In the context of urban organised (or slightly disorganised) gardening projects (1), the term guerrilla regularly punctuates discussion. It resonates with ideas of insurgent planning and craftivism and indeed with a whole realm of urban interventions that foreground unsanctioned activity. Yet some activism in this vein is more contentious than others. Guerrilla is a term that has come to be applied in uncomfortable ways, to describe not just insurgent military activity but gardening, marketing and urban events. Similar language is used to describe putting knitted goods up as ‘gentle protest’ in what is known as yarn bombing. But what qualifies gardening as a guerrilla act?
A good place to start is Reynolds’ (2009) book On Guerrilla Gardening and his organising work online where platoons of growers seek out illicit growing opportunities on roundabouts and in the literal cracks in the city, from so-called ‘seed bombing’ to the creation of whole gardens. In New York, the Green Guerrillas were one of the first organised gardening advocacy groups in the 1990s. The illicitness of these planting activities seems to urge the term ‘guerrilla’, which literally means ‘little war’. In this context, guerrilla seems to designate the rather milder ‘not officially sanctioned’. But in urban gardening, the idea of guerrilla opens up questions about the politics of land use: questions of who controls land and who gets to use it.
In considering this broader landscape of land politics, my research explores two communal growing projects in Glasgow, encompassing both a community garden and an urban meadow in a multi-sited ethnography. The garden emerged from collaboration between a guerrilla gardening group, the Garden Revolutions of the West End (or GROW) and a local community development trust who owned the space that was to become the garden. It has evolved into a well-respected and firmly established local space for growing and community events.
The meadow, by contrast, was threatened for much of the research with demolition as the city council tried to sell the land for housing, a situation which was fervently resisted. The campaign to save the space from this development was ultimately successful and they attribute some of their success to their illicit activity: what one organiser called ‘guerrilla events’ in reference to their extensive community development activities carried out without permission from the landowners. This spanned gala days, toddler groups, corporate social responsibility and gardening sessions, including planting a small urban orchard.
The language of guerrilla activity is claimed by both projects in different ways to position themselves as alternative, and to emphasise the autonomy and common-garden anarchism of their wilful creation of growing spaces in Glasgow.
But if the idea of a little war is taken seriously in this context, upon whom is this war declared? Whilst in the case of the meadow, it might appear at first glance that their little war is on the council (and indeed there were minor skirmishes in court and in public hearings), it is worth considering who else suffers in this war. Burnout and fatigue in activists was commonly seen, but appropriating space for growing and for gala days can also displace other illicit uses.
The community garden are often in a difficult moral position of wishing not to padlock the garden for gardeners only, but also facing objection from their neighbours for the illicit uses of the garden by younger men to smoke marijuana on the roof of their eco-friendly gardening hub building. Equally, the meadow’s establishment as a safe space for growing and child’s play was preceded by the use of the meadow as an encampment of sorts by homeless men and their dogs, according to local narratives; and the use of the space recreationally (and sometimes problematically) by young Glaswegian estate-dwellers has been somewhat side-lined in the increasing use of the space as an educational and collective resource. The various frictions of social groups against each other as land is taken and defended is perhaps deftly captured in the idea of a little war, although in this case it has resonances of class-war.
Yet the use of the term ‘guerrilla’ is not usually meant to encompass the frictions of urban life, despite one activist at the meadow responding to a question of what community meant to him with the words: ‘really annoying’. Guerrilla here is an implicitly political rhetoric, positioning the community garden and the urban meadow as doing something illicit and different, of taking back land. Indeed, in the slogan of the Scottish-based Our Democracy campaign, it is to ‘act as if we own the place’. But in emphasising contest, this can overlook the ways in which the aesthetic of communal growing (and guerrilla gardening more broadly) chimes neatly with an officially sanctioned vision of green urbanism, for example in Glasgow City Council’s promotion of Glasgow as the ‘dear green place’ (2). In this sense, Adams and Hardman talk of the ways in which guerrilla gardening can be sympathetic to the vision of planners and city officials. It is worth asking then, to borrow a framework from Peter Marcuse, if this putative guerrilla activity is system challenging or system maintaining?
In the context of urban growing, guerrilla can be an ambivalent language. As a broader metaphor for the costs of challenging the status quo, and the urban frictions that emerge in communal growing, the idea of a little war can aptly capture the small-scale violence of class politics writ small that emerges in communal urbanism. That said, as a political rhetoric, it can obscure the sense in which much of that done in the name of guerrilla events or growing happens with the tacit consent and indeed support of cash strapped councils. In that, guerrilla becomes not a call to arms but a political signal: a signal of autonomy and alterity. This requires questioning and unpacking in the way it foregrounds an ambiguous contestation. It might well be that the language of guerrilla obscures as much as it explains.
(1) This is a terminology borrowed from Mary Pudup (2008) to postpone for now the sociological question of the role of ‘community’ in this context (see, ‘It takes a garden: Cultivating citizen-subjects in organized garden projects’ Geoforum 39(3): 1228-1240).
(2) This is a play on Glasgow’s (sometimes disputed) etymology.
Helen Traill is a PhD researcher in the Department of Sociology, LSE. Her thesis, titled ‘Community as idea and community practices: tensions and consequences for urban communal growing in Glasgow’, explores communality, inclusion, urban development and the politics of communal land use. @traillhelen