Could Urban Development Ruin Melbourne’s Foodie Rep?

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Wednesday, February 17th, 2016
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Select three words to describe the Melbourne culture. I’d be willing to bet that food is one of them – it defines us Melbournians.

Well, foodies of Melbourne, brace yourselves because I have some distressing news. Our credentials as a food city are under threat.

The downfall will come not from food chains or exhausted trends, but from urban development. As Melbourne grows, we need a grand plan to fundamentally change the vision for suburbia so we can house a bigger population while still celebrating the local produce we know and love, and we need it quick.

I’ve fallen victim to it – the delicious tug of the Melbourne food scene. I’m guilty of frequenting farmers’ markets and seeking out the purveyors of the premium quality local produce that makes this city such a foodie Mecca. Even so, I must admit I was surprised to find out just how much produce is grown on Melbourne’s doorstep.

The equivalent of a staggering 41 per cent of the ingredients that make up the sumptuous meals we scoff down in this city are produced no more than a few hours’ drive from central Melbourne in the city ‘foodbowl.’ While it’s hard to track exactly what is eaten where, and no doubt we are guilty of eating a lot of carbon-heavy delicacies from far away climes, it’s a pretty impressive sustainability credential for a city which takes such pride in the quality of its food to grow almost half of it on its urban fringe.

A study recently completed by at the Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab at University of Melbourne demonstrated that the peri-urban areas surrounding Melbourne can supply a staggering 100 per cent of the chicken meat and eggs, 82 per cent of the vegetables, 63 per cent of the red meat, 39 per cent of the dairy and 13 per cent of the fruit eaten by the city’s population. That’s a lot of poached eggs, berries and yogurt to adorn our treasured ritual weekend brunches that are actually produced locally – very locally.

So will the foodie capital of Australia keep hold of this sustainable produce accolade?

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely. It seems the appetite of Melbournians for new homes far outweighs their taste for local food. A victim of its own success, as more people flock to live in Melbourne, the city’s urban boundaries creep outward, gobbling up the fertile fields and forcing peri-urban farmers to sell up. The same study predicts that the urban plan for Melbourne’s growth will reduce the production capacity of the city’s foodbowl from 41 per cent to 18 per cent by 2050, making the local food credentials much less remarkable and certainly not worthy of bragging rights.

Before you sigh too deeply into your soy latte, ask yourself if it really is a lost cause. Why can’t Melbourne become the first real food city which embraces both development and urban agriculture? Is suburbia really that incompatible with farming?

From a resource perspective, cities and agriculture are a match made in heaven, with the nearby consumer market locking in low transport miles and with urban areas producing an abundance of excess water and nutrient rich waste that could be used to fertilise and nourish production areas. What’s more, harsher climates are drying out the Australian interior and squeezing the most productive land areas closer to the coast – and closer to our cities where future rainfall is sufficient.

So why can’t we change both the development and the agriculture paradigm? Both housing and farming can be adapted to higher density formats, so we could fit more of both in the same urban fringe area and allow them to co-exist. To do this, however, we need to plan both in tandem. A refresh of Plan Melbourne is currently underway which proposes the use of an agricultural overlay to preserve strategic agricultural land, and encourages integrated water planning and sustainable development.

But are good intentions enough? The barrier to the creation of the food city isn’t physical viability but engrained market structures and old habits. If we give up the cookie-cutter blueprint for suburbia, is there a new model we can create for Melbourne where productive landscapes are threaded through neighbourhoods, supporting collective food sharing models and creating intriguing, green and thriving urban landscapes?

The effort needs to be more than token – using strategic planning to allocate productive areas, planning adjacent developments in a way where their excess stormwater and nutrient waste can be harnessed, and putting transport and social networks in place to link purveyors with local markets.

Granted, it won’t be easy, but it would be a magnificent feat that would establish Melbourne as the ultimate food city once and for all. The future food city of Melbourne could be one where food defines not only the culture but the urban landscape.

Imagine those bragging rights.

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