guerilla gardening

I want to explain why I think small-scale citizen-led urban interventions are more significant than might at first be imagined. To begin, though, I would like you to think about the area where you live. Let me now ask you a simple question: Do you ever find yourself thinking that your local area could, in some way, be much better than it is?

I expect that you probably do have this thought occasionally – even if you are already very happy with the place. You may, additionally, even have spent some thinking about why that place is the way it is (a question which can be approached in various ways). And, further, you may well have pontificated about what would need to happen in future for it to change for the better. However, I suspect that your thinking on this subject runs dry at a certain point. I bet you only rarely consider how you as an individual might change it.

If you are still with me on this, I think it is well worth considering more carefully why you wouldn’t get this far in your thoughts. Here are some possible reasons, each of which raises further questions:

  1. Perhaps you are conscious of some kind of social pressure which makes you feel uncomfortable about sticking your neck out in this way. But why would that be? You are keen to make all manner of changes to your private domestic environment, from the very moment you arrive in a new home. Why would you never even consider the possibility of making changes to your public environment?
  2. Perhaps you are too preoccupied with other duties to devote time to this type of thinking or action (“I’ve already got a job to do”) – you think it is best left to those with more time on their hands, busybodies, elected councillors or salaried local authority employees. Again, though, why have you deprioritised it in this way?
  3. Perhaps you might see it as somehow arrogant (or even undemocratic) for you to start changing things unilaterally on behalf of your fellow residents. From such a perspective, you might understand your current surroundings as already representing the outcome of a negotiated process over time; you might not be entirely satisfied with this outcome, but you are not the only type of person that lives there; sometimes inclusivity depends on compromises, with uninspiring results. But, still, is it satisfactory that you should have so little voice at all in what goes on, and not even expect to have more of a say?
  4. Perhaps you have never come across any channels or forums in which you would want to express your opinions on this matter. What is the point of writing to the local newspaper? Who knows who their local councillor is, or respects them? You might witter away all you like on a local internet forum, but who would be listening? Fair points, but, still, I wonder: why is your default assumption one of impotence?

Each of these ‘reasons’ then, are unsatisfactory; they simply defer the question. So I would like to approach the question of our mysterious apathy from a different angle. To clear the ground for this discussion, I should make it clear that I have no intention of asserting that any individual has an obligation to become a local activist in this sense; in fact, I value the right to be apathetic. Apathy on some issues may even be a prerequisite to focusing our attentions fully on others. Rather, I am interested in the possibility that somehow our imaginations in this respect have somehow been stunted.

One personal anecdote, which illustrates this possibility well, has always stuck in my mind. Every morning on the way to the tube station, I used to walk past a scruffy triangle of land next to a railway viaduct. This was always full of litter. I used to wish that somebody would clear it all up. This was a very passive sort of a wish; I didn’t ever get as far as wondering whose responsibility it might be to do so. But, one day, a leaflet came through the door. A local resident was asking for volunteers to go and remove the mess that Saturday. In the event, I couldn’t make it – but a few people did.  A couple of hours of their time, a few black bin bags, and a tangible change for the better was made. What felt very strange to me was that I hadn’t actually ever thought of making those changes myself. But why might that be? After all, I walked past the problem every day, and otherwise held strong and considered opinions about my local area.

Before reflecting further on this episode, I would make the preliminary (and, I hope, non-contentious) observation that any change to our immediate environment involves both spatial and social considerations. It describes a spatial reconfiguration of the physical environment which will in some way affect the social life of the humans who inhabit that environment, and their relations with that space. Perhaps, then, thinking about space itself might provide some clues to why I had never considered intervening personally. In fact, I would argue that one important reason why most of us don’t even start thinking about changing local space relates to the dominant ways in which space is conceptualised in Western society. If that sounds like too sudden a leap into theory, it is at least well-trodden theory (but which seems largely to have remained within the walls of the academy). On the other hand, those already familiar with Lefebvre’s ‘spatial trialectics’ might like to skip the next three paragraphs – I hardly do justice to them here in any case.

So, here we go. I am interested in a body of arguments made by critical geographers, drawing on Henri Lefebvre (1991), which point to the ways that the ‘social’ is evacuated from the traditional – and still dominant – conception of space in the western world. We are brought up to think of space as a Euclidean grid in which objects and flows are simply ‘located’. Space is imagined as a neutral backdrop to the various activities taking place ‘within it’. And yet this view of space can only ever constitute a ‘representation’ of space; a sort of two-dimensional snapshot; an exercise in cartography. Its air of objectivity belies particular ideological underpinnings; as is the case with a map, this conception of space potentially has ideological effects. In fixing and flattening space, for example, this view of space raises no conceptual obstacles to the free flow of capital – and Lefebvre aligned the Euclidean view of space specifically with what he called the ‘neo-capitalist’ worldview.

Paradoxically, grass-roots activists often unwittingly reinforce this understanding of space by reacting against it. Protest movements organised around ‘local’ issues often mobilise a notion of ‘place’ as offering a resistance to globalised flows of power and capital running unchecked across this abstract flat space. Place, in many activist groups’ ‘calls to action’, tends to be rhetorically constructed as having a coherent, inherent meaning. In everyday life too, we tend to operate on the dangerous assumption that places are simply imbued with certain characteristics. We know these change, but we foreground their relative stability over their dynamic potential and multiplicity. Place becomes an a priori category, a given, into which we are inserted. The internal social and political tensions within such ‘places’ are typically hidden behind the rhetoric of ‘community’, ‘cohesion’, ‘consensus’, and so on. But this way of thinking is not an inevitable one. Doreen Massey (2005, p.6), for example, calls into question the distinction “all too appealing as it seems, between place (as meaningful, lived and everyday) and space (as what? the outside? the abstract? the meaningless?)”.

Understanding space instead as ‘socially produced’ provides a way out of this problematic binary. This first requires a ‘relational’ understanding of space: the idea that space is not simply ‘out there’, somehow having a prior existence to the things ‘in’ it, but rather describes the relations between things. Lefebvre similarly rejects the idea that space is simply an empty or neutral ‘container’. He argues that its reality for us lies partly in the ways we subjectively interpret and schematise the social practices through which we perceive it to be constituted. Alongside its conceptual and physical dimensions, then, space also has a discursive and affective reality for us as individuals. In simple terms, we all make sense of it in different ways, and these manifold subjective interpretations lead to a variety of socio-political contestations. These contestations, in turn, shape space. This approximates to what he calls the ‘representational’ dimension of space. Representational space is also, for Lefebvre, the home of countercultural artistic activity. I interpret the spaces of so-called ‘DIY urbanism’ as ones with particularly strong ‘representational’ characteristics. They are not predicted either by the dominant ideological conception of space as an abstract grid, nor by the populist understanding of place as fixed and coherent.

The significance of my litter gathering anecdote was not, then, so much its substantive ‘success’ in achieving its modest goal. In fact, the welcome success of this initiative might have acted as a smokescreen for me, providing an apparently satisfactory but only superficial explanation for my interest in what was happening. To demonstrate this point, I can easily imagine other similar activities which might instead have raised objections among some local residents, including me – but which would still have interested me profoundly. The event seemed to wake something up in me. It felt like a highly political moment, even though the participants had no explicit goal of challenging institutional authority. It was political in the sense that it constituted a radically democratic appropriation of space; it marked an assertion of representational space. And the effect of its novelty was to alert me to the way that the representational dimensions of space are suppressed in contemporary society – even if I am theorising this reaction retrospectively, and didn’t think of it in these terms at the time.

Lefebvre (1991) sketches out a history of the nature of urban space, suggesting that much of contemporary urban space “leaves only the narrowest leeway” for representational spaces (50). He questions “the silence of the ‘users’” (51) of what he calls ‘abstract’ modern urban space. At the same time, he reminds us that this space remains subject to historical change, and therefore “carries within itself the seeds of a new kind of space” (52). It is when these seeds begin to germinate that representational space appears; and at that point it appears to us as ‘differential’ space. He uses this term to signal that “inasmuch as abstract space tends towards homogeneity, towards the elimination of existing differences or peculiarities, a new space cannot be born (produced) unless it accentuates differences” (52). When the representational dimensions of space emerge against a backdrop of capitalist ‘abstract’ space, they are ‘differential’ in that they emphasise “social reproduction and genitality, gratification and biological fertility, social relationships and family relationships” (52). This explains why the representational space which emerges in cases such as the one I experienced is a liminal and often carnivalesque one, characterised, for example by playful hedonism, ‘bringing nature back into the city’, and the subversion of conventional hierarchies. We are drawn to the glistening aura of difference, we are tickled by the disruptiveness, often without quite knowing why. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we are fascinated when this sort of thing happens in our local area. We talk about it to others, take photos, and post them on the internet. We instinctively understand that our unquestioned sense of spatial impotence is being unsettled.

A much wider trend of appropriating space for representational purposes has been identified in recent years, under the collective label of ‘DIY urbanism’, or ‘guerilla urbanism’. This is a loose umbrella label covering a wide variety of activities such as ‘guerilla gardening’, certain types of graffiti (for example, citizens painting the streets or local walls without official permission), some types of pop-up shops, impromptu uses of vacant retail property or shopfronts, temporary art installations, the phenomenon of the ‘flash mob’, the creative modification of street signs and advertisements (‘subvertising’), and so on.1 When these interventions are to be collectively realised, as in the case of my anecdote above, they are self-organising and often crowdsourced. They are characteristically temporary in their duration and ambition. They are low-cost and experimental. They typically bypass, and often contravene, official procedures. Crucially, an unloved or ineffective DIY initiative can easily be reversed, at very little cost to all concerned. They have been described as “insurgent public spaces which challenge the conventional, codified notion of public and the making of space” (Hou, 2010, p.2). They subvert the conventional wisdom in which “form follows capital” (ibid., p.6). They alert us to the possibility that the public spaces of our cities are elsewhere becoming increasingly subjected to “new forms of ownership, commodification and control” (ibid., p.6). And they always seem to be noticed by the wider population.

I had never thought seriously about the significance of this phenomenon (or considered the disparate activities which constitute it as related) until I heard a series of talks at the 2012 EcoDistricts Summit in Portland, Oregon. One of the case studies presented there – which might at first have the appearance of triviality – struck me as particularly interesting. It concerned an individual in Queens (New York), who noticed that a large number of local residents and visitors were driving or taking buses from the main thoroughfare to the local subway station and park. There were no signs encouraging people to walk, even though it would only have taken around 15 minutes to do so. Local people were not in the habit of walking this route, or – in the case of visitors – didn’t know the way. So, he made his own temporary signs, attaching them (illegally) to local lampposts, and this brought about an immediate increase in footfall in the local area. But this social benefit was short-lived: the local authority removed the signs within the week, and that might well have been the end of the story – at very little cost to all involved. However, shortly afterwards, the local authority decided that his idea was in fact an excellent one, and invited him to contribute to the design of a series of signs, which were then officially introduced with great success, and copied elsewhere. The local authority simply hadn’t thought of doing this before, and there was no official mechanism to allow creative ‘bottom-up’ thinking to influence the built environment.

What would happen, then, if dozens of similar small-scale initiatives were taking place all over a city? Most, of course, would be erased from space and memory soon after being implemented. Some, however, would stick, or have positive knock-on effects. As an increasingly common means of effecting urban change, this represents a significant shift in power relations. Instead of the citizenry reacting to what a local authority imposes on a space, the onus in these cases is on the local authority to react to what the citizenry creates.

Is this a straightforward case, then, of civil society asserting itself constructively? Not entirely. In particular, I am conscious of a fault line running through my argument. I am comfortable with the idea that, should an intervention fail to inspire, or be widely judged as excessively transgressive of its social and cultural context, then its ensuing erasal will represent a sort of broad-brush democratic vote of no confidence. And yet I am unable to make a meaningful distinction between DIY interventions and destructive acts of antisocial behaviour; many interventions have obvious potential to offend and upset. I am still struggling with this, and only have two partial answers. First, the observable fact that civil society actions may always have a ‘dark’ side is not a sufficient reason to refute the valuable role that civil society plays in a functioning democracy. Second, it is important to remember that the rule of law is not absent from the DIY dynamic; the more crassly confrontational an intervention is, the quicker the local authorities (or the local police) will be to take action to remove it. And perhaps it is precisely the more incremental, imaginative interventions, those which gently test and bend the boundaries of the acceptable, rather than deliberately break them, that are most likely to inspire and intrigue us. In any case, I remain unwilling simply to equate DIY urbanism to criminality; to do so is to surrender to the status quo; it misses the point.

A further complication appears when we observe that the line between civic and commercial activity has become blurred in this field. The tactics of temporary urban intervention have not gone unnoticed by commercial enterprises; corporate ‘pop up shops’ of different types, for example, are increasingly common. But I don’t see anything wrong with this per se; it extends the phenomenon in a different direction without necessarily diminishing its core potency.

More confusingly, Mike Lydon (2011) of the Street Plans Collaborative sees bottom-up DIY urbanism as forming just one part of a broader body of ‘tactical urbanism’. His team has surveyed a wide range of tactical urban interventions, placing them on a spectrum from ‘unsanctioned’ to ‘sanctioned’. Crucially, many of the activities they describe “began as unsanctioned grassroots interventions [but] proved so successful that they soon became sanctioned or permanent” (Lydon, 2012, p.7). In the case of the street signage described above, of course, the initiative ceased to be an example of tactical urbanism as soon as it was institutionalised. ‘Sanctioned’ tactical intervention, rather, occurs when local authorities seek to facilitate, or harness the power of, DIY activity for predetermined instrumental purposes.

These purposes often relate to a goal of ‘urban regeneration’ – and at this point a more ambiguous picture emerges. I was interested to hear Mara Ferreri of Queen Mary (University of London) talk about this at a recent postgraduate conference.2 She described how many local authorities in the UK are encouraging temporary uses for vacant retail properties on local high streets, and often providing funding for this. The properties are filled with artistic activities, for example, or provide a home for specific community-based projects. In such cases, the local authority relies on a supply of underemployed local people being available at short notice to populate the venues in question. Is this exploitative? When the purpose is served, or the time limit is up, these people are returned to underemployment. One advantage of using vacant properties in this way is that it reduces the possibility of squatters and homeless people occupying the spaces (or the town centre generally); it becomes a tactic of social exclusion.  Suddenly, the strategy begins to sound rather like it is aligned with broader trends of the ‘neoliberalisation’ of urban management. It certainly chimes rather well with David Cameron’s notion of the ‘Big Society’. It seems to tie in well with the established tradition of outsourcing services previously provided by the state to (democratically unaccountable) non-governmental organisations.

In this type of ‘sanctioned’ urban intervention, the space of DIY activity would appear to be a highly constrained one, created to serve particular goals which are determined by the state. It is difficult to imagine how unpredictability and experimental dissent, so fundamental to the notion of DIY activism, might flourish here. The space created is certainly a ‘differential’ one – but only up to a point; it is defined rather less by its social production than by its official regulation. The prescribed actions taking place within it serve primarily to reproduce existing power structures.

And yet our interpretation of the representational potential of these predetermined ‘pseudo-DIY’ spaces need not be so pessimistic. Of course, if we see our actions as only ever circumscribed and enabled by the structures of society, then our actions in space can only ever be catalytic and reproductive. But there is always the chance simultaneously to create new things, to assert our agency at least incrementally, to ‘appropriate’ space to some extent rather than merely pass through it. In the words of my colleague Mirko Nikolic, “the challenge becomes one of making continual extraordinary efforts to exceed the limits of the spaces which are allocated to us”.

Interestingly, the Street Plans Collaborative team also extend the idea of ‘tactical urbanism’ to include the Occupy protest camps set up in 2011. I’m a little uncomfortable with this bracketing, since the agenda and geography of the Occupy movement are qualitatively different from that of most DIY urban initiatives. And yet it exhibits a similar tactical spatiality. Much has already been written about the symbolic spatiality of the Occupy camps – Puneet Dhaliwal (2012), for example, has analysed the ‘politics of space’ in the Indignados movement in explicitly Lefebvrian terms. My point is that these occupations perhaps captured the international imagination not so much because of the message which they carried, as because they woke something up inside us. Our collective fascination with the phenomenon suggests that – at some level – these actions reminded us that the social dimensions of space are ideologically suppressed in our imagination.

In this sense, I have great faith in the potential for DIY interventions in the urban environment, as radically democratic acts, to effect significant constructive changes in society – even though risks are attached. Again, I would not argue that we are obliged as citizens to go out and claim back our spaces through representational spatial actions. But I think there is a strong case in favour of this type of urban activism taking place more widely. Even when space is being used by local authorities to ‘harness’ the latent creativity of the citizen, the citizen is still thereby given the chance both to embrace its creative potential, and to consider the possibility of doing so elsewhere in future. At its best, DIY urbanism playfully challenges the aesthetic norms of hegemonic ‘landscapes of power’. Since so many of us are fascinated by its occurence, it provokes dreams and discussions; we are conscious of its fecundity. Its importance, then, lies not so much in its material effects for better or worse, as in the way it opens our eyes to the possibility of all sorts of different urban futures.

11 March 2013, London

Notes

1 see Tactical Urbanism Vols 1 & 2, published by Street Plans Collaborative, for examples of different types of DIY urbanism (in the US). You can read/download these here.

2 postgraduate conference on ‘Scarcity in the Built Environment’, held at University of Westminster, 26-28 February 2013.

References

Dhaliwal, P. (2012). Public squares and resistance: the politics of space in the Indignados movement. Interface: a journal for and about social movements, 4 (1), pp.251–273.

Hou, J. (2010). (Not) your everyday public space. In: J. Hou ed. Insurgent Public Space: Guerrilla Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities. Abingdon: Routledge, pp.1–17.

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.

Lydon, M. ed. (2012). Tactical Urbanism 2: Short-Term Action, Long-Term Change. Miami/New York: Street Plans Collaborative. Available from here.

Lydon, M. (2011). The Difference Between Tactical and DIY Urbanism. Available from here.

Massey, D. (2005). for space. London: Sage.

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