Urban Agriculture and the radical imagination of the possible

Urban Agriculture and the radical imagination of the possible

As I explored in an earlier blog post, the lawn remains a powerful symbol of class domination, racism, and colonialism. Understanding the socioeconomic role of the lawn means that solutions to the problems it causes cannot be found in private backyards. As a classed and moralized landscape, and it is more powerfully contested as part of a multi-ethnic, working-class struggle over public spaces through urban agriculture movements.

people's park
People’s Park, Berkeley, California

Urban Agriculture Movements

Urban agriculture movements based on participatory democracy in public or pseudo-public urban spaces can help to challenge the alienation of people to themselves, each other, and extra-human nature by providing a sensuous experience of the body that is also explicitly social. Furthermore, the experience of partaking in urban agriculture movements that encourage participatory democracy in public urban spaces can help to develop models of an anti-capitalist commons. The radical and transformative potential of these social movements is not necessarily in the projects themselves, but in the way that participation in radical democracy has the capacity to shift ideas about what is possible. This can translate radical imaginations into concrete collective struggles which are capable of remaking neighbourhoods in hopeful ways.


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Milky Way Garden, Parkdale, Toronto; credit: Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust Facebook page

Urban agriculture has grown steadily in North American cities, particularly in the last four decades. The movement has taken a diverse range of forms and is associated with vastly different initiatives and projects. It is, thus, more accurately thought of as multiple, intersecting movements. One of the benefits of creating transformative agriculture projects in cities is that urban neighbourhoods can more easily develop into vibrant communities based on difference where, as Iris Young (1990) explained, “persons and groups interact within spaces and institutions they all experience themselves as belonging to” (p. 227). This creates the conditions for the messy but powerful process of engaging in collective visioning while seizing what John Holloway (2005) calls the ‘means of doing’ and reclaiming what Marx describes as ‘sensuous human activity’.

While urban agriculture movements have the potential to be transformative, providing multiple important benefits to individuals, neighbourhoods, and societies, critics have pointed out the complicated, contradictory, and sometimes quite destructive role they can play in relation to neo-liberal capitalism. Some critics argue that community gardens have become, “…spaces of neoliberal governmentality” (Pudup 2008). Despite this criticism, there is space for urban agriculture initiatives to answer the call of Caffentzis and Federici to “transform our social relations and create an alternative to capitalism” (Caffentzis and Federici 2014: i101).

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Black Creek Community Farm, Toronto; credit: Alternatives Journal

Participatory democracy and anti-capitalist commoning

One of the most crucial ways in which urban agriculture can be transformative is through the creation of projects that engage in anti/beyond capitalist commoning through participatory democracy – a relational form of decision-making, based on the idea that people should have control over their own lives. For some urban gardeners, the creation of participatory democracy in the commons is explicit in the work that they do. For example, White (2012) describes how a group of black women activists in Detroit view gardening as a form of activism, “[they] engage farming as a strategy of resistance against capitalism, corporatism of the food system, and agribusiness…These new spaces teach communities the power of a different kind of inwardly focused resistance that produces creative and productive spaces in the neighborhood” (p 21-22).


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Freedom Freedom Detroit; credit: DailyDetroit.com

Furthermore, anti/beyond -capitalist commons can help foster what Caffentzis and Federici describe as the “creation of collective subjects, a commitment to fostering common interests in every aspect of our life” (Caffentzis and Federici 2015, i100). These collective subjects contrast with the “Lawn People” identified by Robbins. The experience of participating in democratic decision making within one’s neighbourhood can have a radicalizing effect because it allows people to exercise democratic, collective control over their neighbourhood and over an aspect of everyday life – food – in which many people have limited control. As Frances A. Perez-Rodriguez, a community gardener with La Finca Del Sur argues, “when a person of color decides to reclaim land, when they decide to refuse to depend on the system for food…at the moment you are taking care of yourself and each other…You are connecting yourself and the people to the land” (Thomas 2017).

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La Finca del Sur, the Bronx; credit: la Finca del Sur website

Marx argued that it is through “concrete, sensuous acts of everyday people that alienation will truly be challenged” (Loftus 2012, p 29). Robbins (2007) points out in Lawn People that environmental knowledge seems to matter little in the use of chemicals on lawns. Perhaps experience is what matters most; it is not enough to intellectually know about environmental issues – we have to, instead, have experiential, sensuous, relational encounters with the natural world. Gardening and the growing of food is one of the most potent practices through which, as Loftus (2012) argues, “senses find themselves confirmed rather than alienated in the creative process”.

For most of the 20th century gardening and the raising of small animals to supplement the urban diet has been a practice relegated to the private sphere. When done in public and  communal spaces, urban agriculture initiatives are inescapably social, sometimes connecting people in a tangible way to their cultural practices disparaged by capitalist colonialism. Eizenburg (2011) argues that “the lived facet of the space of community gardens has multiple expressions in images, memories, emotions, identity, and everyday practice” (p. 770). Anti/beyond capitalist commons are ways in which people can collectivize social reproduction, working together in spaces and projects that involve reclaiming the ‘means of doing’. This involves the development of a collective ‘power-to’ – power to reclaim, to create, to grow, to experience, and to transform. These spaces and projects can act as what Federici and Caffentzis describe as, “bases from which to counter the processes of enclosure and increasingly disentangle our lives from the market and the state” (Caffentzis and Federici 2015, i100).

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TORONTO, ON – MAY 17 – – Sonam Yangzom, student at Toronto Public Library Parkdale adult ESL class poses in the new Milky Way Garden behind the Toronto Public Library Parkdale. Vince Talotta/Toronto Star

Another aspect of urban agriculture that gives it transformative potential is the way in which it creates possibilities for the co-creation of space with extra-human nature. This may be one way that we can begin to humanize the natural world and naturalize the human world, as Marx called for in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Marx’s concept of humans in nature and nature in humans is not to be understood as essentialist but a call for useful human activity that engages all the senses as it encounters extra-human nature.

credit: Sean Kaiser

Can weeds and nuisance animals be seen as allies in struggles against the racialized, classed lawn? Alfred Crosby argued in Ecological Imperialism that, “the weeds, like skin transplants placed over the broad areas of abraded and burned flesh, aided in healing the raw wounds that the invaders tore in the Earth” (170). In this view, native plant enthusiasts who declare war on invasive ‘weeds’ may have it all backwards: the capitalist system has disturbed the soil, and ‘weeds’ are helping heal it to make it more amenable to regeneration.  As Jason Moore argues, “…all life rebels against the value/monoculture nexus of modernity…the struggle over the grip of commodification is…a contest between contending visions of life and work” (Moore, 2015, p. 205). Urban agriculture initiatives can be sites from which people start to challenge the commodification of food and ‘nature’, imagining new ways of interacting with plants and animals beyond or despite capitalism.


Is the lawn too mundane a focus for collective struggle? Not if rather than focusing on individual behaviours and practices we focus on creating anti/beyond capitalist projects that encourage sensuous and relational engagement with the world. Urban agriculture actions can even be a powerful protest tactic as in the revolutionary gardening deployed by Jane & Finch anti-poverty activists in 2015, the gardens created in Gazir Park in Turkey during nationwide protests, and the People’s Park in the Berkeley Free Speech movement in the 1960s. As Holloway argues “The aim of revolution is the transformation of the ordinary, everyday life and it is surely from ordinary, everyday life that revolution must arise” (Holloway 2005, p 211). This everyday environmentalism can be understood as an extension of Marxist feminist calls for movements that socialize social reproduction.

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Gezi Park, Turkey; credit: pondfrogsplash.wordpress.com

We need to confront capitalism and colonialism with activism and anti-capitalist organizing but, at the same time, we need “revolutionary struggles that do not just try to defeat the government but to transform social life” (Holloway).  Urban agriculture initiatives can be part of this transformation of social life, along with projects such as workers co-operatives. The transformative potential of urban agriculture movements based on participatory democracy in common spaces encourages participants to experience radical, collective possibilities beyond neo-liberal capitalism. In this way, it can be an important part of a broader anti-capitalist struggle.

If neo-liberal capitalism steals our imagination, these types of projects may begin to bring it back. There is uncertainty, complexity, and a certain messiness entailed in creating participatory urban agriculture projects in the commons. But it might be in the uncertainty that people begin to imagine multiple possibilities; it might be in the messiness that people find new ways of relating to each other and to the earth; and it might be in the complexity that people find a “flowering of surprises far beyond anyone’s imagination and hope” (Illich, 1973, 26)

Thames Community Garden, London, ON; credit: Rebecca Ellis


*This article is based on a talk given by the author (Rebecca Ellis) at the Society for Socialist Studies annual meeting in Toronto in May 2017*


Caffentzis, George and Silvia Federici. 2014. “Commons Against and Beyond Capitalism.”Community Development Journal 49: i92-i105.

Crosby, A. (1986). Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe 900-1900. Cambridge University Press

Eizenberg, E. (2012). Actually existing commons: three moments of space of community gardens in New York City. Antipode, 44(3), 764–782

Holloway, J. (2005). Change the World Without Taking Power. London: Pluto Press

Illich, Ivan. (1977). Disabling Professions. Marion Boyers: London

Loftus, A. (2012) Everyday Environmentalism: Creating an Urban Political Ecology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Marx, K. (1932). Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Economic-Philosophic-Manuscripts-1844.pdf&gt;

Pudup, M. (2008). It takes a garden: cultivating citizen-subjects in organized garden projects. Geoforum, 39(3)

Robbins, P. (2007). Lawn people: How grasses, weeds, and chemicals make us who we are. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Thomas, A. (2017), “These New York Gardeners Are Fighting the System By Growing Food”. Fader. http://www.thefader.com/2017/04/17/bronx-gardeners-empower-communities.

White, M. (2012). “Sisters of the Soil: Urban gardening as resistance in Detroit.” Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts, 5(1), p 13-28

Young, I.M. (1990). Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press

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