Guerilla gardening – just do it!

guerrilla gardening
the activity of growing plants without permission on land that belongs to someone else or on public land, with the aim of improving the environment or producing vegetables or flowers for people to use or enjoy

Starting a project to make a change in your neighbourhood can seem to be a daunting prospect. Yes, there are grassroots community projects that are complex and there are probably good reasons for that – changing the world is not an easy business and a degree of organisation is required. However, there are things you can do which don’t require a lot of organisation or hours writing funding applications. Guerilla gardening is one of those things you can do…

If there’s an awkward shaped smallish plot of land in your neighbourhood that’s been neglected and no one’s sure who owns or has responsibility for it, why not do a bit of guerilla gardening? Canvas opinion in the immediate neighbourhood to see how much support there is for the idea of transforming the plot from an eyesore into a community asset. Find out who’s willing to help you work on it and then work out a plan for what you want to do.

You could ask for permission if you want but if the land has been neglected for years, then whoever is responsible for it obviously doesn’t care about the impact of their neglect on your neighbourhood so…just get on with it! There’s a welcome, non-violent anti-authoritarian aspect to guerilla gardening that should be embraced. While at one level, it’s about making your neighbourhood a better place to live, at a more fundamental level, it’s asking questions about land ownership and control.

The other benefits are building a feeling of solidarity and cohesion in your neighbourhood as people get together to work on a common project. A project that as it matures will give people a sense of pride in and responsibility towards their neighbourhood and boost community morale. A confidence booster that can inspire people to take on bigger and more complex projects that will start to lead to real, meaningful change.

Start small, gain confidence, start to think bigger but above all…just do it!

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Vange Hill – resident action gets the job done!

Before and after residents action in the Dewsgreen area of the Vange Hill estate in Basildon

You what it’s like when you walk down a poorly maintained path and you’re having to dodge and duck overhanging branches because the council seem to have forgotten about its existence – it’s bloody annoying! You think – is it worth going through all of the hassle involved in reporting the job to the council and then having to chase them up to make sure they send someone round to cut back the branches? If maintenance of roads and paths is split between Basildon Council and Essex County Council as it is on the Vange Hill estate, who the heck do you report the overhanging branches to in the first place? If you report it to one authority, will they try to say it’s the responsibility of another authority?

You know what – it’s easier for residents to do the job themselves! Which is exactly what the Vange Hill Community Group did with clearing the path shown above. Granted, through their council tax they’ve already paid for the job to be done and they’re entitled to tot up the time spent on the work and bill the council accordingly. Having said that, they saved themselves the hassle of dealing with the bureaucracy of reporting the job to the council and in the process, empowered themselves. Which is exactly what we want – empowered residents working collectively to make their estates better places to live by taking power from the council and doing the job themselves on their terms.

A new dawn?

Basildon Council have announced a series of community clean up roadshows in a number of wards across the borough: Community Clean-Up Roadshows. At these events, there will be information on dealing with these issues:

– Top recycling tips including recycling rules.
– Information about recyclable materials – with a focus on plastics.
– Help with setting up community recycling programmes.
– Information about flytipping and the correct ways to dispose of rubbish.

This all sounds good but, hang on a minute – isn’t educating residents on these issues what the Vange Hill Community Group (VHCG) and Basildon & Housing Action (BASHA) have already been doing their level best to do? Both of these groups have been banging their respective heads against the wall to get a hearing from Basildon Council and to get some degree of support and co-operation for what they do on the ground. In return, all too often they’ve been treated with disdain and rudeness and any concessions that have been squeezed out of the council have come after unnecessarily long battles.

After all VHCG and BASHA have been through in trying to educate residents on the estates while battling against the council, the powers that be announce a series of roadshows to educate residents on rubbish collection protocol and recycling. You know what – VHCG and BASHA are both fully entitled to take the announcement of these roadshows as a resounding victory for all of the pressure they’ve had to put on the council! Let’s hope that from this point, it will be onwards and upwards in getting support and co-operation from Basildon Council for what residents are already doing for themselves on the ground.

Expropriation of land

In the discussion after the presentation at the Anarchist Communist Group hosted Land and Liberty meeting at the London Radical Bookfair on Saturday 2nd June, a question was raised by one of the attendees about the expropriation of land. Essentially, their concern was – would it be a violent process and if so, would it just end up replacing one hierarchy with another? I made a contribution in response to this, highlighting three different examples of land appropriation, all non-violent and each in their own way playing their part in starting to build a new world in the decaying shell of the dystopian one we currently endure.

Two of the examples are on the estates Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA) and the Vange Hill Community Group (VHCG) respectively have a presence on. BASHA have a long established kitchen garden on an estate in Laindon up by the A127 where one of their activists lives. This garden provides a supply of vegetables for a number of households in one of the blocks. On a deprived estate that’s a long walk from even a basic, bog standard convenience store let alone a decent greengrocers, a kitchen garden like this makes a difference. Okay, it doesn’t guarantee anything like self sufficiency but it’s a welcome supplement to the diet. Basildon Council, failing to see the good a community run kitchen garden could do on a deprived estate, threatened to dismantle the garden a couple of years ago. Well after a fair amount of adverse publicity, the council were persuaded to see the errors of their ways and took the sensible decision to allow the kitchen garden to continue.

The Vange Hill estate on the southern fringes of Basildon had up until last summer been suffering years of neglect. After an estate walkabout last summer, with some facilitation from BASHA, the VHCG was formed. This year on three different sites across the estate, residents have taken it upon themselves to start tidying up neglected public areas with some guerilla gardening. The idea is that these three sites will serve as an inspiration to residents in other areas of the estate to start doing the same. Eventually the idea is link up these ‘areas of enhancement’ and present Basildon Council, Essex County Council and the housing associations who operate on the estate with resident controlled and run public spaces. There is actually a long term vision for the estate we’ve worked on which VHCG have brought into: A better future for the ¾ estate in Vange.

Both of the above examples involve using public space on the estates. Space which is technically owned by either Basildon Council or Essex County Council. Space which due to ongoing austerity, receives minimal maintenance from either authority. This is public space surrounding people’s homes and as such is a community asset. If land is used as a community asset, then the technical and legal issues of actual ownership can be set aside because morally, that land belongs to the community. With both the examples cited above, the residents concerned, seeing the years of neglect from the authorities concerned, didn’t trouble themselves with legal issues of ownership – they simply got on with doing what they saw fit to the land to enhance the conditions on their estates. In the process of doing this, residents are slowly becoming more empowered and more ambitious in their ideas for what they can do to not only improve but also get more control over their estates.

There’s another example which unlike the informal, below the radar expropriation dealt with above, turned into an officially sanctioned project where residents were given control. The example in question is Hardie Park in Stanford-le-Hope. Back in 2007 and 2008 when I contested the Stanford East & Corringham Town ward for the Independent Working Class Association, the then dire state of Hardie Park was frequently raised on the doorstep. Back then, it was a bleak, litter strewn no go area that few people visited. Fast forward a few years and a few local residents, fed up with the neglect of the park by Thurrock Council, took it upon themselves to do something about it.

They started out with some simple, doable tasks such as litter picking. Basically, it snowballed from there and eventually, the residents formed Friends of Hardie Park and were organising community activities in the park. Things really started to gain momentum when they obtained a portable building, dug the foundations, started to erect it, got round to asking the council for permission and ended up with a building that now functions as a cafe, meeting place and community hub. There’s a gardening group we volunteer with who develop and maintain the gardens in the park. What was a no go area ten years ago is now a well used and much loved community asset run by volunteers from the community.

Obviously, with all of the physical infrastructure of the community hub, the gardens and the park, and the maintenance they all need, this costs money. While local authorities may be strapped for cash as a result of central government imposed austerity, as the Friends of Hardie Park are registered as a charity, they can access pots of money in the form of grants. Also, local companies have been willing to donate materials that are needed for gardening and building projects in the park. Yes, all of this is working in and with the system. Some anarchists purists might choose to turn their nose up at this. The point is that at the end of the day, a group of residents have worked the system to their advantage to create a community asset that the town has enthusiastically embraced. As far as we’re concerned, this is a quiet revolution that has empowered and inspired a lot of people and has made a real difference to life in Stanford-le-Hope.

The examples cited above are all ways of expropriating pieces of land and re-purposing them as community assets. They’re ways of doing it under the radar or exploiting the system from within. In all three cases, residents are in the process of or have expropriated land in creative, non-violent ways. They’re filling or have filled the vacuums left behind by local authorities crippled by austerity. Filling these vacuums means that one way or another, residents are taking or have taken control. What is significant is that this is happening in the here and now. People aren’t waiting for the big day to seize control – in a quiet way, they’re already doing that. They most likely don’t realise it but they are already anarchists…

Dave (the editor)

Building the base for radical change

Some in depth thoughts on our ultimate goals and how we hope the way we operate at the grassroots will eventually lead to them being realised…

Our long term aim is to achieve a revolution that will bring about an equitable, sane and sustainable society free from hierarchies and oppression. The question is – how do we get to that point? What this piece will attempt to do is explain the grassroots, community based approach to achieving this we take out here on the ground in southern Essex. This isn’t intended to be a definitive guide let alone a grandiose statement that our way is the best – all we’re trying to do is put some ideas and experiences into the mix and see what people think of them.

Fractured communities

In an age of rampant neo-liberalism, society is becoming ever more fractured, atomised and polarised. With increasingly precarious employment conditions that are dumping more and more people on zero hours and short term contracts, solidarity in the workplace is under attack. With the housing crisis…

View original post 1,810 more words

A diversity of tactics

The way we (South Essex Stirrer and Basildon & Southend Housing Action) operate depends very much on the circumstances prevailing at the time and the task in hand. In the case of the ¾ estate in Vange, those tactics are a mixture of lobbying, propaganda, education and direct action. Our ultimate aim is the empowerment of people on a working class estate so they reach a point where they will embrace our project of radical political, social and economic change. Obviously, we’re a long way from that point and have to work from where we are.

An immediate aim is the improvement of conditions on the estate. That involves a mixture of facilitating residents in lobbying Basildon Council, Essex County Council and the various housing associations to do their job properly on the one hand and community clean ups and guerilla gardening on the other. These activities are supported with propaganda in the form of posts on the South Essex Stirrer. We also produce the occasional leaflet and flyer and have plans for a newsletter in the long term.

Our long term aim is empowerment of the residents and we work very closely with the Vange Hill Community Group in achieving this. The aspirations for the estate are expressed here: A better future for the ¾ estate in Vange. Essentially what we are trying to achieve is starting to build a new world in the shell of the decaying, dysfunctional and dystopian one we currently endure. That can only be done from the grassroots upwards.

Working at the grassroots with people who in the main are fairly apolitical but also cynical about what politicians at local and national level can offer presents an interesting mix of challenges and opportunities. The challenges are that with people being apolitical, their views are formed by a combination of life experiences, how they discuss issues with friends, family and neighbours and to a certain extent, from the media. Which often means it’s hard to pin people down on any particular part of the political spectrum. One person can be pretty progressive on some issues but on others, may have a bit of a reactionary take.

We could through our toys out of the pram and walk away in a huff on encountering reactionary sentiments but as we’ve already written before, that won’t achieve anything: A few words on how we work. On the propaganda front, this is how we try to resolve contentious issues: A few thoughts on neighbourhood community halls. Regarding the issue dealt with in this piece, negotiations are underway between the parties concerned with the aim of coming to a resolution.

As for facilitating the lobbying of councils, we realise that the more purist anarchists will see us as little more than a neighbourhood pressure group. We’re not and here’s why. The key is the use of the word facilitating. We facilitate the Vange Hill Community Group in lobbying by offering support, advice and logistical backing as and when necessary. Regarding the lobbying, it’s generally aimed at the council officers responsible for a particular service on the estate with the two wards councillors (both Labour) being copied in. There have been occasional sightings of the two ward councillors but efforts to constructively engage with them have rarely been successful.

When lobbying pays off with a result, it empowers those involved in it to not just carry on but also to become more ambitious in their demands. As this lobbying proceeds and the barriers to what can be squeezed out of a council are hit, we use our propaganda to place in context what most people instinctively understand about the limits of the state in an age of permanent austerity. It’s a combination of empowerment and political education that we’re doing our level best to implement.

Then there’s the direct action. Which in the case of the ¾ estate in Vange, is a combination of community clean ups and guerilla gardening. With the community clean ups there is some degree of co-operation with Basildon Council in that we’ll tell them we’re having one, there will be sacks of rubbish and other bulkier items for them to collect when we’ve done and generally that’s what they do. When it comes to the guerilla gardening on the estate, we just get on with it and don’t even think about asking for permission.

At all times we bear in mind our ultimate aim of radical political, social and economic change. We realise that getting to the point where that can start to happen is a long journey – we’re in this for the long haul. There’s no single, easily defined route to get to that point. It’s a case of nurturing quite a few different strands and over time, gradually bringing them together and picking up momentum along the way. Which is why we deploy a variety of tactics to support our overall strategy.

Getting to where we want to be is a learning curve and there’s a lot of trial and error and subsequent reassessment of strategy and tactics along the way. We’re happy for what we do to be open for constructive criticism and discussion.

A better future for the ¾ estate in Vange

A few posts back we wrote about our experience on the Creating A Positive Revolution In Southend course and how we used that to come up with some ideas for improving life on the ¾ estate in Vange: A different way of thinking about community activism. That plan is now available as a downloadable PDF from here.

We will have print outs of this plan available (for a small donation) at our stall at the Bristol Anarchist Bookfair on Saturday May 12th. We will also be doing a presentation about this at the Dorset Radical Bookfair on Saturday 4th August.

Bear in mind that the plan is an aspiration and the contents are a guide as to how that aspiration can be realised. As such, it’s not written in stone and can and most likely will change as we progress and learn from our experiences, successes and mistakes!