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Last month I was delighted to make my first trip to Australia as the guest of the Melbourne State of Design Festival. Australia faces unique problems when it comes to feeing itself; not just because so much of it is desert. Having missed out on the last Ice Age, it is an ‘old’ landscape, which means that, even in its most fertile region (the South Eastern corner where Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide are located) its soils are thin compared to those at similar latitudes in Europe.

While Australia's indigenous people had spent millennia perfecting the art of thriving in their native territory through a sophisticated, light-touch approach to managing the landscape (as detailed in Bill Gamage's brilliant book The Greatest Estate on Earth), this posed terrible problems for British settlers, for whom farming was the only known method of feeding themselves. As they sailed up the coast, they were at pains to discover which parts, if any, would be capable of sustaining their colonies. As I discovered during my research of the sitopian development of Sydney and Melbourne, both cities were second attempts to find fertile ground, the colonists having rejected their initial attempts to find suitable sites.

As the map above from 1802 shows, Sydney Cove was favoured since it led to good grazing ground inland, essential to the colonists’ ability to supplement their stocks of food imported from home. Early prints of Sydney also show the market gardens established around Government House, and windmills on the hill behind.

I found it fascinating to trace the settlers’ thoughts and actions as they founded their colonies; not dissimilar one imagines, to those of ancient Greeks and Romans as they sought to expand their empires and find new places to found – and feed – their cities.

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