It’s not talk about climate change that best convinces executive types to embrace sustainability, according to sustainable design engineer Roman Spur – it’s talking fresh homegrown lettuce, working less and living more.
The former Cundall sustainable buildings designer, who now consults with Viridis, has become a motivational speaker and trainer in the art of DIY sustainability, an idea that’s starting to catch hold for strata developers, body corporates, colleges, preschools, primary schools and retirement villages.
Spur was retrenched from Cundall when it closed its Brisbane office three years ago, and decided to turn it into an opportunity to change direction and transform the unused backyard of his rented apartment into a sustainable productive ecosystem.
By the time he and his family had added bees, fruit and nut trees, grains, vegetables, herbs and flowers, the garden was meeting 70 per cent of their food needs.
He also turned his design skills to creating useful things from recycled and upcycled materials, including a solar oven for baking, a worm farm and self-watering portable garden beds.
Opening the garden to the public for workshops and tours and setting up a website detailing the process and the “how to” of creating some of his inventions has now grown into a full-time business giving workshops in conjunction with Brisbane City Council and other organisations, and delivering motivational talks for corporations.
He has given workshops around South East Queensland, Perth, Melbourne and Townsville, and at the time of speaking with The Fifth Estate had 100 engagements already lined up for this year. Spur is also working part-time with Viridis offering consulting and design services to projects that want to incorporate food growing within residential and other development types.
“There has been an incredible takeoff. We had 100,000 hits on the Spurtopia website in the first year,” he says.
“It shows how people are becoming more keen on a simple, healthy way of living.”
He says that in the consulting work with Viridis, developers are being given both conceptual design services and the support of his own practical experience in growing food. In design terms, some of the considerations include how to design an apartment balcony so that people can grow food on it.
“When you look at [a garden] holistically, you can grow a lot in a small space,” Spur says.
“We have been getting interest from body corporates in turning the landscaping into edible landscapes. And in retirement villages, because people are still active, even if they have just a small garden bed with herbs in it, it is positive for mental and physical wellbeing.
“There is also such a huge demand from schools, childcare centres and colleges.”
Spur does a considerable number of workshops at schools, and says that focusing on the younger generation is a priority because the kids get inspired when they see something like a solar oven made with foil from old chip packets – and then they go home and inspire their parents.
“I also go into companies and do lunchtime inspirational talks. People are fed up with the climate change buzz words, so I show them practical things. It’s about lifestyle. I tell them how when you reduce expenses [as I did] you don’t need to work fulltime.
“I tell them how [self-sufficiency] has allowed me to achieve such a great lifestyle – and that’s what people listen to. I tell them I have plenty of time to spend with my family – and that’s what they listen to. I bring things in, like lettuce, and they taste it and go, ‘Oh my [goodness] your lettuce has taste! I didn’t know lettuce could taste like this!’”
The focus on bringing the message inside corporate boardrooms is one he says is very important, “because that’s the mainstream you really want to influence.”
Spur and his family actually had to leave behind their “Spurtopia” garden earlier this year, as the owner of the department block sold it for redevelopment. He says friends who saw the transformation achieved in his backyard were eager to offer the family new digs, and that now they are living out of town with friends on acreage, recreating the garden along with the 100,000 bees transported from their former inner-Brisbane yard.
“It is a pity the ecosystem we created will be destroyed, but it was a great learning curve,” Spur says. “We can apply the experience elsewhere.”
Urban agriculture on any scale is a trend that appears to be gaining momentum. Even commercial office buildings are starting to incorporate edible elements, such as the garden at Architectus’ office in Brisbane, and apartments projects ranging from The Commons and Common Ground through to Leighton’s Mosaic apartment tower in Brisbane are increasingly adding DIY food elements.
Melbourne City Council has incorporated urban farming into its sustainability planning, including developing a community gardens policy. The city has a number of long-established inner-urban community food growing gardens including Ceres in Brunswick, Veg Out in St Kilda, and the 19 gardens at public housing estates operating under the Cultivating Community initiative.
At the same time, it’s not been all smooth sailing, with Joost Bakker denied permission for a rooftop farm on 271 Collins St, and residents that have cultivated productive laneways gardens in the City of Yarra coming into conflict with council.
In Sydney, Clover Moore announced earlier this month that plans have been approved for a $1.6 million City Farm project at Sydney Park, and the Royal Botanic Gardens has a showcase kitchen garden featuring heirloom fruit and vegetables, and Michael Mobbs has created productive footpath gardens in Chippendale, inspiring others in the community to also take up the challenge.
In the US, the rooftop farm, vacant lot farm and road verge farming movements are also taking off.
Heather Flores’ encyclopaedic book, Food not Lawns, How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighbourhood into a Community, sets out a number of models for either individual or collective urban farming.
It also maps out the ways in which growing food in the urban setting can build resilience, create stronger community bonds and lower household expenses, and gives a very comprehensive how-to on everything from making soil, acquiring or inventing tools, obtaining plants or seeds for free or next-to-nothing, acquiring land, designing gardens, recruiting gardeners, managing the work involved and engaging with the wider community.