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City Farm ~ Paradise Reclaimed

Ten minutes walk from the Perth GPO is a garden grown by many hands that has, in return, planted seeds of hope in many hearts.

We sat down in a quiet leafy glade. Under the rumble of nearby earthmoving machinery lay a rich blanket of birdsong, and beneath that a silence that seemed to rise from the damp earth and dance in the patches on sunlight filtering through the branches.

A crew of boot-clad shovel-bearing volunteers and work for the dole people were peacefully tending the orchard and the herb beds, serenely in tune with their surroundings.

This remarkable inner city haven, where plants and people are nurtured with equal loving care, is the great achievement of Rosanne Scott and her eclectic collection of enthusiastic friends.

Cityfarm grew out of a dream that was first a crazy idea.

The idea had its roots in a talk given in North Perth in 1989 by the Men of the Trees. Rosanne heard the talk and along with her friend Joanne, she signed up immediately.

She said: “We were the only two youngsters in the group but we just loved them. All of life’s problems just seemed to fall away as we became immersed in life and trees and soil”.

Wanting to share the experience with others, Roseanne and Joanne formed a subgroup called Children of the Trees. They were heady days full of mad adventures, like taking 38 kids and 10 adults 725km north to spend a bit of time with the people of the Wadjiri Tribe.

Back at home, she was working part time in the city with young unemployed people and feeling that a bit of garden medicine in their lives would go a long way.

She started to talk to the people around her about incorporating a city garden that was more than just a garden. She wanted it to also be an education facility where young people could overcome problems with literacy and numeracy and where valuable work on self-esteem and motivation could be done.

Rosanne said: “We even started looking for bits of land, but everyone found the concept a bit too big and hard to get hold of, people wanted to help but it was hard to conceive of what they could do that would be constructive.”

Then an opportunity arose through Men of the Trees to write an application for a WA Dept of Training education grant. Rosanne was excited about the prospect of marrying land care and education and wrote a successful submission. Then with colleague Chris Ferreira, she started a programme for fifteen young people at the Men of the Trees nursery in Hazelmere.

The DET programme was successful and the concept was picked up by the Federal Government and given Australia-wide funding. Rosanne scored a second grant out of the process and spent six months with another group of 15-20 year olds.

By this time Chris was starting to talk excitedly about changing the urban landscape by changing the basic forms of transport, away from cars to cleaner and more social forms of transport like trains and bicycles.

His enthusiasm, and the energy of Neal Bodel, a graduate from one of the earlier projects, reignited Rosanne’s Cityfarm dream and prompted her to send off a pile of letters to individuals, companies and local councils, seeking support for the project.

Mike Toobey, an architect with the East Perth Redevelopment Authority (EPRA) responded and introduced Rosanne to Rueben Kooperman, the EPRA operations manager, who had been thinking about the possibility of there being a permaculture garden on the old Vacuum Oil Company site in Claisebrook

The site, with its historic buildings, toxic lead-rich soil, and thick concrete paving, was formerly used as an engineering works by the company now known as Mobil. It was also at some stage a workshop/depot for Perth’s trolley buses and at other times an engineering foundry.

Rosanne took Rueben and Mike to meet the Men of The Trees in late 1993 and Reuben suggested that the EPRA would allow Men of the Trees LEAP programmes to run on the site for a two years ~ on the up front condition that Rosanne, the kids and the plants would up and leave when the time came for EPRA’s other plans for the site to unfold.

It was the break they needed and Cityfarm was sprouted.

Since then, year-by-year the lease has been extended, and the gardens have grown lusher and the trees taller, with the gentlemen’s agreement about moving on when the time comes still in place.

Over the years hundreds of people have pitched in and contributed labour and supplies to the tiny farm.
They have included the original LEAP scheme students, people referred by the justice system on community service orders, school truants on special programmes, mental health rehabilitation clients and people with all kinds of disabilities ~ as well as scores of garden-loving volunteers who have wielded shovels and shifted dirt.

Reflecting the farm’s organic nature, the relationship between the workers and the garden is not straightforward. Rosanne sparkles as she describes the way the garden affects its visitors.

She said: “We had a busload of terribly disabled kids in the other day, so disabled that the only thing they could do here was to tear up paper to make compost, so they did that and they were delighted to come and be part of it all for a day.”

Some of the visitors are harder work though.
Rosanne and her husband Thom, who now works by her side, have no formal training in youthwork, although it is central to their work.

Rosanne said: “Everything we do comes from the heart stuff. You come through that door and you are respected for who you are, no matter where you’ve been. We are strict with ourselves on that and it is often misunderstood as weakness, but it is what makes the difference in the end.”

Thom added that they have learnt to try to live by the saying: “Be wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove”.
“Clever but loving, not judgmental but not stupid,” explained Rosanne.

She said: “The way we work is by throwing people in at the deep-end, through working on the projects, whether it is making a garden bed or running our annual Sprout festival, crises will come enables development and learning.”

Cityfarm currently has 42 Work for the Dole people working two days a week each. Rosanne and Thom, laughingly say that at Cityfarm it’s “Work for the Soul” or “the soil” but not the dole. It’s a kind of wordplay that can strike deep cords in angry young hearts.

Thom also welcomes spray-can “taggers” to the farm and by asking them to plan and work on “legal pieces” he helps them shift from graffiti to Art making and to make self-image adjustments from vandals to artists.

Tucked away in what was, in Cityfarm’s early days, a communal art studio, craftsman Wayne Holton and his wife Sue make beautiful pieces of furniture out of recycled iron and wood.

Thom and Rosanne share with Wayne and Sue, responsibility for Brendan, a young man working five days a week on a disability rehabilitation programme.

The work done over the years has included building up garden beds on top of the thick concrete paving, firstly with tyres that are now being replaced with limestone retainer walls. Then there was the challenge of the contaminated soil that needed to be moved out (to a contained site at Red Hill) before fresh organic soil could be brought in.

Thom estimates that 1000s of cubic metres of organic material have been added to the block including tonnes of lawnclippings from contractors and 800 cubic metres of straw, sawdust and manure from the Royal Show.

Special attention has also been given to establishing micro-climates by using the thermal mass of the buildings and planting windbreaks in strategic places. The result is that tropical plants like bananas, coffee and papaw are delivering several crops each year, even through the winter.

Other crops from the farm include mulberries, passionfruit, henna, olives, curry leaves and ice-cream beans.
The farm also grows a wide range of kitchen and medicinal herbs and the gardens are dotted with scented geraniums and wormwood to keep away unwelcome insects.

There are also several native plants to attract birds to the site. The birdsong testifies to the success of the mission and Rosanne proudly said “We have owls too and a nesting pair of black shouldered kites”.

As the roar of a passing train momentarily shatters the serenity Rosanne smiles. She likes the trains.
She says: “They’re part of the place, they enable us to be visited by people from all over Perth. And they remind us that we are part of the urban centre.

Cityfarm is not just a place for gardening. It is also a regular venue for dance parties, hip hop nights, Artrage and WAMI events. Thom says we often have five to six hundred people here for parties.
Don’t the gardens get trampled?
“No,” says Thom, “when people come here they respect the space, they don’t want to damage it because it’s soothing on their minds”.

There have also been several art exhibitions at Cityfarm, including the Pride Art Shows, and the latest group showing interest is the Skateboarding association, keen to use the garden as a venue.

At last though, despite the good work, it seems that Cityfarm’s bell is tolling, Rosanne and Thom have been told that the garden has to go in June 2000 ~ it’s time for the site to be redeveloped.

It’s hard to think about bulldozers in the leafy glade.

Asked what will happen if the eviction notice does arrive, Rosanne looked wistfully around at the peaceful garden and whispered very quietly: “I don’t know.”

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