In these crazy times, when nations and corporations are out on a planet-wide land-grabbing spree and China is rumoured to have recently “bought” half of Ethiopia, it may be that the only sane reaction is to adopt an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” policy oneself.
There is an honourable tradition worldwide, and strongly so in Britain, of small-scale land acquisition by stealth. These historic precedents suggest that even more of us should be actively following in the noble (if a bit scruffy) footsteps of our cotter & squatter forebears. The very good news is that so many people, especially in the cities (which is where so many of the mouths that must be fed are located) are taking matters, and mattocks, into their own hands and just doing it for themselves.
Among the ancestors of the movement are those celebrated pioneers of DIY land-grabbing, Winstanley’s Diggers. Their occupations of contested land were far more than empty gestures. They upheld the decencies of land “ownership” - the principle that those who work it, should own it, at least for the duration of their cultivations. They took possession by investing, not capital, but the hours of their lives and the sweat of their brows, and their deeds should surely, in any sensible society, have earned them a title to that land – a moral, if not legal, entitlement. Lower-profile squatters of the waste-lands of manorial England abounded, and as Colin Ward described in Cotters and Squatters, their rights of tenure, their copyholds and purprestures, were reasonably well-respected in customary law. That understanding that “everyone born has to be somewhere” has rather slipped out of modern legal consciousness, unfortunately, as post-war legislation governing the encampments of travelling people makes plain.
Many a cottage plot on the fringe of commonland, or squeezed into a highway verge, was originally “intake”, gained by a surreptitious shifting of fencelines and a freethinking attitude to boundaries. In the days when “the waste of a manor” was genuinely waste (from the latin, vastus) in the sense of uncultivated, and extensive, there was no great cause to be possessive of odd corners. Then, as Colin Ward explains, “vast stretches of the English countryside were ‘no-man’s-land’ in the real sense of the word, and provided a livelihood for an otherwise almost hidden population of landless peasants”. The commonality lost a few mouthfuls of casual grazing, as a result of this crafty in-taking, but gained the benefit of a family with its needs provided for from their own efforts, rather than being a charge upon the parish. A blind eye turned to one man’s encroachments might enable another man’s opportunity at a later date. At least, that is how I picture these matters being resolved in a less mercenary age when land had little monetary value, only use value, as it had not been intensively cultivated, commodified, nor opened up to quick-buck-making practices through petrol-powered machinery. In those days there was enough land to go round, and to satisfy the needs of the parishioners, whether rich or poor.
This small-scale land-grabbing, by the people for the people, is not to be confused with the evil machinations of global greed-mongers; states and corporations effectively stealing other countries’ land with counterfeit wealth rather than personal sweat. So to make the distinction clear let’s call the DIY version “bagging”. This word has cheerful playground antecedents, of a “finders keepers” ilk, a concept which questions the very underpinnings of “ownership”. So now, leapfrogging straight to the present, let’s look at some contemporary manifestations of the primordial land-bagging urge.
“From Motown to Growtown”
While America totters on the “fiscal cliff” edge, Detroit is the city that has already fallen off. Where once the Big Three motor manufacturers and their satellites flourished, now poverty is endemic. Crucial businesses and well over half of the population have despaired, and fled. One-third of families’ incomes are below the federally defined poverty level. Black people make up 86 percent of the population, and 70 percent of black youths are unemployed.1
About a quarter of residential lots in the city are vacant, around 40 square miles in all. Over 3,000 of the total 10,000 derelict houses have already been demolished; the rest await the bulldozer. The resulting scattered population with no money for taxes strains the “financially desperate”2 city’s infrastructure. And the post-apocalyptic atmosphere is exacerbated by the number of stray dogs: an estimated 20,000.3 But, as Detroit was built on rich agricultural land, the soil beneath the city is fertile and arable. Some of it is contaminated, but not so badly that it’s beyond rescue.
On 40 square miles of abandonment, more intelligent land use plainly involves agriculture. Growing out of a 1980’s guerrilla movement called the Gardening Angels, the Detroit Food Policy Council4 is the public face of a powerful popular lobby which has championed urban horticulture for years with great success. Its founder, Malik Yakini, and his colleagues have a simple approach: they begin the reclamation process by removing abandoned house debris from vacated sites. Often that is all that need be done to begin farming. “Throw a little compost on the ground, turn it in, sow some seeds, and water it”. This no-fuss approach has caught on with the inhabitants, to such an extent that the City Council has had to legalise land-squatting by bringing in a free personal licencing system, the Adopt-A-Lot scheme.5 Urban Farming, an international organization now headquartered in Detroit, has also created about 500 small plots across the city. Their goal is to triple the amount of land under cultivation every year. All food grown by them is given free to the poor. There are now reckoned to be at least 15,000 individual urban gardeners producing food in well over 1,000 gardens of all sizes.
The old weekly Eastern Market is crammed with local produce and teems with shoppers. Just two examples of green enterprises are D-Town Farm, 14 acres taken in from the city’s Rouge Park, and Peaches and Greens, a small local produce store in a neighbourhood with 23 liquor stores and only one grocery, which delivers daily to residents in a two-mile radius, and sells wholesale to five of the liquor stores.6 Eighty-plus community gardens are scattered about the city, many of them raising farm animals alongside the vegetables. Although the city forbids domestic livestock, the ordinance is generally ignored and repeal of the ban is expected soon. Film-maker Julien Temple found an irrepressible positivity in the city:
“Unable to buy fresh food for their children, people are growing their own, kick-starting what is now the fastest-growing movement across the US. Although the city is still haemorrhaging population, young people from all over the country are also flooding into Detroit – artists, musicians and social pioneers, all keen to make use of the abandoned urban spaces and create new ways of living together.”
“Things that were unthinkable are now becoming thinkable,” said James W. Hughes, dean of the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, who is among the urban experts watching the experiment with interest. “There is now a realization that past glories are never going to be recaptured. Some people probably don’t accept that, but that is the reality.”
Inevitably, big business is retaliating. An outfit called Hantz Farms is offering the virtually bankrupt city council $30 million to acquire hundreds of acres with the slogan “turning blight into beauty” while developing “the world’s largest urban farm”. John Hantz is an enthusiast for what he calls the new urban-agindustry, with all its technology.7 Malik Yakini is one of many local leaders who have declared Hantz’s plans a land-grab. They are holding out for small farms, that tuck neatly into the fabric of the city. These are wholly practical, as Mark Dowie, in Food among the Ruins, explains:
“Were I an aspiring farmer in search of fertile land to buy and plow, I would seriously consider moving to Detroit. There is open land, fertile soil, ample water, willing labour, and a desperate demand for decent food. And there is plenty of community will behind the idea of turning the capital of American industry into an agrarian paradise. In fact, of all the cities in the world, Detroit may be best positioned to become the world’s first one hundred percent food self-sufficient city.”8
This name for a much older activity – there have always been undercover cultivators – arose in the States in the sixties, when such true subversives as New York’s legendary Adam Purple9 were simply taking over abandoned land, and defiance was the zeitgeist. (Of course the USA itself is originally a stolen continent, so people stealing bits back is only fair.) In 1967, the People’s Park in Berkeley, California became a battleground. Somebody died. Then in 1973, New York’s “Green Guerrillas” took over a derelict plot in the Bowery, with such determination that it has spawned some 600 other city gardens, all still tended by devoted volunteers. It’s official, now. Los Angeles in the seventies produced the Seed Bombers, a breed of (now international) botanical terrorists armed with catapults and tiny but potent clay-balls laced with explosions of flowers-to-be. Fired through railings, into gated and locked-up places, or the crevices of ivory towers and concrete bastions, these subversive, life-infested grenades bring destruction to excessive infrastructure. Those dandelions pushing up the flagstones may not have got there entirely by accident.
Food, Fun, and Ferocity
“Pimp your pavement” is another flamboyant concept, taken up by lots of people in tight urban environments, where every rogue sunflower becomes a shouty message to the authorities. Tulips in tree-pits and pansies among the paving-stones, what could be more frivolous? But the backlash is often startling in its territorial control-freakery. More so, it seems, when the intention is to do something necessary, like grow food.
One such demonstrably harmless, and tiny, garden of raised beds on the canal towpath in Edinburgh was destroyed without any warning in November this year in a bizarre display of civic aggression.10 “It was quite traumatic, seven council workers and a huge tractor and trailer, these big guys kicking apart these little vegetable plots – the reaction so outweighed the act itself. We’re not taking it for ourselves; we’re trying to show there are other uses for land than having it as park land” said Kate Gilliam, who set up the "guerrilla garden", based on New York's Trees Not Trash, which she was also involved in. "The council actually has plans to plant wildflower meadows in Harrison Park but there are bits of land around the edges which could do with some love," said Councillor Marianna Clyde afterwards.11 "If the group was prepared to work with the parks department and the community council they could make a most welcome contribution." Perhaps sending in the municipal gorillas isn't the best intro to a working relationship, but, as often happens, this clash has opened up the ground for dialogue. In fact, allowing people the land to grow their own food could be the "most welcome contribution" that councils everywhere should and could be making. It's their turn now.
Incredibly Edible Tod
It's some years since those no-nonsense pioneers, nowadays known as Incredible Edible Todmorden, started digging up the roundabout flowerbeds to replace begonias with cauliflowers. They started off "just going ahead and growing", digging "propaganda gardens" to prove the possibility of growing veg in the South Pennines. Now they have agreements with the likes of Network Rail, the health centre, fire and police stations, old people's homes and the schools. And a groundbreaking, prototype "community growing licence" with Calderdale Council.
As Nick Green, an organiser, says, 'It signals a quantum shift in the institutional mindset. Where previously the intention was to be authoritarian and control freakish, or to abdicate all responsibility by selling off property, this is a middle way, it signals trust.' As the late Councillor Ian Cooper put it: "It's incredible how fruit and veg has been springing up all over the Calder Valley. We now want to encourage even more people across Calderdale to start growing their own." Another comment: "Some councils just don't get it yet, but ours does big time and it's brilliant."12 As Pam Warhurst, an original pioneer, observed: "People say there's not enough land, well, there's plenty of land. You just need to have the will to do it."
Digging up London
Meanwhile, back in the metropolis, unofficial and semi-sanctioned gardens are springing up everywhere. Public anger at the trashing of long-established allotments to make space for the brief bonkersness of the Olympics has given growing -your-own a somewhat rebellious aura. As Cameron's Cuts kick in, and actual hunger is experienced by many on this island for the first time since the war - witness the rise of food banks - allotments, legal or not, are recognisably the practical DIY way for people to provide for their own needs in a collapsing society.
When people discover local precedents for direct action, it brings a special kind of buzz to the project. The "Most Inspiring Community Garden" prize, awarded by Capital Growth13, has recently been won by the Abbey Gardens in Newham - and their inspiration comes directly from a little-known bunch of fairly desperate latter-day Diggers known as the Plaistow Land-Grabbers..14 In 1906, some 20 unemployed men, led by councillor Ben Cunningham, staged a very practical protest. As he told a local reporter, the men were anxious to demonstrate that they wanted to work if only given the chance, and that they "wanted to get the people back to the land."
"The land, once a gravel pit . . .was about three acres in extent. By the end of the day 20 men were working upon it with picks and shovels, uprooting the dry grass and turning the soil in preparation for growing vegetables. They named Cunningham "The Captain", and appointed a minister of agriculture who decided to divide the ground into four triangles, hence the name, 'Triangle Camp.' A 'Triangle Hotel' was erected from boards, poles and tarpaulin, and on Sunday night 25 men slept there. A notice inside read "You are requested not to spit on the floor of this hotel."
For hotel, read "bender" and the story is bang up to date. As is the end of it - they were evicted three weeks later, and after attempts to recapture the ground, Cunningham was briefly jailed. But at last, after over a century, it's dawning on the Powers-that-Be that co-operation is cheaper than confrontation; there are now almost 2,000 community-run "growing spaces" in London. Many of these are on reclaimed state land. Official support is snowballing as politicians, too, are thinking: "if you can't beat 'em ..." To quote Boris Johnson, London's Mayor and figurehead of Capital Growth: "Linking up currently unloved patches of land with people who want to discover the wonders of growing their own food delivers massive benefits." Is this almost too good to be true? Is there a catch?
Baggers - Beware!
So let's pause a moment to question why local councils are increasingly letting "their" land be managed by the public - what's in it for them? Cameron's "Big Society" is all about getting people to do for free the things that the state used to take responsibility for. This way, the authorities get kudos for involvement in cutting-edge projects, caring for the community, and other somewhat bogus claims; plus, even if there's no money-rent, there is profit from the free labour. But when the ownership doesn't change, the ultimate control stays in the same old hands and the system isn't really threatened. Has power really shifted towards the people, or are land-baggers mostly just manoeuvering within the straightjacket of the old status quo, creating temporary wiggle-room?
Simply getting access to state-owned land is a great step forward, however, and a number of Northern woodland CSF (Community-Supported Forestry) projects15 are now managing council-owned woodlands on a "logs for labour" basis, with contracts on the Todmorden model covering an entire coppice cycle. This gives legal security for sustainable self-employed businesses, and the council's previously neglected assets will gain value over time. So although the public and private landowning models are still in place, other approaches are now getting a real grip, and visibly working to everyone's benefit.
All guerrilla gardening is more or less political - life is politics. When the Occupy people hived off from St Paul's Cathedral to Finsbury Square, the relief of sleeping on earth after those stone pavements must have been great. Their first move was to start digging, despite the slender chances of raising even a crop of radishes. Occupations that are necessarily brief still speak truth to power. But when a protest camp is successful in its occupation of threatened land, as at the formerly derelict Berkley Nurseries on the path of the proposed third Heathrow Airport runway, wonderful opportunities arise for germinating new ways of uniting people. The camp has earned respect and praise, and revived a demoralised neighbourhood.16 It also provides an exemplary model of convivial living, inspiring to the many who have forgotten the simple art of living sociably and sharing that essential common - a patch of earth. It's obvious that, for land-baggers, claiming land for food-growing, and reclaiming wasted land as a political gesture are the same thing. Unlike other forms of civil disobedience, guerrilla gardening makes a statement that crosses all boundaries of culture and language. Even bureaucrats can get it. Food comes from the land. We all have to eat. Let's just get on with it.
With thanks to Hywel Lewis of Todmorden for additional information and ideas for this article.
1. Wikipedia: Detroit.
14. Fraser, Neil. London Historians July 2012