Above and beyond the fruitless war on Urban Food Street

Residents expressing themselves...

Deviating from my usual blogging, here I take an in-depth look at an unfolding news story in my neighbourhood, where local authorities have drastically undermined the vision and momentum of internationally significant sustainable community ‘Urban Food Street’ on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast … but there is a bigger picture and the future cannot be denied.
 
(A short version of this article can be found here on Open ABC.)
 
 
ufs

 

After hearing a ruckus on my street one morning, I looked out my window to discover a handful of distressed residents staring in shock at a line of bare stumps where 18 fully laden lemon, lime, paw paw and cumquat trees had just been chainsawed and mulched at the order of the Sunshine Coast Council (SCC).

In this exemplary self-sufficient model of sustainable community that had thrived for several years and attracted global attention, it wasn’t only the trees that were gutted. With the first regulatory curved ball pitched at residents several months before and culminating in this flexing of mulching machinery muscle, the community that was left reeling reached far beyond the project’s 11 streets in Buderim.

There was plenty of media coverage of various details and the points of view of those at the centre of this unfolding drama (not to mention the explosion of public reaction on social media) and like numerous other residents, I had the media at my door and approaching me on the street for comment.

 

View from my window of a steady stream of media and residents.

View from my window of a steady stream of media and residents.

 

With a history of looking for the best in people and valuing the importance of being open to all perspectives, all the while remembering that none of us is perfect and fault is all too easy to find, I was willing to start from a neutral place. I am aware of the SCC’s perspective and while I don’t support their actions, I understand what’s behind their desire to maintain the status quo. The founders have also publicly made their views abundantly clear, as they hold to the big picture vision. I’ve also been privy to an assortment of residents’ privately expressed points of view (including some who attended a meeting with Council) and I have a reasonable overview of the public debate. After giving myself some time to reflect on it all I decided to throw my journalist in situ opinion piece into the mix in the hope that it can contribute to the search for a greater outcome.

Some people have asked why targeted residents didn’t simply arranged the required public liability insurance and ‘free’ permit (temporarily free). I was shocked at how restrictive the permits were – there’s a devil in the details. Stepping into a landowner’s shoes, I absolutely would not want one … but then again, how does one choose between 1) being sent the bill for having verge gardens and trees forcibly removed, and 2) having a permit that requires destroying fruit trees that are fully compliant regardless, and 3) conforming to ongoing, obstructive, micromanagement policing in which you are jumping through hoops to the point of being sorely tempted to throw in the towel? The bottom line? If the SCC advised you to get a permit you were up that infamous creek without a paddle, any which way.

Litigation risk (a.k.a. societal straight-jacket) is no higher with trees on the verge than with grass and the footpath SCC plans to add. How ironic would it be if a stone flicked up from a lawnmower and hit a passer-by in the eye, or some kid playing tripped on a crack in the footpath and ended up with a cement-induced head injury.

And it makes no sense for one resident’s complaint about access to have been prioritised over the majority, especially when there was a simple solution. (A cynic might say the leverage it provided the SCC was convenient). Nor does it make sense that there are all sorts of trees planted on verges Australia-wide. A good chunk of the public debate centres around seemingly double standards and the targeting of edibles over ornamentals.

I don’t know how it could be called anything other than obscene to destroy healthy, mature trees full of free fruit when people the world over are struggling to access quality, fresh food or going hungry. I fail to see how grass and cement could be considered an improvement – as if there wasn’t enough noise pollution and burning of fossil fuels in suburbia already, in the relentless cycle of cutting grass, say nothing of the ongoing machinery disturbance of mulching, ripping out stumps, landscaping, watering new turf and the paving that’s to come. Over to you, Joni Mitchell…

“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

 

Where trees once stood ...

Where trees once stood …

 

As significant as all these well-publicised current issues are, my leaning is to take a more in-depth look – dig deeper down into the bigger picture and longer term, and some aspects of human nature shaping it all.

What do 18 tree stumps teach children? I don’t envy any adult who had to explain this to a child … these youngsters who had been thriving in a sustainable community environment and taking pride in what they helped to create from seed to plate; innocent ones who cannot make sense of the upheaval caused by misuse of power, myopia, discriminatory targeting and a community’s reaction – little ones who may not have the word insanity in their vocabulary yet, but who are certainly getting a taste of it.

And what do 18 tree stumps teach adults? Or in some cases perhaps more pertinent to ask, what are they willing to learn? What would it take for local authorities to evolve beyond the status quo when there is an exceptionally good reason to and when other councils nationally and internationally have been willing and able to do so?

This is by no means the only council area in Australia where this sort of scenario would play out, and yet we can be heartened by some that are creating new benchmarks. Councillor Chris Cornish from Perth’s Bayswater Council – which awesomely has a red tape reduction committee and a policy encouraging verge gardens – outlined some simple solutions and urged the SCC to call a special council meeting and postpone the current course of action, even suggesting that Urban Food Street should be heritage protected, not bulldozed.

As an avid supporter of Urban Food Street, celebrity gardener Costa (Georgiadis) summed up the limitations well, “…antiquated open space models and fear-driven health and safety measures.”

This is not about a community asking for special treatment. This is about recognising that a community is doing something incredibly special, and responding accordingly. It beggars belief that a local authority can publicly spruik sustainability and state that Urban Food Street is special while simultaneously pulling the rug out from under it. Many residents were understandably up in arms from the beginning because they could see around a corner as to what the permits and insurance requirements would create – and had already created even before the trees were destroyed.

Walking these streets is a very different experience from last year. I have stared in disbelief at rolls of turf where abundant food garden beds once were, very little has been planted in the remaining beds and with so many fruit trees now ‘resting in peace’ the pickings are almost non-existent. The joys of popping outside to pick some fresh delights for my nourishment and eating pleasure have now mostly been relegated to memories, and my shopping list is longer.

 

ufs-plot

 

People expressed themselves through signs and placards. Some flowers and notes placed at the base of an R.I.P. sign included words from Martin Luther King, “Nothing is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” The founders have taken some extended time away (I assume fuelled by an overdose of frustration and a bit too much verbal stoushing all round). There are some unresolved tensions, less people on the streets, heavier hearts and a downturn in happy, smiling faces.

This community has certainly had the wind knocked out of its sails. While a well-attended neighbourhood gathering soon after affirmed a collective intention to thrive regardless of what happens, any attempts to restore a robust verge garden community model will take some resolve. While it was successful, the project has not been fully representative of all residents’ diverse wishes for it. While nobody would say it’s realistic to believe it could be and many roads lead to Rome, some have wondered whether this shake up could lead to it potentially morphing into something even greater – that is assuming some bridges can be crossed and some fences mended. Constant assessing, adapting and evolving is the mark of any successful endeavour – as is a co-operative relationship between the community and local authorities.

Whether this momentum killer was strategic or inadvertent on the SCC’s part, only they know. Either way, it’s not a good look. Based on their much publicised regulatory perspective they would certainly want to see the whole thing pared back. Some residents would agree and had expressed concern about the effect of the high level of public interest, however, there are other, less dramatic ways to address that.

Based on the Grand Canyon between their words and actions, the SCC now has a massive credibility problem. They have seriously underestimated the backlash and the ongoing echoes of fall out. I’ll pop my ‘I used to be a public relations consultant’ hat on for a moment to safely bet that whatever procedures are in place for public relations advice, the system is broken. Perhaps after being at the receiving end of the massive, self-inflicted public outcry they just might review it. They would also do well to create a new position for a ‘Common Sense Adviser,’ as it is patently a specialised field.

 

Residents expressing themselves...

Residents expressing themselves…

 

When something new gets created that is outside existing parameters, far beyond what the rule makers could have ever seen coming and that offers a compelling reason to evolve, how are the authorities to respond?

They could try to contort it into a familiar box marked ‘This is how it is, rules are rules, it’s all there in black and white and we’ll patiently explain how you will conform and comply or suffer the consequences.’ (Which the SCC repeatedly refers to as ‘collaborating with local residents.’)

Would it not be more visionary and progressive to say, ‘How can we adapt our governing to cater for something incredible and unique that makes us all look good, that we can all be proud of and that enhances our collective future.’ …? (Rhetorical, of course.)

Advances in our civilisation are essential and guaranteed. What is not guaranteed is that governments will keep pace (or praise be, be one step ahead) – but it is possible. When local authorities in Italy were tipped off about some underground temples that had been built in secret, they went looking for them with the intention to destroy them – in other words, a cookie cutter local authority approach. After all, its creators had not made the project known to authorities and there were no regulations to cater for underground constructions.

…but that’s not what happened. The authorities were so incredulous and amazed with what they found, they updated the rules to make the structure legal. Where there’s a will…

In the age-old battle between oppressors and oppressed, slavery and segregation were legal once, and very much the status quo. It took activists many tumultuous years of campaigning before the laws were finally changed. There are countless examples society and lawmakers can look back on and say, “What were they thinking?” Even now, in spite of an increasing number of governments worldwide updating marriage equality laws, many others are still resisting it. They cannot hold out forever. The future will not be denied.

Sustainable community models are also part of that future.

I likely speak for the majority when I ask, what would it take for governments on all levels to stop dragging their heels when change is inevitable? Even if they can’t see it. If the majority see it, want it and choose it, as representatives of the people in a democracy they have a fundamental obligation to put their personal fears and preferences aside. We all know that’s how it’s supposed to work. (Sigh.)

 

A symbolic gesture accompanied by the words of an exemplary, inspirational leader.

A symbolic gesture accompanied by the words of an exemplary, inspirational leader.

 

So … what else is possible?

Where to from here?

When life gives you lemons – make lemonade.

When the authorities take away the lemons – keep making lemonade.

As history has shown us time and again, no glorious vision for the future can be snuffed out when the people rise.

What would it take for the SCC Mayor to have a Gandhi-inspired epiphany? “I must follow the people for I am their leader.”

The majority of leaders (globally) clearly do not have the sort of innate visionary capacity that great leaders possess, though it can be learned to a degree by those who are willing. However, the reality is that while ever they thrive on abusing power in a toxic, dog-eat-dog system and as long as their decisions are based on fear, reactivity, convenience and agenda, they can have little incentive to change the status quo.

Fear – which underpins all of it – has a nasty habit of seducing people into smallness. It’s humanity’s Achilles’ heel. While most fear is illusory, to be fair, it can be insidious and very convincing, and none is immune. It has seduced us all in different ways at different times, however those in power have a greater responsibility to rise above it and to have the fortitude and humility to totally own it and call it when they err … and be willing to do whatever it takes to put things right. Even if they believe they haven’t erred, if the majority believe they have it’s time to prioritise putting things right.

While many responses from residents and the wider public have been constructive and solution-focused, others have thrown fuel on the fire. While that may not be helping, authorities need to have more resilience in the face of predictable fallout and provocative verbal attacks – after all, you can’t whack a beehive with a big stick and not expect an angry swarm of threatened bees.

 

A young Urban Food Streeter takes the initiative to chalk 'SCC was here' at the 'scene of the crime.'

A young Urban Food Streeter takes the initiative to chalk ‘SCC was here’ at the ‘scene of the crime.’

 

Encouragingly, when an idea’s time has come, there is no stopping it. President Eisenhower had the smarts when he said, “When the people lead, the leaders will follow.” Ultimately, this assault on Urban Food Street – justified by outmoded rules and outmoded thinking – is proving to be a fruitless war for myriad reasons, not the least because it’s a simple matter of cause and effect. The powers that be must surely know that when they don’t have their finger on the pulse of public sentiment, and when people don’t like their choices and don’t respect their behaviour, they risk being changed out for new leadership that can keep pace with the people they represent and an ever-evolving society. The SCC has put a mountain in front of itself to climb to win the trust of its constituents. Let’s just say the next local council elections will be mighty interesting.

 

(I digress momentarily for a nostalgic story …
Once upon a time, King Bob reigned over the fair land of the Sunshine Coast. He was wildly popular, progressive and benevolent, and they all lived happily ever after…until he went away. The people cried. The end.) 

 

There was a slither of hope (albeit mixed in with justifiable cynicism) that the pressure of public opinion may have been starting to create cracks in the SCC’s armour when the Mayor agreed to Costa’s request for a meeting – a request that pre-tree mulching was dismissed and ignored. The Mayor stated, “All is not lost and I intend to work with the community. I think there will need to be some compromise on all sides … we need to think about the interests and wishes of our community.” Welcome words, however, the proof will be in the actions, and on that basis, there is justification for concern.  There has been no media coverage or announcements from Costa or the project founders to indicate that a meeting went ahead. Some of the residents met with the Council only to discover they made a statement to the media the following day that was the complete opposite of the understanding that was reached in the meeting.

Just to indulge in a little bit of Utopian dreaming, a more expansive leadership approach could well look like being open to asking residents whether they would be willing to put forward a proposal for a solution for the SCC’s consideration that has the approval of a majority of landowner residents and that fully covers off the Council’s concerns and obligations. When you empower people, harness their passion and skills and give them some wiggle room, you just might be pleasantly surprised by what they come up with. It otherwise remains an untapped resource.

What would it take for this unique, inspirational community and conceptually spectacular community model to resurrect and thrive once again, and for this conceptually spectacular community model to not only be re-imagined and re-built into something even greater; but to no longer be unique after having inspired and shaped other communities the world over?

What would it take for aspiring communities everywhere and their corresponding local authorities to learn from what has taken place here and resolve to find more effective and benevolent ways to co-exist, co-operate and win/win?

In complete contrast with living in standard suburban streets, my first-hand experience as a resident here (during its halcyon days) has been consistent with abundant evidence that exists – there’s zero doubt in my mind that this community model is richly rewarding, makes a massive contribution to the well-being and thriving of society on multiple levels that are beyond measure and it is far, far too important to be undermined by the unreasonable enforcement of antiquated rules by an inflexible council that has not had the community’s back. It’s certainly high time the SCC started singing ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’.’

And while not everyone is on the same page about where to from here, gratitude to the founders, the many residents, and the huge number of supporters from the wider community who passionately believe in sustainable community and who have in various ways wholeheartedly thrown themselves into the challenge of finding a way forward – and kudos to Costa for being such a passionate advocate with a ton of common sense.

While there has been upheaval and unease, and a need to restore cohesion and momentum, and while we lament that the SCC has chosen (thus far) to be on the wrong side of history, I am quietly optimistic that this whole fiasco will catalyse greater national and international resolve to embrace an inevitable future, and that this frontier community will at some point in the future turn lemons into lemonade, eventually rise from the ashes and in time, thrive again.

The world needs it to.

…lemonade, anyone?

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
(A short version of this article can be found here on Open ABC.)

Some excellent ABC news articles:

Residents horrified as Sunshine Coast Council chops, mulches trees in Urban Food Street

Urban Food Street: D-day arrives for more grower residents as council defends position after tree cull

Urban food street: Costa to meet with Sunshine Coast Council over ‘stone-walling’ policy

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