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Guerilla gardening for sustainable cities

Richard Reynolds, recently appointed as one of 15 new London Leaders for 2010, explains to SD Scene how guerilla gardening and the Pimp Your Pavement campaign can help make London and other cities more sustainable.

Pimp Your Pavement is about encouraging more people to take responsibility for a very local patch of their community by focusing on the opportunities of a space that's very immediate, very manageable, very sociable and yet sadly very overlooked

For Richard Reynolds, a London Leader for 2010, guerilla gardening is a powerful strategy to help London become a world-class sustainable city.

His vision is of a city of abundant plots and patches of land lovingly tended by local communities, the increased plant cover providing havens for wildlife and helping create a more sustainable environment for the city as a whole, all with minimal demands on the public purse.

What is guerilla gardening?

Guerilla gardeners cultivate land in the public realm without permission. Despite the name, this is no “plant-and-run” activity; instead guerilla gardeners are committed to maintaining their plots, returning to water and weed just like those responsible for private gardens.

Reynolds has been bringing beauty in this underhand way to neglected tree-pits, borders and forgotten corners of land since 2004, recording his activities on his Guerilla Gardening blog. He is the author of On Guerilla Gardening, an account of illicit cultivation across 30 countries and 360 years.

The Pimp Your Pavement campaign

Reynolds has just launched the Pimp Your Pavement campaign, an experiment to explore the possibilities of engaging both the authorities and a wider public audience in the joys and benefits of guerilla gardening.

Launching the Pimp Your Pavement campaign in SouthwarkLaunching the Pimp Your Pavement campaign in Southwark

The attitude of the British authorities troubles Reynolds, who cites the arguments thrown at him by officials from local councils and other public bodies: allowing the public to tend public areas is a health and safety hazard; public bodies have the resources to do a better job; council workers will dig up guerilla plants anyhow.

In Reynolds’ experience, these argument just don’t stack up: the risks are absolutely minimal and far outweighed by the wider benefits; for all their resources, public bodies don’t successfully tend beautiful gardens throughout the public realm – and, in any case, surely there’s an argument for doing it more efficiently, giving resources to local people prepared to contribute their own time and effort; council workers aren’t so stupid as to pull up perfectly good plants, leaving many guerilla gardens to thrive for years.

Embracing the guerillas

Countering any suggestion that his vision is utopian, Reynolds points to cities where guerilla gardening has been embraced by public authorities for the greater good of cities and their inhabitants.

In Amsterdam, the city adopted facade gardening, a tactic practised by guerilla gardeners back to the 80s to make the most of the limited land available in such a watery environment, planting in narrow gaps right up against the street frontages of the densely packed townhouses. In Vancouver, Berlin, Zurich and Essen the authorities have also come to appreciate the social and environmental benefits of their citizens’ illicit gardening in public spaces.

Closer to home, the Liverpool John Moores University’s Adopt-a-plot project encouraged families in South Liverpool to take on a neglected plot of land in their community and transform it through gardening.

Even in London, a “laggard in terms of public spaces” according to Reynolds, Camden Council has notably gone out on a limb by encouraging and enabling Shaun Canavan, an elderly and blind resident of Ryland Road in Kentish Town, who began planting up the treepits of his street for want of a garden. When the floral plantings became a popular local landmark, Camden responding by removing paving stones to provide more open ground.

Releasing control of public spaces

Reynolds hopes the Pimp Your Pavement campaign will help convince councils, transport authorities and other to let go their control over the public realm in the realisation that local people can do just as good a job – if not better – of maintaining beautiful public spaces -and certainly at less expense.

More sustainable cities

Although the pimping of pavements is an activity at the most local of levels – just beyond our own doorsteps – the effects Reynolds is insistent that the effects really can help make cities more sustainable.

The social benefits are perhaps the most obvious, helping build a sense of community and place in peoples’ immediate surroundings. Listening to Reynolds’ accounts of his experience, it’s clear that guerilla gardening is a very social activity, cutting across generations. As an outlet for self-expression and a relaxing but physical activity, guerilla gardening also has the potential to improve well-being and public health.

The environmental benefits are also very tangible, particularly when the sum of many individual pavement plots is considered. Increased vegetative cover has been shown to help cool urban environments, reducing the heat island effect; less concrete and more soil improves drainage, helping to avoid flash flooding. As the climate changes and we experience more extreme weather, these benefits will be all the more crucial.

Benefits for urban wildlife include the creation of natural corridors and a greater abundance of plants for bees to pollinate.

There are potential economic benefits too, as the contribution of volunteer labour helps keep the costs of maintaining public spaces down.

An uphill struggle

Reynolds recognises that he’s taking on an “uphill struggle” to persuade authorities to go beyond silent toleration to encourage, support and enable communities to care for the public spaces around them – ideally he’d like to see them sharing resources to help cover the expenses of publicly spirited guerilla gardeners. But with his unbridled enthusiasm, commitment and new status of London Leader, he’s got every chance of succeeding.

User comments

  1. Neil L says:

    Glasgow Guerilla Gardening and Seedbom just scooped first place in the Scottish Green List 2010

  2. godsil.james says:

    This is a great and inspiring project! I hope my fellow citizens in Milwaukee will emulate!


    Godsil, co-founder
    Sweet Water Organics Fish Vegetable Farm

  3. Gian Alberto says:

    So what measures are the government introducing to encourage this?

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