Landscape, gardening and food as tools for social change

Landscape is not static and food is not only nourishment.


It’s fairly common to think of the landscape as something static; as a purely visual show. Big, small, natural, artificial. Thinking about the night sky and the reflection of the skyscrapers’ lights on the bay, about the massive mountains covered in grey conifers veiled by clouds or, why not, about a pretty balcony with a small breakfast table under the shade of a climbing plant.

But landscape is much more than that. The European Landscape Convention defines it as a zone or area as perceived by local people or visitors, whose visual features and character are the result of the action of natural and/or cultural factors. Landscape, especially in cities, turns out to be an ambiguous concept, with a little bit of ecology and a little bit of social sciences.

urban landscape

Society, landscape and food

Of course, society models the landscape, but the opposite also occurs: changing the landscape is a way of changing the society. Such is the case of Stephen Ritz, a schoolteacher in the Bronx that has used gardening to provide a future for lots of his students: food, culture, happiness and jobs. I could even say more and claim he’s also planted a future for the neighborhood, getting over the idea that kids must leave the Bronx home to succeed in life.

Growing is a revolutionary act. Urban planning and design policies usually forget about some places of the city (generally the poorest ones). And this is the best case scenario. Sometimes it’s even worst and sewage treatment plants, landfills and small industries are placed in these areas, affecting the residents’ health and marginalizing the zone even more. In this context, gardening becomes a weapon of mass creation with potential to deliver some environmental justice to these places. And anyone can use it: Majora Carter decided to change her neighborhood using plants, and so she did.

These park-less neighborhoods usually don’t have any fruit and veg shop. It’s more convenient to sell fast food, as it’s cheaper (1 Kcal worth of cookies is way cheaper than 1 of fruit). This way, the concept of food desert appears: an area where it’s almost impossible to find healthy, high quality and affordable food. Having to drive several kilometers just to eat an apple isn’t fair. Again, growing is a revolutionary act. Food justice delivered by shovels. If you don’t believe it, ask Ron Finley, a guerrilla gardener in South Central L.A.

Reality is sick, but can be changed

The talks I’ve just shared may lead to confusion. It might look like this is a mainly North American phenomenon, but it’s not. The big European cities are steadily growing and losing its centric character (common in ancient cities). They are starting to resemble the multicentric cities like L.A., where each neighborhood is isolated and connected to the rest by high speed roads.

This model is usually regarded as obsolete nowadays, as it’s too dependent on car transportation. Besides, this type of urbanism favors the economic differences among neighborhoods, accentuating the urban neglect and the spread of food deserts. But this isolation also has advantages: feelings of community are usually strong. Neighbors are able to engage in voluntary community work and organize their own projects.


Of course, I’m not claiming that we should all go autarchic and grow all our food. That would require an unfeasible amount of planning in the urban space. But producing even just a small bit of it has a great positive impact on the environment (plants remove toxic chemicals from the soil and the air, producing your own food saves tons of carbon dioxide in the process) and the society (learning how food is produced makes us realize how important is to eat healthy and preserve the environment that allows the food to grow). John Steinbeck expressed this beautifully in “The grapes of wrath”…

(…)The driver sat in his iron seat and he was proud of the straight lines he did not will, proud of the tractor he did not own or love, proud of the power he could not control. And when that crop grew, and was harvested, no man had crumbled a hot clod in his fingers and let the earth sift past his fingertips. No man had touched the seed, or lusted for the growth. Men ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread. The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died; for it was not loved or hated, it had no prayers or curses.

And you? Do you want to take action?

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