It was a thoroughfare so littered with rubbish and drug paraphernalia that locals were walking an extra block to avoid the laneway.
But three years later, Ferris Lane in Annandale has been transformed by residents. The once grungy, unloved paved area is now an inclusive green space that attracts green thumbs and shared meals.
“It was just a no brainer! It was an awful bitumen area that was a real dumping ground - a slummy dark area. I saw the potential to make it a beautiful community spot, and then it blossomed!” according to Kathy O’Donnell, the lead guerrilla gardener and Annandale resident.
Ferris Lane has been donned “the magic lane” by locals because various pots, plants, gardening utensils, and outdoor furniture have ‘magically’ appeared after the very first renovations were made to the laneway.
“The communal spot nurtures physical welfare because people are getting out of their homes in an area where people don’t have backyards or only have very small courtyards,” Ms O'Donnell said.
Renee Fowler, a young mum, said: “It’s been a really nice space to enjoy, especially while I’ve been on maternity leave. I’ve met so many people who I’ve never met before.”
It gives people connectivity to environment, community and each other.
With a baby in one arm and another in the pram, she said it was great to see how much the residents in the area really cared about the space. "It’s what makes the Inner West, the Inner West.”
It’s not only physical welfare that green spaces in urban environments can nurture, but also mental health.
There is a strong correlation between the state of one’s mental health and their exposure to public green spaces, supported in a literature review study conducted by Deakin University.
The report joins a growing consensus that green spaces reduce stress levels, improve cognitive functioning and have a positive effect on mood.
The report also cites a study that shows a link between environmental stewardship (like nurturing the Ferris Lane space) and improved social inclusion, self esteem and pride.
The use of the space for children is especially important to Kathy O'Donnell, an early childhood nurse.
“I’ve got little dinosaurs there that I’ve collected from street clean ups - one child calls Ferris Lane the “dinosaur park” and another calls it “the secret garden.” They’ll come and find them, play with them, and then pop them in another place so another child comes to find them.
“We’ve got this beautiful space for imaginative play, which we’re losing in society with our children because we’ve got designated parks that only allow them to do structured play. We’re helping them with free play, and using their imaginations as well as connecting with other children.”
Despite the statistics supporting the health and social benefits of green spaces like Ferris Lane, it was an “arduous task” to get the Council to support the space.
The locals applied for six rounds of funding from both the State government and the Council. They were unsuccessful in all of them, and received no feedback.
Even without funding, Ferris Lane has become the vibrant space it is because of community people-power and generosity.
For two years, Ferris Lane has been watered from the personal tap of one resident who moved out three months ago.
By connecting four hoses together, the community has been able to source water for the plants from another nearby house. But, it isn’t ideal.
“I approached (Inner West) council and said, “why are you not supporting it for the community?” I spoke to two councillors independently and both them were very enthusiastic but they didn’t follow through.”
This year, Greens Councillor Marghanita da Cruz embraced the cause and with Councillor Lucille McKenna, put forward the motion to initiate the process of blocking off the road in order to rezone the area as “open space” and to install a metered tap.
The council carried the motion and will proceed with the project in the next financial year.
While the Ferris Lane locals are rejoicing that the council is supporting their green space, not everyone on council is happy about this.
Deputy Mayor, Councillor Julie Passas says unused spaces in the Inner West are needed for parking, not “gardens".
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t get a complaint about people blocking off people with their parking and its usually from the people who want us to all use public transport.
In response to Ferris Lane specifically, Cr Passes thinks it’s “a joke.”
“Every lane in Sydney will soon want a garden.”
Josephine Bennett, the Group Manager for Recreation and Aquatics at Inner West Council, says the way urban development is managed needs to have a vision beyond vehicles.
“Traditionally, we have designed public domain and roadways where vehicles predominate. We need to look to take a more democratic approach to the use of public domain, where cars, people and cyclists, as well as other modes of active transport, have equal value in the public domain.”
Ms Bennett oversaw the project that engaged community members and recreational service providers to draft a report to help guide developments over the next ten years: Planning for Recreation - a Healthier Inner West Needs Study.
“We know from the study that the most popular activities are walking, cycling and walking the dog. And these are activities that use the public domain and not your traditional park.”
Ms Bennett says the council is aware that the Inner West “needs to take more of an innovative approach” by transforming unused pockets of land like laneways to become recreational spaces.
“We know from the research that people living in urbanised areas need to be able to connect to nature. I think that is incredibly important, I think it promotes community belonging and community well being. Places like Ferris Lane are amazing opportunities for promoting wellness.”
“Networked and connected spaces are really important. The quality of design and providing spaces for people to recreate and be outside and come together is the way forward for urban environments like the Inner West,” said Bennett.
Speaking about inclusive green spaces, Kathy said,
“It starts dialogue, I believe. Plants, animals and children. It starts the dialogue where people stop and say “look at that herb” or “look at that dog.” It gives people connectivity to environment, community and each other.”