Neighbourly digs…and productive roadsides

By Michael Mobbs

This once, the Burr finds itself unable to prick the hides of governments, consultants, red tape worshippers and even those besotted with Kyoto Dreaming. Instead, we turn to a different type of digging.


Burr has been gardening. Aside from feeling good, and bloody sore all over, gardening has put things in perspective, with the result that we don’t have any interest in digging at those who do most damage to our lovely Earth – governments and their policy tragics.

As the good John Lennon advised, “Why don’t we do it in the road”.

And so we have, and are.

In the last 18 months Burr and neighbours have planted about 1000 fruit trees, herbs, veggies, and bird-attracting plants in four city blocks in inner Sydney, about 10 minutes walk from Central Railway. About $4000 has come from our own pockets and about $3000 from Sydney Council. The value of our street maintenance labours is over $5000 a year.

Along the way we have:

  • begun to cool down our streets and embarked on the many years long task of reducing ambient temperatures caused by our black roads and, in turn, to reduce the amount of air con used here
  • conducted what may be Australia’s first trial of public food composting, with four-400 litre compost bins on our streets and local park
  • trialled and proven a way to water street gardens with roof water at a one-off cost of no more than $5 per house
  • trialled a way of diverting compost liquid nutrients below ground to irrigate the citrus and road gardens at a total cost per bin less than $10 per 10 metres, free of maintenance
  • shown we can keep over three tonnes of food waste out of council garbage tips a year with each bin,
  • make a tonne of soil from each bin that also takes a tonne of carbon out of Earth’s atmosphere, and stops over one tonne of climate change pollution from Council’s garbage tips – that’s a total of 12 tonnes of food turned into 4 tonnes of soil and 8 tonnes of air pollution cut
  • begun to increase the value of the houses in these streets over other houses which don’t enjoy such greenery and productive landscapes
  • increased the conversations taking place in the streets between neighbours and with strangers
  • created a demonstration project which is educating councils (officers and elected folk), landscapers, architects, engineers and citizens about how to make our roads cooler and safer

The leaky drains and road gardens have stopped over 4 million litres of stormwater leaving our streets to pollute Sydney Harbour, at a total capital cost of less than $200 and no maintenance costs.

This efficient cost is unmatched by the self-titled “water sensitive urban design” folk who use gold-plating engineering approaches to harvest water in our streets.

The point here is, that to fix up the squidillions of buggered up kilometres of city roads to cool our cities our society simply cannot afford to have top end designer solutions. Road redesign has to be affordable within the annual maintenance budgets of councils, and the average homeowner. See how

digging around 2


Burr shares some of our ideas here with our peers – the novices, and would-be street gardeners with the smallest wallet: some ideas, drawings and photos are here, too:

Do copy them and plant now so that next year you can walk out your front door and pick your limes for free to go with your gin and tonic – compare that with 80 cents a lime at your local chain store grocer.

The Burr’s recent bodily soreness has come about these last two weeks while we’ve been maintaining what we’ve planted, keeping things ticking over during winter.

We want birds to come here to eat, attracted by the plants, and to eat the bugs and insects off our fruit trees while they’re here. That way we avoid the cost and burden of spraying the pests.

To bring them we’ve been putting in spiky grevilleas, hakeas and such in which small birds may hide from cats and other bird-killers.

For those who would grow food in their streets and wish to know what to plant on the shady and the sunny sides of the street, see some of our plants listed at:

(Tip: avoid Bunnings Bushrangers and buy your lucerne, with all its rich nitrogen, and other mulches from a produce store – they seem to maintain a working person’s financial orbit unlike the chain stores which, typical of all those who take out multi-million dollar TV ad campaigns promoting their “cheapness”, all paid for by consumers do not. Bushrangers in fact charge prices which are not cheap, not fair and not sustainable; to buy cheap produce look up “produce stores” in your phonebook.)

In our streets there’s been lots of swung mattocks, bent buttocks, dirty hands, mud in houses, rich smelling compost, and precious, treasured plants planted with a wish and a prayer they won’t be stolen by the local human Galahs.

Some local kids, four and to six year olds, jumped to with their little spades, watering cans, and enthusiasm from being involved. What’s amazing about these little folk is how they talk continuously whilst being put to work. Burr isn’t sure which is toughest; mattocking out rock solid clay or planting a tree while answering little folks’ continual questioning and demands for 15 minutes at a time until a gods-sent diversion interrupts the grilling.

It’s been so funny to overhear them these last few days talking proudly about the plants they’ve planted. Such conversations are a sweet reward.

There are several blogs, Facebook pages and such recording the road gardening from different viewpoints including:

Burr’s so sore we may do no gardening before the next TFE with the result that we may once again be irritable enough to resume digging at the largely unusable compost of governments.

In the meantime, here’s an image Burr offers, gained whilst leaning on the shovel handle between exertions of the cars driving by on our streets. Some of us noticed how heavy and clunky these cars are, and how much they depend on oil to move. If you can, try for that sense of them – and try, too, to hold it in your mind while contemplating this observation from one of Burr’s treasured over the horizon radar thinkers (especially about oil), Mr James Howard Kunstler:

“From a purely practical standpoint, the electric car is absurd. If they were produced on a mass basis, they would crash the electric grid — assuming that the masses could afford to buy them, which assumes a lot. We simply don’t have the electric generating capacity to run even one-quarter of the current car fleet on volts.” (James Kunstler; 14 July 2009;

Why do we cling to so much that is damaging Earth, including illusions for the car to be reborn “sustainably”?

Let’s end on a note from Jonathon Swift which is a comfort for Burr’s sore muscles:

“And he gave it for his opinion that whoever could make two ears of corn or two

blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would

deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country than the

whole race of politicians put together.” (Gulliver’s Travels, 1726)

Michael Mobbs is a sustainability coach who works with developers, governments and communities to design and obtain approvals for houses, units and subdivisions. He is based in the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, where in 1996 he pioneered the conversion of his inner city terrace into a sustainable house, which has now been disconnected to mains water and sewerage and is powered by solar energy.

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