Articles, Blog

Guerrilla gardening — why people garden without boundaries: Richard Reynolds at TEDxItaewon

October 6, 2019

Translator: Rhonda Jacobs
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven Good afternoon, delegates! Hello. (Applause) Are there any gardeners out there? Anyone gardening, yes? A few hands have gone up. Excellent, that’s a good start. Well, my aim today, my mission,
is to make you all gardeners and perhaps some of you
even guerrilla gardeners like me. I am a guerrilla gardener. I’m one of thousands around the world
who garden without boundaries, by which I mean
we garden someone else’s land, and we do it without asking first. So I overlook boundaries of ownership, I overlook boundaries of permission, and I certainly ignore
boundaries of convention because what we do, sadly,
still isn’t that normal. So why do people do it? That’s what I’m going
to hopefully explain to you today. This is the kind of thing we do. One little example, one small,
little patch of a roundabout just near where I live,
in the Elephant and Castle in London. And incredibly,
this nearly got me arrested. Because guerrilla gardening is still,
technically, a criminal activity. And if you want to find out more
about what happened here, you can see the video on YouTube. But I’m glad to say that getting arrested is the kind of thing that very rarely
happens to guerrilla gardeners. I’m sure I wouldn’t be here today
if that was the case. It’s just one of those technicalities. And the kind of guerrilla gardening
that I advocate, mostly, is public land that’s neglected. And to me, this is a fantastic
resource for us all. This is our land, it’s public already, and if it isn’t being looked after,
if it’s being forgotten about, or abused, or attracting antisocial behavior,
then imagine what it could be instead through the eyes of a gardener. It could be full of tulips. It could be a place of food. It could be a place of gathering. It could be a place
that’s greater for wildlife. It could be whatever you, as a gardener,
could want to make it into. Now, why did I start guerrilla gardening? Well, I live here. It’s not the most beautiful of buildings, but it is cheap, and it’s light,
and it’s airy, and it’s in central London. But when I chose
to live here eight years ago, I overlooked one
rather important criteria: it has no garden. But thankfully, just outside was this neglected, miserable flowerbed. Yes, this is meant to be a flowerbed. But the authority, the local authority,
Southwark Council, who own that building and were meant to be doing this job,
seemed to have forgotten about it. Now, some people might complain. Some people might sit back and wait
for something to be done about it. But for me, this was
an exciting opportunity. This was a space that I could
make into a garden myself. Like we heard earlier from Jason, I think childhood has quite an impact on what we later on
do in our lives, of course, and for me, London
was a foreign environment. I grew up in the countryside. I grew up gardening
as a child, as a teenager. It was my obsession, it was employment. And now here I was as an adult in London,
working in an office every day, with an itch to just
go and plant something. So my motivation
was as a frustrated gardener. It was as simple as that. I wasn’t considering this as a campaign. I wasn’t describing myself
as an environmentalist, I just wanted to do some gardening
and make this look a bit better. So that’s what I did. And this is what
it looks like more recently. (Applause) And in doing this, I was taking a risk. You know, I hadn’t asked permission. But in addition to the law, the kind of obstacle
that a guerrilla gardener might face are theft. You know, these plants
are out there in public, somebody might steal them, somebody might vandalize them,
they might trample them. People might just think
you’re a bit weird. Why are you out there doing this? Surely, it’s someone else’s job. So for me, doing this was an experiment
in seeing whether those negatives, those pessimistic reasons
why not to bother, were actually real, and as you can see from the pictures,
they weren’t too real at all. Yes, I’ve lost a few plants,
I’ve seen people picking them, but at the end of the day,
the garden has succeeded, because I think people
do generally respect plants, they have an innate power in them. And if you persevere
and make it look good, then even in the grimmest of areas
I’ve seen this succeed. But … as a campaign, as an opportunity to spread the word, which I began to get excited about, of course, just seeing a garden
doesn’t communicate that. People could see this and assume this was done by the official,
local authority. And in those early days, as I said, my motivation was just
to do some gardening. So I was sneaking out
in the middle of the night. I didn’t want to meet anyone, I didn’t want to have
that face-to-face confrontation, this was a surreptitious act. But in hindsight,
that was quite unnecessary. It was a lot of fun,
but it was not necessary, and I was missing out
on some of the other reasons why guerrilla gardening can be great,
and that’s the social side. Because if you’re out there gardening, there’s something, I believe,
that’s very approachable about being a gardener. Even though, like Sonny and Lila here
with their sharp metal tools in hand, you might think, oh, dangerous women, but no, they’re gardening, and most people can recognize
that they’re doing something that’s caring for nature. And that’s a very powerful act these days. And it means if you’re
out there in public, it’s a conversation starter. Don’t wear the high visibility jacket, the international uniform
of a maintenance contractor, unless you want to be invisible, unless, like me in the early days,
you’re feeling shy about it, then no one will ask you anything,
you can get away with anything. But if you want to have
those conversations, then gardening like this
is a great way of doing that. And it means that you might
encourage people to join in, or at the very least, it means you might encourage them
to respect what you’re doing, to tolerate what you’re doing,
to spread the word, and therefore help protect
the gardens that you’ve started, that are vulnerable
in these public places. And by being more public about it,
it’s enabled me to take on more areas. The enthusiastic gardener in me
spots these potentials all around my local neighborhood. And you can see on the map here
where I began with the blue circle and I’ve spread in the streets nearby. So places that I can get to enjoy
and I can get to regularly look after, and get help in looking after as well. Hundreds of poeple over the eight years
that I’ve been doing this here have helped me create these gardens. Now the social side has become social
digitally in recent years as well. One group that I met in Brussels who go by the name
of the Brussels Farmers, they started guerrilla
gardening as a social act. They were students,
they were leaving college, and they wanted something
that would keep them together, an activity that they could share, and they chose guerrilla
gardening as a way to do this. They also invented a day called International Sunflower
Guerrilla Gardening Day, which is on the first of May. Now this has been going
for about six years now, and we plant sunflower seeds
on May the first, across the northern hemisphere. It’s a bit late for some,
a bit early for others, but it kind of works. And this is now an activity
that thousands sign up to online, and you can see some pictures here
of people participating in Denmark, in Salt Lake City, in Poland,
in Edinburgh, even in Uruguay, which is the wrong side of the equator
to be planting sunflowers. Another way of being social
with your garden when you’re not actually there,
is to put up signs. It’s a simple piece
of friendly advertising. And here, guerrilla gardeners
in Toronto were planting marigolds, it’s very dry there in the summer, so they’re inviting people
to help out and water. I’ve seen messages all over the place,
generally asking for help or respect in a cheerful, informal kind of way so that it’s quite clear
before you’ve even read the words, that this is not an official notice, this is someone, like you,
who cares for their local space. In the last few years, guerrilla
gardening has grown and grown, and become a more social
thing than ever before. I get e-mails from people asking me,
“How do I get involved?” “Where can I find my local group?” Now, you can do it on your own, like many guerrilla gardeners do
and like I started, but there are groups now,
and just by trawling Facebook, look at all these different groups
around the world, with their own logos, their own identities, and a variety of their own missions
for why they do it as well. You can see that from the design
that goes into these identities, the degree to which they’re
more anarchic or more conventional. Now, in discovering people
around the world who are doing this, through my own website,, I have met some truly inspiring people, and I will give you a very brief
description of just a few of them today. This is Adam, he was a guerrilla
gardener in New York, and he was there
in the early days, in the 1970s, which is when guerrilla gardening
really began to become more mainstream. It’s really when the term was coined. And Adam has created not little patches
next to the roadsides and pavements, as I’ve done, but he
and hundreds in New York have created community gardens, social spaces where once
there was rubble and neglect. And he told me the tales
of 30 years worth of effort that enabled them to actually
get permission at the end of the day. This is Morris in Zurich,
he’s been sowing hollyhock seeds around the pavements
in the Swiss city for 25 years, and you cannot miss his work now
if you go there in the summer. And I visited Botswana
and met Nkagisang and her friends, who guerrilla garden to grow food. She found neglected land
next to her home and her garden, and took it over, planted up vegetables and has been using this
to feed a local hospital. A few years after she started,
the owner of the land discovered her, and he turned out to be a judge,
but she got away with it. He said, “Look, it’s fine. You carry on. When I want the land
for something else, I’ll let you know.” A group in Britain, in Todmorden,
called the Incredible Edibles, are motivated to grow food to make their town
sustainable within a decade. And if you go to TED’s site
and look up Pam Warhurst’s speech, it is incredible what they’ve
achieved there, using guerrilla gardening
to get things going. Now you might wonder why we don’t
ask permission in the first place. You know, there’s plenty
of success stories here. At the end of the day,
what we’re doing, presumably, it looks like it’s pretty good. And in these economic times, where the local authorities
and central government have less money than ever
before to look after things, you’d think people like us
would be embraced. Well, sort of, but not quite. The national politicians
are not comfortable with this, they’re not interested, and my local authority
are still very uncomfortable. In fact, whilst they have given me
permission in one area, they still charge us if they
were doing the gardening themselves, which is a little bit
cheeky if you ask me. The reason we don’t ask permission
comes down to trust. How can an authority
or a land owner trust someone who is not an expert gardener, they’re not coming as an organization, they’re coming as an individual,
or as a group of friends, to look after this land. And how can the gardener,
necessarily, even trust themselves to make the commitment for something that they’re not sure how much hard work
it’s going to be anyway? So for me, going out there and doing it,
gets away with that trust, because once the conversation happens,
you’ve got a track record – you’ve got a track record
to say to yourself you can do it, but you’ve got a track record
to show to the land owner that you’re committed and responsible. So I’ve given you two big reasons
why people guerrilla garden. There’s the joy of gardening
to make places more beautiful, to grow food and all the things
that growing stuff can give you. There’s the social side. But there’s a third reason
why people guerrilla garden, and that’s one for which permission
really doesn’t make sense, it really isn’t compatible,
and that’s one of protest. Pete, here, has been planting in potholes. He’s one of many guerrilla
gardeners who do this. Well, when I say many,
I know of three of them. And they vary between artistic statements, but in Pete’s case, it’s a protest
about the potholes in British roads. And I know one local authority
who were quite tickled by this and felt that it was a valid protest
and were going to act on filling these in. A protest I visited
a few weeks ago in Frankfurt, outside the European Central Bank there – it’s part of the international
Occupy movement, Occupy Frankfurt. Now, they’ve guerrilla gardened
around the parkland there with vegetables and pot plants. Now, there’s a bigger
message behind Occupy, that using gardening as part of it I think warms people
to the encampment that is there, and it demonstrates a really
hands-on action and love for the place rather than the bigger messages that
are harder to communicate to the passerby. And a gentle piece
of provocation here in Portland – not in this picture, this is a Mercedes
logo outside a dealership there, but a guerrilla gardener
who contacted me called Sandy added a little bit of hedge
to make it into a peace symbol. And she told me it lasted for two weeks
before Mercedes noticed. (Laughter) So in this case, the guerrilla gardeners
are really using plants as paintbrushes. The gardens may be very short lived, but the power of plants
to connect with people emotionally and to provoke in a way that isn’t as aggressive as some
other tools that protesters use is something that many now are embracing. I’ve done a bit of protest
guerrilla gardening myself, which combine many of the reasons
why people guerrilla garden. The situation with some villages
next to Heathrow Airport, and they were threatened with demolition
for the expansion of Heathrow, and Greenpeace contacted me
to see if we could use guerrilla gardening as a way of bringing together
the protesters from outside the community, the local residents, who wanted to demonstrate
their love for their community, and guerrilla gardening was a way of getting everyone involved
in an action together, to demonstrate the love
we all have for this place, whether our motivation
is saving the community or reducing the amount of expansion
at Heathrow Airport. And we got loads of plants donated from a designer
at the Chelsea Flower Show too. So to conclude, I have some petals – a Venn diagram that demonstrates
what those three reasons are, and I show this to underline the diversity
within the movement. And I hope that you’ve
heard something today that makes you feel “Yes! That’s the kind
of guerrilla gardening I want to do.” And in your bags are packets of seeds
that help you on your way. Thank you very much. (Applause) Host: Thank you.

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