Guerrilla Gardening and Urban Gardening – Creating Spaces of Urban Alterity
by Wiekbe Hahn
Mini-Manifesto for Engaged Ecology:
1. We have the right to fresh air, clean water and healthy soil.
2. A government that cannot provide them loses legitimacy.
3. The earth is in a crisis.
4. Cities are not the problem, they’re the solution.
5. Cities are alive and should be treated that way.
6. Biodiversity is the best measure of a healthy place.
7. Humans have evolved to live in harmony with nature.
8. The public creates the best public spaces.
9. People will care for a place they plant themselves.
10. Engaged ecology creates a community.
Guerrilla gardening is for everyone and can be practiced in any space, regardless of size, location or budget. Just get yourself a spade and some seeds and find a free suitable space either private or public, inside or outside; that is what many guidebooks are telling. In the practice, guerrilla gardening is riding a popular wave and is spreading around the world. It can be understood as the contemporary adaption of an ancient concept – conquering space for plants in the cities and retrieving the cultivation of food in residential areas.
The first use of guerrilla gardening as a term leads us back to New York in 1973. At that time, the city could count only five community gardens in all five boroughs, since all the money was spent on constructing residential complexes and commercial and industrial buildings only.
Many residents complained about the neglect of their neighborhood and the accumulation of waste, but the city itself never intervened. Finally, artist Liz Christy, who lived in the city’s Lower East Side, assembled her friends and neighbors to clean out the district. Naming themselves the ‘Green Guerrillas’ they planted food crops, flowers and trees within the neighborhood and threw ‘seed bombs’ in empty sites. Furthermore, they took back an abandoned space on the corner of Bowery and Houston by removing the rubbish and revitalizing the soil, planting flowers, trees and edibles, while offering gardening workshops. Liz Christy negotiated with the city’s Housing and Preservation Department a way to make their newly-created garden an official community garden. In the end, the administration approved the site for rental as the ‘Bowery Houston Farm and Garden’ for one Dollar a month (In 1986 the Garden was dedicated as the Liz Christy’s Bowery-Houston Garden, in memory of its founder). Surrounding neighborhoods got inspired and participated in the initiative.
Since then, guerrilla gardening was also considered and used as a tool to show dissatisfaction and disagreement in the public sphere by secretly seeing plants and food crops on land, which does not belong legally to the gardener. One attempt was staged by ‘Reclaim the Streets’, a London based group behind the ‘mass guerilla gardening action’, at Parliaments Square on May Day 2000. They were claiming for a global and local social-ecological revolution. The protest was partly filmed and can be watched on YouTube:
Meanwhile, guerrilla gardening has evolved into urban gardening or urban agriculture and can be considered as a movement by activists, who are arguing for a sustainable urban environment, biological diversity, more community spaces, a sustainable lifestyle as well as against the scarcity of public space. In order to demand a change here, they connect their claim with the benefits of a harvest and the beautification of neglected public spaces.
The movement can be recognized worldwide and many people practice urban gardening in their everyday life in order to live their vision and statement. Therefore, several (guide-)books on urban and guerrilla gardening practices have been published: ‘The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City’ by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen, ‘On Guerrilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening without Boundaries’ by Richard Reynold, ‘Guerrilla Gardening: A Manualfesto’ by David Tracey as well as George McKay’s ‘Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism and Rebellion in the Garden’.
Dr Lynn Turner is a guerilla gardener in South-London. She also publishes her various projects on her blog ‘La Guérillère’. In an interview from the 19th of March, 2014 she is anwering varios questions about her practice, her inspiration, goals, problems and future ideas.
Others come together in societies, unions and organizations in order to form community spaces. Sometimes it starts illegally as well, but at a certain point it often becomes legalized. Here, many examples can be given:
Park and Plant at Elephant and Castle, London, United Kingdom.
‘Park and Plant at Elephant and Castle in London’ is a temporary space on a development site. It is a relaxing and learning environment created by and for the community organizing events, informal gardening sessions, container gardening for one’s own benefit, workshops and tours.
‘Prinzessinengärten’ in Berlin was founded 2009 as a pilot project in Berlin, Kreuzberg at Moritzplatz, a former wasteland. As a non-profit organization, friends, activists and neighbors rent the place yearly and have therefore created a mobile garden based on transportable organic vegetable plots. It is understood as an urban workshop for numerous initiatives and projects in the fields of urban agriculture, recycling, participation, composting, seasonality, cultural education, urban resilience and sustainable urban development.
Green My Favela (GMF) was founded by Lea Rekow, previous Executive Director of the Center for Contemporary Arts, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. GMF is an environmental remediation project primarily located in the Rocinha favela (informal settlement or slum community) of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The organization works in close collaborations with residents, NGOs, schools and social innovators in order to reclaim degraded land, to create more productive green spaces inside Rocinha and to promote responsibility and sustainable living. This concept inspired other surrounding favlas; in the Vidigal slum in Rio de Janeiro for instance residents have created a park on their own initiative. They grew vegetables and flowers in plastic bottles and containers and built walls and garden furniture with recycled objects.
Urban gardens are based on the principle of anti-globalization; the local is paramount. They are spaces of urban alterity, a creative act to enact alternative urban imaginaries. In the sense of Michel Foucault they can even be considered in a heterotopic point of view. Different from utopias, heterotopias are real places or counter-sites, capable of juxtaposing several spaces in a single real place. They are a place for individuals, whose behavior and ideas do not (yet) correspond with society’s norms.
 Tracey, David: Guerrilla Gardening. A Manualfesto, Gabriola Island, 2007, p. 20.
 http://www.evidero.de/veraendern/die-ur-geschichte-des-urban-gardenings, 19.2.14, 15:26 pm.
 http://www.pps.org/great_public_spaces/one?public_place_id=45, 19.2.14, 16:08 pm.
 Tracey, David: Guerrilla Gardening. A Manualfesto, Gabriola Island, 2007, p. 25.
 Tracey, David: Guerrilla Gardening. A Manualfesto, Gabriola Island, 2007, p. 28.
 Foucault, Michel: Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias, 1967 (online: http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/foucault1.pdf).