It’s Freezing in LA! – Guerilla Gardening and the Art of Plant-based Protest

by Alexander Harris

Gardening and cultivation have a rich history as forms of protest. In the 17th century, proto-communist groups like the Diggers set about growing fruit and vegetables on St George’s Hill in Surrey, less than 30 miles from Lambeth. Enthusiastically rejecting notions of private property, they set about building a more egalitarian order, rooted in the tending of the soil, as well as the soul. Continuing in this grand, if erratic, tradition, guerrilla gardeners are contemporary activists, who circumvent private property laws in order to plant and cultivate all manner of plant-based life in neglected urban areas.

Although undeniably a global movement, spanning L.A. to Melbourne, guerrilla gardening in Britain found its earliest and most enduring form of expression in Lambeth. Since beginning his blog, guerrillagardening.org, in 2004, Richard Reynolds of Elephant & Castle has often been regarded as spearheading the movement in the UK. Deliberately drawing attention to continuing privatisation in London’s ‘war against neglect and scarcity of public space’, it is perhaps unsurprising that Reynolds conducts much of his work in and around his home borough. That Elephant & Castle remains central in the debate around gentrification, with its ever-growing number of luxury high-rises – gated communities in the sky – only serves to add a sense of urgency to the plant-based activism conducted in the area.

Whilst there are ample histories of the movement, in the form of books, blogs, and TED talks, exactly how it functions as a form of protest deserves closer attention. It is also worth exploring what guerrilla gardening positions itself against, and what it says about the current state of urban spaces – as places to be lived in and experienced both at an aesthetic and a political level. Emerging from a tradition that emphasizes the local, democratic, and ecological as fundamental aspects of a just society, guerilla gardening is both individualist and communalist, predicated on a firm belief that individuals can make a difference in altering their material conditions. Significantly, activists operate outside of both state and corporate control, advocating personal initiative, self-sufficiency, and cooperation, whilst blurring the lines between public and private activities.

To garden publicly – and illegally – is not just to render the private visible, but to turn a typically introverted act of leisure into a quietly resilient, cooperative form of protest. Guerilla gardening is saturated in the language of defiance, warfare, strategy. The very name is suggestive of its transgressive nature, organized along paramilitary lines, often in secrecy at night, by volunteers in the name of a greater cause. Indeed, Reynolds’ website playfully gives those seeking ways to get involved the opportunity to ‘join an existing cell’. Yet, this is also indicative of the humour that lies at the heart of this deceptively gentle strain of activism.

Guerrilla gardening is perhaps best thought of as a form of organic graffiti, a civic expression of dissatisfaction with both the material and social conditions of the lived urban environment. Much graffiti draws its power from its ability to embody despair, apathy, and alienation, demanding to be acknowledged, refusing to be forgotten. The floral markings left by guerrilla gardeners are instilled with an obvious hopefulness; if we are shocked by them, it is not out of discomfort or fear of their ugliness, as tags scrawled on neglected buildings are so often perceived. We are shocked by their incongruous beauty, their humour, their refusal to accept rage as the default position of protest.

Nevertheless, guerrilla gardening remains powerful, serving to highlight the ways in which those with power continue to neglect, ignore and profit off the hollowing- out of public space. In the UK at least, guerrilla gardening can partly be seen as a reaction against a certain conception of how a city ought to look. This might be described as the ‘piazzafication’ of civic space and is largely based on a misplaced idealisation of the renaissance city, particularly as the silver bullet for solving problems of urban regeneration. This is a phenomenon whereby powerful corporate bodies, usually developers, acquire ownership of prominent sites and redevelop them – read: concrete over – along slick, private lines, whilst giving these areas the veneer of a public space.

Aesthetically, piazzafication emerges through the use of an updated classical iconography. Obelisks, statues, and columns, sometimes even given the illusion of centuries of wear, are implemented to create the impression of a renaissance square. Examples abound, but key sites include Paternoster Square, which surrounds St Paul’s, and is owned by the Mitsubishi Estate Co; the rather surreally named More London Square, home of the Greater London Authority, is owned by More London Estates; and Granary Square, owned by the King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership. All highly visible areas, apparently there to serve the public good, but only at the landowners’ leisure – one need only glance at how members of the Occupy movement were treated as trespassers, when protesting outside the churchyard of Wren’s cathedral, to understand what guerrilla gardeners are up against.

It is ironic that these places, professing the values of a modern public-spirited city, deliberately drawing on the architectural vocabularies of the Medici’s Florence, the Forum, and the Agora, should fail so utterly to live up to their supposed intentions when used for genuinely civic purposes. Indeed, nowhere is this more obvious than at St George’s Circus, on the Lambeth and Southwark border. Once awash with plant life – largely thanks to guerilla gardeners – this historic site has been transformed, completely paved over by developers. This has happened within five years. If you looked at original proposals from 2015, you would notice a striking difference to what lies there now: the promise of continued abundance has not been kept. Yet the developers seemed at pains to show that the much-loved flora would remain after completion, cynically acknowledging concerns of the community.

The work of guerrilla gardeners serves to highlight the Janus-face of these places, exposing and refusing to accept such sterile and homogenized vistas, that are both aesthetically bland and politically toxic. In doing so, they cheerfully contest the idea that the urban environment should be owned, planned, and controlled by unaccountable interests, corporate or otherwise, gesturing to a possible future that is more ecologically and socially just. Refusing to descend into cynicism, preferring to stick out its tongue, this plant-based protest weaponises surprise, colour, and sheer fecundity, encouraging us to become active and confident participants in shaping urban life, without waiting for permission. Guerilla gardening implores us to ask more of our civic spaces, and to question those bodies that regulate them. The way forward is obvious: we must cultivate our cities!

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