Kat Lavers: how to engage with your local council to do urban agriculture projects

I first met Kat at the Urban Agriculture Forum in Melbourne earlier in the year.  She presented on her experience working with local council and helping communities to get urban agriculture and community garden projects off the ground. Throughout her presentation she shared valuable insights into the workings of local government, along with a number of tips on how we can best influence our local councils to do projects focused on local food production. 

I interviewed Kat because I wanted to share her experiences with you all.  Kat has some fantastic and straightforward advice on how to best engage with local government.   For those who are passionate about making a difference to their food system in their local community, but are unsure where to start, Kat talks us through step by step what she has found to be the best approach.

It’s fair to say that Kat is best known for her own experience growing food in her garden.  ‘The Plummery’ is where Kat lives and in 2016 it produced 350kg of food!  With over 8 years of growing food under her belt, Kat has experienced the enormous benefits and really wanted to help people discover these.  

She states, “I believe growing food is the perfect antidote to the crazy, hectic lives that we have.  When you dig into the research on urban agriculture there are significant benefits for improving both physical and mental health.  Sustainability is also really important to me.  Food is a way that humans have always connected with their landscape and so as well as all the benefits of reducing transport, packaging, waste and water, growing food at home helps people to value their local environment, waterways and farmers.”

Kat now works both within and outside local councils to spur urban agriculture and the growth of community gardens in Melbourne.  She has seen first hand the immense benefits associated with creating a communal space where people can gather to grow their own food, affirming: 

“Community gardens are about building community.  The greatest potential is bringing people together in the community and talking to each other.”

Here are Kat’s four top tips on what you can do if you want to establish a community garden in your area and how to engage with your local council:

  1. Think about how you (as an individual) or a group might be perceived by council.  Ideally, it’s best to approach council with a small group, or community support.  Councils often favour stable, committed groups with governance in place, with a proven ability to manage projects.  The first step is about building trust with your council toestablish a long-term relationship. 
  2. Talk to your local Councillor, not just council staff.  It’s their job to listen to you and represent your interests.  You need the push for your project to be coming from multiple levels.   If it’s not asked for then it won’t be prioritised. Kat states, “it’s critical to participate in your local democracy, not just at election time.”
  3. When councils do new work it’s always governed by policies, plans and strategies.  These come up for review at regular intervals and councils always consult.  There is a window when the community can input into this review process feed ideas into the broader planning of councils.  If you can embed your ideas into these plans this is extremely beneficial.  
  4. Remember that your goals need to align with your council goals.  When you’re approaching your local council think about what their goals are in their plans and visions.  Have a think about your Councillor’s goals and personal interests and speak their language.  Tailor your project goals and outcomes depending on which team you speak to in council.  If you meet with the health team, talk about the public health benefits etc.

Kat highlights, “engaging with council does not come without its challenges and here are some ways you can prevent, or overcome them.”

  • Mentally prepare for it.  Know that it’s not going to be a simple process but go for it anyway.
  • Do as much as you can to understand the council process.  It’s always more complicated then you think it’s going to be, which is why it’s helpful to have some awareness of how council works and what the expectations will be.  
  • Know that public land is not always owned by council, and there might be zoning, planning or permit restrictions, so be mindful of this when approaching council.  
  • Understand that there will be some element of risk management applied to the project.  
  • Show how the garden will be open and accessible to the community because this is what the council will want to see. 

There you have it.  Practical steps you can follow to engage with your local council to implement a community garden or urban agriculture project in your local area.  If you’ve been thinking about setting up a food garden in your community for a while now, then I encourage you to call council today. If we want to transform the food system around us we must take action ourselves.  The Australian City Farms & Community Garden Network is another great resource, which you can access for support in establishing a garden. 

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