Cultural Geography and Gardening Activism (2012)
by Shane Jesse Ralston

Perhaps what gives gardens their political meaning are those practical features that all gardens—including dooryard gardens, house gardens, community gardens, allotment gardens and school gardens—share in common.1 According to Clarissa Kimber (2004), “[a]ll . . . gardens depend on the gardeners for maintenance and are spaces made meaningful by the actions of people during the course of their everyday lives” (p. 263). More than philosophers, cultural geographers have consistently explored the connections between community gardening and political activism. For example, Lauren Baker (2004) has conducted research on Toronto’s Community Food- Security (CFS) movement, which is not only about gardening, but also about challenging the food system status quo (especially its corporate leaders) and securing alternative food sources (food security) for area residents (especially immigrants and the poor).2 Christopher Smith and Hilda Kurtz (2003) consider the controversy over New York City Mayor Giuliani’s plan to auction and redevelop the land occupied by 114 community gardens, describing it as “a politics of scale in which garden advocates contested the fragmentation of social urban space wrought by the application of neoliberal policies” (p. 193). Giuliani’s redevelopment project exemplifies neo- liberal economic policy, for it attempts to privatize public use land, maximize property values and, ultimately, remove government involvement in a free market.3  Mary Beth Pudup (2008) describes the conflict between New York City gardening activists and the Giuliani administration in the early 1990s, claiming that “gardening in such collective settings is an unalloyed act of resistance” (p. 1232). Poised to contest neoliberal policies at various geographical scales (local, city-wide and state-wide), members of New York City’s gardening coalition successfully ended Giuliani’s ambitious plan to redevelop and auction the public land. The city’s extensive network of community gardening activists, including guerrilla gardeners, prevailed.

Besides describing the relationship between community gardening and political activism, social geographers have tracked the social conditions and historical trends that give rise to gardening movements. Hilda Kurtz (2001) identifies patterns of urban blight, disinvestment and gentrification as well as, on a more conceptual level, the need for marginalized populations, especially immigrants and the impoverished, to redefine the meanings of “community” and “gardening” (p. 656). In the U.S., from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, vacant urban lots were converted to gardening sites to provide relief during war-time and economic crises, but disappeared when food shortages ended and government support declined (p. 658). Beginning in the 1960s, planted urban lots changed from relief gardens into community gardens, as their purpose transitioned from supplementing food production to offering “green spaces for neighborhood sociability . . . a more localized and more complex response to the experience of economic distress” (p. 659). Likewise, Mary Beth Pudup (2008) examines the historical patterns of mass gardening movement mobilization the United States. Similar to Michel Foucault’s interpretative approach, hers focuses on the ways in which people talk about their practices: “To understand organized garden projects in any given era, we must attempt to characterize their discourses, demonstrate their several effects, and show how differing tropes within the larger discursive formation concatenate in specific urban settings” (p. 1232).4 Her discourses analysis situates the individual qua gardener in a plural network of entrenched and reactionary centers of social-political power. Pudup (2008) conceives gardens as “spaces of neoliberal governmentality,” by which she means opportunities for individuals and groups to adjust to socio-economic crises created by capitalist regimes—such as lowered employment, disruptive culture wars, growing wealth disparities and reduced government services—through “self-help technologies centered on personal contact with nature” (p. 1228). During periods of economic uncertainty, such as the Great Depression and the present economic recession, gardening movements have thrived as citizens seek cheaper recreational activities and greater food security through the cultivation of community gardens. Also, school gardens, along with nature study, became staples of primary and secondary school education during periods of mass immigration, as policy-makers and educators saw gardening and studying nature as ways to instill distinctly American virtues in new immigrants (Pudup 2008, p. 1230). Through her analysis, Pudup (2008) confirms that most contemporary gardening movements constitute reactions to the negative effects of neoliberal policies: “[C]ommunity gardening has been a response to pronounced and recurring cycles of capitalist restructuring and their tendency to displace people and places through investment processes governing industries and urban space” (p. 1229).

Cultural geographers have also identified various functions that community gardens fulfill and the strategies garden activists employ to sustain them. In a study of the Loisiada gardens in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Karen Schmelzkopf (1995) identifies various functions that gardening fulfills, such as socializing youth and providing healthy food in a poor, crime-infested area of New York City. In this way, the gardens encourage social and economic solidarity. Yet, with a shortage of housing for the area’s poor, community gardens have also become sites of political contestation, not just between advocates of neo-liberal economic policies and gardening activists, but also between low-income housing advocates and community gardening activists. Schmelzkopf writes: “Several of the large gardens have become politically contested spaces, and conflicting community needs have led to a dilemma of whether to develop the land for low- income and market-rate housing or to preserve the gardens” (p. 364). As part of his administration’s failed policy of selling off the land occupied by New York City’s immense network of community gardens, Smith and Kurtz (2003) note, Giuliani tried to exploit this weakness within the gardening movement (p. 204).


1 On allotment gardening, see Scott (2010).
2 According to Baker (2004), over 100 gardens in the city of Toronto (Ontario, Canada) have become “sites of place-based politics connected to the community food-security movement” (p. 305). Baker describes two exemplary gardens in the CFS network and concludes: “The gardens [in Toronto] are examples of how groups of typically marginalized citizens—immigrants and people living on low incomes—use their neighborhood as a means of resistance, asserting their identity to reclaim space and engage in projects of citizenship” (p. 323).
3 Smith and Kurtz (2003) document the various tactics employed by New York City’s gardening activists: “First, garden activists held demonstrations in key public places in order to raise awareness about the struggles of community gardens in New York City and gain valuable news coverage. Second, activists linked the struggle to save gardens with other political struggles and took part in preplanned political events sponsored by non-garden-related organizations. Third, activists used the Internet as a resource for broadening the scope of the struggle and encouraged support from extralocal audiences. Fourth, the garden coalition built on this extension of the spaces of engagement to use formal channels such as lawsuits to stop the auction. Fifth, garden advocates built … social networks to raise funds that were to be used to purchase the gardens had the auction taken place” (pp. 205-206).
4 See Foucault (1991a, 1991b, 2008).


Baker, L. E. (2004). Tending cultural landscapes and food citizenship in Toronto’s community gardens. Geographical Review, 94(3), 305-325.

Foucault, M. (1991). Governmentality. In G. Burchell, C. Gordon, and P. Miller (Eds.). The Foucault effect: Studies in governmentality, (pp. 87-104). London: Harvester-Wheatsheaf.

Foucault, M. (1991). Politics and the study of discourse. In G. Burchell, C. Gordon, and P. Miller (Eds.), The Foucault effect: Studies in governmentality, (pp. 53-72). London: Harvester- Wheatsheaf.

Foucault, M. (2008). The birth of biopolitics. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Scott, E. A. (2010). Cockney plots: Allotments and grassroots political activism. In D. O’Brien (Ed.), Gardening, philosophy for everyone: Cultivating wisdom, (pp. 106-117). Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Smith, C. M., & H. E. Kurtz. (2003). Community gardens and politics of scale in New York City. Geographical Review, 93(2), 193-212.

Continue Reading

Educating future generations of community gardeners: A Deweyan challenge‘ (2017) by Shane Jesse Ralston