Time up for Erko guerrilla garden?

Sydney Sentinel, November 2020

The morning light is barely above the apartment blocks and terrace houses on Erskineville Road and the area is already bustling. Between some of Sydney’s best cafes, restaurants and pubs, an empty lot lies squeezed between terraces: the ErskineVillage Community Garden. The garden lies on prime real estate, and the City of Sydney Council is all too aware of it. 

After more than a decade of guerrilla gardening at the lot, a motion to protect the council-owned site from being sold to developers was voted down at last night’s council meeting. 

Notices of motion to protect the site were raised by prominent Councillor Dr Kerryn Phelps, along with Councillor Craig Chung, after consultation with a collective of gardeners and locals.

In a dramatic standoff during a debate that lasted nearly an hour, Chung’s motion to instead postpone debate on the removal of the site was tied at five votes on each side. Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore broke the tie, using her casting vote to declare the motion lost. Phelp’s motion is yet to be addressed, but is likely to face a similar fate when it’s debated next week, opening the gates to development of the site.

A chequered history

As far back as 2009, members of the City of Sydney Environment Committee raised concerns regarding safety, exclusivity and vermin problems within the site. 

Multiple reports detail issues of asbestos contamination, the site’s proximity to a petrol station, and a cockroach infestation that required regular intervention from Council staff to reduce the spread to adjoining residences.

One member of the garden, when asked by the Sentinel about the concerns, said, “The reason it doesn’t look its best, is that we pay for everything … I don’t mind it that way.”  

A report from 2013 details a proposal by “a small group of local residents” to formalise the community garden arrangement, which the committee rejected due to an alleged lack of compliance with City of Sydney community garden guidelines. 

The guidelines include a charter of responsibility of community gardeners to, among other things: welcome visitors to the garden and ensure members of the public can access the site during daylight hours; employ democratic, transparent and inclusive decision-making, and; ensure compost, worm-farming systems and fertilisers do not attract vermin, cockroaches or produce unpleasant odours. 

A composting station within the garden. Photo: Eliza Spencer.

The report and recommendations led to a council resolution in 2013 to sell the site for affordable housing. City of Sydney CEO Monica Barone said: “But at the time we didn’t have an offer… recently we got an offer. We already had a standing council resolution that this was a site for affordable housing.” 

Despite the rejection of community garden status and recommendations of the report to encourage joining an alternative garden, located 300 metres from the Erskineville Road site, the gardeners have continued to compost and cultivate the site. 

Public or private?

Governance and access are organised through a private Facebook group, and the site remains fenced and chained closed when not in use. 

The fencing is a point of contention for some local residents, such as Elissa Gillion, who has lived in Erskineville for seven years. 

“I was completely unaware that it’s a community garden, and that’s because it’s not,” she told the Sentinel.

“It’s never been accessible to the community, it’s padlocked, gated, and looks abandoned. 

“To claim this space for personal use positioned as ‘community space’ over allowing the space to be developed for … housing is undeniably selfish and is the opposite of community spirit,” she said. 

The gates to the ErskineVillage Community Garden padlocked shut. Photo: Eliza Spencer.

However, speaking in the council meeting, Chung said community gardens were cordoned off by “their very nature”, pointing to formal community gardens in Potts Point, Sydney Park, Camperdown and Ryde as examples of community gardens that are fenced off for security and safety. 

Garden convenor Julie Moffat did not respond to requests for comment but in a post shared to the Friends of Erskineville site, she said: “The gates needed to stay there and closed, because if there was an incident or injury, who would be responsible? There is the chain draped over to keep them closed, but they are not locked.”

Moffat, who has experience as a WIRES coordinator, added that the site provides an essential green corridor. She has long advocated online for the preservation of the gardens as an urban corridor, previously stating that the site composts over 100kg of green waste weekly from a local fruit grocer.

Phelps’ office also declined to comment, but responding on Twitter to concerns regarding the accessibility of the site, she said: “This [issue] is easily fixed by bringing the Erskineville Community Garden into the official City of Sydney program, and provide new fencing and upgrade facilities, not build on valuable green space.”

Affordable housing vs community gardens

Three council-owned plots are currently being considered as future affordable housing developments, where rent is not more than 25-30 per cent of an individual’s income. 

This differs from social housing, which is managed by the state government. 

Councillor Jess Miller explained: “Affordable housing is very distinct from social housing. People like nurses, teachers, people who work in hospitality … police, firefighters, who aren’t on six-figure wages necessarily but who need to be within close proximity of the city to function. They’re people who really need affordable housing.” 

Miller has publicly advocated for more green spaces and more affordable housing throughout the City of Sydney. 

“It’s really unfortunate that this whole discussion has become an either/or … there’s no reason why we can’t be building affordable housing that also has deep setback, deep soil zones for trees, or a rooftop garden, or a community garden incorporated into it,” she told the Sentinel.

“That’s what bothers me most; it seems to be a fight about one or the other.”

As for the current state of the gardens, Miller said: “As a community garden in its current form, and the form that it’s taken since this last came up in 2013, it’s not a standout example … the city does regularly visit the garden and check in to make sure everything’s okay, but we don’t have the padlock and the key to the gate.” 

A view of the garden and adjacent flats. Photo: Eliza Spencer.

Looking at the site through the chain link fence, local resident Kris Goman described it as “underutilised”. 

Having lived in the area for twenty years, Goman watched the fences crop up, along with water tanks and weeds.

“I’d be interested in joining it, it’s the closest community garden to me but it just always appears to be locked up, and not available to anyone else,” she said. 

Considering the potential redevelopment of the space as affordable housing, Goman said: “There’s no reason why people shouldn’t live in areas like this, particularly if the land is made available … It’s great people have gone in there and actually used it, but they are essentially just squatting. Maybe they should just count their luck … and move on.

While the future of the site hangs in the balance, it appears the gardeners will continue to harvest their fruit and vegetables in their allocated lots behind the gate — until the council receives a key or bulldozes it entirely. 

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