The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals may seem beyond the reach of neighbourhood action, but a Victoria University of Wellington research group is exploring how the humble vegetable patch can help address SDGs and how community action can be mobilised around urban agriculture.

As a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure all people enjoy peace and prosperity, the SDGs are a complex and ambitious, yet important, step toward a more sustainable future.

But do these lofty ideals lend themselves to such localised action?

Dr Jocelyn Cranefield from Victoria University’s School of Information Management, a member of the multi-disciplinary team investigating the question, thinks they do.

“One approach to individual and community involvement in addressing multiple SDGs is through urban agriculture, as this deals with zero hunger (SDG 2), good health and well-being (SDG 3), sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11) and climate action (SDG 13),” says Cranefield.

“In other words, urban agriculture can do more than just meet food supply issues.”

Urban agriculture is undergoing a resurgence in this country and, according to Colmar Brunton research from 2017, the majority of New Zealanders think sustainable food sources are important.

But what does urban agriculture include? And how can individuals and communities be encouraged to take informed action?

Everything involved in cultivating, processing and distributing food in or around a city is considered urban agriculture. Which means everything from growing your own rhubarb in the local community garden or raising chickens in your backyard and giving eggs to your neighbours to only buying local, in-season produce at a farmer’s market.

Even choosing to grow bee-friendly plants in your garden is part of what some consider a growing social movement with economic, health and social benefits.

“Community gardens, for example, can really change communities by creating important spaces for gathering and socialising, as well as having benefits for the individual gardeners like having increased access to free, high-quality produce,” says Dr Andrea Milligan, another member of the team and Associate Dean (Teacher Education) in Victoria University’s School of Education.

There are important links between urban agriculture and enhancing active citizenship, says Milligan.

“Being involved helps create more engaged and active citizens, and there are many environmental benefits of using minimal land and positively affecting the micro-climate by greening areas. Our research is looking at ways individuals and communities can be encouraged to engage with these activities and by taking part engage in a meaningful way with the SDGs.

“Most people think the SDGs are something the Government is addressing alongside other nations’ leaders, and not as something relatable or relevant to their daily lives. How can a family of four in Wellington’s Newtown, for example, help end all forms of hunger and malnutrition by 2030? Or seriously impact the effects of climate change? Urban agriculture provides a tangible action for people to take that will contribute to global efforts.”

A recent pilot survey conducted by the research team with people in suburbs around Wellington explored the use of maps as a way to change perspectives, provide information to people in local communities and enable them to participate effectively in urban agriculture.

This was done by showing participants maps of their suburb that included features such as green spaces, fresh food sources and transport links. The team, which also includes researchers from the Schools of Architecture and Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, found that such maps can better inform individual perceptions of urban agriculture, and could be one of a number of useful tools in mobilising community responses to food sustainability challenges.

“What we’re looking at now is how maps do more than provide information. We are interested in how they can help people to work with others in their neighbourhood to think critically about the effectiveness of urban agriculture activities and address sustainability issues,” says Cranefield.

“Creating maps that show the links between sustainability challenges and opportunities in local communities, and developing services that provide ‘just in time’, dynamic participation in map-making, are two avenues we are exploring.”

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