Most of us know all too well that our cities could do with more green space.
Adding flora to our concrete jungles has proven to bring huge benefits to our physical health by lowering overall temperatures, reducing pollution, and buffering noise.
Green Space is also super for our mental health – creating space where communities can be strengthened, and anxieties are lowered.
Meanwhile, the wildlife love the increased biodiversity, and our environment benefits from the reduction in stormwater runoff and the increased opportunity for waste reduction and nutrient cycling.
Even better if that green space is producing local edible plants.
Someone who knows this all too well too, is Steve Willis from Urban GreenSpace.
He’s made it his personal mission to get more green spaces thriving in Sydney, and does so by setting up and maintaining food gardens for a variety of clients, whether on the ground, on balconies or rooftops.
We had a chat with him to see how it’s coming along…
Give us the rundown on Urban GreenSpace and what you do?
Basically it’s all about growing food for people and with people. I really am trying to encourage people to grow their own food – or at least grow something.
A lot of what we try to achieve is all about nutrient cycling.
That was one of the big key takeaways from doing my Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) – the amount of nutrient that we’re sending out to the ocean on a daily basis – it’s just horrifying.
So a lot of what we do at Urban GreenSpace is just try and get that waste stream from a household, or from a business, and try to turn it back into the garden.
What’s your background, and how did Urban GreenSpace come to fruition?
I’ve got a really weird background, for want of a better word. Back in New ZealandI guess you’d call someone like myself a slasher.
I started off my working life as a professional fishing guide to get myself through university. Then got into the music event industry and started putting on various parties and festivals back in NZ. While I was doing that I also ran a streetwear clothing design business.
Once I came to Australia I ended up in marketing, then got retrenched just after I’d finished my PDC – which was kind of good timing really!
It just made me sit back on my heels, and whenever I’m being knocked around a bit I revert back to nature – it’s kind of the default setting.
I just like to get my hands in the dirt, I find that very therapeutic and I’m sure I’m not the only one. So that started to bring things into focus – and definitely when I did my PDC – it gave me the big picture.
There’s a lot of stuff that I’d been thinking through and sort of scratching my head about, thinking that this is all not looking so good for us as a species, and the PDC definitely tended to shout that.
What are some of the more recent projects you’ve been working on?
I’ve been working with a corporate in town on a garden they’ve got up on the 22nd floor of their headquarters in the city.
They’ve got a big garden bed that was all ornamentals that I’ve taken out, changed the soil, tweaked the irrigation and put in a series of fruit trees, herbs and some annual vegies.
Then there’s a non-edible brief which came through the other week which is something I’d not normally do but I saw the opportunity to, I guess show another side to Urban GreenSpace.
And as much the green space part of us is not purely about edibles, it’s just to get plants where there are no plants, [edibles] is definitely something I try to do.
So for this job, I worked with them and put in a garden wall and I used the design to communicate a sustainable message.
It’s all about using recycled and reclaimed materials and using the irrigation as a feature, because a lot of the time you don’t see it, you don’t even know it’s there and a lot of people just assume that plants just survive on their own.
I put the irrigation inside some copper pipe and made it go all over the wall, it’s made it a real feature.
How did your Permaculture Design Course influence the birth of the business?
It just brought everything into focus, and joined a whole bunch of dots – I had a few things bumping in the back of my mind, like ‘why is this happening, why is that happening, and surely someone needs to be doing something about this’, and then [found out] it turns out there’s hundreds of people doing things about it.
Do you find yourself using skills from the PDC?
Absolutely. I always tend to come back to the principles as a way of using those as various lenses, and looking at the cycles and the systems, and the wholistic way of approaching various problems.
What keeps you motivated in what you’re doing?
Nowadays as a dad, kids can change one’s perspective a bit, and definitely what I’m working towards is trying to leave things better than how I found them for my little guy.
It’s obviously a very different world to what I’ve grown up in. Before [I had my son] though it was still the same, but slightly less focused, perspective. I was taught as a young man by my dad to just always leave things as I found them.
When we were out fishing and accessing a farmer’s property, it was always ‘leave the gate how you find it, don’t leave any rubbish, if you find rubbish pick it up’, or just treat nature with the utmost of reverence.
And it’s just mind boggling to me to see how various people don’t have that perspective.
Any particularly memorable experiences about your journey to creating Urban GreenSpace?
Some of the more memorable ones are through doing the PDC and actually getting to meet David Holmgren and hearing his perspective straight from the horse’s mouth.
And some of the follow up training I’ve done with Milkwood like the food forest course with Dave Jacke.
As far as that stuff’s concerned it’s really awesome to meet some of the amazing people that you meet on those courses, and getting to chat with them and hear what’s going on in their world.
As far as work goes it’s always great to be quietly working away in the garden.
A lot of the time people come out into the gardens and might not even notice me working and it’s just nice to watch them interact with the space and the plants. I watched a guy the other night at the corporate job – I was upstairs planting trees – and watched him come out, smoke a cigarette and just wander around.
Then he noticed me and we spoke, and he was just very appreciative of the garden. He’d had that interaction with nature, smelled a few herbs and seemed to be a whole lot less stressed about things before going back to work.
Getting interactions with some of the people that use the gardens is really nice.
We run Permaculture Design Courses to get folks designing for life.
This article is a part of our Permaculture Futures series – insights into how learning Permaculture Design can influence future projects, enterprises and right livelihoods that allow people to be the change their communities need.
Interview by Emma Bowen – grower of good things including GreenUpTop + Slowpoke Journal