PHOTO: Serena Everill from Pascoe Vale South, a northern suburb of Melbourne, tends to her curb-side vegetable garden (Supplied: Natalie Vella)
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It's a Sunday morning in Pascoe Vale South, a northern suburb of Melbourne, and Serena Everill is digging in her front garden.
She stops when she sees me, and we walk to her nature strip where a small raised garden bed sits not quite flush with the kerb. A few tiny seedlings sprout from the dirt: basil left over from summer, silver beet and leek.
Serena, a member of the Moreland Food Gardens Network, lobbied her local council for over a decade so residents could grow food on their nature strips.
"A whole mob of us got involved," she says. "It took us years, maybe even 12 years of advocating to council to get a policy around growing food on Moreland's natures strips."
As urban density has intensified in all major Australian cities renegades like Serena are fighting to replace the greenery that has been lost.
PHOTO: Without greenery, urban areas heat up in what scientists call the urban heat island effect. (ABC News: Julie Hornsey)
Cities becoming 'heat islands'
Between 2013 and 2017 green areas in Australia's capital cities and regional areas fell by around 2 per cent, according to a study by Marco Amati, environmental scientist and associate professor of International Planning at RMIT's Centre for Urban Research.
That means trees, shrubs and grass have been lost and not replaced over that five-year period.
This might not sound much until you put it into perspective.
"It's the equivalent of 42 Melbourne Cricket Grounds being lost every day during that period," said Amati.
Without greenery, urban areas heat up in what scientists call the urban heat island effect.
Hotter suburbs lead to an increase in electricity used for cooling and stormwater run-off has nowhere to go.
As cities expand developers are transforming what were once farms and market gardens into more housing.
Dr Rachel Carey studies the sustainability of Melbourne's food supply at Melbourne University's Footprint Melbourne Project.
She says up to 50 per cent of our food is locally grown but as farms give way to development, reliance on imported food is increasing. As supermarkets begin to dominate food supply their produce is shipped from far-flung places but then sits in storage for months.
Couldn't growing food and fruit trees on our nature strips offset some of this problems?
PHOTO: Access to cheap, fresh food is one of the benefits of nature-strip gardens. (Supplied: Caroline Kemp)
Sowing seeds of change
Influential local councils are starting to agree.
Canberra has just launched guidelines that allow food planting on nature strips and the City of Sydney has a footpath gardening policy encouraging residents and businesses to transform their footpaths as part of council's 2030 vision for sustainability.
In Victoria, the City of Melbourne has announced plans to greenify the city to mitigate climate change and the urban heat island effect.
Tulips saved for Melbourne lane
When Joost Bakker learned thousands of tulips were to be thrown away, he loaded up a truck and filled Hosier Lane with spring colour.
But in suburbs across Australia renegade gardeners have long been pioneers of nature strip gardening.
Not far from Serena lives guerrilla gardener, teacher and writer Karen Sutherland - whose edible garden has featured on several television shows, including ABC's Gardening Australia.
Karen began growing food on her nature strip long before her local council, Moreland Council, changed the regulations to allow it. Now, Karen's nature strip is covered in vegetables, edible flowers and fruit trees such as loquat and olive.
She highlights the community connection benefits that come from spending time gardening in public spaces.
"I've had edible plants for many, many years on my nature strip. I knew all of my neighbours as it's a dead-end street," she says. "I couldn't believe the difference. People would come up when I was watering my nature strip to have a chat. Somehow you are more on public property and people really connect with you more."
Community connection is not the only positive effect. Access to almost free fresh food for those on low incomes is another.
The urban food street that divided a town
But what happens if a neighbour doesn't like what you planted on your green strip? It is public land so can they complain to the council?
Councils are obliged to act, issuing fines, or worse, requesting residents to dig up the offensive plantings that may have taken years to grow. The fallout can fracture the community it was supposed to unite.
In Budermin in Queensland, 11 neighbouring streets developed a food-growing culture known as Urban Food Street and built a large social media following. But when Sunshine Coast Council received a complaint about fruit trees creeping onto the footpath things became tense. Residents butted heads with Sunshine Coast Council for months. Those who refused to apply for a permit to grow food had their gardens destroyed.
PHOTO: 'Banana Boulevard' in Buderim produced up to 900kg of fruit annually for local residents. (ABC Sunshine Coast: Harriet Tatham)
Keith Harwood from Glen Eira, whose Instagram account Suburban Existence has over 60,000 followers, is in two minds about growing food on nature strips.
The self-proclaimed garden activist grows vegies in a quasi-public space between his property and the footpath. "Passers-by will just come past and take everything and leave nothing for anyone else. Or chuck rubbish in it. I'm a bit sceptical that a few will ruin it for all."
Often concerns about nature strip gardening comes from the councils themselves, with many worried about public liability - what if a pedestrian slips on fallen fruit?
When Karen faced this problem over a lemon tree she planted, she argued native gum nuts posed a similar risk and began to lobby City of Moreland for change. While she waits for a decision her lemon tree stays.
These contentious little strips of land are owned by local government to accommodate power poles, utilities and street trees. But, residents are technically responsible for maintaining these grassy areas.
PHOTO: Some councils in Victoria support growing food on public land. (774 ABC Melbourne: Simon Leo Brown)
Councils take initiative
Interest in this kind of gardening has led many councils to create strategies to guide its development.
Rules about distances from curbs, footpaths and poles, lists of what you can and can't plant, and height limits are often confusing.
A few councils in Victoria such as Moreland, Ballarat, Yarra and Darebin support food growing on nature strips.
Darebin Council even has its own strategy to guide the issue and notes that street planting can even change the attitudes of drivers as they pass through, leading to lower speeds and safer streets.
Subdivision planned for former 'food street'
Residents of a street once praised for being an "internationally significant" community food project are shocked by plans to turn part of it into a housing development.
Their guidelines warn against eating from nature strip gardens "due to concerns for personal safety, the integrity of soil conditions, cleanliness and hygiene," according to Darebin Mayor Susan Rennie.
Waverley Council in NSW allows residents to design their verge garden including food grown on nature strips as part of a wider urban farming policy that encourages locals to share food grown in their backyards, balconies and community gardens.
However, Penrith Council in Sydney's west - as well as Dandenong outside Melbourne - doesn't have guidelines around verge gardening, arguing the area's large housing blocks have plenty of space to grow food.
For some food growers, the rules are too restrictive.
But Nina Taylor, a former councillor in Glen Eira who championed the idea of nature strip vegetable gardens, strict rules are better than none.
"I think it is better to have something to work with than no guidelines at all," she says. "If the guidelines give residents the confidence to put some plants/native grasses as a start, then that is good for our environment."
PHOTO: Serena Everill in her curbside garden at Pascoe Vale South in Melbourne. (Supplied: Natalia Vella)
In the meantime, gardeners like Serena will continue to lobby for change.
Back at her nature strip, as a light drizzle falls, I ask Serena why she has two compost bins on her nature strip. She explains to me that it is there for the neighbours to put their food scraps in.
"I want to show people what is possible. And that all of this is a positive thing."
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