Nonhumans, urban agriculture and ecological belonging

The functional and aesthetic forms of urban environments deemed necessary to support the creative and cultural pursuits of their inhabitants has pushed food production beyond city limits. The resulting disconnection from the food system, fuelled by anthropocentric logic, reduces opportunities for urban dwellers to develop ecological awareness. The creative cities thesis itself also fails to promote innovative ecological thinking. Through a case study of Canberra, we suggest that bringing food back into the city through urban agriculture initiatives—from urban food gardening to farmers’ markets—can promote a more attentive approach to the nuanced and varied assemblages of human/nonhuman relations and assist enliven the more-than-human within creative cities’ thinking. In so doing we contend that urban agriculture can promote more ecologically sensitive living practices in urban environments.


Keywords: creative cities – ecology – nonhumans - urban agriculture

Introduction: Creative cities and the nature/culture divide

Food and cities are melded together in multiple, deep and shifting ways. Modern industrial agriculture has shaped, and been shaped by the growth of cities, and cities have grown only as a result of shifts and changes in practices of cultivation and transportation methods (Steel 2009). The rural/urban divide, so often represented as a nature/culture binary, sits at the heart of modern understandings of the city in the global North (Barthel & Isendahl 2013; Jarosz 2008; Pothukuchi & Kaufmann 1999; Sonnino 2009).

Australia’s capital city hasn’t always settled neatly into these divisions. Canberra is the ‘bush capital’; a city lying on vast limestone plains designed to open itself up to the natural environment, to be ‘of’ not just ‘in’ the landscape (Taylor 2006). Yet, throughout the 20th century, from the moment the first surveyor’s peg pierced the soil to mark out the new city in 1913, the ongoing desire to maintain access to natural vegetation has not been matched by concern for peoples’ access to local food. In the city’s early days, local food production was considered central to the success of the new Capital. Dairy farming was well established in the area, with the Duntroon Dairy built in 1832 and the Federal government was keen for the new city to become self-sufficient in food. To realise this, the fertile alluvial soils of Pialligo on the city’s outskirts were earmarked for commercial-scale vegetable production (ESDD 2011).1

The early concern for food in the Capital extended beyond the commercial to the role of individual, private backyards. Ebenezer Howard’s ‘Garden City’ ideals informed Canberra’s subdivision and housing design, with Canberra blocks required to be large enough for homeowners to have backyard vegetable gardens, chickens and fruit trees (AGHS 2006) as well as utility areas (sheds and clothes lines) and some lawn for recreation.

Today, commercial buildings are rooted in much of the city’s most fertile soil. The current planning focus on urban in-fill, and the shrinking footprint of urban backyards in greenfield sites due to reduced block sizes and larger houses, has altered the engagement Canberrans can have with food production and locally sourced food. There is no longer a local dairy and, while livestock is raised for meat, there is no abattoir to process it. Food production has been gradually removed from the city.

The distancing of food growing from cities is said to contribute to a ‘denaturalization of urban imaginaries’ (Blecha & Leitner 2014: 87).  City infrastructure and transportation routes, as Carolyn Steel notes, have ‘emancipated cities from geography’ (2009: 38), removing the restrictions of the particular climatic and ecological conditions in which cities are built by enabling food to flow across vast global distances. In so doing, discursive and practical renderings of the city as human constructed or orchestrated spaces and places (‘built environments’) have tended to promote understandings of ecological conditions as passive, surmountable and, perhaps most importantly, distinctly separate to the human lifeworld (Blecha & Leitner 2014; Pincetl 2007; Steel 2009). Canberra may be designed to be ‘of’ its natural environment, but the capacity of this landscape to produce food and nourish alternative conceptions of the city remains largely silenced.

The primacy of culture is key to the notion of the creative city. Proponents of the creative city call for investment in the culture industries and creation of the conditions that allow these industries to flourish within, against, and sometimes in consonance with the built environment (Florida 2002; Landry & Bianchini 1995; Scott 2010).  Accordingly, the urban dweller’s capacity for creativity is ‘induced in complex socio-spatial relationships constituting the local creative field, which in turn is centrally rooted in the production, employment, and local labour market dynamics of the city’ (Scott 2010: 125). From this creative field there emerge ‘complex urban ecologies’ that provide ‘many of the raw materials of the contemporary cultural economy’ (Scott 2010: 124). Consequently, the non-synthetic is sidelined in the ‘urban ecologies’ (Scott 2010: 124) of the creative city, appearing very rarely in the literature. When it is mentioned it is usually in relation to human leisure or the aesthetics of a city – as it is for Canberra, for example, as an ‘asset’ which serves as the ‘backdrop’ to a region’s cultural activities (Scott 2010: 126). Even Landry’s most recent creative city ‘toolkit’, which acknowledges that environmental awareness has ‘shifted from ‘good to have’ to ‘absolutely essential’’ (2008: xliv), still dedicates only a paragraph or two to the place and role of the natural environment in the creative cities schema.

There is even less attention paid to the basic sustenance that fuels these cities and its inhabitants; food and the nonhuman entities that animate it. This blind spot in the creative cities literature perpetuates an anthropocentric view of the nonhuman as passive and neglects the recent growth of urban agriculture and its capacity to encourage new conceptualisations of cities.

Rethinking Creativity: Food in the city

Small-scale food production is germinating throughout cities in the 21st century, characterised most overtly by farmers’ markets and urban gardening which includes community gardens, backyard gardens and vertical and rooftop gardens. Engagement in these practices can be considered to constitute forms of ‘creative practice.’ 'Creative’ in regards to this analysis rests on the two standard criteria generally attributed to the term: originality, and value or usefulness (Boden 1996; Martindale 1999; Osche 1990; Stein 1953; Sternberg & Lubart 1999). In terms of originality, we draw on Stein’s (1953: 311) definition that creativity ‘arises from a reintegration of already existing materials or knowledge, but when it is completed contains elements that are new.’ With regard to use value, we agree with Hutchinson’s proposition that the practical contribution of creativity is to ‘make transformations in the world’ (in Runco & Jaegar, 2012: 93). Urban agriculture arguably involves ‘the reintegration of already existing materials’ that enable food production, which are then reconfigured in response to the confines and potentialities of the urban environment to ‘contain elements that are new’ (Stein 1953: 311). Community gardens, for example, are the creative coalescence of public space and backyard gardens. Farmers’ markets, box schemes and community supported agriculture supply food to consumers but reconfigure the supply chain by bypassing the commercial distributor to create new forms of exchange and relationships in the buying and selling of food (Alkon & McCullen 2011; Renting et al. 2003; Ward & Lewis 2002; Zepeda & Li 2006). Direct selling is important here because it allows consumers to gain immediate information about the provenance and human and nonhuman inputs – what Kirwan (2004: 301) refers to as the intrinsic and extrinsic qualities – of the food that they purchase and consume.

Urban agriculture as a form of creative practice also has use value for the individuals and communities involved. It is attributed with multiple social, environmental and economic benefits including the development of knowledge-sharing relationships between producers and consumers, reduction in food miles, improved economic conditions for farmers and broader economic benefits for participating regional communities (Alonso & O’Neill 2011; Brown & Miller 2008; La Trobe 2001). However, the relationship between creativity and urban agriculture also manifests in more complex ways.  Knight’s (2002) claim that creativity engenders ‘new embodiments of knowledge’ is evident in the experiences that city inhabitants can have when engaging with urban agriculture, as we demonstrate below in our discussion of participants in urban agriculture in Canberra. We suggest that engagement in creative food provisioning practices enable urban dwellers to develop both an appreciation of nonhuman’s vital materialism (Bennett, 2010), and an ‘ethic of care’ as envisaged by Gibson-Graham (2011) which extends creativity beyond modern conceptions of arts and culture to the production of new, more ethical and sustainable ways for humans and nonhumans to interact. This is achieved through encouraging greater attention to the entangled and relational ecologies in which human and nonhumans are co-produced (see: Bennett 2010; Gibson-Graham 2008, 2011; Head 2012; Whatmore 2002, 2013).  

To be sustainable, creative cities require attentiveness to all nonhuman or more-than-human elements that animate these spaces and the people that enliven them. However, this can only be achieved through human willingness to creatively rethink and recast narratives that authorise the binary conception of nature (nonhuman)/culture (human). As Head (2014: 122) writes:

If we are assuming humans will be part of the future, [we need to ask] how can we articulate and enact the necessary creative human interventions – the creative destruction of dismantling the fossil-fuel economy, and a variety of restoration and repair activities?

Cities, where over half of the world’s population now live, may well be the sites where these creative interventions can most effectively and efficiently occur.

Conceptualising urban spaces as ‘living cities’ (Hinchcliffe & Whatmore 2006: 125) provides one form of creative intervention that may be useful in reconfiguring our environmentally damaging economies and everyday living practices. ‘Living Cities’, for Hinchcliffe and Whatmore (2006), are brought to life as assemblages amongst human and nonhumans, the recognition of which requires ‘a political reengagement’. Hinchcliffe and Whatmore (2006) refer to this ‘as a politics of conviviality that is serious about the heterogeneous company and messy business of living together,’ stating:

The notion of living cities fleshes out a sense of ecological co-fabrication in which the life patterns and rhythms of people and other city dwellers are entangled with and against the grain of expert designs and blueprints. This conceptual shift from built environments (as they are termed in conventional Town and Country Planning) to living cities is allied to a realignment of the politics of nature such that cities are appreciated as ‘ecological disturbance regimes rather than ecological sacrifice zones’ (Wolch, 1998) in which people are no longer considered inimical to nature, nor natures antithetical to cities. (134).

It is through this very messiness of living in a space of ‘ecological co-fabrication’ (Hinchcliffe & Whatmore 2006: 134) that the urban/rural and nature/culture divide breaks down and creative reconfigurations of human/nonhuman relations become both necessary and possible.  An openness to the multiplicity of assemblages in which ‘connection’ – recognition that ‘[w]e are all just different collections of the same stuff–bacteria, heavy metals, atoms, matter-energy – not separate kinds of being susceptible to ranking’ (Gibson-Graham 2011: 3) – can provide a basis from which reconfiguring creative (original and useful) ‘form[s] of belonging’ to and with the world could be constructed. Such new forms of belonging offer hope for the development of creative ecologies that challenge the human/nature divide fuelling anthropocentric thinking.

Canberra as a ‘living city’

Our conversations with Canberrans who shop at farmers’ markets, farmer retail outlets and/or grow some of their own food in backyard or community gardens indicate that these new forms of belonging are developing. These belongings are animated by engagement with the particular ecological conditions of specific places and enlivened by an appreciation of the non-economic values of food. Through growing awareness of seasonality, the impact of climatic conditions and avoidance of food waste, participants in our research actively renegotiate their anthropocentric understandings of themselves and the city to recognise their reliance on the work of non-synthetic, nonhuman or more-than-human entities in urban environments.

Urban agriculture in Canberra has grown steadily over the last decade. The city, populated by approximately 360,000 people, is home to two regular farmers’ market, two farmers’ market retail outlets and at least 18 community gardens. The first farmers’ market in 2004 had 12 stallholders and 1,000 customer, today it attracts over 8,000 people and 100 stallholders each week generating $20 million per annum for the local economy. The discussion below is based on data gathered through in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 31 Canberrans who participate in urban agriculture activities in the city.

Ecological conditions: seasonality, climate, and soil

Engagement with urban agriculture enables our participants to actively disrupt the dominant industrialised, convenience-based urban approach to food that sees over 70% of Australians purchasing their groceries from the full-service supermarket duopoly Coles and Woolworths (DAFF, 2011). Those who produce their own food and/or shop at the farmers' market or farmers’ retail outlets enthuse about the taste, quality and the pleasure they gain from eating the food. They commonly attribute these positive elements to seasonality, low-food miles and low or no-spray production processes. Indeed, through their urban agricultural engagement our research participants show awareness of the particularities and peculiarities of place and how unique climatic conditions and soil qualities can impact on certain crops. For gardeners this happens through hand-on experience punctuated by crop failures and success depending on the conditions. For farmers’ market and farmer’ retail outlet shoppers it happens through their contact with producers and the seasonal availability of food.

Food producing gardening forges connections to place and, for some participants enables them to actively and consciously disrupt modern notions of what a city can and should be. This is demonstrated by one participant’s observations that:

…there’s a kind of, almost like a Zen or a meditative space that you can get into when you’re interacting with the soil, when you’re cultivating and caring for something ‘cause growing is all about noticing what is a plant doing, what is the soil doing, what is the air around you doing?  So you’re focussed much more on the environment that you’re in, you’re not isolated from it in a building, you’re in it and you become part of it and sometimes you can lose yourself in it…

While urban gardening can provide these engaging moments of interaction with the human/nonhuman assemblages act as a form of connection, we found that it is when humans are unable to control or adequately care for food they are producing that they become most attuned to ecological conditions and understand the impacts of their shifting, relational assemblages (Gibson-Graham, 2011; Bennett, 2010). These are times when climate and ‘pests’ thwart the best-laid plans of human—when snails eat seedlings, when a fox gets to the chickens or when a late frost destroys tomato seedlings. There is immense frustration expressed at these events, but also a resignation that such is life. Another participant voices these feelings when she tells us that ‘… the chooks have demolished everything, but we try and grow and the trees affect our ability to grow.  We can't get as much as I'd like but I do grow parsley and spinach, beans and tomatoes’. In these moments where people’s plans are thwarted by nonhuman elements, our participants express an awareness of human limits and an understanding of the flaws in anthropocentric beliefs that cities are human-controlled environments. This reflects Ginn’s (2013) observations of the importance of the ability of gardeners to ‘let go’: ‘[g]ardeners learn to let go and let some things stay hidden. This inability to fully control the garden shows an ontology thick with the composted remains of material presence, enlivened by dreams of detachment from certain creatures and an imagination of future enchantment to come.’ (541)

In these experiences we find that the act of gardening is not simply about positively accepting all nonhumans and the havoc they may wreak. It is, instead, about understanding that, even when gardeners may long for control and wish away some nonhuman elements, their plans are frequently thwarted by the liveliness of nonhumans. In gardens, human/nonhuman assemblages are made and remade in multiple, yet mutually entangled ways. We suggest that gardeners are frequently forced to confront this and that their understanding and openness to these entanglements may lay the foundations for more sustainable, ethical and productive ecological understandings in cities and beyond.

Above the soil, the weekly ‘event’ of the farmers’ market also enables participants to engage anew with food and their city. Indeed, the ‘direct’ farmer to shopper model affords urban dwellers the opportunity to develop intimate understanding of the human and nonhuman efforts required to produce food. By providing fresh, seasonal food, the producer acts as a physical, cognitive and also sensorial conduit or point of connection with nonhuman others required to produce food. The local and seasonal nature of farmers’ markets could be seen as furthering the development of ‘politics of convivality’ whereby, humans are required to recognise the limits of their control and develop new assemblages of knowledge. Indeed, in our conversations with these farmers’ market and farmers’ retail outlet shoppers we see evidence of an openness to the actant (Latour, 1987) qualities, or what Jane Bennett (2010) refers to as the ‘vital materiality’ and which Whatmore (2013) refers to as the ‘forcefulness’ of nonhumans, specifically food. This manifests in an acknowledgement of the ways people are acted on by food and the seasonal and climatic conditions that shape it.

While the agency of the seasons can be surmounted through purchasing elsewhere, such as in supermarkets, the experience of farmers’ market and farmer’ retail outlet shopping can increase awareness of the nonhuman elements and manifestations of particular places that impact on the production process as demonstrated by one shopper:

the only kind of fruit or vegetable that I buy, not at the market, is bananas, because I love bananas, and we just don’t grow bananas down here; but otherwise if something isn’t there, I figure, ‘OK, well it’s not in season, therefore I’m not going to eat it, I’ll wait until it’s in season’. So I don’t mind waiting, I sort of think it’s nicer’.

All of our respondents note that the anticipation of new seasonal foods enhances the pleasure of shopping in these places and encourages regular patronage:

To me, going to the markets, it is the experience, because there’s the same stalls there, but every now and then... like the apple store pops up every now and then, or come October the peaches and nectarines, like we sweat on the peaches and nectarines, and if you miss a market and they’re there, everybody tells you about it.

These participants are eager to react to the food on offer and find pleasure in being required to adapt their shopping habits, recipes and food intake according to the availability of produce. This was apparent in the way participants talked through how they plan their shopping trips. While lists are common for supermarket shopping, they are written rarely for farmers’ market and farmers’ retail outlet shopping:

I do make lists and I'm fairly disciplined… at the supermarket…[but]  [w]hen I go to the markets that's not the case, I shop very seasonally and there's a couple of items I get every week like mushrooms and bread and fish but I very much choose the rest of what I buy on what's available.  That's what I love about it, we're only eating peaches in season and the kids get really excited… they'll ask if it's stone fruit time and I love that.

The difference in responsiveness to both the food and the shopping experience between supermarket and farmers’ market or farmers’ retail outlet is referred to in all interviews. Participants are conscious of the ways in which both the spaces and the produce itself encourages them to approach and engage with food differently, right from the act of purchasing through to preparation for consumption:

….you know sometimes I go to the supermarket and I completely just turn into a zombie, like quite mindlessly going up the aisles, you know its autopilot now I know what [laughs], you know the things that go in the basket after 15 years, week after week after week.  So you don’t actually have to think at all about your shopping experience, it can be just this kind of mechanical action…. but when you go to these other places to purchase food you know you go slower and you look at things, you know you really enjoy, you can enjoy the experience.

Urban agriculture participation in Canberra can alter peoples’ engagement with food encouraging them to be more attentive and responsive to its very liveliness. These people demonstrate an awareness of their ecological co-fabrication by changing how they shop, cook and, more broadly, the way they value food. This encourages our participants to actively circumvent the conveniences of their urban lives, which have been punctuated by the removal of food production form cities and reliance on industrial scale production and distribution systems, to develop more nuanced human/nonhuman relationships through the food system. Food waste is another key area where this shift occurred.

Food waste and human/nonhuman entanglement

The ways in which the urban agriculture participants in our research altered their practices in response to their changing relationship to food was particularly evident in their efforts to reduce food waste. Indeed, in their willingness to reduce and engage with their own food waste we locate a clear and emphatic expression of appreciation of their enmeshed relationship with, and reliance on, nonhumans. People reported to us that they regularly engage in bodily actions they often found tiresome and tedious in order to show respect for the food they grow or purchase. This is as exemplified by one participant who notes:

… I don’t always feel like chopping up more vegies and making more sauce and things, but I am really committed to doing it because I don’t want to waste that food.  And we always use it, you know, it’s nice to come home to a sauce that’s already made that you just pull out of the freezer in the middle of winter.  So we don’t waste the food that we’ve frozen either, it’s just you have to be committed to put the work in at the time the seasonal produce demands it

Even though food waste is actively avoided in the homes of our interviewees, some still occurs, usually as a result of food being lost in the fridge and, therefore, not visually encouraging consumption. While this is disappointing for our participants the waste then becomes a source of nutrition and sustenance for worms or chickens or is composted in order to be reused on garden beds rather than thrown away:

I wouldn't throw it in the bin, it would just go into landfill.  It can go in the garden, it's feeding the garden so it's the rather passionate person in me that says… that whole micro diversity thing, things moving in the garden.  I love that idea of helping to aerate the soil, the synergy of it all.

Here, this interviewee articulates a view of herself as part of an ecological mesh (Morton, 2010) enlivened by humans and nonhumans. While she is excited by her role in this process, she is also aware of the limits of her control over the ‘things moving in the garden’ and thus questions the premise of anthropocentric thinking and the liveliness of nonhumans in urban spaces.

The participants in our research highly value the fresh food they purchase and grow. This informs their efforts to actively avoid food waste. Their aversion to waste, and a desire to respect the human and nonhuman energies and efforts that goes into its production prompts personal moral responses:

I feel I’m letting myself down if I waste... I just think, it’s not a good thing! I don’t think we should! Too much food’s wasted, I think; and too much stuff’s thrown away. I think it’s really bad.

This interviewee attempts to live an ethical life with minimal impact on the planet and feels guilt if she is unable to achieve this. In her quote, we see evidence of the environmentalist ethic which Bennett contends attempts to guilt people into ‘caring for the environment’ (2010: 111). This approach, according to Bennett (2010) negates the liveliness of nonhumans and perpetuates anthropocentric thinking. On the contrary, Gibson-Graham (2011) suggest this environmentalist discourse can still be drawn on to assist promote more ethical and sustainable lifestyles. However, Jill’s reflections on her management of food waste indicate awareness of the limits of human control in her garden, extending her interactions beyond this narrative of ‘care’ to something more akin to Bennett’s ‘vital materialism’:

…we’ve got two compost bins and so we do make an effort. And we do use it, but not as... you know if you watch the gardening programs they always come up with this fantastic stuff; we don’t ever get that. But the worm farm: I’ve got these lovely little worms, and I always use the worm castings in the vegetable garden; so I sort of make sure that I use that. I feed them and chop it all up for them. And I use the juice on the garden too, for fertiliser.

While being unable to create the right conditions for compost the interviewee works with her worms to deal with her waste and improve the quality of her garden produce and, in so doing, reflects an awareness of her reliance on, and mutually beneficial relationship with the worms. These worms act, produce and thrive as do the vegetables that are fed by their castings and, as a result, the food grown is used to nourish the gardener. A ‘politics of convivality’ in the ‘living city’ of Canberra is fuelled through these symbiotic relationships.

Conclusion: Rethinking human/nonhuman relations in creative cities

If we accept the basic tenets that underpin the notion of the creative city as proposed by Landry (2008), Scott (2010) and Florida (2002) then the capacity for reimagining and repositioning human/nonhuman relationships is already implicit in cities as sites of and for creative practice. As Landry and Bianchini (1995: 9) argue, creativity is a powerful resource for cities because it ‘can be mobilised to help solve the myriad problems of the city with lateral, synthetic, cross-disciplinary approaches.’ However, to achieve this, cities need to move beyond human-centred notions of culture as the core resource or ‘raw materials of the city and its value base’ (Landry 2008: 6). According to Gibson-Graham (2011: 15), the problems generated by the Anthropocene ‘require that we find innovative and creative ways of inviting ourselves and earth others into a different developmental relationship, one that denies domination and explores mutuality and interdependence.’

We suggest that urban agriculture can be a vehicle for the creative assemblages of these new ‘developmental relationships’ (Gibson-Graham 2011: 15). Urban agriculture can, as it has for our participants in Canberra, enable city inhabitants to change their relationship with food and the natural environment in order to ‘grasp the subtle ecologies of our systems of life and how to make them sustainable’ (Landry & Bianchini 1995: 18). In so doing, urban agriculture enables people to experience the liveliness of nonhumans and can encourage them to act in more ecologically ethical ways. This, we suggest, is partly because urban agriculture can be understood to be a form of creative practice that could be used to provide the ‘cognitive-cultural’ (Scott 2008) economy of the creative city thesis a broader ecological basis.  Through engagement with urban agriculture, urban dwellers can become more attentive to both human and nonhuman elements that sustain their bodies and their world. These forms of relationships may represent nascent forms of the creative ecological narratives that can be nurtured and cultivated to counteract anthropocentric thinking and sustain creative cities into the future.



1. Pialligo retains elements of its rural character today, though large-scale quantities of food are not produced here. Instead, the rural hamlet is dominated by nurseries with restaurants and cafes.

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