Melbourne Sustainability Drinks Speech

We had the privilege of giving a speech at Melbourne Sustainability Drinks this month. Thank you to the Sustainability Drinks Team and Shaper Group for giving us the opportunity to connect with everyone on Wednesday evening. Below is Emily, our director's speech about Urban Reforestation. Thank you to those who "co-designed" this speech with her!

Good evening my name is Emily. I am a designer. I don't design products or clothes, I design and innovate for sustainability, which means I design services, brands and systems to improve sustainability in our urban places. I am the director of a sustainable design organisation called Urban Reforestation which develops urban agriculture and community garden projects. We have implemented projects locally, the most well known ones are the Docklands Community Garden and internationally at Politecnico di Milano Community Garden. I have also recently started my own design studio called Sustainable Everyday which aims to design more projects and strategies like Urban Reforestation.

Earlier this year I worked at one of the worlds leading design universities Politecnico di Milano with Anna Meroni and her lab. It is famously known as the place where fashion designers like Georgio Armani went to. Milan is also home to the Milan Design Fair held every April which exhibits fashion, furniture and other ideas that are leading in Design. For the next few years I will based in this lab in Milan called “Design and Innovation for Sustainability” as well as a lab with Queensland University of Technology (QUT) diverse and business savvy Creative Industries Faculty. Together our labs design co-housing solutions, food systems (a project called Nututie Milano with Slow Food Association), community sharing schemes and transport.

Whilst I was in Milano I worked on the universities community garden “Coltivando”, and the gardens governance model was based on a New York coop model. Whereby there are members who all take responsibilities, then they benefit from the “fruits” that grow. As a side note, I think "cooperatives" as a trend and way forward for doing business is a very important space to watch. This garden was co-designed with the community and is currently being built right now. I have written about this process with my colleagues from Politecnico, so let me know if you are interested to know more.

So why gardens a good solution to sustainability in urban places?

Cultivating our own patch is key to our wellbeing and sustainability for the city. But my point is community gardens are more than just growing some veggies in unlikely places, they are really important to bring communities together and learn about sustainable lifestyles at the same time. A well-operated urban garden highlights the social, economic, governance and ecological systems that need to function to achieve a sustainable city. Our gardens are like an ‘Acupuncture Point’ in a place to help to develop new culture, values and add some beauty as well.  Our gardens are like a little microcosm of what a sustainable city could look like. Really our cities are an amazing "ecology" that we can develop creative ideas and innovations from.

Urban Reforestation is in fact a movement to bring a lot more than trees back into urban places.  Our gardens aim to inspire and enable sustainable lifestyles in cities, one garden at a time.

Co-design of speech

By the way, as I do for my gardens, I co-designed this speech with various “Stakeholders” in the community!

Firstly I spoke with Ben Cebon an environmental businessman from Better Place. We spoke about the importance of connecting to nature in the city. Gardens provide a place for this to happen. Connection to nature is fundamental for people to grow a deeper understanding of why we need to look after it.

Secondly I spoke with a mentor and friend of mine Anthony James from the Understandascope at the design school from Swinburne University. Understandascope was started by the late Frank Fisher who was an inspirational educator in environment and sustainability. He has inspired an approach which looks at the everyday challenges of sustainability, something which I am very influenced by.

Frank and Anthony both challenged me to think deeply what we mean by “sustainable”. As on a day-to-day level we live our lives in a system that has many flaws from an environmental sustainability perspective and we just live with that. For instance, driving, eating food from an industrial food chain, throwing food waste into the rubbish, working in soloed ways, and flushing our toilets with drinking water and the list goes on.

Thirdly I wrote to the Urban Reforestation community which has a strong fan base on Facebook and asked whether they could co-design this speech with me and share their thoughts on what makes a city “green”. They have come up with some amazing ideas, which I will share below.

So, what are these “Systems underneath the green”? What really makes a sustainable city?

We all agree that a sustainable city is more than visuals of green and even ‘retro-fitted buildings’. We see that growing an understanding about living in an integrated way is key. In fact we do not develop understanding, then we are developing nothing. So “sustainable development” all starts with our ways of thinking and doing. Knowledge separate from the doing is a fallacy. Whether it is a "green space" or "built space” it is important to look at the systems to make them function.

So, a green city is about the four main systems:

1)   Social systems

2)   Economic systems

3)   Governance systems

4)   Ecological systems.

These are the systems underpinning sustainable design in the city. For example the social systems, which is social innovation and our behaviours i.e. composting

  • creating community
  • being energy smart
  • going your own food
  • swapping schemes
  • sharing schemes
  • adopting aquaponics as a new way to grow food
  • using your Bokashi composting
  • community gardens
  • neighbourhood projects
  • innovations of community spaces such as churches, schools, community centres and childcare.

The Incredible Edible, an initiative in Todmorden is a wonderful example of an initiative led by is leading social systems change. Check out the Pam Warhurst TEDx talk which is inspiring.

Economic systems are the looking at mechanisms like:

  • waste levy’s
  • creating new business models to support on the ground projects
  • carbon trading
  • re-thinking work hours
  • buying locally
  • consumer choices
  • ethical purchasing
  • micro financing projects
  • social enterprises

The Governance systems

  • policies that support the designs of the buildings and places
  • governance structures (for instance is coop model better than corporate?)
  • break down the legal barriers to people taking initiative in their own communities (planning laws do not support community designing!)
  • basically cutting the red tape and using common sense
  • councils providing green bins and collecting green waste from neighbourhood gardens and chip it for garden mulch,
  • education from local government for free: ie workshops for kids and adults.
  • empowering kids by educating them with the skills to grow food, lead, community build and provide solutions to environmental challenges.

The Ecological systems

  • recognizing the existing biodiversity in the city
  • urban bee hives
  • growing gardens and food

The Glue that brings all of this complexity and new understanding together ?

Basically the glue that ties all of these systems together is “Community”. What is understanding if it is not shared?!!  We do not know what is going on in the future, so what ever happens, the most meaningful thing is how much we trust each other, understand each other and love one another.

One of the things I learnt in Italy was their passion for coming together and sharing their passion for food and the land their food comes from. They are like a huge tribe who are deeply connected to their family, food and territory. One of my favourite services I offer to clients is called the “local food dinner” – the basis of this dinner is to bring the community together in a convivial way. Conviviality means “Fond of feasting, being merry and festive and sharing good company and reunion". After all this is not only bringing the community together to address these important understanding around sustainable living, it is embracing ‘the good life’ and yummy food in the Italian way. A good quality way of life, now and for future generations. Inst that is what sustainability aims to achieve anyway!?

Thank you for coming this evening and thank you to those who co-designed this speech with me!