Garden is not Warfare

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The guerrilla gardening trend has seemed to reach new heights. The November 2009 issue of Vogue featured a fashion spread of models engaged in a bizarrely dirtless guerrilla actions wearing various shades of green [http://www.trendhunter.com/trends/midnight-in-the-garden-of-good-in-vogue]. Recently, I’ve received a flurry of inquiries from reporters eager to jump on the trend, asking about guerrilla gardening groups in Chicago. My response to each inquiry has been the same. While I know of a handful of guerrilla gardening "actions" going on in the city and understand the yearning to reclaim unused space, which we have in abundance, I think the fashion is largely about the rush of forbidden gardening and of sticking it to The Man. The reality in our city is that between the Chicago Park District’s Gardens in the Parks program, NeighborSpace protected gardens, school gardens, the Chicago Department of Transportation’s Streetscaping program and hundreds of private landowners who allow their land to be gardened, if you want to get your green thumb on in Chicago you can, without having to resort to seed bombs.

Most guerrilla garden efforts start and end quickly in Chicago. After all, how can you rebel when there’s little to rebel against? One group of Chicago guerrilla gardeners completed what seems to be their only action last year in front of a Northside library. The episode felt particularly tragic to me since directly behind the library is a large site that residents are now organizing to turn into a permanent community garden.

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Like guerrilla gardening, community gardening is seen as a quintessentially “grassroots” pursuit. Neighbors come together and with their own sweat and ingenuity transform a piece of unused land into a tiny urban vegetable and flower oasis. Tools are shared, materials are scavenged, fundraisers are held, grants are written and everyone pitches in, young and old, local businesses and churches. The rewards for this coming together are great. The neighborhood is cleaner, crime is down, there are fresh herbs and a safe place for kids to play.

This vision is real. It exists in Chicago in upwards of 400 community gardens. But the pure grassroots is only part of the picture. The reality is that there are a handful of nonprofits and City agencies that play supporting roles without which Chicago would have only a fraction of the community gardens it has today. Hundreds of gardens were initially built with assistance from the Department of Environment’s Greencorps Program and their seed and plant distribution days are a lifeline for gardens. For several decades nonprofits like Openlands and the Chicago Botanic Garden have played key roles in developing new community open spaces. And my organization, NeighborSpace, was created in 1996 as a nonprofit land trust with the mission to acquire and preserve community gardens. In 14 years we’ve been able to secure over 70 gardens across the City.

While the visions for the gardens and the actual gardening remain the community’s, ingredients like raised beds, mulch, liability insurance, fences, water, environmental testing, street trees, seeds and perennials often (though certainly not always) come with outside institutional support. Community groups can start gardens using nothing but their own resources and government can come in from above and plant so called community spaces. But for community gardens to be sustained over the years and decades, both the grassroots and government need one another. Community gardens cannot be astroturfed any more than democracy can be imposed by armies.

It’s only in the ongoing partnerships between government, nonprofits and community groups that community gardens are able to thrive in Chicago to the level that they do. Chicago is fortunate to have a stable of groups that play key roles in the planning, development, installation and maintenance of gardens. NeighborSpace’s role is to focus on the land acquisition and preservation. In the past gardeners would often spend years developing a site only to have it sold and turned into condos. Under NeighborSpace protection, sites are preserved as open space.

This coming together of government and community is not new to community gardening. The War Garden movement of WWI and the Victory Gardens of WWII grew with substantial government and nonprofit support. In Chicago all the major parks held demonstration gardens where people came to learn the skills and get the seeds to plant their own victory gardens.

Once the wars were over however, institutional support dried up. And because enthusiasm for the movement was fueled by the war effort, the gardens for the most part disappeared.. What at its peak had supplied more than 40% of the food supply returned to lawn and ball field. This history of ebb and flow leads me to wonder, what is the staying power of our own urban gardening boom? Will it recede as quickly as it came? Or does it have the potential to become a permanent part of the urban landscape like public libraries, schools and municipal parks? With the right division of labor between government, community and non-profit players I believe that community gardens are not only here to stay, but will be an expected and celebrated part of every neighborhood and community across the City. Striking that balance means that the spirit of guerilla gardening, while coming out of the shadows and losing something of its illicit appeal, stands to have a greater impact.