Does Guerrilla Gardening Really Promote Conservation?

Guerrilla gardening, resistance gardening, midnight gardening, bewildering, rewilding… the list goes on! As the movement grows, so do the synonyms. But what exactly is this hot green trend that has taken over eco-conscious warriors?

Guerrilla Gardening In A Nutshell

Guerrilla gardening happens when anyone cultivates land without having the legal right to do so. Common examples of such land include vacant lots, abandoned sites, urban sidewalks, and private property.

There are numerous motivations for the illegal cultivation of land. On one end, there are gardeners working quietly at night to spruce things up around their neighborhood. And on the other end, there are climate activists provoking change through direct action during daylight hours for publicity.

Regardless of the reason, guerrilla gardening has seen a steep increase in recent years, gaining traction through public buy-in to the green movement.

Wait, so how did it all begin?

The earliest guerrilla gardeners that are still celebrated today are Gerrard Winstanley (1649, Surrey, England) and John “Appleseed” Chapman (1801, Ohio, USA).

Winstanley was a founder and leader of the Diggers – a religious-political group that promoted agrarian socialism. He declared that “true freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth.”  Following this sentiment, the Diggers invited everyone to join them in cultivating vegetables on common land as a means to overcome bad harvests and high food prices. In response, the local landowners took to the court with their complaints. The court issued a ruling against the Diggers, requesting them to leave at their own free will – or face forced eviction by law.

In contrast, Chapman was a pioneer nurseryman and missionary for The New Church. His apprenticeship as an apple orchardist inspired his infamous journey of planting apple trees across the midwestern United States. Contrary to popular belief, Chapman planted nurseries and not orchards – leaving them in the care of neighbors who sold trees using a share trading system.

Interestingly, the term “guerrilla gardening” was only coined much later by Liz Christy. This happened in 1973 when Christy’s group, Green Guerrilla, turned a derelict private lot into a garden.

But This Could Be A Good Thing, Right?

Well, yes and no.

Let’s look beyond the illicit nature of guerrilla gardening and understand it from the perspective of a conservationist.

Guerrilla gardening increases the spatial coverage of green spaces. It also transforms derelict land into ecologically productive spaces. The introduction of different plants attracts various animal life seeking to take advantage of these new areas. Examples of these include birds, small mammals, insects, reptiles, and amphibians. In dense urban environments, these micro-habitats can serve as natural corridors for the survival of wildlife.¹ In this way, guerrilla gardening can have a positive influence on biodiversity.

However, the type of plants cultivated and their combination can influence how diverse these spaces really are. For example, if non-native plants are cultivated, the new environment might not be well-suited to accommodate certain native animals. This is because some native animals depend on native plants for their survival.

Another pitfall is when the same combination of plants are constantly cultivated, favoring the same combination of animal diversity. You’ll notice that these micro-habitats tend to be dominated by cosmopolitan or “pest” species groups because they consistently outcompete others for the same resources. This can easily happen when we blindly follow plant lists from guerilla gardening blogs that are not targeted to meet local conservation needs. In this way, guerrilla gardening can have a negative influence on biodiversity in enriching already abundant wildlife.

What About Food Sovereignty?

The food sovereignty² movement is another global initiative that has become increasingly popular. With the real prospect of food shortages and actual crop failures in recent years,³ the general public is looking for ways to bring nature back into urban settings.

Guerrilla gardening with food plants is one such solution that ticks the social justice checkbox. Here, common herbs and vegetables are planted in neglected inner-city sites with the premise of making healthful food freely available.

As wonderful as this sounds, there are concerns that the location of food plants might make them susceptible to contamination. For example, plants cultivated in industrial areas, near roadsides or waste sites are likely unfit for human consumption.

Another issue is that many food plants that are cultivated do not actually increase the biodiversity, let alone the conservation status, of the area. They may also be treated with pesticides to ensure that they do not succumb to pests. In this way, they can do more harm than good in light of promoting conservation efforts.

So, Where Does This Leave Us?

Albeit illegal, guerrilla gardening certainly has its merits. If the right research is done, not only can it increase local biodiversity – but it can also improve the conservation of native wildlife. However, if we want to use this as a tool to actually promote conservation efforts, we need to understand our local ecosystems.

Whilst urban environments are far from natural, it is still useful to know the wildlife that occupies that region. Local ecologists and conservationists are valuable sources of information in this regard. When we make informed decisions on how to cultivate these spaces, we transform our efforts into positive contributions that actually support local conservation.

References

  1. Content, A., Energy, F. W., Environmental, U., Festival, T. N. O. C., & Join, T. N. O. C. Do urban green corridors “work”? It depends on what we want them to do. What ecological and/or social functions can we realistically expect green corridors to perform in cities? What attributes define them, from a design and performance perspective?
  2. Sampson, D., Cely-Santos, M., Gemmill-Herren, B., Babin, N., Bernhart, A., Bezner Kerr, R., … & Wittman, H. (2021). Food sovereignty and rights-based approaches strengthen food security and nutrition across the globe: A systematic review. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 288
  3. Schillerberg, T. A., & Tian, D. (2020). Changes of crop failure risks in the United States associated with large-scale climate oscillations in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Environmental Research Letters, 15(6), 064035