Taking back the city: Guerrilla Gardening in London

“Guerrilla gardeners work to ‘retake the land so that it serves the needs of the neighbourhood’.”

Source: Trey Ratcliff/ flickr

Source: Trey Ratcliff/ flickr



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Urban theoretician Henri Lefebvre insists that the city is a work of art that every city dweller has the ‘right’ to contribute to. But the city we know today is the hands of select groups of town planners, city councils, and development and infrastructure boards. In what ways can individuals affect changes they want to see? Usher in the term ‘participatory design’ – an attempt by urban developers to create some sort of input and feedback link to the public.

Despite the rise of participatory design principles, decisions concerning the development the city are usually a result of endless negotiations between developers and the local governments. How and where does the individual become a part of this process? Of course, there is the argument about how every single person in an urban area can makes changes as they wish. But that aside, there are ways in which city dwellers are taking the city into their own hands… literally.

Guerrilla gardening has been defined as the ‘illicit cultivation of someone else’s land’. The activity can be traced back to some events of 1649 when a certain Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676), inspired by what he saw as unjust allocation of land and waste of perfectly suitable land that could be used to cultivate food, got a group of men and women together to cultivate abandoned parcels of land. Skip forward three centuries to 1973 when Liz Christy and her band of ‘green guerrillas’ began cultivating abandoned, empty plots in New York for beautification purposes. The venture was highly successful and the word ‘guerrilla’ was first attached to gardening. The guerrilla gardening movement has been growing since then and today thousands of people participate one way or another. There are guerrilla gardening movements in many states in the US, in Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, all over the UK, India and others.

Source: calamity_hane/ flickr

Source: calamity_hane/ flickr

Guerrilla gardening began in London in Elephant and Castle, an area in Central London, when Richard Reynolds started cultivating flowers at the entrance of his apartment building during wee hours of the morning. His gardening activities were an ‘antidote’ to his 9-5 job, and the movement has grown into a website where fellow gardeners meet and organise activities. Reynolds likens guerrilla gardening to guerrilla warfare, saying they are both small organised attacks against established authority in order to reassert ownership and reclaim space. Guerrilla gardening is done for a variety of reasons including the beautification of public space, production of food for subsistence, promotion of a sense of community, creative expressions, physical exercise, commercial benefits, environmental considerations.

Guerrilla gardening is in itself an illegal activity. As Reynolds points out, if the activity is sanctioned it no longer falls under the categorisation of ‘guerrilla’. Although it is illegal, it has a more-or-less positive public perception. The scope of guerrilla gardening is usually limited to the neighbourhood scale (covering pavements, central reservations and the like) as city-scale schemes usually provide greenery in form of parks and such. Guerrilla gardeners insist that there is a gap that needs to be filled by introducing greenery to smaller neighbourhoods. Guerrilla gardeners work to ‘retake the land so that it serves the needs of the neighbourhood’. In the current context of the creeping privatisation of urban space, a rising urban population and  growth pressures, our ‘right to the city’ is more valuable than ever. Guerilla gardening helps us to hold onto and enact this right, while simultaneously improving the urban landscape for all.