Since 2004, Richard Reynolds has been stealing out at night in London, gardening tools in hand, and reclaiming the city’s sidewalks, medians, and ditches into flowerbeds, vegetable patches, and orchards. At the same time Reynolds started a blog about his exploits, which eventually formed into the crossroads of an extant world-wide movement of guerrilla gardening. Last year he published a manifesto on gardening where you’re not supposed to. The self-defined guerrilla gardening movement has its roots in the histories of migrant workers and agrarian communists, yet the modern movement’s motives take it not towards the disruption of its society (as in the case of the Diggers—the agrarian communists), but the beautification of it. What defines this movement above other “guerrilla” movements is its vivacity, rhetoric of growth over upheaval, and above all, art.
Gardening as a guerrilla art movement is perhaps the most progressive enactment of the art-as-sabotage Poetic Terrorism theory. Poetic Terrorism (hereafter PT), coined by Hakim Bey in his seminal The Temporary Autonomous Zone (1985), is part of a larger development of Immediatist and Situationalist thought. A good example of the Poetic Terrorist is Banksy, even though his fame has now surpassed his art. Bey luridly describes the conditions of PT thus:
PT is an act in a Theater of Cruelty which has no stage, no rows of seats, no tickets & no walls. In order to work at all, PT must categorically be divorced from all conventional structures for art consumption (galleries, publications, media). Even the guerrilla Situationist tactics of street theater are perhaps too well known & expected now.
An exquisite seduction carried out not only in the cause of mutual satisfaction but also as a conscious act in a deliberately beautiful life–may be the ultimate PT. The PTerrorist behaves like a confidence-trickster whose aim is not money but CHANGE.
There is a certain anarchic ring to the rhetoric (Bey is a self-proscribed ontological anarchist) yet the energy behind the words mirrors a very unified passion with which people all over the world are redefining their cities through random acts of gardening; here is the praxis before the theory.
A quick look at guerrillagardening.org’s “Troop Digs” page shows people of all ages from many different countries beautifying the bare urban dirt around them with flowers. What is most comforting to me is not that this concept is being embraced by an older generation (and thereby saving it from appearing a youthful prank), but that it has so many twentysomethings involved in gardening. This may sound elementary, but as I have discussed in “No Better Time to Be Alive” and “The Victory of the White House Garden,” our generation has a unique opportunity to rebuild communities crippled by urban sprawl through small-scale farming, farmers markets, and basically getting in touch with their neighbors. While past generations may have found the technological feat of cities populated by masses of concrete fascinating, my generation, and hopefully the ones that proceed us, are beginning to see beyond the facades of our urban environments and into false truth that technology comes at the expense of the natural world; estimable technological progress should and does consider the natural environment as essential to itself. As such, the nascent guerrilla gardening movement is a reaction to this false truth. It takes nature back into the city, fighting concrete with flowers. That we are no longer a society that might conflate illegal gardening with terrorism or actual sabotage (to date, I don’t believe anyone has gotten into serious trouble) shows that we are transitioning away from the shopping-mall, large-scale housing “utopias” of the suburban psychological opticon to an overall more sustainable and human urban design. We’ve known for a long time now the suburban concept is not sustainable, yet only now is that knowledge running up against the reality.
Much of the later-half of the twentieth century’s urban design and architecture, a total design movement lead by Le Corbusier’s utopian vision of the eminence of the built environment, sought to build over, rather than among, nature. (Read Rachel Kennedy’s erudite critique of Le Corbusier here.) Simply, many cities look like industrial complexes rather than environments designed around human beings who might enjoy a walk, fresh air, or perhaps looking upon something green. One of the struggling yet better thought-out approaches to sustainable urban design is New Urbanism, which borrows from the pre-automobile concept of the city and embraces rapid transit, New Pedestrianism (perhaps an unnecessary -ism, but I didn’t make it up), and dynamic zoning codes to fight urban sprawl and reign the city back towards the center. Most importantly, these cities minimize the very thing which has attributed to the rarification of greenspace in cities: concrete. Sadly, we cannot undo what has been done to small-town America, no matter how much nostalgia the New Urbanists have. However, the strength of guerrilla gardening as an art movement is that its artistic meme can drift towards others cities and landscapes and perhaps metamorphosize out of its anarchic cocoon into dominant ideology. Despite its similarities with Poetic Terrorism, guerrilla gardening, unlike true Situationalist movements, cannot be weakened by co-option. The very nature of this art is an act of transformation through letting go: plant the seeds and let nature do the rest.
On April 1st, Richard Reynolds and the Guerrilla Gardening collective in London will celebrate the 360th anniversary of the seminal act of guerrilla gardening, when in 1649 the Diggers, in defiance to the law, began planting vegetables on common land in England. (Strangely, this event corresponds with the massive planned protest of the G20 London Summit.) While the guerrilla gardening movement is primarily based in the UK and West Coast cities like San Fransisco, the desire of our generation to “fight filth with forks and flowers” shows an unjaded worldview that I hope survives not the just the recession but the accompanying depressive torrential media coverage of the world economic downturn. Right now the meaning of value is in question and some may be left feeling like they have nothing. If we are planting flowers in the dead of night for no other purpose than to wreak poetry upon our cities, we are more centered than I could ever hope because that is the kind of action which values art over money, green over grey, and optimism above all.