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November 23, 2021

Natural politics

Although I hope at some point to catch the bug, gardening and growing things has thus far proved elusive as a hobby. Which makes me an unlikely but nonetheless massive fan of community growing, guerilla gardening, allotmenteers and all things in between. I put this down in part to a ‘lecture’ I had years ago from the redoubtable Judy Wilkinson about the social and political value of allotments. I’ve just came across this excellent article by Charlie Ellis in the Scottish Review which explains why community growing is so much more than the growing of plants.

Charlie Ellis, The Scottish Review

The lockdown revealed many disparities in our society. One was the very different lockdown experience had by those with and those without access to a garden. Gardening became a lockdown activity for some, with many discovering its many benefits for physical and mental health. Advantages long known and illustrated by the gardens for patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder at places such as the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. The Cyrenians currently run two gardens on the site with a mission to ‘grow food, build communities and improve health and well-being’.

The lack of a garden is a particularly acute issue in heavily populated areas, such as Leith. According to the 2011 census, the Leith Walk area is the most densely populated area in Scotland. Clearly green spaces are at a premium. There is actually a long connection between Leith and gardening. An early incarnation of the Royal Botanic Gardens was situated on Leith Walk, before moving in the 1820s. In 2010, the Botanic Cottage (built in 1764-5) was moved from Leith Walk – stone by stone – to the current Botanic Gardens in Inverleith where (since 2016) it has been used as a base for education and community sessions, as well as public events. The surviving remnant of the botanic garden in Leith can be seen at Hopetoun Crescent Garden.

Abundant plots

The gardening spirit lives on, including in the Leith Community Growers and Edible Estates projects. Sloan Street Community Garden is part of this network. Though in a busy area close to Easter Road, it’s easy to miss it, as it’s surrounded by tenements. As the new president of the Sloan Street gardens, Flip Kulakiewicz admits: ‘though I live just around the corner from it, it took me several years till I found out about it’. Access is via a locked gate on South Sloan Street. As you enter, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden (1911) immediately comes to mind: ‘the secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles’.

On passing through the gate, you soon find yourself in a thickly wooded area, with narrow shaded paths leading you to open ground. Abundant plots engulf the clearings. Following the heavy rains of May and the sunshine of early June, the place was waist-high in plants and verdant clumps of herbs.

Flip’s own plot produced a superabundant oregano plant with enough of the bold and earthy herb to keep a busy Italian restaurant going for months. Flip says that the garden was a godsend during lockdown; a place she could decompress in after a long stint on her laptop: ‘Like many, I was working from home during lockdown and I really needed a place of serenity to wind down during a break’.

Flip also feels that ‘in the midst of a pandemic and all the upheaval, it was very reassuring to have a place which didn’t seem affected by anything – plants and animals were all continuing as usual’. She relates that during the deepest periods of lockdown she ‘got into a nice routine where I’d come each day to weed and water and then just sit for a few minutes and look at everything; it was almost a form of meditation’. One legacy of the pandemic may be a greater appreciation of the many benefits of gardening and of quiet green spaces.

Communal associations

For many, a community garden or allotment is merely a handy place to spend some time in the fresh air or to grow vegetables, fruit and herbs. However, some see the allotment as something inherently political. It is seen as an example of common ownership and organisation in action. That’s common ownership as opposed to state or public ownership. Though Sloan Street Community Gardens are owned by the council, they are organised communally. This, some believe, is an example of how society could be based on communal associations. Such a view is best expressed through the writings of the British anarchist thinker Colin Ward (1924 – 2010) and the ideas of ‘associative democracy’ expressed by Paul Hirst (1946–2003) .

Ward and Hirst’s thought exemplifies the antithesis in British socialism between a belief in the role and power of the state on one hand and unease about its growth on the other. Ward clearly belonged to the anti-statist socialist tradition and viewed the post-war era as one in which British socialism took the wrong ‘road’ and attempted to ‘bypass’ the ‘multitude of local initiatives’, in favour of ‘the conquest of the power of the state’. Ward was critical of both the collectivist state and the market, both of which, from this perspective, threaten civil association.

For Hirst, the aim of the left should be to ‘devolve activities from the state to civil society as far as is possible’. He defined the associative society as one which treated ‘self-governing voluntary bodies not as secondary associates but as the primary means of both democratic governance and arranging social life’. This echoes Ward’s distinction outlined in Anarchy in Action (1973), between ‘the tradition of fraternal and autonomous associations springing up from below’ as opposed to ‘authoritarian institutions directed from above’.

Ward was an advocate of communal ownership and ‘self-managed’ organisation of as many features of our lives as possible. As he reflected in an essay on Patrick Geddes and planning, Ward was ‘absorbed by the ways in which people use, manipulate and shape their environment’. For Ward, allotments were seeds of an alternative form of social organisation, evidence that anarchist principles were ever alive and prescient. As he put it, ‘a society which organises itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state’.

In his book (co-written with David Crouch) The Allotment: Its Landscape and Culture (1988), they argued that the non-hierarchical and decentralised workings of allotments are an example of the anarchist ideal in action. Ward bemoaned the fact that allotments were ‘taken for granted’ and instead lauded these examples of local self-sufficiency. They considered the allotment movement to be a vibrant subculture. They argued that many other abandoned public spaces should be transformed into allotments.

A spontaneous order

Ward would have welcomed the plots which sprang up on the disused bowling and putting greens at Powderhall a few years ago. He would, however, have been saddened that allotments don’t seem to be a central part of the long-term vision for this area as its full-scale redevelopment takes effect.

It’s not always been easy for advocates of allotments to carve out permanent spaces. The drawn-out efforts to set up a community allotment near the old Morningside Station in 2009 are a cautionary tale. For many months, ‘guerilla gardeners’ fought to make use of this piece of waste ground off Balcarres Street before Network Rail relented.

After a couple of years, which saw volunteers of a wide variety of ages and backgrounds successfully cultivate the land, permission was withdrawn and the area reverted to wasteland. What a waste indeed. Ward would have seen such aborted projects as evidence of the deadening hand of private and public bureaucracy. Ward and Crouch felt that the allotment was an idea that was constantly under threat, with long-held sites regularly taken over for other purposes.

That things such as community allotments and gardens emerge without the directing hand of an authority connects to the idea of a spontaneous order, which underpins Ward’s thinking. Societies do not collapse without authorities, quite the reverse in many cases. For Ward, it’s only in such marginal places that this spontaneity is free to emerge. Usually, it is throttled before it makes any progress.

This connects, rhetorically at least, to strands of conservative thought which seek to reduce the role of the state in our lives. Indeed, Ward’s work was much praised by David Green and Ferdinand Mount, two prominent conservative thinkers and writers on the theme of ‘reinventing’ civil society and ‘mutualism’. However, for Ward, the market is equally a threat. Free market capitalism might have some of the characteristics of spontaneity (its ability to adapt nimbly to change) but it entrenches existing power relations and inequalities. Ward aimed to reclaim for the anti-market left some of the libertarian terminology adopted by the free-market right.

Fundamentally, Ward rejected overarching narratives and grandiose centralised projects. He did not seek perfect models and instead concentrated on experiments and moments of possibility that might unlock the potential for a better society.

The community garden on Sloan Street is a prime example of this. Unlike so many green spaces in the New Town, it is not private and exclusionary. Instead, those involved in the garden come from a range of backgrounds. Any visitor to the gardens is unlikely to feel that they are witnessing the vanguard of a social revolution. In such a tranquil place, the first thoughts are of the wildlife and ripening crops, not social change. Indeed, whatever your political perspective, places such as the Sloan Street Community Gardens ought to be valued and nurtured. We surely need more of them. As so many areas of Leith and Edinburgh more generally fill up with new (and converted housing), the need for such places is ever more urgent. Many marginal spaces are disappearing.

In general, the pattern is for community gardens and allotments to spring up as areas are cleared for redevelopment and for them to disappear when development ends. In Fountainbridge, a community garden was set up on waste ground near the new Boroughmuir High. As the massive Fountainbridge development continues, this area is bound to be swallowed up. Instead, such places should be maintained after the development process has ended. Those in the new housing will need green spaces. Fortunately, there are plenty of examples of positive stories across the city.

Taking back control

It’s certainly heartening to see similar community gardens spring up in other marginal places all over Edinburgh. Leith Community Croft, which makes use of some disused tennis courts at the west end of Leith Links is another example of Ward’s thinking in action. Their belief that ‘urban crofts can help generate community solidarity and well-being, strengthen the local economy, and contribute to community wealth building and skill-training’, brings out the political perspective underlying the project.

The Community Croft project also emphasises the urgent issue of food poverty. The Granton Hub, based at Madelvic House, lies in an area of crumbling factories. The community garden there has made creative use of an unpromising bit of wasteland. Its flourishing embodies the new energy of the area.

During lockdown several volunteers worked on a log boat, based on a design from the Iron Age. There were dreams of rowing the boat out into the Forth and perhaps even over to Fife. When I saw the boat last summer, I’ll admit I was impressed by the efforts made but sceptical about the vessel’s sea-worthiness. I’m told by Tom Nelson of the Granton Hub that the log boat successfully launched in mid-June, with tests in and around Granton Harbour, where it is now moored. Short trips down the coast to Newhaven and Crammond are in the offing, with the ‘big crossing’ to follow if all goes well. Regular sailings are then planned for the future. Clearly community gardens – and those who use them – are imbued with almost limitless optimism, with some of it justified.

John Harris and John Domokos’s Orwell Prize-winning Anywhere but Westminster series for The Guardian has been brilliant at picking up the underlying trends in British politics over the last decade. Though often downbeat and pessimistic, the main seeds of optimism they contained were the community projects they encountered across the UK. Projects which were ‘changing the world a little bit at a time’.

Their December 2019 episode on Edinburgh and East Lothian featured the inspiring The Ridge community garden in Dunbar. One of the volunteers there summed up the outlook: ‘Sometimes when the world is shit enough… communities and individuals go… they are not going to do it for us, we are going to have to do it for ourselves’. Taking back control in a genuine sense. For Harris, this was a ‘spectacular illustration’ of people trying to change things at a grassroots level and represented ‘where the future of the left has to start’. Their ‘political with a small p’ efforts very much fit with Ward’s philosophy of mutual self-help and communal organisation – and Hirst’s desire to devolve activities from the state to civil society.

Sloan Street Community Garden is one of those projects which flourishes, almost unnoticed, beyond the tentacles of the council. Community gardens and allotments should be seen as something far more than an oasis of calm. The way that community gardens and allotments continue to thrive is a cause for optimism. Indeed, they may well be contributing to an unhurried and unseen social revolution. Alternative ways of social organisation are, Ward believed, ‘already there… the parts are all at hand’. They are, in Ward’s words, seeds beneath the snow.

Across Leith and Edinburgh, local groups are embodying this ‘do it yourself’ philosophy in radical and inclusive ways. Their example provides optimism in a bleak political climate of confected culture wars and constitutional crisis. Like the Granton Hub log boat, such efforts need long-term commitment, collective effort and more than a little optimism. More anarchy for Leith doesn’t mean chaos but instead the strengthening of social bonds and the enriching of its civic culture.

Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher based in Edinburgh. He is currently working on a book for Edinburgh University Press on British conservatism