Urban growth pushes productive land value

The interdependence of towns and farms in rural France.

Food production and urban development are inextricably linked. You can’t live where you can’t eat. Over recent decades, increasingly efficient, modern transport logistics have stretched this connection. But the COVID pandemic has revealed that the natural linkages between town and farm are more relevant than ever and the value of this interplay applies equally to communities here in the North East as it does to our corpulent capitals of Melbourne and Sydney.

Sydney’s and Melbourne’s expansion into the rural hinterlands that supply so much of these cities’ food was unrelenting for decades but may finally be ‘largely’ contained. Will it remain so as city populations grow? That urban expansion continued for so long reflects the blind spot most people have towards our food supplies: if not from here, it will just come from somewhere else. But more and more we recognise that planet Earth is finite, particularly good soil and water.

Peri-urban Sydney
Photo: https://www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2018-04-13/how-to-save-australias-remaining-farmland/9627516 (Ian Sinclair)

We are fortunate in the North East to already produce so much food with the potential to produce so much more. Our environment supports good farming practices and a growing number of young people would like to get into food production.

Paradoxically, in rural areas we rely very heavily on capital cities to aggregate our various food needs and to ship this to us. Many of the vegetables we use are grown around Melbourne’s periphery. COVID has created a new perspective for many of us when considering the value of self-reliance and food security.

Those of us interested in these issues have long expressed concern about the bloated dimensions of our biggest cities but these pressures are not confined to our state capitals. Albury-Wodonga, Beechworth, Myrtleford, Wangaratta, Benalla and Mansfield are all growing urban environments. Housing estates stretch well beyond the centre, across former farmland and necessitate car ownership. Beyond those are often lifestyle blocks: a single house on a couple of acres. Few of our towns have public transport supporting distant residents.

Instead of acknowledging the value and vigorously protecting surrounding farmland, these newer estates add to the existing fossil fuel-reliant, long supply lines.

A new estate in Victoria’s North East rural city of Wangaratta.

Urban development usually happens organically, the result of history. Town sites need access to sufficient fresh water, food availability and space for housing. Historically they mostly occurred with a nearby, food-producing region. These fundamentals apply equally to small towns and big cities – there’s a reason not many people live on the coast of northern Greenland. UK architect Carolyn Steel, author of the book Hungry City, reveals the way food supplies shape cities. You can hear her TED talk and a longer presentation.

As Staghorn Flat market gardener Matt Grogan – who is also a Beehworth solicitor – discussed with me, whenever people choose to move to an attractive environment, pressure is on surrounding farmland to build more housing, adding to the cost of that land to would-be growers.

Murmungee Basin Produce vegetable and salad garden near Beechworth.

Four young local producers I’ve spoken with recently want to use their land intensively to grow food and live off the returns. Yet they face the tension between the low value of food and the steep value of land and the cost of owning and investing in it.

Economic valuation of land is a simplistic process. In the long term, high quality, food-producing land is critically important. Indeed COVID demonstrates that we can’t take our food supplies for granted. But if the highest short term value is represented by a potential new housing estate, food production’s long term perspective must compete with that.

In regard to food production, some land is more valuable than other land. In the North East we enjoy abundant water, good soils and a mild climate. If farmed intensively, food producers can turn out high value products from smaller parcels of land. Yet as Matt points out, our state planning regulations don’t reflect this variability, operating with what he calls a ‘fat-fingered’ regulatory approach.

Although it appears we have an abundance of land for housing, are our urban towns represented by bland, increasingly distant, car dependent housing estates surrounding hollowed out, drive-to centres the types of towns we want to live in?

Street in Torino, Italy.

Well-designed, urban spaces comprising higher-density, two and three-storey apartments above retail spaces can deliver interesting, dynamic environments and support thriving town centres. Interestingly, most of the towns and cities we celebrate overseas fit this model exactly.

Leaving a town in Germany

A recognition of finite land has seen German urban areas defined. There is a clear line around towns beyond which is farmland or forest. This protects the surrounding farmland from speculation and being regarded as inevitable housing development. Expanding populations can lead to more creative development within existing parameters, supporting novel and attractive architecture. Even in the North East, higher density urban centres could create more dynamic and attractive towns at the same time as protect vital farmland.

With local government elections in the next few months, what is your local government’s policy around farmland protection and urban development? How could these discussions get onto the agenda? Do prospective councillors understand these important issues?

How can Victoria’s planning regulations support a more nuanced approach to land value while accounting for food productivity? Existing maps reflecting soil types can inform better land use. Is your local government using this information?

What models are there to support share farming – using someone else’s land to produce your own income?

Sooner or later these discussions about best use of land, parcel size and food production will need to be had. Doing it right could result in increasingly attractive, dynamic and sustainable North East communities offering opportunities for local growers. Better to be on the front foot.

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