Basil Natoli (left) with Peta Christensen and son Hal at the public housing community garden at 229 Hoddle Street Collingwood, where the original Coll-LINK sign has been retained as a heritage marker.

Friends of Cultivating Community

Key people involved in the establishment of Cultivating Community include Basil Natoli, Greg Milne, Maya Ward, Peta Christensen, Chris Ennis, Robin Parker, Maree Grenfell, Gerard Farmer and Ben Neil. This group and a few others from Cultivating Community’s history are fond of telling stories from ‘the good old days’.

1998: The Cultivating Community name formally established

The Cultivating Community organisational name was formally established on the 12th of October 1998. It emerged on the recommendation of Basil Natoli in the form of a name change for an organisation previously known as Coll-LINK. As part of the Coll-LINK project, Basil and another local resident, Gail Bailey were employed for several hours per week to facilitate community building activities in the Collingwood area. Gail worked mainly using the arts to engage local residents while Basil’s focus was on the development of community gardens on the Collingwood public housing estate.

Coll-LINK had been operating since the late 1980’s under the direction of a local inter church council. Its Statement of Purpose at that time included:

  • To promote the development of supportive networks within the community either by fostering new ones or linking people into existing community networks.
  • To provide a social focus that encourages the development of friendships, shared interests and support.
  • To work with local people and agencies as they pursue greater social justice.
  • To assist people and families to meet their own needs through increased community and personal support.

In implementing Coll-LINK’s activities, Basil Natoli had worked with residents on public housing estates initially in Collingwood and then in Fitzroy and Richmond. There was a core of residents keen on gardening and Basil soon found himself busy working in partnership with them to establish community gardens on the Collingwood estate. A group of very enthusiastic elderly Vietnamese gardeners were particularly motivated in these early days.

Basil Natoli: Gardener, general enthusiast and expert lobbyist

During his time with Coll-LINK, Basil had lobbied the selection committee of Australia’s Open Garden Scheme to consider the inclusion of the Collingwood public housing estate community gardens in the national scheme. This helped broaden community awareness of the distinctive features of public housing gardens, including the range of what were considered ‘exotic greens’ grown by the Vietnamese gardeners. At one of these celebrations Basil gained enthusiastic support from ex-Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and his wife Tammy who was a very active member of the Open Garden scheme. On another occasion Basil was introduced to the then Victorian Minister of Housing, Anne Henderson. Basil remembers that Minister Henderson was instantly impressed with what she saw and the people she met in the gardens. In Basil’s words, “the Minister’s eyes were opened up to the extraordinary benefits that the gardens were making to the lives of public housing residents.”

1999: A politician gets the plot and does something helpful

In the late 1990’s, the old Coll-LINK (by now using the name Cultivating Community) was no longer able to attract funding to continue its work. Cultivating Community went into a brief period of organisational hibernation. A meeting was arranged with Minister Henderson to inform her of this development.

Discussions with Minister Henderson led to Basil being invited to take up a position as a government employee to develop a long-term plan for public housing community gardens. After almost a decade of lobbying the Victorian State Government about the importance of food growing and the recreational and therapeutic benefits of gardening for people living in high rise public housing estates, Basil suddenly found himself in a key role overseeing the implementation of some of the things he had been lobbying for! In 2000, Basil was employed as the first Community Gardens Program Manager of what we know today as the Department of Human Services (DHS) Office for Housing.

Greg Milne et al and the Collingwood Children’s Farm connection

During the period 1998-2000, Basil had been involved in discussions with a group of people who had begun meeting around community gardening and urban food initiatives. The first few meetings were held at the Collingwood Children’s Farm. Some of the people had an association with the farm and/or CERES. At various times around the table were Greg Milne, Maya Ward, Maree Grenfell, Robin Parker, Gerard Farmer and Ben Neil. Later after a connection via the Woodford Folk Festival they were joined by Peta Christensen and Chris Ennis. The group developed their aims and objectives and was keen to become formally incorporated as a legal entity in order to get started on some projects.

Basil suggested they could pick up the reins of the old ‘hibernating’ Coll-LINK organisation under the new Cultivating Community name. To cut a long story short, this merger occurred. Greg Milne was elected as the first Chairperson. With support from Uniting Church Minister Gordon Bannon, Cultivating Community received help with a meeting space and cups of tea and coffee at the Abbotsford Uniting Church.

Late 2000: Peta Christensen and the Summer Garden Project

In late 2000 the first ever funded project of Cultivating Community began. It was known as the Summer Garden Project and involved Peta Christensen supporting children and their families to experience the joy of growing their own fresh vegetables on three public housing communities : Dunkley Avenue in Highett; the Olympic Village of West Heidelberg and children from the Collingwood public housing estate.

One of the urban myths that goes with this story is Peta’s recollection of Basil’s bureaucratic approach to job interviews and the employment policies and procedures of the day. It has something to do with pyjamas.

2002: The DHS contract to support Public Housing Community Gardens

In 2002, based on Basil’s work, the Department of Human Services (DHS) was seeking interest from groups to run an ongoing service supporting public housing gardens on sites including Fitzroy, Richmond and Collingwood, along with Carlton, North Melbourne, Prahran and South Melbourne. The new Cultivating Community Committee had considerable discussion about the implications of submitting for the tender. The decision was made to take a big step and grasp the opportunity. The tender was won and the public housing community gardens contract was eventually formalised with Cultivating Community on 20th June 2002. This contract and our public housing community gardens work remain in place today as a core, ongoing part of what we do.

The beginning of the 2002-03 financial year saw Ben Neil in the position as Cultivating Community’s first Co-ordinator (the job title later to be re-badged as CEO) and Greg Milne as Chair of the Committee of Management. Meanwhile Basil Natoli remained in place within DHS as a key champion of the value of community gardens along with long-term DHS Housing staff member Richard Kean. Richard’s approach to recognising the value of community gardens for public housing tenants has been noted and appreciated by a long succession of people involved with Cultivating Community.

A big thanks to everybody involved

In addition to maintaining and expanding the core Public Housing Community Gardens operations, Cultivating Community has evolved considerably to include work in School Food Gardens, Food Waste & Composting, Food Systems Projects & Partnerships, and Education and Government Support. Meanwhile it is worthy of note how much connection there is today to the pioneering work of Basil with Coll-LINK and the community gardens and urban food growing group led by Greg Milne in those early years.

Other people involved, who not have not yet been mentioned, include Mikyla Hart, Megan Stewart, Ailsa Winfield, Roslyn Semler, Brad Shone, Natasha (Tash) Van Velzen, Emily Physick, Cathryn Kriewaldt, and former CEO Jennifer Alden.

Where are they now?

Basil Natoli works part-time with children in the wonderful food garden at Croxton School in Thornbury. He has also taken over responsibility from Kevin Heinz as for overseeing Victoria’s School Garden Awards run by Nursery Garden Industry Victoria (NGIV). Basil and Cultivating Community are still in regular communication, particularly in relation to School Food Gardens, and often collaborate in running professional development and training sessions for teachers and school staff.

Greg Milne works with Hobart City Council as a Park Planner with the Open Space Planning Team. In this role he is responsible for policy work, public parks and spaces, organising master plans, and building wood fired ovens and playgrounds.

After working for the Department of Human Services as the Manager of the Fitzroy Renewal Project, Ben Neil is now working at Mission Australia. Ben is still a passionate member of the Australian City Farms and Community Gardens Network.

Peta Christensen is still an important member of the Cultivating Community team, currently taking the role of Food Systems Team Leader. She also happens to be married to a fellow Cultivating Community original, Chris Ennis (see below) and together they have two children. Peta and Chris demonstrate that we take our commitment to cultivating the next generation very seriously here at Cultivating Community!

Chris Ennis is the CERES Organic Farm and Fair Food Manager and has been instrumental in developing CERES Fair Food.

Robin Parker works part-time co-ordinating the garden and educating children at Ascot Vale Special School. She worked at Cultivating Community as a Community Garden Support Worker for 10 years from 2002 to 2012.

Maya Ward is the author of ‘The Comfort of Water: A River Pilgrimage’ published by Transit Lounge in 2011 and described as “a joyful yet heartbreaking true story of four friends who walk a 21- day pilgrimage from the sea to the source of Melbourne’s Yarra River.” Maya has worked variously as an urban designer, permaculture teacher and environmental educator, public art designer, musician, performer, festival director, poet and writer.

Maree Grenfell works as the Coordinator for Sustainability & Climate Change for Cairns Regional Council.

Gerard Farmer is known to many as Gerard Da Urban Farmer and can be tracked down through facebook.com/gerardda.urbanfarmer.

The Reverand Gordon Bannon is Presbytery Minister – Pastoral Care – for the Uniting Church in Australia Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, Presbytery of Loddon Mallee, based in Bendigo.

Richard Kean had a long career in a range of roles at the Victorian Department of Human Services (DHS). Many of these jobs have involved partnerships with us for Public Housing Community Gardens. Now retired, Richard is a much valued member of the Cultivating Community Board.

Anne Henderson MP, the former Victorian Liberal MP died in June 2002 aged 60 after a long battle with breast cancer. She will always be remembered by Basil, Greg, Ben and others as a crucial link in the Cultivating Community story. It is sad to think that she died at such a young age, just at the time Cultivating Community began to grow and blossom in part due to her efforts from a few years earlier in her last year as the Victorian Minister for Housing. Anne served as the member for the lower house seat of Geelong in the Kennett government from 1992 to 1999. She was Minister for Housing and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs from 1996-99.