Turning vacant bits of land into little urban utopias
Laura-Belle Robinson quietly positioned a planter on the curb where the street meets the avenue, on the area between the sidewalk and the street that property owners must mow, but are not allowed to use. The trampled triangle of dirt between the two sloped sidewalks was a good location as the grass would not grow there in this part of Oliver.
As the weeks went by and the flowers bloomed, she watched her neighbours stop and take in the colourful bouquet. She witnessed a parent encourage their child to bend down, place their face into the blossoms and breathe in the aroma.
One day Robinson was watering the planter and a driver at the stop sign rolled down their window to thank her. The little planter even found itself on the neighbourhood Facebook page. Unfortunately, the social network reported that the planter was a victim of vandalism. Robinson gathered some wooden dowels and twine to repair the damage and save any surviving flowers. Upon opening her front door, she found a single marigold plant on the steps. Someone had dug the annual out of their own flower bed to replenish the little planter.
This story from Robinson, owner of Renovision Design, illustrates that guerrilla gardening is much more than cultivating land without permission. The environmental movement got its start in New York in the ‘70s. A group called the Green Guerrillas cleaned up an abandoned lot and planted a garden. Today, that lot is home to a legitimate community garden.
In fact, guerrilla gardening is the origin of many community gardens. When a community tends a garden in a previously unused property it inspires others. For example, to get a plot in the Oliver Peace Garden Park there is a lengthy waitlist.
“One group of people in a neighbourhood can make a difference,” Robinson said. “The ripple effects are huge— plant life, pollinators, human life.”
A neglected property in a neighbourhood can attract furniture and other items that people have disregarded. Yet, we tend to treat spaces that are alive with more respect. As gardens grow, so does the community. “It is our boulevard. It is our sidewalk. It is our yard. It is our neighbourhood and it is our city,” Robinson said.
Essentially, laws alone don’t affect change; individuals do.
Wild Green Potential
“This is my yard. This is your yard. This is city land, but we don’t often read city land as collectively ours,” said Dustin Bajer of Forest City Plants. About 10 years ago he created the Edmonton Guerilla Gardeners Facebook Group and was pleasantly surprised it gained so much support.
“I see an eight-foot wide strip that runs for 500 feet that could have healthy, spongy soil and hold a variety of native species and maybe some food-producing plants,” Bajer said. “Building up a spongy soil would hold all the water that lands there, feeding the boulevard trees, but also reducing the amount of rain that runs through the gutter that the city has to process.”
Bajer has worked on many city projects and he is confident Edmonton initiatives like the Urban Forest Management Plan are a step in the right direction. The plan’s focus is to increase the tree canopy to cool the city in the summer and retain heat in the winter. Still, large infrastructure changes require planning, paperwork, and time.
There is an immediate gratification to guerrilla gardening. While it takes time to cultivate the plants, the transformation takes place much quicker than an application process for development. When it comes to the public space, Bajer said, “Guerrilla Gardening is a symbol of what could be there. Seeing potential in that space.”
Individuals Can Make A Difference
Research shows that plants can affect our physical and psychological well-being. Of course, plants also have a direct impact on climate. When we recycle, we’re trying to lessen the damage that we’ve already done. The means of production and transportation that brought, for example, bottled water to us has already damaged the environment.
The act of guerrilla gardening is additive. One flower may attract a honey bee who then stops by a balcony garden to pollinate cucumber plants which feed a family. Perhaps that’s one less trip in the car to the store for the family. Meanwhile, the honey bee will join the hive that provides honey and the plant uses water and carbon dioxide to produce oxygen.
“Putting life in a place that previously didn’t have it? That seems like an ethical thing to do,” said Bajer. “There’s an ephemeral quality to guerrilla gardening because you’re participating in it, but it is not yours. You’re doing it for the community.”
Gardening Is A Hopeful Act
The narrative around climate change is that humans are destroying the planet. There is evidence to support the claim, but guerilla gardening is one way to help counteract its effects. Bajer believes it is empowering as individuals are implementing change in their own neighbourhoods.
Robinson described it as people being present in their environment. Gardening is engaging and collaborative and people have a real sense of pride in their harvests.
It can also be satisfying when using a plot without permission, but not in the way we may think. The guerrilla gardening world is more do-it-together than do-it-yourself. It is a process consisting of cultivating soil and plants, reclaiming space, beautifying our community, nurturing our mental health, feeding us, and healing our planet.
“We can literally grow a greener future if we want. That is 100% within our ability,” Bajer said.