Guerrilla Gardening Is More Vital Than Ever
DIY urban landscaping is the solution we forgot we needed.
In 2008 newspapers started reporting on a hot new trend in civil disobedience: guerrilla gardening. The New York Times, The Guardian, CNN, and Reuters all published features on the movement, which saw feisty urbanites sowing wildflowers and planting vegetable gardens on neglected land around their cities, without asking anyone’s permission. That year, the UK-based gardener Richard Reynolds published his definitive book on the topic, On Guerrilla Gardening, and guerrilla gardening–related Google searches saw a spike that would continue on and off for the next seven years.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that guerrilla gardening entered the mainstream at exactly the same moment when the 2008 financial crisis was roiling the global economy and impoverishing millions. Guerrilla gardening has a reputation for whimsy, but since its modern inception in the 1970s, the practice of reclaiming orphaned properties for food production and urban renewal was always a direct response to economic injustices.
The term “guerrilla gardening” was first coined in 1973 by a group of community activists in New York City who called themselves the Green Guerrillas. New York was in a period of financial crisis and a great many properties had been abandoned or left in disrepair.
Led by the artist Liz Christy, the Green Guerrillas threw seed bombs, planted trees, put up flower boxes, and built vegetable beds all around their Lower East Side neighbourhood.
Their common gardening space became known as the Bowery Houston Community Farm and Garden, and it still exists today. Their mission was to “reclaim urban land, stabilize city blocks, and get people working together to solve problems.”
Liz Christy is commonly credited with launching the contemporary guerrilla gardening movement, but the real origins of renegade horticulturalism trace back much further, all the way to resistance movements that sprang up at the start of the Industrial Revolution, four hundred years ago.
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The 17th-century roots of guerrilla gardening
In the early 1600s English peasants started losing access to the land. For centuries the fields and forests of the English countryside had been farmed and foraged co-operatively by village communes, and though the villagers still paid rent to their squire, the system afforded them a form of authentic abundance (and much more leisure time than most of us enjoy today).
But as modern farming techniques gained acceptance, the aristocracy realized they could get more value from the land with new labour-saving technologies, rather than leasing it out to subsistence farmers. So they constructed fences and hedges around their fields and forced the peasants out. During this period of evictions known as “the Enclosures,” which continued through the 19th century, common folk in England lost access to around seven million acres of arable land.
The Enclosures ended a whole way of life and impoverished countless farmers, forcing many into dangerous factory jobs for very low wages. But this catastrophic loss of farming rights also catalyzed several revolutionary movements to restore access to land. Foremost among them were the Diggers, a group of radical gardeners led by a bankrupt textile trader named Gerrard Winstanley.
The Diggers believed that everyone should be able to eat from the earth according to their own labour. And that’s what they did: they went out onto the land and farmed it.
Although the Diggers were violently opposed by the aristocracy, who sent soldiers to drive them from the land and destroy their crops, their actions helped pave the way for the English “allotment garden” system, which is similar to North American community gardens but with much larger plots. In the same way, the work of New York’s Green Guerrillas gave rise to an extensive community garden movement that blossomed in the 1980s.
Guerrilla gardening never went away
While the term “guerrilla gardening” comes in and out of fashion, the practices that underpin it are more consistent. The media vogue for guerrilla gardening mostly faded by 2015 or so, but that doesn’t mean that citizens lost interest in reclaiming land for the benefit of their communities. Just look at Ron Finley, the self-described “ecolutionary renegade” from South Central LA whose 2013 Ted Talk about guerrilla gardening has been viewed nine million times.
“Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do, especially in the inner city,” Ron Finley said.
Since then, Finley’s influence has only grown. His course on growing your own food is one of the most popular offerings on MasterClass, and his organization continues to nurture community gardens in South Central LA.
In Montréal, “Green Alleyways” are thriving, with residents volunteering their time and resources to build beds and grow plants that will attract pollinators and enrich the common area between buildings.
Free food gardens like Le Mange-Trottoir in Villeray are popping up along sidewalks and in city parks — some with permission, others not so much. Organizations like La Place Commune are coordinating to distribute fresh produce from people’s backyards, as well as to glean pears, plums, and apples from consenting fruit tree owners.
La Place Commune also manages a large community garden on a new campus for the Université de Montréal, without permission or oversight from the university itself. The people involved in the project don’t tend to use the term “guerrilla gardening,” even though it certainly fits. They’re just doing what comes naturally and making the most of space that would otherwise only exist to grow grass.
Six reasons why guerrilla gardening is poised for a comeback
While guerrilla gardening has proven durable and resilient, lately we’re seeing signs of a major resurgence. Here are six factors that are contributing to this revival.
1. The pandemic: It’s common knowledge that pandemic-era restrictions pushed people to spend more time outdoors and inspired many to seriously embrace gardening, whether on their windowsills, their balconies, or in their backyards. Lots of folks are keen to take their newfound green thumbs to the next level. That means looking for bigger beds and more sunlight, and all those big civic lawns, grassy parks, and sunny vacant lots are starting to look pretty juicy.
2. The housing crisis: The lack of affordable housing is pushing city dwellers into smaller and smaller apartments and condos, which in turn increases the demand on public spaces. As people look to take advantage of common areas and make the most of the urban landscape, neglected and orphaned land becomes increasingly unacceptable.
3. Inflation: Everyone has noticed the rising cost of food, whether at the grocery store or at restaurants. As prices continue to outstrip incomes, people are more conscious of what they spend. It’s a natural step to offset those expenses with homegrown produce.
As Ron Finley says, “Growing your own food is like printing your own money.”
But since so few city dwellers have adequate space, and the wait-lists for community gardens can take years, people may want to take advantage of the underutilized spaces that are right in front of their eyes, whether they have permission or not.
4. The climate crisis: News coverage of the climate crisis has doubled in the last few years, and awareness of the need to reduce carbon in the atmosphere is at an all-time high. For many, planting trees and increasing the amount of vegetation feels like a tangible way to counteract greenhouse gas emissions.
5. The return to local: The last few years have been a period of widespread reckoning with profound systemic injustices, from racialized police violence to ongoing settler-colonialism to anti-immigrant policies to assaults on women’s health, and more. Contending with so many forms of entrenched oppression has impressed on many the need for grassroots organizing. The desire for real influence and authentic change has highlighted the value of focusing on local issues.
6. Institutional acceptance: In past decades, guerrilla gardeners had to fight more of an uphill battle with municipalities and developers. But public and private institutions now better understand the value of greening and can be convinced to support gardening projects.
What type of guerrilla gardener are you?
The idea of guerrilla gardening is simply a container for many different practices and strategies.
For example, the “guerrilla” element is a spectrum, not a requirement. Some volunteer gardeners are more interested in creating sustainable community gardens and are ready to collaborate with private and public institutions to make that happen, while others prefer to be out on the front lines of urban reclamation, even if that means potentially getting in trouble or seeing their work undone.
And as counterintuitive as it may seem, the “gardening” component is also a spectrum. For example, some guerrilla gardeners are more invested in tending to neglected green spaces where plants have already taken hold. Their work might focus more on removing trash and improving accessibility, so that more people can enjoy these spaces and they’ll be more likely to be protected in the future. Others love the pleasurable rhythms of gardening itself: tilling, planting, weeding, pruning, and harvesting.
Wherever you fall on either of those spectrums, there’s room in the guerrilla gardening movement for you. Here are four types of guerrilla gardeners to help you find your place in the movement.
You love helping honeybees and gracing your neighbourhood with lots of pretty wildflowers. Your inspiration archetypes are Phoenix Firestarter and Shalaco of San Francisco in Bloom, a pair of native plant aficionados who like to zoom around on their electric one-wheelers, dispensing wildflower seeds from Parmesan shakers. Can’t spread your seeds where you want to? Try making seed bombs with clay and fertilizer. Now you can fling your wildflowers into those hard-to-reach spaces.
You love turning food deserts into veggie oases, and you’re happy to get your hands dirty in the service of a good meal. Your inspiration archetype is Ron Finley, the self-proclaimed “gangsta gardener” who started a fresh food revolution in South Central LA. When it comes to wasted space, your approach is to plant first and ask questions later, and you’re ready to take your fight to the powers that be when it’s necessary.
You love all the benefits of a lush civic environment, especially for disadvantaged neighbourhoods that have been overlooked by city planners. Your archetype is the original guerrilla gardener herself, Liz Christy. Your strategy is to spread as much green as possible, and to get your neighbours in on the action.
You love trees and all their superpowers: removing carbon, reducing heat, and improving well-being. Your inspiration archetype is Akira Miyawaki, the Japanese forest ecologist who created a method for growing dense micro-forests in small urban spaces. Your approach is to massively increase the amount of urban vegetation, and to do that you’re ready to build networks, educate yourself and your community, raise funds if necessary, and pressure decision makers to plant micro-forests in your neighbourhood.