What is the practical meaning, benefits, and risks of guerrilla gardening? We talked to architects, landscape designers, eco-activists, representatives of public utilities, and, of course, gardeners themselves about the right of ordinary residents to green urban spaces and the problems associated with the amateur activities of enthusiastic gardeners. We recalled the history of the movement and talked about foreign practices.
The story of the struggle for beauty
The Bowery Houston Farm and Garden in New York is a sacred place for any modern urbanite. This small, quiet oasis in a bustling metropolis is a symbol of a controversial social movement known as guerrilla gardening. In the 70s of the XX century, having fought off the capital of Robert Moses and his developer friends, New York activists tried to improve the urban environment on their own. They seized vacant lots, removed garbage, cleared the soil whenever possible, and planted flower or vegetable seeds. They also protested against the Vietnam War, which is why many consider guerrilla gardening to be a political movement. Although the political component has disappeared over the years, the flowers are an eternal theme.
The Guerrilla Gardeners were led by artist Liz Christie, a Columbia University graduate. In 1973, she inspired her friends to clear a landfill at the intersection of two streets in the Lower East Side, to establish a young garden there, and when this was done, she actually gave an ultimatum to the municipality, offering to sign a lease agreement for the site for a symbolic dollar a year. At the time, the neighborhood was notorious, and no one claimed the plot where "hippies grew tomatoes."
Later, as gentrification gained momentum, local residents had to protest to protect their favorite recreational spot. Today, the garden is named after Liz Christie and is protected by federal law as a National Historic Landmark. And the example itself proved to be contagious: today there are more than 40 public gardens in the East Village, and a special map with a route for tourists to see them has even been created.
The guerrilla gardening movement got a fresh start in the 2000s, in Europe. In almost all European capitals and large cities, communities of urbanists emerged who specialized in landscaping and were not afraid to experiment, mixing plants in one cultural flower bed in combinations that were completely unusual for traditional urban park art.
Since 2007, many countries have celebrated the International Day of Guerrilla Gardening by scattering sunflower seeds on the streets.
Today, tomatoes and sunflowers in the flower beds in front of parliament buildings and corporations are no longer perceived as something wild, and landscape designers often use a combination with courtyard front gardens in formal landscaping. Even in the palace!
For example, this summer, the decorative borders in front of the famous Sans Souci Palace in Potsdam resembled a bed in a grandmother's garden, where tomatoes and cabbage grow mixed with marigolds, asters, and sunflowers. No, it's obvious that the vegetable gardens in San Sousa are a carefully planned project approved by dozens of German authorities. But the "folk" style itself is a clear reference to amateur gardening.
One of the methods used by Liz Christie's friends to quickly and effectively improve a dull cityscape without using shovels has been adopted by thousands of followers around the world. And it is quite simple. You take the seeds of your favorite plants, mix them with clay and compost in a ratio of 1:3:5, form small balls and dry them. Great! You've made seed-bombs - seed bombs that you can use a slingshot to fire at any wasteland, dull communal flower bed with a stunted thuja, or boring neighborhood lawn. With a high degree of probability, the seeds will germinate (whether they will grow to bloom is another matter).
If you don't know much about compost varieties or don't know how to mix clay, you can buy ready-made seed bombs on hipster resources. On Etsy, you can search for #seedbombs, #seedbomb, and #seedbombing to find a variety of custom, colorful seed-bombs that are pleasing to the eye.
There are dozens of unpretentious flower crops that can be sown directly into the ground, without any preliminary shamanic dancing around the seedlings. Most of them are annuals, which, if they like the conditions, will sow on their own in the following seasons. They are used in ready-made mixtures for Moorish lawns.
The topic of seed-bombing is gaining popularity among buzzers boasting about their Tik Tok exploits. Is it illegal? In general, yes, it is illegal.
What is not allowed is forbidden
In most countries, the law treats the unauthorized planting of plants in the city as illegal privatization of public or private space. In addition, this practice challenges the aesthetic order of cities.
In the Czech Republic, for example, at the request of a disgruntled landowner, the offender may be fined 15 thousand CZK (over 500 euros), and if the guerrilla violated phytosanitary standards and planted a dangerous invasive plant, the damage may be estimated at 50 thousand CZK. In particularly serious cases, a criminal case may be initiated. A situation is considered particularly serious when the roots of a grown seedling have damaged communications. Fines are even more severe in neighboring Germany.
It's a fairly typical post-Christmas situation: Christmas trees and pines planted right in the middle of the lawn or on the side of the road with tinsel stuck in the needles. A campaign aimed at purchasing Christmas trees in pots has yielded unexpected and sad results: in the vast majority of cases, the plants do not take root in harsh outdoor conditions.
Of course, the police have a lot more important things to do than fight weeds with flowers and saplings and those who plant them. Especially since, from the point of view of most residents, garden guerrillas do nothing wrong. Those who paint walls and public transportation with graffiti are much more often shamed.
Guerrilla gardening often manifests itself as a form of public resistance to unwanted development. At night, activists plant tree and flower saplings in the area designated for construction, and the next day thousands of local residents come out to protest, attracted by the call to protect the new community garden. By launching bulldozers at a construction site that has suddenly turned green, the developer appears to be a real barbarian, and his legally sanctioned actions become questionable from the point of view of public morality. Insidious, but quite effective in societies sensitive to public opinion. And this radical form of guerrilla gardening is already a serious problem for the authorities and capital owners.
But the solution to the problem is on the table: if you can't fight (as this could cause an even more massive protest), communicate, cooperate, lead
For example, even in Munich, the center of law-abiding burger Germany, there are Guerrilla Gärtner groups. But they are under the auspices of the Green City environmental organization, which works closely with the authorities. In recent years, municipal officials have even offered to provide the guerrillas with plants for landscaping. Green City organizes the partisans, and they mobilize local residents. As a result, everyone is happy, and the municipal services also save labor costs in the implementation of planned projects - a classic example of a win-win solution.
In 2022, about 150 NGOs in the UK appealed to the Parliament to consider and adopt the Right to Grow Act. The draft law, prepared by activists of the Incredible Edible movement, provides for the right of citizens to use empty land to grow vegetables, fruits, and flowers. If the land belonging to the city, i.e. its residents, is not used for construction or recreation, why not provide it for vegetable gardens and orchards?
The activists emphasize that in the event of an acute food crisis, citizens will be able to at least grow vegetables for their own table on the cultivated wastelands of British cities. The need to grow flowers is simply part of the national genetic code. The idea has already gained a lot of support among parliamentarians in both the House of Lords and the House of Commons, and the UK is close to legislating guerrilla gardening.
Rural subculture in the city
We previously talked about the benefits of introducing agricultural practices into urban life in the article "Urban Village: The Best of Different Worlds," where we described in detail modern approaches to the urban village format.
It's hard to surprise Ukrainians with sunflowers sprouting from a crack in the asphalt, and it usually has nothing to do with the underground gardening movement. However, amateurism in the field of urban landscaping is as common as air to us. Courtyard gardens are an integral element in neighborhoods with Khrushchev, Stalinist, or two-story barracks. Sometimes you can find very attractive compositions among the gardens that make passers-by slow down to admire the bright blooms. If the meager assortment of plants does not allow for self-expression, the gardens are decorated with handmade items made from old tires or plastic bottles. Two years ago, the city authorities declared war on tire barricades, and many Kyiv yards were cleared of old tires. In the process of "de-tireization," many plants planted in these "containers" died.
In the spring, the enthusiasm of the masses often manifests itself in the organization of clean-up days with the traditional planting of tree seedlings. Sometimes these events are organized, sometimes they happen spontaneously. The results vary: very often, young trees die en masse from drought, and homemade flower beds are destroyed by people in the form of public utilities with lawn mowers. The number of dead plants and conflicts could be much lower, and the outcome of spring planting campaigns could be more successful, if citizens and representatives of city services cooperated, our interlocutors believe.
Anna Galagan: Everyone sees "beautiful" in their own way
Guerrilla gardening is a very ambiguous phenomenon. On the one hand, the initiative of people to make something beautiful around them is very valuable, it shows that they care. The other question is how to direct this initiative in the right direction. The trouble is that everyone sees the "beautiful" in their own way, and this "beautiful" may not always be appropriate in the place where it was suddenly created.
For example, my favorite Solomensky Park. Despite the fact that many elements of the park are in need of major repairs, it is very harmonious overall. It's a natural park with beautiful smooth lines of paths. And then suddenly an alley of chestnuts appears on the lawn. Despite the fact that this straight line does not fit into the surrounding natural plantations. Despite the fact that chestnuts are not the best choice because they get sick. Despite the fact that the alley also passes through the catalpa plantations and leaves no space for them. When these trees were planted small, they were almost invisible. But the growth rate of the chestnut is much higher than that of the catalpa, and now they are competing for space under the sun.
Choosing the right plants is also one of the many challenges of guerrilla gardening. Usually, no one analyzes whether this particular plant is really appropriate, what its prospects are in the future
Yuccas and other plants that need a sunny spot are planted in the shade, while moisture-loving plants are planted in full sun without watering. And, of course, plants in unfavorable conditions look terrible.
In my example of the Solomianskyi Park plantations, catalpa is more resistant and suitable because it is a drought-resistant plant that feels great even in the current climate change situation, when we have high temperatures and drought in summer. But the chestnut tree is affected by a mite, and in the middle of summer its leaves are already dry and actively falling off.
There are also initiatives by companies, civic activists, or other organizers to solemnly plant plants, tying it to an event, etc. In Solomyansky Park, for example, small viburnum shoots with signs bearing the names of the children who planted them appear among the grass. Apparently, it was a celebration of a kindergarten graduation. In addition to the question of the appropriateness of a viburnum grove in that particular place, there are other nuances. Of course, without care, watering, and in an area where kids run around, these saplings had no chance of surviving. But did the organizers think that this was also the lost hope of the child who planted his bush and dreamed of seeing it grow?
Christmas trees play a special role in guerrilla landscaping. First of all, we have some kind of crazy and invincible love for Christmas trees. In my opinion, trees that create shade and filter the air, as well as reduce noise pollution, are more relevant in the city. And here the Christmas tree is not the best choice. Secondly, every New Year's Eve people buy potted Christmas trees to plant them somewhere in the city. And here, garden centers are a bit disingenuous, keeping silent about the fact that such trees have almost zero chances.
In the apartment, in the warmth of the house, the tree, which had been in a state of winter sleep, wakes up, buds open, and the tree actively throws out new branches and roots. Then it is taken out into the cold, and the new growth freezes. Even if the tree stays warm until May, it usually dries up anyway. Because after waking up, it needs a lot of moisture, and few people take care of it. That's why our parks are often replenished with such herbariums of fir trees that quickly self-destruct.
Olga Kleitman: Public spaces are formed by specialists
In my opinion, personal freedom ends where the freedom of others begins. You can express yourself in your own backyard. Public spaces are formed by experts in accordance with the current legislation. It sounds like a rare bore, but it is what it is. The work of Hamlet Zinkivsky, a Ukrainian artist and street artist who does not ask anyone if he can paint on this or that wall, decorates our Kharkiv. But his example only emphasizes that it would be better if public spaces were taken care of by specialists. Yes, if there were similar landscape "Hamlets," everyone would benefit. But Hamlet is a unicum, a rare exception. Therefore, when it comes to creating a high-quality public environment, it is better to work according to protocol.
Elena Fateeva: Creating any park or garden is primarily about architecture and design
The main problem is the land issue. It often happens that people plant trees, and six months later a tractor comes along and levels everything to the ground because a developer has the property rights to the land. People cannot coordinate their actions with the owner because they simply do not know who he is. During the war, all cadastres were closed, including the land cadastre. That means there is no easy way for an ordinary person to find out who owns the wasteland under their windows. And even if they manage to find out, there are very few examples of positive communication with the developer. For example, the community of Mykilska Slobidka has been fighting to create a park for almost 20 years. But when people planted trees in the part of the park that is in communal ownership, the next day the developer who claims to own the land brought bulldozers and leveled everything. I was a witness to this.
The chaotic plantations are partly provoked by those who are called "evil doers" in our country. People know from their own bitter experience that if a plot of land is miraculously empty, it is waiting to be built on. And they are in a hurry to somehow claim the rights to public use. If nothing can be done legally, people try to exercise their right to a comfortable city outside the law.
The second point is the issue of an ecologically correct approach. Often people plant invasive plants that are not typical of the nature of our area and behave aggressively, displacing native species. Before planting anything in the Gorbachyha Nature Reserve or releasing fish into the lakes, we turn to the Academy of Sciences, to scientists who give us recommendations on which species will not harm but will increase biodiversity. The simplest recommendation is that if you already have poplars growing in your yard and feeling good, then plant poplars, and if you have pine trees, then pine trees, i.e. those plants that are typical for this area.
The issue of aesthetics is no less important. The creation of any park or garden is primarily about architecture and design. For almost a century, we have been isolated from the world. Entire generations grew up in an aesthetically poor environment. When a person lives in an ugly city, he or she cannot even draw inspiration from nature, because it seems to be non-existent. Due to the lack of urban landscape culture, some people tried to recreate what they saw in the countryside, such as vegetable gardens, in the courtyards of high-rise buildings. Others, on the contrary, furiously destroyed everything green. I talked to our janitors, and it turned out that many of them are former villagers who hate weeds and consider asphalt to be the main sign of civilization.
Only now, when the borders have become transparent, do Ukrainians travel to different countries and fill their eyes, forming an aesthetic taste. A few years ago, there was no choice of planting material-even if you wanted to plant something beautiful, and only pears and apples were available, you could only get fruit orchards at best. But now you can buy, for example, a tree hydrangea that winters well, varieties of roses that do not need to be covered for the winter, and a huge selection of conifers.
The desire to own a plot of land, even if it is tiny, is part of the identity of Ukrainians, it is what distinguishes us from our "non-brothers"
This identity was beaten out of us in the USSR. Now it takes time for us to remember it. I had an office on the first floor of a nine-story building on the Left Bank, with about 5 acres of land under my windows. On this territory, I planted David Austin roses, hydrangeas, and 1,500 bulbs. For the first year, the locals plundered this area as best they could: they dug it up, uprooted it, and tore it up. But in the fall, I planted new plants. They didn't dig them up anymore - they came with a knife and cut the flowers. In the third year, the neighbors suddenly started planting something themselves. By the fifth year, when we went on vacation for a long time, people were already taking care of and watering this improvised garden on their own. It took five years for the residents to feel responsible and involved.
European experience can and should be used in the planning of new neighborhoods: apartments on the ground floors are sold with a small courtyard that can be decorated to your liking. Children are taught the culture of gardening and landscape design as early as kindergarten. As a result, even amateur experiments look elegant and decorative.
It would be great if our developers left plots on the territory of new complexes that residents could equip on their own. To make sure it doesn't look ugly, we can advise them and help them choose the assortment. If there is no space, you can experiment with container gardening. Until recently, we did not have special decorative boxes for outdoor air conditioners, but now their presence is a good thing. So why not immediately provide places for flowerpots and pre-mounted fixtures on balconies so that people can hang pots of petunias there?
Nadiia Vasylenko-Korovianska: I personally need it because I love the land, because it gives me a sense of home
Our front garden in the courtyard of a Kyiv high-rise building is already called an "arboretum" by the locals. My neighbor and I started planting flowers 7 years ago. I collected them from all over Ukraine and brought back seeds from my travels. Among the flowers, there are some from the Red Data Book. One old man said that we started a great wave because the whole neighborhood is already planting. I give away seedlings because they grow like crazy. I want to have flowers all the time, so I play around. Of course, the ground is hard: there is almost no soil, construction debris, poplar roots, but I'm almost there.
Yard gardens bring neighbors together and promote communication. City children offer to help: plant, water, prune, take out the grass, help fight pests, of course, with the consent of their parents. So this is also an educational function. I personally need it because I love the land, because it gives me a sense of home. By the way, very often strangers in the neighborhood say hello and thank us for the beauty, and older people change their route to the store to take a longer one to admire our "arboretum".
In addition to beauty, greenery provides oxygen and saves from the heat. The main benefit is the support of fauna: if you plant bushes, trees, flowers correctly, it attracts and allows birds, insects, hedgehogs, squirrels to survive
For example, I haven't seen bullfinches near our house for several years because almost all the lilacs were destroyed, and they feed on its seeds. I planted some lilacs, barberry, black mountain ash, and holly mahonia, which is what allows birds to survive in winter. I am waiting for bullfinches. However, sparrows and pigeons smashed the mahonia berries and barberry back in the summer.
Planting flowers in the yards is usually the initiative of the residents themselves. We plant what we bring from our dachas and what we can afford to buy. But yes, there is a chance that laymen can accidentally plant harmful plants. I carefully study what I plant, for example, recently I was offered a bobwhite, a very beautiful tree, but extremely poisonous. Or they can plant aggressors that displace other species: sumac (vinegar tree), goldenrod - so there can be more harm than good. So, consultations would be useful, even for such meticulous gardeners as me.
The whole neighborhood is already running to me for advice, and I explain that I carefully study everything about the plants I want to plant. If the front garden faces the street, I definitely need the help of an urban planning specialist. If Kyivzelenbud helped residents with plants, it would be great.
Oleksiy Korol: Such actions should be supported and regulated
"Guerrilla gardening" in its purest form is not peculiar to us. It is based on protest, and Kyiv residents are mostly ready and willing to cooperate. People now understand that just planting or sowing something is not enough: plants need care, watering, pruning, etc. In the adjacent territories, it is still possible to do this on your own, but somewhere in the middle of the street - hardly. However, often in adjacent areas, this leads to the appearance of so-called "grandmother's flower beds" or trees in tires, which can hardly be called urban landscaping.
We once started explaining that you can't just stick a tree in the lawn or on the side of the road, that there may be underground utilities there, that not all plants are good, that by law we have to remove self-sown plants.
For example, the Kyiv City Improvement Rules state that unauthorized planting of greenery in green areas is prohibited and that their improvement is the responsibility of the balance holders
There have been cases when, due to accidents on communication networks or scheduled repairs, it was necessary to remove mature trees that people had once simply planted in the middle of the street or lawn because they wanted to.
At the same time, I think that such actions, let's call them initiative rather than partisan, should be supported and regulated. After all, there are cases when thin branches are planted and then complain that they have dried up and broken. A tree is a living organism that grows, can get sick and need treatment, and needs proper care for full development. And in recent years, we have been receiving not just requests or demands to plant something, but also requests to explain, to organize joint plantings, to help us choose plants. Our people are ready to buy a 5-7-year-old tree that is already quite mature and plant it with us, knowing that it will be taken care of.
As for invasive species, we need to clearly understand what is invasive and where. We do not plant them on our balance sheet territories, but remove self-seeding growth. In addition, in spring and autumn, we draw up a map of locations with a list of plants that can be planted in that particular place for patrons who want to join the city's greening, and help organize the planting process. This helps to avoid the emergence of invasive plants.
Politics or new urban culture?
If people cooperate and approach city officials with proposals to participate in improvement programs, and they justify their unwillingness to cooperate by accusing the citizens of political bias, this will inevitably lead to an escalation of the struggle for the "right to the city." The conflict, which was extinguished with bulldozers and force, could escalate into a violent confrontation.
Guerrilla gardening is one of the signs of a close urban community
But, like any specific area, urban landscaping is an activity that requires knowledge. It is unlikely that residents of high-rise buildings will take landscape design courses en masse. It is unlikely that employees of green building companies will engage in educational activities. Architects and landscape designers can play the role of enthusiastic intermediaries in the complex communication between the authorities and citizens, mediators interested in a quality result, who understand the specifics of the greening process and urban planning regulations.
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