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Guerrilla Growing: Tactics & tools from the people & movements changing urban farming in our cities

AllotMe Case Study: Guerrilla Growing, community gardens and allotments. Interventions in urban agriculture.

When we talk about being self sufficient, we might picture a country house that recycles rain water with solar panels on the roof. We conjure up an image of a group of people doing it themselves, off the grid. But now that we know how our urban populations are projected to swell in numbers, you might find yourself asking if this kind of picture of sustainable living translates to a metropolitan lifestyle.

In our last article we covered the use of allotments as a way to be more self reliant in food production. But when there’s no access to sites like these, what else can be done? Is the onus on us as individuals to find our own ways of producing food, or are there groups out there creating new opportunities for growth in the city..?

As in any industry, when there’s an imbalance between supply and demand, grassroots movements and individuals tend to create their own path to fulfilment. In the first instance, let’s look at the groups and organisations intervening in urban areas to turn empty space into ad-hoc allotments and community gardens.

In London lies one of the best examples of this type of intervention. Between 2009 and 2012, a small group of architects created a programme to convert neglected and unused spaces on inner city housing estates into environments that now provide neighbourhoods with the most basic of requirements: outside space, a place grow food and a place to socialise.

The enterprise was aptly named ‘Vacant Lot’ and during the programme’s 3 year tenure, they created 21 new growing sites in inner city housing estates. The construction method was simple: using large builder’s bags and timber battens to create planters and seating, the process could be low cost with a quick turnaround. Although the programme finished in 2012, Vacant Lot went back a year later to survey all the sites to get feedback and learn what worked and what didn’t.

The benefits were predictably positive with the survey returning feedback like this:

‘Different nationalities… communicating and getting together… When I walk by the plot and see neighbours, I visit.’ (Stamford Hill Estate, 2013)

But for me, the question I would have loved to seen answered in Vacant Lot’s feedback was: is it going to continue? The project was successful in it’s goals of bringing communities together and opening up perspectives about how we can source our food. But they weren’t alone in starting the project. Namely, they had benefit of a partnership with Groundwork - a UK charity who specialise in supporting community initiatives that create a greener future for disadvantages neighbourhoods. Vacant Lot also had funding from a host of groups including Big Lottery and Comic Relief. It was clear to many that Vacant Lot were on to something, but they decidedly finished the programme in 2012.

So why finish after 3 seemingly successful years..? Well it doesn’t take an accountant to figure out that the scheme probably isn’t financially sustainable without public funding or continued donations. That also doesn’t take into account the time it takes to set up these ventures and build the relationships needed with the local communities to which they’re trying to assist. Although these issues probably were at the forefront of Ulrike Steven’s (founder of Vacant Lot) mind when she closed the programme in 2012, I wonder if there wasn’t something else they might have missed along the way.

If you want to find bountiful examples of communities with resilience who are carving a path for themselves, then look no further than my former city of residence, Glasgow. Although the city’s moto of ‘People make Glasgow’ has long entered the Meme hall of fame for the wrong reasons, there is an undeniable truth to the aphorism. Coincidentally, the source of yet another guerrilla growing space in this city once again starts with the actions of an architect. A former tutor of mine at the Macintosh School of Architecture, and founder of Baxendale Studio, Lee Ivett now heads up the undergraduate Architecture course in Central Lancashire University. However, in parts of Glasgow, Lee is known better by the community for getting his hands dirty in meaningful way.

Projects such as the North Glasgow Concrete Garden, or the Woodlands Community Garden mean that Lee is no stranger to helping set up growing spaces in urban settings.

To start with, let’s look at the latter - the Woodlands Community Garden in Glasgow’s West End. In 2010, Ivett lived across the road from a derelict ‘gap site’ on West Princess Street, which was crying out for attention. Together with other local residents, the unused site was turned into a space for the community with raised beds that residents could occupy to grow fruit and veg. Since its inception, the space has thrived, and evolved in a number of ways. You could argue that the key to the success was the support of the Woodlands Community group - a Development Trust with the aim of improving the lives of the local community. But for me, having committee-like organisations oversee a growing space doesn’t always equate to longevity in these gardens. The key for Woodlands was continued community involvement…

Often in a community garden, the physical spaces for growing: the raised beds or sowed patches of soil are completely shared amongst the community, as is the responsibility to manage the site. But there in lies the grey area. Who decides what to grow, where to grow it, and how to divide up the fruits of the labour? …Most of the time it’s a committee of some sort: usually the people who are the most enthusiastic with the most amount of time to lend and at the beginning of the project. Resident’s on the periphery, stay on the periphery in these cases, and the ‘community’ garden is tended by a small number of well meaning individuals with occasional volunteer support.

Here’s where the Woodlands Community Garden stands apart. At this Glasgow garden each year, around 50 households grow their own fruit, vegetables and herbs in the garden’s raised beds. This kind of set up addresses two factors that can often lead to the under-utilisation of community gardens:

1. It offers individual residents the opportunity to claim a space to grow their own food.

(Something that most communities shy away from in order to avoid territorial squabbles over various patches. However when an individual has responsibility for a space to grow, they tend to feel more of an obligation to make use of it, and therefore the raised beds are always well harvested)

2. It offers a yearly rotation on use of the raised beds.

(This is can often be the antithesis of the world of allotments, where tenancies tend to be lifelong! However, when there’s a chance that someone else might be using your space the following year, residents tend to make the most of their raised bed while they have it. In the long term, this means that a far wider portion of the community get exposure to the benefits of eating food grown on their own patch of dirt.)

Aside from these fundamental principals, the Woodlands Community Garden is thriving is a number of ways. It focuses its volunteer efforts to 2 days a week for general site maintenance, whilst the garden is open at all times as a place to unwind of socialise. In 2014, the ‘Woodlands Community Cafe’ was established on site which now runs cookery workshops and volunteer training programmes, as well as offering a selection of food on a ‘pay what you can’ basis. In 2016, Glasgow City Council granted a long-term lease on the site after it had been empty since the 1990s, which meant a year later, they completed construction of the ‘Woodlands Community Meeting Room’. This new building is open for rent to any group or company in Glasgow in need of space - providing yet another stable income to the community to help sustain the space long term. What the Woodlands group is proving is that once the local community has a tangible stake in the garden, a sustainable legacy can be built upon over time.

So community interventions can work in the long term to create space for growing food in our cities - so long as ownership is given to residents in a real way. Onto the next quest: can it scale? What stops us from using this case study as a tried and tested method to rolled out onto other disused sites in urban areas? To get closer to the source of the question, I caught up with Ivett to find out what the biggest challenges are…

“The need to be continuously requiring grant funding year on year to maintain a single project makes it very difficult for organisations to grow their capacity beyond a single site. So much energy is needed to identify and then acquire funding. Social enterprise models that explore ways of renting space, selling produce and providing services, providing consultancy can help plug the funding gap but there is rarely a ‘commercial’ model for these kinds of projects that can work given the scale at which they tend to operate. Establishing wider networks where growing projects come together to share, expertise, skills, space and resources is always useful. What is really required is long term commitment from local authorities to support these projects.”

It’s clear that the road to success for London’s Vacant Lot, or Glasgow’s Woodland Garden wasn’t without hardship. But when the timing is right, and a community goes all in, great new spaces for growing can be created. So what else are we missing? Are there other opportunities that even the successful movements are yet to tap into? Vacant Lot showed how creating a place to grow food can be low-tech, and flexible, but when we talk about expanding interventions like these in our cities, there’s one piece of the puzzle that will always been king: space.

In the world of architecture, space and density are a part of the everyday dialogue. We see where it is being developed, we see where it is under-utilised. If we want to create more places to grow food for ourselves in more and more densely occupied cities, we need to get better at using space wherever we can get, for as long as we can use it. One of the pivotal opportunities for grassroots growing could be through ‘meanwhile’ use on empty sites. ‘Meanwhile’ use is the temporary activation of empty pieces of land in the city that are in the process of being developed - but can often lie vacant and unused for years at a time!

The concept is not a new one, and there are many examples out there that highlight how it can be done well, albeit only a handful when it comes to growing food. When we consider the amount of development in huge metropolitan cities such as London or New York, it’s hard to believe that these temporarily empty sites are getting the activation they could be.

In October 2018 the 'Centre for London' produced a report entitled: ‘Meanwhile, in London: Making use of London's Empty Spaces’. The study did indeed find that London’s meanwhile use sector has blossomed in the last decade but there are still hurdles that prevent wider action. For example the report highlighted the considerable time (spent) scouting for new site as one of the key obstacles, with information on empty units (being) particularly difficult to access. Of course, let’s not forget the tax incentives and planning / licensing system’s influence on landowners caution in allowing meanwhile - where the risks are often overestimated and the benefits undervalued.

The study was, however, quick to highlight some of the success stories in other cities across the world, that provide insights into what it looks like to effectively turn over meanwhile sites into alternative uses. One leading example comes from Paris, which demonstrates how local government can revive disused sites and unloved public spaces through open competitions. Like most metropolitan cities, Paris is short on space. But by hosting an open competition to take over meanwhile sites, the city invites a swell of ideas to the forefront of public discourse about alternative paths to walk. When the process of transforming vacant lots into hubs of activity is not hidden behind red tape and private databases, the potential is huge.

Whilst community projects to bring more growing spaces into our cities might seem like a disparate and thinly spread solution, opportunities such as ‘meanwhile’ sites mean that the future might be greener than we think in a forever changing urban fabric. In our next case study, we’ll be going from the low-tech grassroots, to the world of high-tech startups who are pioneering progressive methods of urban agriculture through vertical farming.

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