There is a tendency to think of native strips or verges as just another form of public greenspace like parks and community gardens. And a less important one, at that.
But this space – between the front property line and the road – has some special features that set it apart from other public land.
These differentiating features can create both conflict and opportunity.
- It has a complex ownership and shared responsibility – a public space that is ruled by councils but largely maintained by residents
- It may include street trees and concrete pathways installed and maintained by councils
- Pathways through verges and nature strips are pedestrian thoroughfares and play a vital role in the encouragement of walking and public transport
- This area houses many underground services which means it must be accessible to workers and may be dug up without notice
- The postie, often on a motorbike, and others need access to the letter box
- Some verges include bus stops
- It is a buffer zone between private gardens and public drains, creeks and remnant bushland
- Cars are often parked alongside the kerb and sometimes illegally on, or half on, the verge
- It is the place where we cross from our private world into the public realm, from resident to citizen
Councils have historically avoided much of the conflict by demanding ubiquitous grass verges that residents are usually obliged to mow.
However, many councils are now producing policies and guidelines for residents to replace the grass on their verge with low growing plants to create nature strips. Some councils actively promote this planting as party of their strategy to increase shade and environmental diversity.
Conflict on the Verge
The complexity of public attitudes towards verges becomes apparent when there is a dispute.
Cars parking on the verge and across driveways, neglected weedy verges, verges blocked so pedestrians must walk on the road, dogs owners not picking up after their pets, are common gripes.
There are more subtle, unspoken rules too.
Some people object to strangers congregating on the path in front of their house, or consider any kerbside parking in front of their house as being for themselves and their visitors and are annoyed by neighbours or strangers parking there.
Councils have long cited public liability as the reason for not allowing anything other than standard grass verges. When challenged, Councillors and staff will often say that residents can't be trusted to look after gardens, fallen fruit from trees will cause problems, and I've had one talk about the biosecurity issues of fruit flies. Allowing grass only is an easy way out of that but ignores the weeds spread throughout the city by mowing contractors.
A few years ago, several streets at Buderim on the Sunshine Coast became known as the Urban Food Street. Many residents participated growing food on the verges, until the Sunshine Coast Council removed the fruit trees from verges in 2017.
A complaint had been made, councils are obliged to act on complaints, negotiations broke down, the council enforced their laws.
It was a public relations disaster for the council, the end of the Urban Food Street, and nobody was the winner. This is not an outcome I wanted for my verge, or want for any Shady Lanes Project.
My own verge garden is three years old and I've had many conversations with neighbours and pedestrians while weeding or watering the verge over these years. Reactions have been varied but positive, although I believe that is largely because of the design and type of plants. I don't think an Urban Food Street style garden would have been accepted so well in my suburban street.
Through these discussions, I've come to realise that the key to acceptance of verge gardens is to maintain the feeling of fairness.
If people feel that you are taking over public land for your own purposes, it can bother them. If it impinges on their ability to walk down a street on the footpath, it can make them more angry every time they pass. Maybe just a bit at first, but more over time.
That is why planting a lush food forest, yukkas that poke at pedestrians, vines that get caught in the wheelchair or pram wheels, or using the verge as a car park often leads to conflict and disputes.
The other side of side of the fairness coin is that your verge garden is contributing to the general community. You are making it better (cooler, more attractive, more interesting) for everyone. You are not demanding anything of them and not trying to draw them into your desired community of urban farmers but allowing them to enjoy it on their own terms.
This is not an easy line to navigate, either for the councils or the individual residents. But if you do manage it, keeping in mind the need to engage (or at least not upset) all stakeholders, the opportunities and rewards are worth it.
And there are many opportunities, rewards, and stakeholders. Here are some of the aims of community-led Shady Lanes projects:
- increasing tree canopy in cities helps tackle the urban heat island effect, cooling the suburbs and reducing air-conditioning bills
- creating more diverse habitat and habitat corridors for native wildlife and pollinators
- providing opportunities for city dwellers to engage with nature close to home, giving physical and mental health benefits
- providing cooler and more pleasant walkways to encourage active transport, giving health benefits and reducing emissions
- introducing local employment opportunities through social enterprises and small businesses to do the initial conversion from grass to garden
- building connections within communities – between many stakeholders
- reducing rainwater runoff from suburban plots
- improving the soil health and sequestering some carbon
Different stakeholders may focus on different things but no one stakeholder has been able to make a great difference to their solo issue acting on their own. We are losing our trees, suburbs are getting hotter, and disadvantaged suburbs suffer sooner and harder from changes in climate and extreme heat.
The verges bring it all together – shared responsibility, multiple goals, active citizenship, breaking down the “it's someone else's responsibility” attitude encouraged by heirarchical and siloed thinking into what can each of us can do in a collaborative, open and localised manner.
Shady Lanes takes Verge Gardening a step further
Until now verge planting has remained the realm of gardening enthusiasts who have the time, ability and confidence to plant the gardens.
But not everyone is a gardener, not everyone has the time, resources, physical ability, or the interest to convert their verge into a garden.
The aim of the Shady Lanes Project is to extend verge garden planting throughout the suburbs, especially to disadvantaged suburbs where unemployment is entrenched and residents are already being hit hardest by rising urban heat.
The multiple stakeholders, and multiple goals, create a range of opportunities for funding.
Being public land, accessible to everyone, makes applications for funding or sponsorship to cover the initial transformation from grass to planting possible in a way that wouldn't be appropriate inside private gardens, or even for community gardens where benefits are restricted to members.
Engaging social enterprises and their workers to complete the conversions adds more stakeholders and funding options.
Clubs, service organisations, and community leaders have a ready-made framework to apply for funding to benefit their communities.
“But who's going to look after them?” is the other common question you hear in discussions about gardens.
The simple answer is the two stakeholders who currently maintain the verges. The councils will continue to plant and prune the street trees. The residents provide water for young trees and tend to the understory garden – which is less work than mowing and edging.
Stakeholder management smooths this transition. Residents need to be brought together as a community to be part of the process, having a say in the layout and planting of the understory, within the council policy guidelines. They have to be able to opt out, or agree between them to adopt an uninterested neighbour's verge.
The Private/Public Interface
Looking at the list of special features of verges above, it is the last one – It is the place where we cross from our private world into the public realm, from resident to citizen – that highlights perhaps the greatest opportunities and benefits presented by these neglected patches of land.
Unlike a park that we might choose to visit, the street verges are part of our daily lives. We walk out of our front gate into them, we drive across them or walk through them every time we go out.
As a resident responsible for the maintenance of that little patch of land, or a driver looking for a car park, a person walking their dog, we choose whether to behave as an engaged citizen who considers their actions on others, or as a simple consumer of public resources.
- The unique features of this public land is what provides the impetus to engage many stakeholders to work collaboratively.
- Projects fit in with existing goals and responsibilities of stakeholders, the change is in the collaborative relationships built.
- Projects continue to evolve after the initial transformation. Individual residents may come and go – the trees and gardens live on.
- Restricting planting to street trees and predominantly low-maintenance, water-wise, native habitat reduces risk of disputes.
- Every project must be localised with a local leader, and local organisations to ensure participation and adoption by the community.
Over to You
Can you pull these pieces together in your local area?
- a street in your area that would benefit from a conversion
- a local NFP organisation who would seek funding, or a business that would sponsor the conversion work
- a local social enterprise or small business who would do the work
- a project manager
Check the Shady Lanes directory for council policies, services and other information that can help you. Or add yourself to the directory so other people can find you.