Community gardens and fish tanks: Dubai expat embarks on year-long project to eat 'only local'

Dubai - Phil Dunn conceived the idea during the recent lockdown


Karen Ann Monsy

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Published: Fri 25 Dec 2020, 9:12 PM

Last updated: Fri 25 Dec 2020, 9:13 PM

Years ago, landscape architect Phil Dunn was involved in the design and construction of The Sustainable City in Dubai. Even back then, the Canadian expat intended for the landscape to have productive, not just aesthetic, value. Now, he’s putting it all to the test with a vow to sustain himself exclusively on food produced by his local community for the next 365 days.

The Sustainable Human Project — conceived during the lockdown when food security issues were at the fore of public conversation — will see Phil growing his own fruits and vegetables in community garden plots. “Currently, I’ve got eggplants, moringa, sweet potato leaves, garlic, lettuce, and chillies,” says Phil. “It’s going to be a mainly vegetarian diet, but once a week, I’ll do a little fishing in the aquaponic tank we have here for some fish too.”

Eggs from free-range chickens will provide him with additional protein intake, while the rest of what’s missing from his food basket will be obtained by bartering with fellow residents: grains, rice, proteins and oil in exchange for urban farming tools that Phil will repurpose from construction scrap wood. It’s a circular economic philosophy that will be right in keeping with the idea of sustainability that is at the heart of this project.

Now, a month into the project, Phil says the experience has been a process. “I had to start from scratch. It wasn’t like everything was in place and ready to go, so it’s been really difficult but I’m almost at the point where I’m eating 100 per cent from the local community.”

Also read: Special Report: How farming is gaining ground in UAE

One of the things he’s discovered is that it really does ‘take a village’. What started as an urban farming project is quickly turning into an initiative with a much greater social element than he imagined. “One of the neat things I’ve discovered is that I can’t do this by myself,” says Phil. “It will take a whole community to feed me… I can see why, in the olden days, someone’s word was their bond. You’re bartering for your life, because you’re bartering for essentials like food. So, when I commit to build someone a wooden planter, that’s a commitment I have to keep in exchange for food.”

Phil’s health will be monitored at the community clinic every month. At the moment, his visiting father and son are also helping out in different ways. “Today, for instance, we’re building a chicken coop that will house about 10 chickens. It’s great to have the family participate. I need the help, that’s for sure.”

Food security has been a key topic in the UAE since the start of the pandemic — and Phil hopes that his project will have a ripple effect across the rest of the country. “I’d love for people to think about how to take more control over the food they eat, where it comes from, who produces it, and the carbon footprint they’re dealing with. If readers start thinking about what they could do to eat local, that’s an idea that could spread. Growing food together is an excellent way to grow a community.”

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