I recently went on a day course at the School of Life on Urban and Guerrilla Gardening.
The idea is that, by creative means and sneaky practices, the forgotten scraps of poorly maintained green space that are found throughout the public realm can be gardened and made beautiful and vibrant. Guerrilla gardeners often strike at night, planting bedding California poppies, tulips and so on into locations identified beforehand as in need of loving attention.
There is something wonderful in this idea, in the way it argues that good public space carries collective benefit as well as responsibility. At the same time, Reynolds began this public service when living in an apartment that had no outdoor space, where the complexes planting areas were woefully neglected, and happily discusses the personal pleasures he gained from the process.
These are what they look like now.
And Reynolds himself talking us through his choices, in terms of location and variety.
One of the things that struck me about guerrilla gardening is its true anarchy – it is not chaotic, but is fully self-directed. There is no ‘head’ of operations, no central authority. Even the web boards on Reynolds’s own site are somewhat haphazard and open to all comers. He says that the average gardener is not perhaps the politicized agricultural students that one might expect, but more often middle-aged women who simply felt that “something ought to be done”. Translating this sentiment into “and I’m the one to do it” is where I think many of us fall short.
Since this course I am now looking at ways to incorporate plantings into our work in public space, seeding giant sunflowers along playground railings and looking to distribute bulbs that will grow after we have left, but the ideas behind guerrilla gardening reminded me of aspects of the playwork we have already been doing. When working in public space, strange objects inevitably find their way onto the site and are incorporated, such as the abandoned tyres that are turned into swings or vertical hidey-holes. Just like the guerilla gardeners we bring some things with us, sidewalk chalks and bottles of glitter, and try to make something new, magical and unexpected happen in the exact parts of these estates that are most taken for granted, most ‘overlooked’ both in the sense of them being ringed by houses and being walked through daily but never quite seen.
Of course, one key difference is that we’re paid for these efforts, but we do hope that by starting conversations with parents and passersby, and by making the world a tiny bit more colourful, people will start doing it of their own volition.
There are some signs that this is happening. When we go to a site that is slightly different than we left it, when children tell us that they’ve been playing hide-and-seek with neighbouring children they only met through our sessions, we like to think that the consequences of our visits might last long beyond our funding, and that small and playful flowers will grow between the cracks.