
Written by
Max Güldenpfennig

When he isn’t helping to solve wicked problems for clients, Max and his partner spend their time in the garden creating a suburban permaculture food forest, with a vision of spilling onto the verge and then the neighbourhood.

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