Conscious Urbanism: Guerrilla Gardening

NPR has a story this week about the tending of so-called "defiant gardens," which are gardens created by soldiers or prisoners in hostile environments. The NPR feature quotes author Kenneth Helphand (great last name, no?), who describes these gardens as "[exemplary of] the struggle to create something normal in the most abnormal conditions."

While it doesn't take place behind enemy lines or within the walls of a concentration camp, the contemporary phenomenon of Guerrilla Gardening seems to be similar in concept to wartime defiant gardens. Guerrilla gardeners take run-down and/or underused public green spaces -- often they are grassy areas that have been overrun by weeds -- and, under the cover of night, move in with spades and flowers and add some color to the area, so to speak. Interestingly enough, guerrilla gardeners, at least the ones on the eponymous website, speak as though they are engaged in battle, referring to the site as "an arsenal for anyone interested in the war against the neglect of public space.

It is normal for people to want to be around other people. We all crave social interaction, on some level. Culturally, we have been fed the line about the anonymous metropolis for ages. "Community," we are told, is something that cannot be found in the city. Surrounded by other people, we become a number on census charts. Cities dehumanize and isolate us. It's totally absurd, but for some reason we eat it up.

In the end, I think that this has a lot to do with scale. A city, when viewed as a whole, is a massive thing. If we look at sprawling urban areas (or even central cities) as the smallest units of measurement, of course we feel insignificant. But we have to learn to start looking at things from the neighborhood, or even the block perspective. Community is something that exists where we, as humans, create it. So where there are more people, there are more opportunities to create communities. Guerilla Gardening is a movement that creates very small, and very local changes to the cityscape, thereby redefining that cityscape as something small and local. A massive park downtown is a nice thing for a city to have, but a median or empty yard covered in flowers is something that will have a more lasting impact on the people who live in a neighborhood.

For example: I live in the Uptown area of Chicago. Every morning on my walk to the L, I pass dozens of other pedestrians running errands, exercising, or walking to and from transit. My neighborhood is about a half-hour north of the Loop (in mass transit time), which means we're within virtual spitting distance of Millennium Park. Millennium is exactly the kind of park that city governments should be building -- it's centrally located, boosts civic pride, and challenges everyone who visits it to rethink the traditional idea of the urban park. But while this fantastic amenity is one of my favorite places to take friends and family when they visit me from out of town, I get very little value out of it on a day-to-day basis. I do, however, pass a few open lots that would most certainly brighten my morning walk were they to be a source of visual excitement, as opposed to shabby holes in the urban fabric.

Guerrilla Gardening, then, is exactly the kind of thought-provoking, public-sphere-improving, subtly-subversive activity that citizens can and need to take part in to humanize their surroundings. Think about how many patches of barren grass there are in your neighborhood, and now imagine them as flowering, shade-covered oases. Big change, right? This is where the defiant gardens mentioned above come in: Guerrilla gardens are, to steal Helphand's line, examples of the struggle to create something normal in the most abnormal conditions. These gardens are about taking the urban context as an unrelatable mass of people and glass and brick and asphalt, and turning it into something small and local. It's a true grassroots (oh no, a pun!) movement.

Tending 'Defiant Gardens' During Wartime (NPR)



Anonymous said...

I like your post on guerrilla gardening, particularly the thought-provoking aspect of the art. It's the main reason I started, and got immersed, well, enough to write a book on it:


Keep digging deep.

David T.

Chicago Guerrilla Gardening said...

Great post - this is exactly the kind of thinking that needs to be out there. I'd recently heard about guerrilla gardening too and actually started the blog, Chicago Guerrilla Gardening. We're always looking for suggestions on new spaces to take on, so you if you have any ideas, please let us know.