A Fertile Yarra: Celebrating a Revolutionary Gardener

In Melbourne’s inner north in early 2017, a whole community was mourning an exceptional gardener and activist. Glenda Lindsay had died in January. We knew there could never be anyone like her again. For a start she had panâche. In her choice of a scarf with bright yellow lemons floating on black, or earrings featuring a banana, or a bag blazing with cherries. She lived her vision. She even sang it, writing songs like ‘Eat the Street’ which celebrated gardening and community in the city.

I’m the Melbourne convenor of Jane’s Walk, a global initiative that builds on the legacy of noted urbanist Jane Jacobs. I used this framework to think about creating a walk around Glenda’s legacy. Jane’s Walk features walking, neighbourhood stories and citizen advocacy. Each year it takes place worldwide on the first weekend of May, and Melbourne is one of over 200 cities that take part.

Jane Jacobs was a revolutionary champion of the city who believed that ordinary people could do exceptional things.”

This was true of Glenda and her activism in the municipality of City of Yarra, her home and stamping ground. To give some idea of Glenda’s influence, a councillor whom she lobbied for many years on the urban agriculture agenda, sent a message to Glenda’s partner when she heard of her passing. It included the statement: If there aren’t choirs and gardens where Glenda is now, there soon will be. Through conversation, an unpretentious, generous and supportive approach, and a crystal clear intent, she helped others to understand that the city could be a site for planting, nurturing, harvesting and sharing food.

A legacy such as this is rare, and I could see how Jane’s Walk could sustain it and keep it alive. I had in mind something that would weave together the many revolutionary acts that Glenda was part of in the suburb of Fitzroy, and the people who she’d worked with and inspired. As soon as I broached the idea with Peta Christensen of the non-government organisation (NGO) Cultivating Community, she was in! We met among the plants at Fitzroy’s Grub Street Café. After we’d ordered we paused and looked at each other. We missed her.

Soon Peta said how important that the walk wasn’t about looking back but about the future of community food and gardening in the city. We agreed on this direction, and plotted out the walk route. It would show participants projects, values and qualities that Glenda nurtured: collaboration, sharing, daring and site-specific garden demonstration projects. It had all led to policy developments such as guidelines for urban gardening, and a greater interest and acceptance of it across Melbourne and beyond.

The walk route came together quickly. We invited collaborators from  City of Yarra Council, another NGO, 3000 Acres, and the Fitzroy Food Swap. We told them how it’d work and what they’d speak about at their stop. We set the 6th May meeting point close to a site where Peta works with Cultivating Community.

At 10.15am on Saturday the 6th, people started arriving. One with a dog. A few with bikes. Kate, one of our speakers had little Tom in a stroller. Many walkers were Glenda’s buddies. By the time we moved off we were quite a crowd.

Walkers at Atherton Gardens

Our first stop was Fitzroy Community Garden at Atherton Gardens Housing Estate which is managed by Cultivating Community. Garden plots are in high demand, and each is unique. There are gardeners from South East Asia, Sudan and Ethiopia and the Middle East. Peta told the walkers about Cultivating Community’s role managing and encouraging community empowerment in the community gardens of Melbourne’s public housing estates. There was a woman working at a bed nearby, the liaison person from the community who has oversight of how it’s all going. Glenda had often joined forces with Cultivating Community people in the kitchen there.

As we left and Peta locked the gate, a walker said, ‘I’ve always wanted to go in there. Amazing the different plants in some of the beds. It’s rare to see amaranth in Melbourne isn’t it?’

We walked the short distance to Condell Street Garden. This garden is made up of about 20 large crate garden beds. Kate Dundas, the Chair of 3000 acres spoke of meeting Glenda early in her urban gardening life, when she was looking at developing the NGO around the vision ‘to see more people, growing more food, in more places’. Glenda helped her to think about how she could put the project in the public eye, and they cooked up a plan to get the crates in place right outside Fitzroy Town Hall.

Further north near Ici Café, Lisa Coffa from City of Yarra was waiting for us in her weekend bike gear. She had a story. Long before anyone had the idea that café waste could be recycled for compost, Glenda was on to it. She made contact with Lisa and put the idea to her. Based on these discussions, the council piloted a small community composting project. Lisa painted a picture of Glenda out on her bike picking up waste from cafes in her panniers. She described how, over time, this one-person venture has evolved into a five council wide food waste avoidance project. I felt very moved.

I’d never met Lisa before but it was clear that Glenda had influenced her professional life through her vision and values, in such a way that their work would continue on.

We strolled on to the Fitzroy Food Swap. I remembered when Glenda had been at the centre of the action, making new people comfortable. She was a prime mover in this legendary first-Saturday-of-the-month occasion, held in the park next to Fitzroy Pool for over ten years. Peta called the walkers to help themselves to herbal tea and muffins. One of Glenda’s friends spoke about their mutual commitment to giving urban food greater prominence. Sharing food is such a revolutionary act. It didn’t matter that none of us walkers had brought anything to swap; we were invited to take what others had brought. The Swap folk had made bunting and written messages on it for Glenda the month before. They were eager that we take it on to our last stop.

Walking up Alexander Parade I fell in with Reza, a guy who came from Iran. He’d never heard of Glenda before and he said he was loving the walk. I told him something that had always impressed me at the swap was the way Glenda had insisted that everything brought was weighed and recorded in a register. This practice continues and there is now a wealth of data about the amount of food that is grown and shared in a ‘fertile Yarra’.

Tram Stop 22 or the Windmill Garden is a small garden at the head of Smith Street. It has a rich history. Here Glenda and others cut a guerilla garden out of recently laid bitumen in 2007, to the surprise of the workers who’d done the job. The garden was an ongoing source of dialogue, occasional retribution and negotiation with City of Yarra. While we tied bunting, an iPhone and speakers were set up. A print out of Glenda’s Eat the Street came round, and we moved into a circle to sing. Our timing wasn’t perfect but who cares when you’re singing words like this? Turn bad news into good news tear it up so fine, with kitchen scraps and chook poo make Compost Divine.

The walk exceeded everyone’s expectations. People said they loved how it’d brought Glenda’s buddies together again, attracted new people, and woven together her urban food legacy through stories, conversations and site visits. In this way the walk provided a ritual for continuing community bonds with Glenda and her ideas.

The walk showed that rather than being isolated in grief, we can come together feeling appreciation and sadness, in a way that is personally meaningful to friends, colleagues and strangers, and how this can take a vital legacy forward.

Glenda Lindsay and her neighbours claimed precious space to grow food and community in the city. Through her generosity she illustrated the potential for beautiful, revolutionary, and lasting work on public community gardens in the city. We’ll keep on celebrating her legacy, so a look out for Glenda’s walk in the 2018 Jane’s Walk Melbourne program.

Bunting with messages for Glenda made by members of Fitzroy Food Swap.