The gardens symbolised the opposition to what was happening. The possibility of building a better city based on the interests of local communities, an expression of people working together. The opposite of racial segregation, individualism and the urban renewal strategies that benefit only the rich and powerful.- C. Khan
In common with other critical social movements, the community gardens presented their demands under the umbrella of the right to the city, understood not as a legal claim, but as citizens’ right to intervene in the city, to build it and transform it.
This symbolic framework can be used to connect with other essential demands (against neighbourhood segregation and stigmatization, forced displacements, evictions, the criminalization of poverty) for imagining a socially just city, into which experiences like the community gardens incorporate issues such as urban ecology and food sovereignty.
The urban agriculture movement reveals and poses questions that go beyond the gardens themselves, calling on people to participate and share responsibility for our lifestyles and how we manage resources that are located beyond the city limits but are essential for the city’s subsistence in a context of social and ecological crisis, exemplified by climate collapse and the energy crisis.
Together with the right to the city, another central pillar in the ideas and practices of the urban agriculture movement is the notion of the commons. Indeed, the CG defined themselves as the urban commons from the outset. Thus, for Karl Linn they are neighbourhood commons, meeting spaces built and managed by people living in degraded areas of deprived neighbourhoods. The urban commons revive traditional practices of community management of natural, strategic resources the community needs to reproduce, and adapt them to the urban setting.
One of the strengths that give the community gardens their radical nature and transformative capacity is their goal of creating a community in the broad sense, around sharing and collectively managing a space, resources (soil, seeds, water, tools), certain benefits (harvests, social recognition), and a group of people who define their own rules and organization. This has led to the community gardens also being defined as green urban commons: ‘green spaces located in urban settings, with diverse forms of ownership and a wide range of rights, including the right to create their own management arrangements and to decide who they want to include in that system of management’.
The community gardens are self-organized, non-hierarchical experiences that combine a critique of the dominant model of the city with the mobilization of emancipatory practices and ideas. Against the ideology of homo economicus, the idea of the community refers to the way in which people create their own community intentionally, reflexively and by engaging in dialogue, generating groups that see themselves as inclusive, open, flexible, porous and rooted in the neighbourhood.
The neighbourhood is that sphere between the productive and the reproductive, between the private, known, domestic space and the public space, comprising the larger, more abstract city that cannot be encompassed in its totality. In the community gardens, the sense of belonging to the neighbourhood is defined culturally rather than geographically, seeking to involve and appeal to neighbours whose definition as a group is likewise flexible, as it refers to people who work collectively in the neighbourhood and not so much to their place of residence.
This sense of community belonging that characterizes the urban gardens is underlined by a gardener from Madrid, an unemployed architect: ‘It’s not a question of each person having their own plot, or each person managing, working and harvesting a separate, fenced-off area. That’s something people find very unsettling – they’re surprised that you’d go and put in the work without knowing what you’re going to get out of it’.
Because what is grown is not for commercial purposes, the gardens promote a sort of gift economy, where what each person contributes and what they receive is not quantified.
Another gardener from the same garden explains it like this: ‘This spade is not mine, neither is this plant. Because all of it is everyone’s, I have more of a sense of belonging. It feels more important to me, I have to look after it and defend it more than if it was mine or someone else’s. It’s everyone’s space and no-one’s space – a common good that we can all enjoy but that doesn’t belong to us’. For another gardener, ‘Being a community means working more on the basis of questions than answers. Things get decided through consultation, nobody imposes their views’.
For a gardener in one of Madrid’s oldest gardens , Adelfas, the community garden is ‘a place where we can go back to what a neighbourhood used to be, talk to the neighbours in a space that’s not commercial or defined by consumerism’. Another adds: ‘It’s a place where we do things collectively and connect with the earth, a place to be with people who have something in common, a part of the neighbourhood that’s really ours, unlike the park that’s cold and impersonal’.
The community gardens are self-organized, non-hierarchical experiences that combine a critique of the dominant model of the city with the mobilization of emancipatory practices and ideas.
Agroecology, self-management and social ties are the three features that define their work at the local level, where people grow food and harvest social relationships. Because they are in the public space, the community gardens are highly visible, attractive experiences, and very active in making connections with other initiatives (community centres, neighbourhood associations, consumer groups, cyclists’ collectives, education associations and schools, for instance), which means that they reweave the local social fabric.
As time goes by, the meeting space and relationships with other people become key to the group’s cohesion and competes in attractiveness with the gardening dimension, which was initially more relevant. As one gardener says, ‘When we didn’t know each other so well, we mostly talked about plants. Now we know each other we talk more about what’s going on in our lives’. Another gardener, the treasurer of one of the largest gardens in Madrid, Huerto Batán, expresses her motivation in similar terms: ‘Now, rather than the tomatoes, the important thing is relating to other people’.
As well as the immediate activity, the community gardens prefigure what people would like their city to look like in the future, expressing the need for neighbourhoods that are more participatory, shared spaces, together with the introduction of more eco-urbanism (sustainable transport, proximity, renewable energies, composting, closing cycles).