The Australian dream of a quarter-acre block is now becoming a distant memory.

The obituary has been drafted and we city-dwellers move on, perhaps begrudgingly, towards a brave new world of more compact urban areas that limit sprawl and support better public transport and local services.

Reluctant to give up on the dream altogether, a desire for outdoor space remains in our blood – a primal need for a place to gather for a BBQ, to engage in sport and to grow veggies is still central to our vision for a liveable city. Undoubtedly, as our urban areas increase in density, we will place yet more pressure on our public parks as we seek out the benefits that we once drew from those backyards we can no longer afford. Don’t worry, the planners are on to it and land use metrics will ensure most people will have walking access to a local park or sporting ground for recreation. But what about our passion for growing food?

An Australian movement for community gardens and urban agriculture is recognising this need, with online communities like 3000 acres helping keen gardeners find nearby land to grow food. Urban farmers are also taking advantage of the combination of temporarily vacant land and enthusiasm for local food. One example is the Pop Up Patch, which converted a disused car park to provide garden space for restaurateurs to source produce in the Melbourne CBD. However, efforts to establish urban agriculture are still prominently based on ground-up movements from local communities and aren’t often strategically planned into our cities.

Pop Up Patch growing foods for locals

Pop Up Patch grows foods for locals

The relationship with water management

What most don’t realise is that embedding parks and urban farms in our cities could help solve major water management problems, as well as satisfying our thirst for green space. Urbanisation causes a major imbalance in the water cycle – with our roofs and paved surfaces preventing water soaking into our soils and creating more stormwater runoff that pollutes our local waterways and bays. Meanwhile we pump in water supplies from afar, then merrily pump the same water to another far away location once we have used it. As a result, we are slowly creating urban deserts by expelling local water out of our urban environment as quickly as possible.

To rebalance the water cycle, we could be super-charging our green spaces with excess local water, thereby preventing it entering our waterways and also supporting urban greening with irrigation. Intensified irrigation areas, like sporting grounds or urban farms, can create enough local demand to support viable alternative water supply systems using rainwater or recycled water locally. Irrigation has a bad name; it’s drilled into us that we are supposed to use less water, but using more of the right types of water is actually a good thing in urban areas.

Melbourne Botanic Gardens children's food garden irrigated from rainwater tanks

Melbourne Botanic Gardens children’s food garden irrigated from rainwater tanks

Designing to solve two problems in one

The opportunities for matching alternative water sources with productive areas are most obvious on the peri-urban fringe, where development is edging into the agricultural belt and where urbanisation will create a glut of excess water. Here, the stormwater runoff and recycled water created by new homes amounts to more than double the amount which could be used by those homes.

We need to re-think the urban paradigm for land development, so that as we ‘intensify’ urban areas we also ‘intensify’ green areas by creating multifunctional and productive green spaces. If designed right we could benefit from green leafy suburbs, local urban food supplies, healthier creeks and a more resilient water supply portfolio. Of course, this won’t happen if we continue to deliver a cookie-cutter version of the downsized Australian dream – a cram of firmly fitted lots interrupted only by a solitary oval every four blocks. Our green space planning needs to become much more sophisticated and be planned in tandem with water resources.

In the inner suburbs, the solutions will change in character to suit the surroundings, with spaces for urban agriculture and green space needing to become more inventive in both their form and their water source.

The H House recently constructed in Port Melbourne took an enthusiasm for rainwater harvesting to the extreme by cladding the entire home with rainwater tanks to supply water to its toilet, laundry and a lush roof garden that will spill down its walls. Lufa Farms in Montreal is successfully producing and distributing urban food grown hydroponically in greenhouses built on the roofs of large industrial buildings. Hydroponics on a large scale could become an excellent use for alternative water sources, as a year-round and intense demand for water will support an efficient local water supply proposition.

H House clad with rainwater tanks to irrigate the extensive roof garden

H House clad with rainwater tanks to irrigate the extensive roof garden

There are a range of design opportunities that will support both to urban greening and water management outcomes. As professionals in the urban development sector, it’s our opportunity to create a reincarnation of the Australian dream – a fit-for-purpose ideal for an urban neighbourhood which achieves greater urban densities, while still maintaining the joys of outdoor living, cultivation and community.