Guerilla Gardening and Community Building as a Challenge to Local Laws

by Thera McAvoy

 

In urban spaces with few green spaces, that may also act as food deserts, some people chose to begin gardening on public or privately owned land without permission. Guerilla gardening is the act of planting gardens in urban spaces, often without any kind of legal right to use the land.[1] Forms of guerilla gardening vary widely, and can range from throwing seed bombs (Made of dirt, clay, compost, water, and seeds intended to germinate where they fall.), moss graffiti painted on walls, or planting full gardens and maintaining them.[2]

Guerilla gardeners are motivated by a lot of different forces. Some are trying to fight deserts in areas the don’t have ready access to supermarkets or produce stores through practices such as grafting fruit bearing tree limbs onto non fruit bearing city trees.[3] Seed bombing can function as a way to green and beautify neglected public spaces and vacant lots.[4] Others want to show how land should be used and managed, and how their local governments are failing to make use of empty land.[5] This runs the risk that much of the land used for gardening is often being used illegally–either through trespassing against private owners or through using public land against local ordinances.

tara hui gur

Tara Hui is a guerilla grafter in the San Francisco Bay Area. Shavelson, supra note 3.

 

Illegal gardens can be easily destroyed by the property owners. In 1975, Adam Purple created a garden on the site of a demolished building in Manhattan, in a neighborhood that he was not himself a part of.[6] As other buildings were demolished around it, the garden expanded, until it covered 15,000 square feet and produced fruits and vegetables.[7] It was destroyed by the city in the 1980’s, after Purple unsuccessfully sued to protect it as a work of art.[8] Another garden in San Francisco, this time formed by local community members lead by Justin Valone, took over an empty lot and created a vegetable garden in 2008, which was destroyed only months later when the owner, who lived away from the city, learned that it existed.[9] The landowner realized it existed in large part because the gardeners were using the property’s water system and the landlord finally received an unusually large bill.[10] The lot was made vacant again, despite the community’s attempt to argue that it was better that it serve the community instead of simply filling with weeds again.[11]

While most guerilla gardeners never face legal action against themselves for their actions, the unlawful entry onto property is illegal and fines or arrests are a possible outcome.[12] Ron Finley was fined and then arrested for refusing to pay his fine after planting an edible garden in the public median in the street in front of his house.[13] Gardens can also just collapse for lack of care. One community garden in San Francisco, the Alemany Farm, appeared to be a success until the group who had come into the neighborhood in order to develop it in the 1990’s collapsed in 2003 and completely abandoned the garden.[14]

adams purple garden

Adam Purple’s Garden. Kohlstedt, supra note 6.

 

What can be learned about guerilla gardening from the failures? That it takes an intense level of organization and commitment in order to maintain a garden in an urban area even under the best of circumstances, and that becomes much harder when it is necessary to organize against legal opposition. Still, it is possible, and seems to function best when the garden is not the product of one or two people, but is the result of a community organizing itself around a garden.

The local community must be involved if the garden is to survive. The level of success an illicit garden can have seems to be in large part dependent on how well the local community can mobilize to either keep the land’s owners unaware of the garden, or pressure the local government to cooperate. Taylor Arneson, who was able to get away with gardening in broad daylight in L.A. because of the support of the people in the area, holds that access to water is the most important issue, and relies on being able to access water from local people.[15] By organizing local community members to help provide the gardens’ water needs, he avoids the same sudden and suspicious increases in water bills that lead to Valone’s garden being discovered and destroyed by the absent owner.

The community must also own the garden itself, and not have it imposed by an outsider, if the garden is to receive the grassroots support it needs to survive challenges by local officials. The Alemany Farm, abandoned by its first group in 2003, was redeveloped in 2005 by a new group who credit their success to their involvement with the local residents, particularly at the housing project beside the garden, which eventually lead to semi-official approval from the housing authority.[16]

The Green Guerillas of New York City began in the 1970’s with a group that began with throwing seed bombs over fences into vacant lots, planting on street meridians, and putting flower boxes in the windows of abandoned buildings.[17] They later took over a vacant lot and created the Bowery Houston Farm and Garden, the first community garden of New York City.[18] They have since expanded into a nonprofit resource center for community gardens around the city.[19] The Green Guerillas credit their building of community relations and rallying of people to use community gardens to reclaim urban land.[20]That first community garden, founded in 1973, is still open today after being preserved by city planners and city officials after a grassroots movement to protect it.[21]

 

bowery houston farm

The Bowery Houston Farm and Garden, now called the Liz Christy Community Garden after one of the guerilla gardeners who helped found it. Garden History, supra note 18.

 

And finally, Ron Finley who was actually arrested for gardening? L.A. changed its ordinances in 2015 to allow residents to garden on city property without having to apply for and pay for permits.[22] This was in large part due to a grassroots movement organized by Ron Finley.[23] He acts as a community leader and educator who is credited with inspiring gardens around the world, but receives support in the form of seeds and donations from local people.[24] The ordinance was changed following his arrest following a successful petition and two more arrests of guerilla gardeners.[25] It is possible for residents to use gardens to beautify their areas, create new sources of food, and claim land from their government for public use, but only if the local community is involved, dedicated, and teaching and supporting each other on what to do.

ron finley gardener

Ron Finley beside the roadside vegetable garden he was arrested for. May, supra note 25.

 

 

[1] Emily Wax, ‘Guerrilla gardeners’ spread seeds of social change. The Washington Post (Apr. 14, 2012),  https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/2012/04/14/gIQArAA6HT_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.d6f6b3d01cd4

[2] Id.

[3] Lonny Shavelson, Guerrilla Grafters Bring Forbidden Fruit Back To City Trees. NPR (Apr. 7, 2012),  https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/04/07/150142001/guerrilla-grafters-bring-forbidden-fruit-back-to-city-trees

[4] Joe Robinson, Guerrilla gardener movement takes root in L.L. area. Los Angeles Times (May 29, 2008, 12:00 AM), http://www.latimes.com/local/la-hm-guerrilla29-2008may29-story.html

[5] Id.

[6] Kurt Kohlstedt, Guerrilla Garden of Eden: The Death & Life of an Urban Microtopia. 99% Invisible (Feb. 15, 2016), https://99percentinvisible.org/article/guerrilla-garden-eden-death-life-urban-microtopia/

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Matthew Green, Guerrilla gardeners: When push comes to shovel. SFGate (mar. 29, 2008, 4:00 AM), https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Guerrilla-gardeners-When-push-comes-to-shovel-3289216.php

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Wax, supra note 1.

[13] Amy Scattergood, In the dirt with Ron Finley, the Gangsta Gardener. Los Angeles Times (May 19, 2017, 10:05 AM), http://www.latimes.com/food/dailydish/la-fo-ron-finley-project-20170503-story.html#

[14] Green, supra note 9.

[15] Robinson, supra note 4.

[16] Green, supra note 9.

[17] Our History. Green Guerillas, http://www.greenguerillas.org/history (last visited Jul. 17, 2018).

[18] Garden History. Liz Christy Community Garden, http://www.lizchristygarden.us/ (last visited Jul. 17, 2018).

[19] Our History, supra note 17.

[20] Our History, supra note 17.

[21] Garden History, supra note 18.

[22] Jean Stanley, Guerrilla Gardener Inspires New L.A. Ordinance. Next City (Apr. 1, 2015), https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/los-angeles-urban-gardening-new-ordinance

[23] Id.

[24] Geeta Bansal, Ron Finley: Saving the garden that inspired a community. Food and Wine Gazette (Dec. 12, 2016), https://www.foodandwinegazette.com/6258

[25] Kate Torgovnick May, no more citations for curbside veggies in Los Angeles. TED Blog (Aug. 16, 2013), https://blog.ted.com/no-more-citations-for-curbside-veggies-in-los-angeles/

 

 

Thera McAvoy is a second -year student at Northeastern University School of Law.  Thera  is also currently enrolled as a student under the Course:  Human rights, the Environment, Development and Community Resilience  for the Summer quarter under Professor Brownell.

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