Inspiration: Redrawing Green-Fingered Battle Lines–An Interview with the founder of the Guerrilla Gardening Movement in London

The city of London is a very expensive place to live. Most Londoners settle for the cheapest available accommodation; small inner city flats in large, grey, 1970’s purpose-built, ex-council authority blocks. Unfortunately, the relative affordability comes at a price; the surroundings tend to be as grey as the buildings themselves.

This is exactly the setting that Richard Reynolds found himself in eight years ago when he moved to a gloomy area of London known as Elephant and Castle (E&C). Development Roast caught up with Richard to find out how people are redrawing the green-fingered battle lines through the Guerrilla Gardening community that he launched in London—a movement of individuals who secretly reclaim and green neglected city spaces.

Richard Reynolds: Advertiser by day, Guerrilla Gardenere by night

What was the inspiration for Guerrilla Gardening?

As soon as I moved to E&C, it became obvious that it was kind of unloved by those who are officially meant to take care of it. It was depressing—wasted littered spaces, graveled over or overgrown. Having grown up in Devon [English countryside], throughout my life I had always been around a garden. So I guess guerrilla gardening came about as a result of my being a frustrated gardener and seeing an opportunity on my doorstep.

What was the evolution of your involvement in the project?

At first I was on my own. I would find spaces that needed attention and would garden in them late in the evening. Then I decided that it could be fun to blog about it and the movement grew from that. I didn’t really have any grand ambitions, I just wanted to inspire others and have fun.

Then, as I started to look into it more, I discovered a certain depth to it all—that similar things already existed. Anti-capitalist activists in 1970s’ New York, for example, attracted attention by creating community gardens in abandoned lots—illegally at first, then getting permission.

Then the media picked up what I was doing and it became a virtuous circle; people came forward who wanted to help out and those who were doing similar things but were not necessarily calling it guerrilla gardening. Very organically I became the focal point for the movement—a gatherer.

How is guerrilla gardening different to what came before?

It is gardening in the community rather than community gardening. The latter tends to be a little clubby—there is a fence and you are either welcome or you feel you are not. A lot of work is required to make that kind of thing inclusive of the whole community. Guerrilla gardening in public places has no boundaries; it is open to anyone who would care to stop and take a look and the barriers to entry are very low.

How spread is the movement now?

I was asked to write a book which was published in 2008 and at the time there were more than 60,000 people from 30 different countries signed up to the website. Now, with the advent of social media, there are around 23,000 additional followers.

Is there a community building aspect to guerrilla gardening?

That depends. Generally speaking you get discrete loner guerrilla gardeners; their contribution is through the gardening itself and not necessarily engaging others. I started this way, but now I also garden in social hours and chat to passers by. For me it is about making them feel positive about the spaces around them. At first, people tend to be negative. They are worried that they’ll get into trouble; assume that it is expensive; or see it as a waste of time because they think it will get trashed. And in my experience none of that is true.

On other occasions it is much more organized. For example, at the end of August we have a big event harvesting lavender from South London traffic island. We first planted the lavender there six years ago and every year we make relaxing lavender pillows to sell. Anyone can come. It is a very sociable and pleasant event—a medieval rural activity right in the center of a main city road. You can watch it on YouTube.

Any words of wisdom to someone thinking of becoming a guerrilla gardener in his or her neighborhood?

You can find lots of practical tips on the website. I would also say: try to find the optimism within you to see the project as worthwhile and the confidence and mischief to not worry about getting into trouble. If you find a good place, just start and don’t wait for anyone else to do it with you, you’ll find accomplices later on. Once you start, make it very obvious that you had been there. If you don’t, the patch may get cleared or trampled. Put pebbles or sticks around it, anything that makes it look like a human hand has been at work. Keep photographic records to see the difference and just have fun.

Do you know of any guerrilla gardening style projects in your neighborhood? Leave a reply below.

Ioulia Fenton leads food and agriculture research at INESAD.

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