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On the Political Potential of Urban Gardening

Kate Swade

Melanie Konrad has been working with us as a student intern for the past couple of months. She is a political scientist and studying for a Masters in International Studies at Goldsmiths.

We’ve asked her to think about how some of the political theories around the environment and community action interact with the work that we do. Here’s her first blog on how urban gardening is an inherently political act:

One aspect of the politics of green spaces can be framed around sites of horticultural activity. Gardens and parks are many things: sources of livelihood in the form of food production, beautiful spaces that create joy, places to encounter others and venues for outdoor activities (Bellows 2004); not to mention their positive implications on mental health. Traditionally it has been the streets where non-formal politics happens, but parks and gardens are also political spaces, and to highlight this George McKay coined the term “horticountercultural politics”. In his book Radical Gardening, McKay traces the potential he ascribes to urban gardening through the 19th and 20th century until the present day, and points out its potential to incite and accompany both positive and negative social change. McKay organises his argument in a framework that targets the more general struggle around property rights (see also Colding et al. 2013), and explores the motives, challenges and potentials of urban gardening. In his view, ‘counteracting and resistance’ against rigid social doctrines are at the heart of urban gardening’s progressive capabilities. However, dogmatism and xenophobic notions of purification and ‘nature’ represent its most negative characteristics.

As the effects of industrialisation yielded huge negative effects on the environment and consequently people’s health and wellbeing, gardening entered the arena of so called informal politics in the wake of the social movements at the turn of the 20th century. In Radical Gardening McKay enumerates a variety of moments in history when green spaces, parks and gardens, became on the one hand stages for conflict and on the other hand manifestations of political dissent; both scenes of protest and self-empowerment. Considering parks as sites of gatherings and political action McKay argues, for instance, that throughout the last 200 years London’s Hyde Park has been one of the places where the potential inherent in “the radical politics of lifestyle” and the right to free assembly and protest could intertwine. Speaker’s Corner is an obviously marked space, but the label ‘political’ can also be ascribed to the whole park, as a site of protests and gatherings for ‘dissidents’ (e.g. against the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, the war in Iraq in 2003 and the G20 protest of 2009).

As McKay puts it, there is no doubt that gardening in terms of leisure and decoration has been tremendously commercialised (and trivialised). However, for writers and thinkers like McKay – or Ian Hamilton FinlayJamaica Kincaid, Paul Gough, Martin HoylesAndrea WulfKenneth Helphand and many others – gardening is political. They also remind us that there is a vital history of ‘gardening’ as a form of political activity on which we can ground and grow our own view on the politics of gardening.

Before what is nowadays called the environmental movement, there have been many people concerned with environmental issues, especially in the process of industrialisation. They developed, for instance, what is called utopianism and some of their alternative ideas actually manifested in projects dealing with housing, food production, water and energy supply as can be exemplified through the history of the Garden City movement. However, McKay stresses that there have been occasions when ‘the garden’ has been occupied by reactionary forces. The views of the organic movement, which emerged as a result of the Industrial Revolution during the late 19th century, were misused by National Socialism to foster its mystical and racist belief system based on ‘blood and soil’, along with biodynamic agriculture and Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy and parts of the Lebensreform (life reform) movement.

McKay argues that, in stark contrast, the rhetoric of the hippie and later the punk movements of the garden and its metaphorical use shaped a “discourse of liberation” and that this positioning of the garden as a counter-narrative emerged as a reaction to the socio-political circumstances at the time expressed through, for instance, Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. Consequently, the do-it-yourself spirit of the hippies and punks and their love of bricolage crystallised urban gardening as an act of liberation. From the 1960s, as a result, the approach of the garden as a site of political negotiation flourished through the notion of ‘flower power’. McKay proposes that gardens like Adam Purple’s Garden of Eden (1975-1986) stemmed from a notion of grassroots activism as endeavours to reclaim neglected sites or (re)build attractive public spaces. Therefore, urban gardening can be conceptualised as a struggle around identity politics and civil rights and a visualisation of struggles for (political) survival.

The Comfrey Project is a current example of both the importance of gardens for the wellbeing of people as well as the identity politics of inclusion for asylum seekers and refugees through gardening. With Paul Hartflee’s Pansy Project McKay introduces an approach to guerrilla gardening, which emphasises the importance of time frames for thinking around ‘radical’ gardening and its valuation of the spontaneous, affective and transient. Since, on the one hand pansies are short lived, but on the other hand they serve commemoration, which is a practise that expands an event beyond the moment it actually happened. And when looking at Paul Pulford’s work the potency of gardening as a source of rehabilitation, in this case from addiction, and as a strengthening and self-empowering activity becomes striking.

However, when it comes to space and property rights, the politicality of urban gardening is especially evident. Gardens that came into existence via guerrilla gardening practices, like those cultivated by the Incredible Edible Network, are essentially very vulnerable, contested and in a state of precariousness in the beginning; as long as local authorities do not recognise them. Consequently, the mere existence of these gardens throws up issues of tolerance, the state’s as well as that of other citizens, and the role of activism in civil society. Adam Purple’s Garden was eventually destroyed – as many other guerrilla gardening sites have been – which exemplifies the notion of a power struggle between the individual or the community and the state, and of creation and destruction played out between these actors. Organisations like The Plant in Chicago, for example, developed a strong stance on the value of ‘locality’ in food production and of revitalising a neglected site via a do-it-yourself ethic as a counteracting strategy in the face of economic crisis and the state’s failure to provide reasonable living conditions.

References:

Bellows, A.C., K. Brown, J. Smit (2004) ‘Health benefits of urban agriculture’ Community Food Security Coalition’s North American Initiative on Urban Agriculture. Portland: Community Food Security Coalition.

Colding, J., S. Barthel, P. Bendt, R. Snep, W. van der Knaap, H. Ernstson (2013) ‘Urban green commons: Insights on urban common property systems’ Global Environmental Change 23/5 October, pp. 1039-1051.

McKay, G. (2011) Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism & Rebellion in the Garden. London: Frances Lincoln.

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