Sept. 26, 2012

Outside Barrett House, it's bananas on footpaths

Bananas might not be what you think of as street trees, but three of them have just gone into the Foragers' footpath garden outside Barrett House, the sustainability demonstration house of the 3-Council Ecofootprint program in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs. 

There, the bananas join the small, fruiting lemon tree and assorted herbs, vegetables and flowers in what has become something of an attraction to passers-by.

That became apparent during a recent gardening session to replant some of the vegetables that have been taken, as the sign in the garden suggests they are. Being located adjacent to a children's playground in a small park, the sight of the footpath garden causes not only adults to stop and talk with the gardeners but children to use the path of recycled red terracotta aggregate as a playspace. Children's play was the last thing the garden builders thought of when they were planning the garden.

The installation is a trial of edible public place landscaping by the councils involved. It also features a community compost facility—a couple of the common, black plastic Geddeye bins and a garbage bin containing carbon-rich, dry materials that depositors of kitchen scraps put a couple handfuls of into the community compost bin. That helps keep the compost nicely balanced with the nitrogen-rich kitchen wastes and carbon materials.

It's instructive watching how people react to the sight of vegetables, herbs and fruit growing in a footpath garden. Many stop to look at the plants, some to look at the colourful flowers interplanted with the herbs and vegetables as part of the integrated pest management strategy. This demonstrates the value of colourful flowers in public gardens. Sometimes you see parents naming the vegetables for their young children and frequently you see young children dash away from their parents to walk along the narrow path though the garden. It's truly became a multi-use place.


A footpath linger node

And speaking of place, that's part of the rationale for turning a garden of what was dull agapanthus into something colourful and edible. The idea is that footpaths can be more than thoroughfares—they can be destinations, places where people stop and linger, children amuse themselves in unstructured play and, even, places where people learn about things such as plants and gardening.

The Barrett House footpath Foragers' Garden is well suited to this. The garden edge is just the right height and width to serve as seating, the path into the garden is intriguing enough to attract children to explore, it's located at the end of the Frenchmans Road commercial strip and on the way to the park with its playground. There's plenty of passing pedestrian traffic and exposure to it—the footpath is wide and protected from the busy road with a tall hedge. 

The idea of creating the garden was that it would complement the retrofitted house it stands in front of, an old cottage renovated by council to demonstrate energy and water efficiency and cost savings in these years of increasing energy prices. 

The house's front yard has been converted from low quality lawn into a gathering place for the council workshops and community groups that make use of the premises and into a small edible cottage garden. There's a seat the top of which lifts to reveal a large wormfarm, a self-watering or 'wicking' garden and a couple self-watering pots of fruit and vegetables made in half-wine barrels, and a vertical vegetable garden attached to the garage wall. Barrett House offers take-home ideas to its visitors.


Making attractive places from dull spaces

One of the ideas behind the makeover of the footpath garden was to create what in the placemaking approach to participatory design is known as a 'linger node', somewhere inviting and intriguing enough to encourage people to stay a while. 

Linger nodes turn footpaths from uninteresting thoroughfares into destinations, even if people stay only a short time. To do that you need stuff for people to look at, things that stimulate the imagination, things that intrigue—things like vegetables, fruit and bright flowers in a footpath garden. These are also things that stimulate people to talk to each other and break down the personal isolation of cities lacking linger nodes. There's nothing like colourful flowers to turn the grey of the paved urban environment into a rainbow of brightness and interest—a attractive place, not a dull space.


Winter blooms

The final days of the winter of 2012 displayed a footpath garden where the cut stems of vegetables indicated that people have foraged some of their food; the growth of a fresh crop of the living fertiliser plant, alfalfa; where the gladioli blooms—they had come up all by themselves as they were not planted when the garden was made-over, their bulbs must have been buried in the soil—have been plucked by passers-by; and where, now, three young banana trees bring a vertical element to the garden to intrigue passers-by even more.

This is no ordinary footpath garden, no ordinary footpath. It's become a local point of interest, its community compost bins a local place for apartment dwellers to make sure their kitchen wastes get turned into something good rather than landfill, where people can linger and look. The Barrett House Foragers' Garden has turned an uninteresting footpath space past which people once hurried not a place, a location to look and linger.

Words and photographs by Russ Grayson

View Russ' photo album on ISSUU—download a PDF version from there.

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