The Cape - Growing food in the heart of this sustainable community

Tim Sansom discovers a housing development making a real difference.

Water-wise backyard wicking beds utilise captured water for maximum productivity.

Historically, builders and property developers have seen gardens and ‘landscaping’ as a bit of window-dressing that neatens up a construction site and helps with the planning authorities to get the final ‘sign-off ’ for a development.

It has always struck me that there is a huge missed opportunity here for housing developers to take a lead in environmentally appropriate community design. After all, our housing and commuting make up 20% of our carbon emissions. The Cape at Cape Paterson is a housing development that seizes this opportunity and showcases a real-world model of environmentally sustainable communities – and gardening is right at its heart!

A housing development that is a living myth-buster

Our living environments are intense zones of biological and energetic activity, but they are typically linear in terms of resources and waste movement through our daily lives. Contrast this with ‘wild’ ecologies where resources and wastes are indistinguishable as they cycle around a system in balance.

More than 20 years ago, when revegetating and restoring wetlands alongside new urban housing developments, Brendan Condon from The Cape sustainable housing project, observed the disconnect between the ecological principles of water and nutrient capture and cycling of the wetlands, and the unsustainable approach applied to the housing element of the landscape. The ‘natural’ wetland environments provided habitat and hydrological benefits for the landscape and provided recreation and amenity for the nearby residents, but the two weren’t united.

Fast-forward 20 years and Brendan can now stand in a housing development that proves that the unification of our living spaces with the ecology in which they sit can be achieved.

The Cape is a 230 home eco-housing development on Bunurong country along the South Gippsland Coast in Victoria.

This project addresses head-on the challenges of sustainable community design, using technology, creativity and common sense, to create what is likely Australia’s first truly sustainable residential development.

Key elements of The Cape include an integrated habitat-sustaining wetland, tight planning conditions on housing design and utilities (no gas, no wood-fired heaters, no cats etc.), compulsory 10kL water tank for every residence and grid interactive rooftop solar PV systems. Given the high energy conservation rating of the homes (the average energy rating at The Cape is 8 stars, and there are several that are way above this, including a 10 star!), the township acts as a clean energy power station, generating more power than it consumes, busting the myth that renewable energy can’t provide for all our household energy needs.

The sponge city – a food growing resource

Typical urban housing developments create large volumes of surface water run-off, hence the construction of wetlands in nearby creeks that serve to slow the rapid movement of water to rivers and the ocean. Even though these wetlands serve their purpose well, Brendan saw an opportunity to capture this water further up the ecological value chain – right into our living environments. With each house plumbed to a 10kL water tank and overflow being collected in a 250kL communal tank, suddenly there was a new resource at hand that presented an opportunity to grow productive food gardens.

Brendan worked with a water engineer, Marc Noyce, to develop a simple and scalable modular wicking bed design known as ‘Foodcube’. The prototypes of these designs were installed in the first stage of a community garden that sits at the heart of The Cape township.

Operating as a learning hub for residents and the greater community, this large communal garden is being completed in 2021, and will be an integral part of township life where residents can share skills and produce grown on site.

The integration of food growing within the community design has inspired many residents to grow their own food utilising the water from their house tanks. Brendan’s own house has 23 ‘Foodcubes’ installed, which he expects will each produce 25kg of fresh produce annually. That’s more than 600kg of homegrown produce and all from water that would have otherwise flowed right past.

By capturing this water and utilising it in situ to grow food, the residents are in direct contact with the ecology of the landscape. Combined with the provision of solar energy to run their houses and cars, they are truly living with a minimal ecological footprint.

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Tim Sansom

Tim completed a Grad.Dip. in Horticulture, ran a landscape design business and worked at Bendigo's Gravel Hill Community Permaculture Gardens before spending over a decade at Diggers as a gardener and Director of Horticulture.

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