Please send me SCA's fortnightly briefing:

September 9, 2009

Coming to a neglected piece of land near you….

Every community has them.  Little bits of land – unused and unloved – vacant lots, underused public parks, back alleys and so on.   Or perhaps not so unloved.  A loosely connected network of covert activists – guerrilla gardeners – has quietly emerged over the past few years and their efforts are starting to get noticed

Third Force Newss

They come armed with spades and pick axes, often attacking under cover of darkness and when they’ve finished they leave whole areas unrecognisable.

Sometimes they operate in gangs of 12, while other “missions” need only two, but wherever they operate they leave virtually no stone untouched.

Welcome to guerrilla gardening, a new form of community activism where groups of activists take over neglected municipal areas, transforming them into places flourishing with vegetation.

The term “guerrilla” may bring to mind a small band of armed soldiers, moving in the dead of night on a stealth mission. In the case of guerrilla gardening, the soldiers are planters, the weapons are shovels, and the mission is to transform an abandoned lot into a thing of beauty.

Once an environmentalist’s nonviolent direct action for inner-city renewal, this approach to urban beautification is spreading to all types of people in cities around the world.

Typical targets are vacant urban spaces, railway land, underused public squares, and back alleys. The concept is simple and has the appeal of being a notquite-legal call to action. Dig in some soil, plant a few seeds, or mend a sagging fence – one good deed inspiring another, with win-win results all around.

The movement is active in London, Brighton, Dublin, Essex, Amsterdam, Toronto, Turin, Tokyo and Zurich, but in Scotland the concept is most popular in Glasgow with Perth and Dundee catching on.

While not belonging to the official network many community groups across the country are taking a lead from the movement started in London back in 2004, which is steadily creating a network of activists ready to regenerate local areas through gardening.

Despite some recent publicity, Scotland is still seeing just the first shoots of guerrilla gardening springing. At the moment, it’s still underground, but start digging and you quickly hear of copy cat groups cropping up across the country.

It has been reported that in Fife two young people dressed as gnomes have been tidying neglected parks during the night. A man in the Dunfermline is very quietly planting a forest of oak on council-owned waste ground near the estate where he lives. And a mother of three in Prestonpans is rearing sunflowers beside streetlights.

According to Richard Reynolds, a spokesperson for the movement and the author of the influential, On Guerrilla Gardening: “This is a fight against neglected land, against scarcity of land, and against public apathy. The enemy is not the councils, the enemy is all among us.

“Also, any enthusiastic gardener will recognise that gardening itself is a tussle and a battle with nature. It’s not a hippyish thing where we just let nature do its thing. Gardening is about controlling nature and shaping it to fIt a vision we have of what looks attractive.”

Last week, the little known phenomenon hit the headlines after a sheriff ruled in Glasgow City Council’s favour and granted the continuation of an interdict preventing Karen Chung and Douglas Peacock, treasurer and chair respectively of the North Kelvin Meadow Campaign, from putting new vegetable patches on land which used to be playing fields.

The Glasgow Guerrilla Gardeners supported the North Kelvinside residents in court, even though, strictly speaking, they are not guerrilla gardeners, and helped raise publicity and support for the “North Kelvin Two”.

The upturn is that the organisation now has more interest than ever before and is vowing to expand its regeneration of neglected areas across the city and enlist a growing army of volunteers to make the vision a reality.

“It’s a typical David v Goliath standoff,” says Cathy McMillan, a volunteer with the guerrillas. “Officially it’s criminal damage but the reality is that it is everything but. We just brighten up the area or create plots on which we grow things, turning them over to good use.

“It might not have the support of the council but it’s got the support of communities who are fed up looking onto decrepit areas of land which lay waste sometimes for decades.”

In Glasgow they’ve created plots for growing vegetables in a “secret garden” in Townhead, near the Royal Infirmary. In the Merchant City, they’ve installed raised flower beds in a run down lane. And in Drumchapel, the group is working with the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) on a project to brighten up a piece of land in Kinfauns Drive.

As well as improving the look of an area guerrilla gardeners hope they will encourage the community to take better care of it.

Group member Jennifer Calder, 34, from Glasgow, said: “Once we start to plant an area and it starts looking as if interest is being taken less rubbish is left and it really has an impact on the area.

“Doing this has fulfilled my desires to have a garden – I live in a flat – and tidy up the community.”

Sometimes the group – which consists of advice worker Jennifer plus IT technician Michael Gallagher, 36, and Ewan Nicholson, 33, an office administrator – work on their projects at night.

But because guerrilla gardeners don’t own the land they want to transform, technically they could be carrying out criminal damage.

Calder says the group has had no problems with the police in Glasgow and has a good relationship with the city council.

Jennifer, said: “We have done some work at night, mainly during the summer months and haven’t had any problems.

“It’s a great feeling when you start a site and it’s a complete mess and you know when people wake up in the morning it will be completely different.”

As well as improving the look of an area guerrilla gardeners hope they will encourage the community to take better care of it.

They’ve also declared war on weeds, throwing “seedbombs” into derelict areas. The grenade-shaped package contains organic compost, fertiliser, and a mix of wildflower seeds, encased in recycled materials such as old egg boxes.

Users are encouraged to throw Seedbombs into derelict land, neglected spaces or even your neighbour’s messy garden in an effort to revitalise Scotland’s urban landscapes.

“Is it wrong? I don’t think so,” says McMillan. “I think most people would prefer to see aesthetically pleasing landscapes rather than demolished buildings and disused land.”

Across the world, more than 8,000 groups are registered on the website from Bordeaux to Bath to Berlin. There is even guerrilla gardening in China, where industry is eating-up farmland and food prices are rising steeply, forcing some Chinese to grow crops covertly in any available fertile space.

It’s an ethos that initially attracted Paul Wilson from Dundee to do something to his local landscape. Though not officially a guerrilla gardener, Wilson created a group of 10, mostly student, volunteers to cultivate neglected council roadside flower boxes.

All it required was a few seeds, a bit of effort and some willing recruits.

“I think it’s something we can all easily buy into,” he said. “You can see the fruits of your labour and that’s what’s nice about it. We’re not radicals at all. But if the council aren’t going to do it then I think we have a right to brighten up our communities.”

He plans to take his band of volunteers to other areas, even the upmarket Broughty Ferry where, despite it’s reputation as a much sought-after haven for the middle classes, has more than a few neglected flower boxes and weed-strewn roadsides.

“It’ll be interesting to see how we are received,” he says, “but we are only there to improve places that have been neglected. Councils should be doing this work but if they can’t then we will and hopefully add a bit of colour to people’s otherwise dreary lives.”

According to Janice Reynar of the Scottish Community Growers Association, it won’t be long until all towns are being transformed. “It’s a fabulous movement,” she says, “and is reshaping our urban landscapes. Many of Scotland’s towns suffer from a distinct lack of colour but we can change that. Our weather is grey enough – so what’s wrong with brightening our lives up with a few flowers? These people deserve medals.”


A brief history of…Guerrilla Gardening

• Guerrilla gardening has sometimes been described as POLITICAL GARDENING and a form of direct action but for most it’s a lot less serious than that The earliest record of the term guerrilla gardening being used was by Uz Christy and her Green Guerrilla group in 1973 in the Bowery Houston area of New York. They transformed a derelict private lot into a garden. The space Is still cared for by volunteers but now enjoys the protection of the city’s parks department.

• Guerrilla gardening takes place in many parts of the world. In NORTHERN UTAII, apple trees commonly grow along the banks of canals and asparagus grows along the smaller ditch banks. Many of these plan1s were seeded 150 years ago by the wor1<ers who dug the canals, by burying their lunch apple core in the freshly dug soil or by surreptitiously spreading seeds along a new ditchbank.

• Guerrilla gardening continues today, as individuals secretly plant fruit trees, edible perennials, and flowers in parks, along bike trails, etc. Some guerrilla gardeners do so for the purpose of providing food. For example, the TACAMICHE banana plantation workers in Honduras illegally grew vegetables on the abandoned plantation land rather than leave with the plantation’s closure in 1995.

• GtJERRIUAGARDENING.ORG was created in October 2004 by Richard ReynoIds as a blag of his solo guerrilla gardening outside Perronet House, a neglected council block in London’s Elephant and Castle district. At the time, his motivations were simply those of a frustrated gardener looking to beautify the neighbourhood, but his website attracted the interest of fellow guerrilla gardeners in London and beyond, as well as the wor1d’s media.

• Reynolds’s guerrilla gardening has now reached many pockets of SOUTH LONDON, and news of his activity has inspired people around the world to get involved. He also works alongside other troops, some local and some who travel to participate. He has also guerrilla -gardened in LIBYA, BERLIN and MONTREAL

• Today, is still his blog but also includes TIPS, LINKS AND THRIVING COMMUNITY BOARDS where guerrilla gardeners from around the world are finding supportive locals. His book, On Guerrilla Gardening, which describes and discusses activity In 30 different countries, was published by Bloomsbury Publishing in the UK and USA in May 2008.

• On May Day 2000, RECLAIM THE STREETS organised a mass guerrilla gardening action in Parliament Square, London. After a carnivalesque procession with a samba band and a Critical Mass bike ride from Hyde Park, thousands of guerrilla gardeners occupied the square and planted vegetables and flowers. A maypole was erected, around which many of the gardeners danced. Banners hung in the square reading “RESISTANCE IS FERTILE” (a pun on futile), “LET LONDON SPROUT”, “CAPITALISM IS PANTS”, and “THE EARTH IS A COMMON TREASUERY FOR ALL” the latter being a quote from the seventeenth-century Digger Gerrard Winstanley. An Indymedia public access terminal was set up in the new allotment, and the statue of Wlnston Churchill was given a green turf Mohican. The perpetrator (an ex-British soldier) was fined for his vandalism of the Churchill statue.

• Another high-profile example of guerrilla gardening took place in May 1996, when about 500 activists affiliated with THE LAND IS OURS, including the journalist GEORGE MONBIOT, occupied 13 acres of derelict land belonging to the Guinness company on the banks of the River Thames in Wandsworth, South London. Their action aimed to highlight what they described as lithe appalling misuse of urban land, the lack of provision of affordable housing and the deterioration of the urban environment.”