Community Gardening and Grassroots Politics in the Neoliberal City

When community garden activists of the 1970s and early 1980s clandestinely planted tomatoes, cucumber and sunflowers in abandoned backyards and on run-down lots, they probably never imagined that a time would come when city administrations would embrace urban gardening as an important “cultural, ecological and social resource”.1  Many of today’s community gardens in North America and Europe started out as squats or informal “guerilla style” gardens and were influenced by, if not a substantial part of urban social and environmental movements of the 1960s and 1970s.2  The gardens were often located in some of the most neglected areas of the city and many of them went through intense phases of political struggle and negotiation before they were able to obtain permanent legal status.

Today, many cities recognize the great value of community gardens and create programs to protect and support them.3  Urban gardeners themselves have founded strong local and national organizations and international networks to exchange information and experiences, organize public events, and lobby for more and better urban gardens.  In summer 2008, for example, Slow Food Nation, Victory Gardens 2008+, Garden for the Environment, and several other groups and organizations – supported by the City of San Francisco – created a huge organic garden in front of San Francisco City Hall.  Over several months, the public garden in the heart of the city promoted local gardening organizations and brought issues of urban ecology and sustainability quite literally and physically to the center of public attention.4

On one hand, the successful institutionalization of community gardens that safeguards them in times of rapid and market driven urbanization is a great success.5  Today, most metropolises have more urban gardens than 20 or 30 years ago, and they do a better job protecting them.  On the other hand, the incorporation of community gardens – and of organizations that maintain and promote them – into the urban political system often comes at a price: the loss of a vision for a radically different city.  Local administrations don’t necessarily appreciate community gardens for being autonomous and highly politicized spaces, but for their ecological and recreational side.  For the political establishment, community gardens are not “good” because of the radical dynamics they might unfold.  They are desirable and deserve support, because they produce healthy food, social cohesion, and patches of green in an otherwise dramatically anti-social and unsustainable urban environment.  Garden activists, in turn, can hardly abandon the (legal) security and (material) resources public agencies provide – although their social, political and ecological values might put them into direct opposition to their local governments.

This is not to say that all community gardens have necessarily been coopted, or that political activism should always take the form of militant confrontation with state authorities.  On the contrary: Many urban gardens are important spaces of counterculture and resistance to the logic of capitalist urbanization.  And they make good use of public resources by channeling them into green communal spaces.  The project that led to this essay – “Beneath the Pavement: A Garden” – is but one example of how communal gardening can facilitate critical reflection and political action (Franceschini/Milicevic forthcoming).6  However, today’s community garden activists have to maneuver in a difficult political terrain marked by urban growth policies, environmental and social depredation, and the politics of neoliberal cooption.  This essay is an attempt to examine this terrain, to take a closer look at some of the political forces that shape it, and to discuss possible strategies for countering neoliberal urbanism.

2. Neoliberal Urban Politics

The political tensions and contradictions that community gardeners have to deal with today must be understood against the backdrop of neoliberal urban politics that started in the early 1980s.7

Over the past 30 years, national governments have consistently cut back their funding for cities.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the US, where “Reagan cut federal assistance to local governments by 60 percent.  In 1980, federal dollars accounted for 22 percent of big-city budgets, but when he left office, it was down to 6 percent.” (Dreier 2004)  Additional fiscal stress stems from the liberalization of trade and investment that puts cities and regions nationally and internationally into direct competition.  Deindustrialization and structural unemployment add to the picture.  Since the 1980s, these trends have further continued and have resulted in a kind of urban Darwinism.  In order to deal with the situation and generate much needed revenues, cities have come up with new entrepreneurial strategies.  According to David Harvey, “traditional local boosterism is integrated with the use of local governmental powers to try and attract external sources of funding, new direct investment, or new employment sources.” (Harvey 1989: 7)  In this context, we can identify three interrelated trends (Mayer 1994):

1) Local governments develop their own economic policies.  They try to attract new investors and actively fund large commercial developments and global events like Olympic Games, international conventions and art biennials.  Tax giveaways are handed out to big companies, public enterprises are being privatized and the public sector downsized.  Image-politics and city branding take on a high priority as cities advertise their “uniqueness” and attractive values such as “innovation”, “creativity” and “success”.

2) Economic policies take priority over social policies.  Local budgets for public housing, culture, education, and health care are shrinking, while mega-projects such as convention centers, sport stadiums and high-end research facilities often receive generous funding.

3) Within this process, the local political arena is being opened up to new actors.  Neighborhood groups, nonprofit organizations, consulting firms and other private and semi-public entities are actively integrated into local politics – often in the form of round-tables and public-private partnership.  However, the new opportunities to participate in city politics, ranging from urban planning procedures to publicly funded social services, also increase the pressure of “realpolitik” on the so-called “third sector”.

It is the latter point that makes neoliberalism often a difficult thing to deal with for leftists – precisely because the neoliberal agenda is much more than just economic exploitation plus state repression.  No illusions here: Neoliberalism has destroyed – or at least significantly weakened – many institutions, agencies and organizations of the left.  And radical grassroots activism often faces open persecution.  But neoliberalism has also attacked the bureaucratic and paternalistic structures of the old welfare state and offers new opportunities to actively participate in politics, especially on the local level.  It has been building its own (counter-)institutions and it has successfully incorporated civil-society organizations into the political machinery (Mayer 2003).  In Germany, for example, the federal program “Soziale Stadt”  (Social City) aims at including and activating citizens in marginalized quarters.  And Tony Blair’s “New Deal for Communities” supports numerous community led projects in deprived neighborhoods.

Real political power, however, remains centralized in governments.  All too often, participatory programs like “Soziale Stadt” merely put a small local bandage on the deep wounds that neoliberal macro-policies have inflicted on working class and immigrant communities.  The politics of integration and activation follow a twofold logic: On one hand, civil society organizations, foundations, private agencies, and individual volunteers regenerate their neighborhoods and deliver social services at low or even no costs for the state.  On the other hand, citizen participation creates social cohesion and feelings of community and belonging – things that individualism, competition and urban Darwinism can hardly produce, but that are indispensable requirements for political stability and domination over time.  With this in mind, we now turn back to the question of grassroots politics and urban gardening in the neoliberal city.

3. Community Gardening between Utopia, Resistance and Cooption

Writer and activist Chris Carlsson has emphasized the utopian moment of community gardening.  In his book “Nowtopia” he argues that the “new politics of work” – work outside the capitalist logic of private property, monetary value and wage labor – provide people with the experience of “(re-)appropriating their time and technological know-how from the market.” (Carlsson 2008: 3)  Through collective and autonomous action a new type of class struggle is being invented that neither depends on fetishized ideas of “good labor” nor does it rely on hierarchical institutions like political parties and trade unions.  Along with projects like bicycle kitchens, community centers, and open source networks, community gardens “have become battlegrounds for opposing social dynamics (…).”  They provide space for “unregulated social interaction” and they are “important arenas for multi-generational circuits of communication, memory, and experience.” (Carlsson 2008: 81-83)  Whether as a site of open political protest or as a space of subversive everyday practices, community gardens play an important role in nurturing utopias and resistance.

The recent conflict over the South Central Farm in Los Angeles is a prime example of urban gardeners’ commitment to social and environmental justice (Lebuhn 2006).  With its 14 acre size, the South Central Farm was probably the largest community garden in the United States, located right on the border between the district of South Central, L.A., and the city of Vernon.  Since 1992, about 300 working class families, mostly migrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries, had been farming the land.  The farmers could easily cover about one third of their food needs through the gardens.  On weekends, neighbors and friends stopped by to trade, sell and give away fruits, vegetables and herbs.  Besides being an important factor of support for low-income households, the garden also became a fascinating microcosm of Latin American biodiversity, and for many of the Latino farmers it provided a place of cultural identity, a home, and a source of collective memory in the heart of L.A.  When in 2002 the City decided to sell the land to a private investor, hundreds, if not thousands of neighbors and activists, dozens of grassroots groups and celebrities like Daryl Hannah and Joan Baez joined the South Central Farmers in their attempt to save the gardens.  For an entire year, farmers and activists occupied the gardens around the clock to protest the imminent eviction.  Although they eventually lost the struggle over the South Central Farm8, the conflict became a powerful experience: it shows how community gardens can unfold an unpredictable political dynamic, bring together residents and neighbors from diverse backgrounds, mobilize them along issues of social inequality and urban sustainability, and challenge the politics of private enclosure and urban growth.

If community gardens are not explicitly politicized, however, they can be easily integrated into the neoliberal regime and function as some kind of social buffer in times of anti-social urbanism.  In her essay on “Green Space Governance”, Marit Rosol examines several cases of recently started community garden projects in Berlin that receive support and funding from local authorities, but lack the tradition of social movement activism.  A series of interviews with urban planners and politicians reveals why local authorities promote these gardens and see them as great assets of their districts:

“First – and not surprising – their support and call for voluntary engagement for public spaces results from severe cuts in public spending (…).  Voluntarism is seen as a means of dealing with this problem. (…)  Secondly, they hope for an improved appearance of the neighborhood.  It should look clean, pretty and secure. (…)  Finally, the planners and state administrators argue politically for a stimulation of civic engagement, community responsibility and social capital in order to ‘stabilize the neighborhood’.” (Rosol 2010)

Nikolas Rose has coined the expression “governing through community” in order to describe how neoliberalism draws its precarious legitimacy from participatory practices, and how the regime is able to occupy and instrumentalize the time and creative energy citizens put towards collective projects (see Rose 1996).  In the case of community gardens, we also need to keep in mind that they often contribute to increasing property values and cater to processes of gentrification.  Incorporation and cooption are not inevitable, however, as we can see in cases like the South Central Farm and many others that are involved in less spectacular but equally important forms of grassroots activism.  In the last section of this essay I will therefore attempt to garner some ideas for counter strategies and radical green resistance to neoliberal urbanism.

4. “How to…” (Not) a guide to radical garden politics under Neoliberalism

The following list is by no means meant to be a comprehensive guide to grassroots gardening in the neoliberal city.  But instead of finishing this essay with a summary or theoretical conclusion, I would like to invite readers to think about the practical implications of this analysis and to continue and extend the discussion presented on these pages.  I will end then with five (simple and preliminary) suggestions for resisting neoliberal cooption of community gardens:

1) Keep community gardens inclusive and foster internal democratic structures.  Important elements are broad participation in decision-making procedures (instead of hierarchical administrative structures) and a culture of discussion and consensus orientation (rather then majority vote).  The community garden’s “internal affairs” can become a real counterculture to the disempowering experience of an elite-led representative democracy.

2) Share knowledge, seeds, and space.  Resist the trend to material and intellectual enclosure.  Invite friends, family and neighbors to share the experience of collective gardening.

3) Make (local and other) politics an everyday issue.  Community gardening organically relates to many other issues such as land use, environmental pollution, privatization, rental market and real estate speculation, gentrification, education, etc.  Turn gardens into public spaces of vivid debate and mutual exchange of thoughts and ideas.

4) Promote activism.  Your fellow gardeners can become your political network as well.  Collectively, you can support other community gardens and/or local political groups – either by actively supporting their actions and campaigns, or simply by inviting them to use your garden as a space for gatherings.

5) Secure your garden against the threat of privatization and development.  Many gardens are operating based on so-called “interim use” of public land or on privately owned properties.  Permits can be revoked, even after many years.  Securing community gardens’ permanent legal status as commons, and extending the non-commercial and public use of urban land should be on top of the list.

by Henrik Lebuhn


Brenner, Neil/ Theodore, Nik (2002): Cities and the Geographies of ‘Actually Existing Neoliberalism’, in: Antipode, 34. Jg, Nr. 3, S. 349-379
Carlsson, Chris (2008): Nowtopia. How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant Lot Gardeners Are Inventing the Future Today, Oakland: AK Press
Dreier, Peter (2004): Urban Suffering Grew Under Reagan, in: Newsday (June 10, 2004); download at (accessed on 11/27 2006)
Franceschini, Amy/ Milicevic, Myriel (Hg.) (forthcoming): Beneath the Pavement. A Garden, Loughborough University, Radar
Harvey, David (1989): From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism: The Tranformation in Urban Governance in Late Capitalism, in: Geografiska Annaler, 71 B. Jg, Nr. 1, S. 3-18
Lebuhn, Henrik (2006): Entrepreneurial Urban Politics and Urban Social Movements in Los Angeles: The Struggle for Urban Farmland in South Central, Paper presented at the Breslauer Graduate Student Conference: ‘The Right to the City and the Politics of Space’, University of California, Berkeley, April 14 and 15, 2006; download at (accessed on 8/16 2010)
Mayer, Margit (2003): The onward sweep of social capital: causes and consequences for understanding cities, communities and urban movements, in: International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (IJURR), 27. Jg, Nr. 1, S. 110-132
Mayer, Margit (1994): Post-Fordist City Politics, in: Amin, Ash (Hg.): Post-Fordism: A Reader, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, S. 316-337
Mougeot, Luc J.A. (2006): Growing Better Cities. Urban Agriculture for Sustainable Development, Ottawa: International Development Research Centre
Rose, Nikolas (1996): The death of the social? Refiguring the territory of government, in: Economy and Society, 25. Jg, Nr. 3, S. 327-356
Rosol, Marit (2010): Public Participation in Post-Fordist Urban Green Space Governance: The Case of Community Gardens in Berlin, in: International Journal for Urban and Regional Research (IJURR), forthcoming. Jg
Senatsverwaltung (2010): Das bunte Grün. Kleingärten in Berlin (The Colorful Green. Small Gardens in Berlin), Berlin: Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung


1 To quote Berlin’s Senator for Urban Development, Ingeborg Junge-Reyer (Senatsverwaltung 2010: 2).
2 Community gardens are a universal phenomenon that can be found in the global North and South.  In this short essay, however, I will focus on North America and Western Europe and reference only a handful of examples.  For a more comprehensive account of urban gardening from a sustainability and international development perspective, see Luc Mougeot (Mougeot 2006).  The arguments presented here also refer mostly to growing cities, while so called “shrinking cities” might present a different set of problems and questions.
3 Official funding for urban gardening has been around for quite some time.  In the US, for example, the Department of Agriculture funded an urban gardening program already during the 1970s.  The history of community gardens in US-cities can be traced back to the victory gardens of WWII and even further.  Similarly, many European cities have a long history of urban gardening.  However, in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s many community gardens started as semi-legal or even illegal squats and faced considerable opposition from local authorities.
4 See
5 Needless to say that community gardens are still notoriously threatened by urban development projects; see for example Sharon Zukin’s latest article on the current crisis of New York’s community gardens at „Stop the city’s garden grab: Community gardens belong to those who tend them, not to City Hall” (8/10/2010).
6 This essay was first published in Amy Franceschini’s and Myriel Milicevic’s edited volume „Beneath the Pavement. A Garden” (forthcoming 2011).  The book documents a series of workshops held in summer 2010 at Loughborough University.  The project brought together artists, environementalists, gardeners, poets and academics to transform a plot of land on the University’s campus into an edible landscape, which reflects social and political systems.  For more info see
7 Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore have argued that cities play a crucial role in developing and shaping neoliberal policies, but that urban neoliberalization is always specific to each place (neoliberalism is “path-dependent”).  Hence, they speak of „actually existing neoliberalism”.  In their view, neoliberalism is highly flexible and adaptive to specific local institutions and conditions (Brenner/Theodore 2002).  Here, I try to summarize some of the core dynamics that underlie the many variations of urban neoliberalism.
8 The South Central Farm was evicted in June 2006.

=> This is a slightly revised version of an article  first published in: Amy Franceschini and Myriel Milicevic (Eds.): Beneath the Pavement. A Garden, Loughborough University/Radar, 2011.

=> The book was published under the Creative Commons license; please download the complete book (9,3mb) and circulate it!

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