Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 32, Issue 2, pp 229–239 | Cite as

The nature of urban gardens: toward a political ecology of urban agriculture



With a few notable exceptions, urban garden scholarship tends to be either celebratory or critical of the role urban gardens play in wider political, social, cultural, economic and ecological dynamics. Drawing on urban political ecology scholarship, this article explores the question of nature within scholarship on urban gardens. I argue that failing to adequately scrutinize the co-constitutive character of nature and society has led some scholars to overlook the potential for urban gardens to achieve broader socio-political goals, and led others to overstate the potential. Employing a political ecology approach to urban garden analysis clarifies the material and discursive role of nature in urban garden practice, and ultimately contributes to untangling the potential and limits of urban gardens as sites of socio-political change.


Urban agriculture Community gardens Political ecology Socionature 

The psyllid comes calling

Until this summer, my forays as an urban gardener1 had been quite pleasant, due in no small measure to cooperation from the natural world. Despite my relative inexperience as a gardener, I had yielded what I thought to be credible harvests of vegetables in each of the past 6 years. That I did all this while roughly following the general principles of organic gardening (no chemical pesticides, no chemical fertilizers) only added to my general buoyancy and sense of self-satisfaction. But of course it was not until this summer that nature, as it were, became a much more complicated force than I had previously imagined it to be.

It was, then, with a subtle sense of betrayal that I found my dozen tomato plants suffering under the tyranny of what I believe to be the tomato psyllid (Bactericera cockerelli). The tomato or potato psyllid, an aphid-like insect and relative newcomer to Southwestern Ontario, destroys tomato (and potato) plants with a toxic saliva which they secrete as they feed on the moisture within the stalks and stems of the tomato plant. The result is a condition referred to as “psyllid yellows”, a desiccation of the stalks, stems and leaves, in which the plant withers, turns yellow, and dies.

Not without an upside, this run-in with Bactericera cockerelli furnished an opportunity to reflect on what is ultimately the complexity and multidimensionality of nature in my urban garden. In the simplest of terms, nature is on the one hand ‘good’: Decaying organic materials, expedited by various bacteria and earth worms, along with the right amount of rain and sunshine, provide perfectly balanced conditions to support the precise cellular and biological development of garden vegetables. On the other hand, however, nature can also be ‘bad’: In addition to the tomato psyllid, vegetable gardens can succumb to aphids, weevils, molds, fungi, raccoons, and a host of other completely ‘natural’ elements and predators. So ‘nature’ is neither only ‘good’ nor only ‘bad’.

Less intuitively ‘nature’ is not wholly ‘natural’, and the supposed separation between things ‘natural’ and things ‘social’ is a great deal murkier than it appears (Castree and Braun 2001). Indeed it is misleading to even characterize the psyllid incursion into my urban garden as simply a matter of nature. The psyllid, it seems, has recently been expanding out from its traditional habitat in Central America, a global march facilitated both by climate change and the political economy of long-haul industrial agriculture. Riding either the wind, their conventional mode of travel, or on the complex infrastructure of global agricultural trade, warming temperatures have meant that the psyllid is finding hospitable terrain increasingly farther from home, with significant outbreaks documented in California in 1999–2000, some Northwest and Central American states in 2004, and as far away as New Zealand in 2005–2006 (Liu et al. 2006; Teulon et al. 2009; Trumble and Butler 2009). More recently, researchers have determined that the psyllids found in parts of the United States are a distinct biotype from those found in Mexico, indicating that the bugs are quickly adapting to their new homes (Liu et al. 2006). How the psyllids arrived in my garden is still a mystery, but that their journey involved a complex amalgam of both natural and social phenomena is clear. As some would have it, my urban garden (including the pests within it) is a socio-natural hybrid (Swyngedouw 1997, 1999; Castree 2001).

In this article I draw on a range of broadly defined political ecology theory to demonstrate that urban garden scholarship has so far neglected to incorporate a nuanced understanding of the complex dynamic between nature and society. Instead, most of the scholarship concerned with urban gardens tends to fall into the familiar posture of (a) framing ‘nature’ and ‘society’ as distinct realms, and (b) conflating ‘nature’ with ‘good’, and attributing supposed benefits of urban gardens based on this misconception. I argue that failing to adequately scrutinize the enmeshed character of nature and society has led some scholars to overlook the potential for urban gardens to achieve broader socio-political goals, and led others to overstate the potential. Employing a political ecology approach to urban garden analysis can help to clarify how ‘nature’ operates in urban gardens, and can ultimately contribute to untangling the potential and limits of urban gardens as sites of socio-political change.

Nature, society and urban gardens2

As others have pointed out, that nature is both ‘good’, and separate from society, are largely taken-for-granted assumptions (Castree 2001; Gandy 2002; Smith 2008). Indeed, until relatively recently, nature had been a rather benign backdrop within many academic disciplines, upon which ostensibly more significant social and historical processes played out (Smith 2008). It is not surprising then that there has been no systematic consideration of the role of ‘nature’ in urban garden scholarship and practice. Given that urban gardens are at the forefront of urban transformation and urban population survival strategies (McClintock 2014), bringing a careful analysis of the material and cultural complexity of ‘nature’ to bear on urban garden scholarship and practice seems well overdue.

In this article I draw on recent work demonstrating the cultural and material socio-political dynamics that play out through ‘nature’ and the production of socio-natures (Castree 2001; Castree and Braun 2001; Swyngedouw and Heynen 2003; Heynen et al. 2006). In other words, the complexity of nature—and particularly the social and political implications revealed by the hybridity of socio-nature—has been largely ignored by scholars writing about the social, cultural and political benefits of urban gardens. My contention is that understanding the socio-political work of urban gardens is incomplete in the absence of a careful consideration of the complicated dynamic continually unfolding between nature and society. Scholars have been looking through this broadly defined political ecology lens for decades, revealing how both the materialities and discourses of nature shape everything from international development (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987), to urban politics (Swyngedouw 1997; Kaika 2005). So far, however, a careful consideration of the implications preconceived notions about nature and society have on urban agricultural scholarship and practice has been left off the table. I argue that this oversight is to the detriment of debates about, and documentation of, the role of urban gardens in contributing to an alternative food politics.3

As others have pointed out, a bifurcation—or split—has emerged within scholarship on the role of urban gardens in broader patterns of urban socio-political and economic struggle (McClintock 2014). On the one hand, urban garden projects are celebrated as contributing to increased urban food security, environmental sustainability, positive health outcomes, and the like (Armstrong 2000; Fusco 2001; Schmelzkopf 2002; Kingsley and Townsend 2006). On the other hand, and more recently, a cohort of critical scholars has argued that urban garden projects simply enable the reproduction of contemporary neoliberal policies and subjects—the very conditions urban gardens are meant to address (Allen and Guthman 2006; Guthman 2008; Holt-Giménez and Wang 2011). I argue that in both cases (whether celebratory or critical), scholars fail to adequately scrutinize the specific material and discursive role of nature in urban gardens. In other words, modernist conceptions of nature, which conceive of nature as external to society and imbued with an intrinsic and universal set of characteristics, permeate and misguide urban garden analysis. Consequently, the ‘natural’ aspects of urban gardens are either framed as unambiguously ‘good’ or beneficial, or overlooked as unimportant to the social change potential of urban gardens. In contrast, getting the nature of urban gardens right requires appreciating the fact that nature and society are inherent in each other, while rejecting the notion of an intrinsic or universal nature.

I situate the spirit of my argument within a growing body of food-related work which seeks to elaborate on the potential and limits of food-related initiatives by taking aim at taken-for-granted assumptions associated with them. As examples, Prole and Gray (2013) find that ‘community’ is sometimes lacking in community supported agriculture (CSA) projects; DeLind (2011) warns that the local food movement might be leading proponents astray (see also Schnell 2013). Grunderson (2014) demonstrates that ‘alternative food systems’ are more conventional than they appear; while Schupp and Sharp (2012) demonstrate that self-provisioning activities (home gardening) are surprisingly prevalent. This work shares in common a desire to engage with real-world examples of ostensible remedies to the contemporary food system at a scholarly level, but with an eye toward practical, on-the-ground change. Similarly, my arguments here come from my experience as an urban gardener, an urban garden organizer and an academic—and this essay is a means of mediating between practice and theory, what Marxists might call praxis.

More specifically, I join a nascent body of food-related scholarship that rejects the zero-sum and bifurcated assessment of urban gardens and that seeks to add nuance to urban garden analysis (Alkon 2013; McClintock 2014). I do this by discussing urban gardens in light of the current debates on the production of urban nature(s) (Smith 2008). Exposing urban gardening literature to the rich insights of the burgeoning urban political ecology tradition will ultimately strengthen urban gardening scholarship, while bringing into finer focus both the potential and limits of urban gardens as part of broader socio-political and ecological change efforts. To reiterate, getting the nature of urban gardens wrong results in (1) a too-hasty celebration by some and (2) a too-hasty dismissal by others of the socio-political potential of urban gardens, albeit for different reasons. This is a significant oversight given that urban gardens exist at an increasingly relevant interface between ‘nature’ and ‘society’, and thus provide a productive site—and an important one—from which to interrogate this relationship.

In developing a framework to elaborate on nature’s role in urban gardens, I draw on conceptual, theoretical and practical approaches to understanding the relationship between nature and society emerging from critical geography scholarship over the past two decades. More specifically, I focus on two inter-related claims, and bring these to bear on urban garden scholarship and practice. The first of these is that nature and society are co-constituted—by which I mean that nature and society are inseparable, each is essential to the other. The second is that this co-constitution is impacted by, and impacts, the political, social, economic, ecological and cultural fabric of the city. I argue that taken together, these two discrete elements form a lens useful for engaging with the problematic of urban gardens.

Following this introduction I outline debates which have exposed the artificiality of the distinction between ‘nature’ and ‘society’, the conceptual and practical faults with understanding nature and society as separate, and the conceptual solution proposed by socio-natural hybridity. After this, I will discuss how urban gardens have historically been framed as socio-political elements of the urban landscape and emphasize how these claims lean on unexamined assumptions about ‘nature’ and society’. I conclude with a discussion of the practical implications of getting nature wrong within urban garden scholarship, and elaborate a set of considerations meant to contribute to a socio-natural framework for urban garden analysis.

Nature and society

Calling it a “shibboleth of the high capitalist period”, Neil Smith argues that few assumptions will look so “wrong-headed or so globally destructive” as the ‘commonsensical’ separation of nature and society (Smith 2008, p. xi). Smith points out that the separation of nature and society is maintained within contemporary capitalist cities, in part, through a contradictory conception of nature (see also Swyngedouw and Heynen 2003). On the one hand, ‘nature’ is understood to be inherently and universally ‘good’. Proselytizers of the garden city movement for example (i.e., Ebenezer Howard, Frederick Law Olmsted) positioned nature, both materially and discursively, as a counterpoint to the dystopic and unsanitary city. Nature, so the modernist argument goes, (in the form of urban parks, urban gardens and the like) is brought into the city as a means of providing reprieve from a too-social world (Swyngedouw and Kaika 2000). On the other hand, nature is seen as unruly, something to be feared, controlled, and conquered (Kaika 2005; Smith 2008). Indeed the process of urbanization, part of the grand project of modernity, is premised on technocratic, administrative and scientific ‘taming’ of nature (Kaika 2005; Gandy 2002).

In both cases, both ‘nature’ and ‘society’ are framed as discrete components within modernity’s discourse. However urban political ecologists have exposed the ways in which, practically and theoretically speaking, the conceptual distinction between nature and society is unfounded (Swyngedouw and Heynen 2003). This observation was already made by Jane Jacobs (Jacobs 1992 [1961], p. 443) when she suggested that urban environments “are as natural as colonies of prairie dogs or beds of oysters”. Though the sentiment lay in torpor, only to re-emerge in a systematic way in the early 1990s, with seminal works by Cronon (1991) and later, Harvey (1996) who re-articulated Jacob’s original claim in arguing that there was nothing ‘unnatural’ about New York City. As Harvey (1996, p. 187) suggests,

“It is inconsistent to hold that everything in the world relates to everything else, as ecologists tend to, and then decided that the built environment and the urban structures that go into it are somehow outside of both theoretical and practical consideration. The effect has been to evade integrating understandings of the urbanizing process into environmental-ecological analysis.”

In other words, urban political ecologists argue that the contemporary urban condition needs to be understood as the result of a complex range of processes between ‘nature’ and ‘society’, by exhuming the ways in which nature makes up the city, both materially and discursively (Castree and Braun 2001; Heynen et al. 2006; Smith 2008). Within cities, ‘natural’ material elements are continually re-articulated into the built urban form, evidenced by recent work focusing on the role of water (Kaika 2005), mined aggregate (Gandy 2002) and air (Veron 2006), among others, in the process of urbanization and the reproduction of contemporary socio-ecologies. This latter fact emphasizes the social character of the production of cities—the political economic, social and cultural attachments that play out in, for example, the various processes needed to turn mined aggregate rock into skyscrapers, overpasses, or residential foundations. It is through these social processes, material transformations and spatial forms that familiar social relations are consolidated and stabilized (Swyngedouw and Heynen 2003, p. 900). The city, in this respect, is of particular ontological importance because, as Heynen et al. (2006, p. 3) suggest, “It is on the terrain of the urban that this accelerating metabolic transformation of nature becomes most visible, both in its physical form and its socio-ecological consequences”.

Nature is more than just a collection of material ‘stuff’, however. Urban political ecology scholars also point to the ways in which discursive and cultural constructions of nature play into the uneven development of urban areas. Swyngedouw and Heynen (2003), for example, have argued how the conditions allowing the privatization of water (and, consequently, a justification for the uneven distribution of water) have been facilitated by a discursive construction of ‘water scarcity’. Water is certainly scarce in many places in the world (c.f. California), which is undoubtedly a pressing issue—but how that scarcity is dealt with, who continues to receive water, who does not, and who gets to decide this are all equally important. The people, institutions, policies and regulations that emerge to sort out crises like water scarcity reveal how (socio)nature, is mobilized as a means of reproducing conditions conducive to the reproduction of systemic urban inequality.

In either case, whether mobilized materially or discursively, it is important to understand the urban character of the persistent idea that nature and society are separate. This in turn allows for a better appreciation for the implications of understanding nature and society as irrevocably fused together, and in turn, for understanding how urban garden scholarship tends to get the nature of urban gardens wrong.

An urban garden for all reasons?

Urban gardens are seen as an important component within the broader context of alternative food movement politics and practice (Armstrong 2000; Twiss et al. 2003; Lawson 2005). Popularized in the twentieth century as a means of supplementing food production in the lean years of the world wars (Lawson 2005), urban gardens have long been understood as beneficial. More recently, urban gardens have been extolled for promoting various health benefits (Armstrong 2000; Wakefield et al. 2007); as a means of increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables (Alaimo et al. 2008); as opportunities for community development (Fusco 2001; Schmelzkopf 2002); as critical pieces of the sustainability movement (Ferris et al. 2001); and as part of a broader civic agriculture movement (Lyson 2000, 2004; DeLind 2001). As these latter links between urban gardens and social/environmental justice movements have emerged, the literature has framed urban gardens increasingly as political spaces, attached to issues of food security and food justice (Gottlieb and Fisher 1996; Sumner 2009); as constituting contested space (Baker 2005; Schmelzkopf 1995); and as facilitators of social connectedness and democratization (Glover et al. 2005; Kingsley and Townsend 2006).

In her extensive review of American urban garden promotional materials and academic work, Lawson (2005) concludes that the ostensible benefits of urban gardens have been framed around three themes. She suggests that nature, education and self-help continually reemerge throughout the last century of urban gardening scholarship and practice, each of which “interweave[s] according to the social debates of the time” (p. 8). In other words, urban gardens have tended to be celebrated as a means of addressing a wide variety of social, cultural, political, ecological and economic ills across a vast stretch of historical and socio-cultural contexts. However Lawson (2005, p. 11) argues “the high ideals associated with gardening rarely can be documented or verified … [making] … achievable objectives difficult to ascertain, much less prove to a skeptical land developer or policy maker”.

Lawson (2005, p. 292) worries that a “vague benevolent approval” by academics, urban gardeners, and the public at large, has sustained urban gardens throughout the decades. This de facto endorsement (land-use conflicts notwithstanding) has meant that urban garden projects have rarely been forced to clarify, articulate, or ultimately measure or assess their stated goals. Lawson’s main point here is that rigor (by either academics or practitioners) in determining the actual impact of urban garden projects has been exchanged for a more celebratory posture, to the detriment of the potential of urban gardens to contribute to urban socio-ecological justice. This critique, while certainly valid, is essentially procedural. That urban gardens produce some social, cultural, ecological, political or economic benefit is never really in question for Lawson, but instead she laments the fact that the benefits have not been better articulated, measured and assessed.

Nevertheless, Lawson’s more critical treatment of urban gardens marks a departure from much of the available literature, and foreshadows a more recent critique. In contrast to the celebratory character of some urban garden scholarship, others suggest that urban gardens are not simply underperforming due to ill-defined goals and outcomes, but are instead active in supporting the very socio-economic arrangements they are ostensibly meant to resist and transform (Guthman 2008; Pudup 2008). For these scholars, urban gardens not only do a poor job of offering an alternative to the neoliberal foodscape, they in fact actively reproduce it.

The context often provided by scholars who are critical or dismissive of the radical (or even reformist) potential of urban gardens is the roll-back phase of neoliberal reforms. In short, urban gardens, within this context, are understood to be facilitating a neoliberal reordering of everyday urban life by filling gaps left in the wake of state divestment. Characterized by a retreat of the welfare state, the roll-back phase of neoliberalism set the stage for a more nefarious phase of roll-out neoliberalism, typified by devolution of state responsibility and the privatization of social supports (Peck and Tickell 2002). This latter phase of neoliberal restructuring, hitting full stride during the 1990s, resulted in increased responsibility for the provisioning of basic supports, such as food and housing, within the non-profit and voluntary sectors. The devolution of responsibility was accompanied by a market orthodoxy that subsumed any competing logics within an emerging neoliberal rationality animated through possessive individualism, consumer choice, entrepreneurialism and self-improvement (Guthman 2008; DeFilippis et al. 2010).

A growing number of scholars have begun situating urban gardens within this broader context of neoliberal restructuring, arguing that gardens are now spaces in which individuals internalize the pervasive neoliberal logic. Pudup (2008, p. 1228) suggests that urban gardens are “designed as spaces in which gardening puts individuals in charge of their own adjustment(s) to economic restructuring and social dislocation through self-help technologies centered on personal contact with nature”. Here, discourses of individual and community ‘self-help’ provide the rationality required to obscure the broader political context of state retrenchment. Rosol (2012, p. 240) argues that, in this light, urban gardens can be understood as “part of a distinct political rationality which aims at passing on state responsibilities to civil society” through voluntary maintenance of public green spaces.

These latter critiques of urban gardens pivot on what Swyngedouw (2004) has labeled ‘governance beyond the state’. On the one hand government support for various social and economic supports is cut back (such as health care, housing programs, and the like) and responsibility for the provisioning of basic services is downloaded through the various levels of government, and onto local communities and individuals. While on the other, state control, primarily animated through the market logic that justifies the offloading in the first place, is strengthened through mechanisms of self-regulation, managerialism, professionalization, and the like. In other words, nonprofit sector initiatives meant to cover off gaps in service and support left by state retrenchment must necessarily internalize the logics of competition and efficiency as they compete for increasingly scarce funding within a highly competitive nonprofit environment. The intensely political origins of this scenario are shrouded by a discourse of individualism, community development, self-reliance and civic engagement (DeFillipis et al. 2010). Within this context, urban garden members are understood to be unreflectively filling the gaps left in the wake of state retrenchment, while doing nothing to challenge the structural conditions or underpinning logic that justifies and reproduces inequality in the first place.

It is worth briefly noting that the bifurcated character of urban garden scholarship, while undoubtedly observable, is far from total (see McClintock 2014 for an excellent elaboration). There is a range of subtleties within the two constellations of celebratory and critical scholarship (again, see McClintock 2014). In addition, a growing number of scholars seeking to rescue urban garden scholarship from this current impasse have begun carefully untangling the seemingly contradictory role of urban gardens (and alternative urban food initiatives more generally) in contemporary social, political, cultural, ecological and economic urban life (McClintock 2010, 2014; Alkon 2013; Sbicca 2013).

However, at present two tendencies persist within urban agriculture scholarship. To reiterate, on the one hand, urban gardens are framed as sites able to unambiguously resist and transform the various pathologies of the contemporary food complex and those of the broader urban condition. On the other hand, urban gardens are understood as sites that actively reproduce the very conditions needed to maintain neoliberal cities and food systems. To some degree, these divergent positions can be understood as a function of the extent to which broader structural conditions (in particular, neoliberal restructuring) are understood to impact the empirical reality of urban gardens. A ‘more critical’ posture makes explicit the ways in which urban gardens (and associated activities) intersect with macro-trends such as neoliberalism, state restructuring, and the like, while ‘less critical’ approaches may understand these processes as either benign, or simply unimportant to the analysis of urban gardens. While both of these approaches bring valuable insight into the broader environmental, political, social and cultural function of urban gardens, both also fail to capture the ways in which taken for granted ideas about nature limit the analysis. The following section will outline some key considerations for thinking through the ways in which a closer examination of the material and discursive elements of nature can enhance understandings of the socio-political implications of urban gardens.

The nature of urban garden scholarship

Within both celebratory and critical camps of urban garden scholarship, nature is assumed to be the ‘stuff’ of gardens, and society is assumed to be the people, practices and cities surrounding the garden. The extent to which this sentiment is embedded is evidenced by the fact that questions of nature and society, separate or not, are rarely ever raised within urban garden scholarship. This reflects a broader pattern of understanding cities as separate from nature, and vice versa (Gandy 2002; Kaika 2005).

As suggested above, the celebratory constellation of urban garden scholarship tends to inadvertently reproduce the notion that nature and society are somehow oppositional, rather than co-constitutive. Nature, in this sense, is understood as external to society. The nature of the urban garden stands as a civilizing, peaceful force, juxtaposed against the cruel, dirty and uncivilized city (see for example, Fusco 2001; Schmelzkopf 2002; Kingsley and Townsend 2006). In other words, the benefits of the urban garden are largely understood to exist precisely because they stand in opposition to a too-social world. In a passage typical of this kind of argumentation, Kingsley and Townsend (2006, p. 527) suggest that ‘contact with nature’ militates against the social isolation, individualism, lack of cohesion and loneliness of the urban condition. These arguments rest on a very absolute partitioning of the ‘nature’ of urban garden and the city beyond, which as urban political ecologists have demonstrated, is clearly an untenable distinction. Of course there are ‘natural’ elements within the urban garden; however there are also very clearly many ‘social’ contributions, without which the urban garden could not exist. The urban garden, in this respect, is scarcely different than any other element of the built urban form, and is in some respects as thoroughly ‘social’ as any urban aspect it is meant to assuage. In short, that urban gardens can be conceived of as socio-natural hybrids, comprised of both natural and social elements, is never considered within most celebratory urban garden scholarship.

In addition to maintaining the highly problematic distinction between nature and society, much urban garden scholarship also tends to ascribe an intrinsic and universal set of values to both nature and the city (see for example, Schmelzkopf 1995; Gottlieb and Fisher 1996; Baker 2005). Within this narrative, nature is inherently good, while the city is inherently bad. In a rehashing of the Garden City logic, the ‘nature’ of urban gardens is positioned as an antidote to the debilitating drudgery of urban life. Allowed to propagate throughout the literature unchallenged, these kinds of faulty assumptions end up rationalizing a de facto celebration of urban gardens simply because they are ‘natural’ spaces. The assumed inherent qualities of nature are transferred onto the urban garden itself, insulating it from scrutiny or critique.

Ohmer et al. (2009), for example, document the motivations residents from marginalized neighborhoods in a Western Pennsylvanian city cite for being involved in urban garden projects. Chief among these are the opportunity to beautify their neighborhood through supporting the “conservation of green space” (Ohmer et al. 2009, p. 377). I do not present this example to question residents’ sincerity or motivations. Instead, I mean to point out that attributing an inherent benefit—or more dangerously an implicit social good—to a ‘green’ space, as these authors seem to, risks depoliticizing these important interstitial urban spaces. Lost in this kind of analysis are, among others, questions about the structural inequalities that result in the uneven distribution of food and the spatial patterns of urban poverty in the first place.

In a reversal of sorts from the celebratory constellation of scholarship (which perhaps over emphasizes the role of a particular conceptualization of nature), the critical group of scholarship tends to undersells nature. This happens in two distinct ways. First, it is important to reiterate the fact that this group of scholars situates urban gardens within the broader political economic context of neoliberal capitalism. As mentioned above, situating urban gardens within the broader processes of neoliberal restructuring has resulted in important contributions to urban garden scholarship (see Pudup 2008). However, this vein of analysis tends to over emphasize the extent to which the structures of neoliberalism influence individual human and non-human actors. In this sense, this constellation of scholarship can be critiqued on the same grounds as other work that over determines the influence of neoliberalism. Bakker (2010, p. 717) for example has articulated this critique in other contexts in arguing that scholarship that over determines the effects of neoliberalism “adopts an overly constrained view of agency and fails to confront the political subjectivity of socio-natures”. Within scholarship that over emphasizes the reach of neoliberalism, the role of agency is downgraded to an afterthought—and both human agency and non-human agency are swallowed up within the cavernous processes of neoliberalization.4 There is very little accounting for the ways in which human and non-human natures (or socio-natures) constrain the processes of neoliberalization or how they maybe be actively structuring alternatives. As Bakker (2010, p. 717) points out, “The (inadvertent) consequence is a failure to address the full scope of environmental processes and socio-natural entities subsumed within the processes of neoliberalization”.

The intention here is not to minimize the breadth and scope of neoliberal restructuring, but instead to insist on a nuanced analysis of actually existing neoliberalisms (Peck and Tickell 2002), as well as actually existing radical projects (Sbicca 2013). A more nuanced analysis of how broader patterns of restructuring intersect with urban gardens needs to account for the agency of individual actors, both human and non-human, to potentially perform acts counter to the prevailing logic of neoliberalism—even from within sites that may well be enlisting citizens to fill in the gaps of the neoliberal state.

This leads to the second way in which this critical approach to urban gardens undersells the role of nature: by disregarding the biophysical characteristics of plant growth, critics of urban gardens ignore the ways in which capital(ism) is continually stymied by nature. Mann and Dickinson (1978) pointed out decades ago the ways in which agricultural production differed from manufacturing processes precisely because of the biophysical characteristics of plants. Unlike innate materials, living organisms are not as easy to process, they require particular periods of growing time, they are perishable, etc.

The point here is that capital, and thus the social relations of capitalism, are sometimes constrained by biophysical processes. While it is true that the restructuring of the agro-food industry has relied heavily on the appropriation, manipulation and enclosure of elemental pieces of plant biology(s) (Kloppenburg 2004), this transformation is so far only partial and incomplete (Prudham 2007). The biophysical characteristics and processes of seeds, plant growth, etc., can expose the vulnerabilities of neoliberal capitalism, providing a good reason to re-think a too-hasty dismissal of the transformative potential of urban garden projects—a point to which I return below.

The nature of urban gardens

In this final section, and by way of summary, I want to briefly outline some of the implications of using rigid conceptions of nature and society in urban garden scholarship. I then offer a few considerations that aim to bring a more critical understanding of nature–society hybridity to bear on urban garden scholarship. As mentioned above, this is not provided as an inflexible framework, but rather is offered as a work-in-progress companion and complement to existing theoretical, conceptual and practical ways of thinking about urban gardens.

To begin, imbuing nature with an intrinsic and externalized set of qualities, like the celebratory scholarship tends to do, represents a perverse kind of anti-urbanism, in which an artificial boundary between nature and society, the city and the country side, actually undermines the promise of a truly ‘urban garden’. Modernist conceptions of nature and society limit the possibility of urban gardens by creating a conceptual, though perhaps unarticulated and ill-defined, boundary between the ‘city’ and the ‘garden’. On the one hand, this means that the city will always be somehow deficient, and on the other, the garden will always be something to celebrate. Obviously both of these premises are problematic.

At a broader level, it is worth invoking Smith’s (2008) ‘ideology of nature’ thesis. He suggests that the pervasiveness of the idea that nature and society are somehow distinct is attributable to the fact that the idea itself props up the reproduction of the conditions conducive to the continuation of capitalism. This ideology, for example, ensures that ‘nature’ continues to be understood as economic inputs, as natural resources, as a thing that exists ‘out there’ somewhere. If an urban garden is understood as an urban curiosity, as a leisurely escape from the urban world, then it might not ever be positioned as a viable, scalable option to counter the capitalist food system.

Within the urban garden, this ideology, among other things, reinforces the boundaries between the city and the garden—closing off the possibility that cities, not only small patches within them, are ‘proper’ places to grow food. To reiterate, the internalized logic of the ideology of nature might in fact be responsible for a lack of imagination and the continuation of the marginality of urban gardens as either a viable, scalable food production option, or as a site from which to launch broader social change projects. In other words, scholars and activists who wish to demonstrate (and advocate for) the benefits of urban gardens, may in fact be putting urban gardens in peril by insisting on overly deterministic notions of nature. Instead urban gardens need to be understood as part of the urban fabric and as a legitimate use of urban space.

While it makes sense to challenge the artificial separation between nature and society, it is just as important to hold onto the aspects of ‘nature’ that are unique to it. Here I want to re-emphasize the important biophysical processes of plant biology, and suggest that these can be understood as a solid counterpoint to the pervasive logic of neoliberal capitalism. Many scholars have pointed out the ways in which the social relations of capital are constrained by the biophysical character of plants within agriculture—essentially expanding and deepening the Mann–Dickinson thesis alluded to earlier (Prudham 2007). The abridged version of this argument is that unpredictability, growing time and regeneration time all stand in blatant opposition to the hyper-controlled, just-in-time production method and associated social relations preferred by neoliberal capitalism.

Of course in a broader sense, on-going restructuring of the agro-food industry (bolstered by GMO technologies, re-peasantization of the global labor force, and perverse legislative and judicial rulings on whole and partial patent laws) has meant that capital has been actively penetrating the very essence of ‘nature’, and disrupting fundamental biophysical processes. But this very fact makes, for example, the growing of an heirloom seed in an urban garden all the more (potentially) revolutionary. Many food activists and scholars know that food activism is at the forefront of broader radical politics these days. I want to suggest that a significant part of the reason for this has to do with the inherently radical potential of plants. Plants self-reproduce for free. They are radically democratic in that they can be grown by anyone, almost anywhere. They allow one to disentangle themselves from the corporate food system. Plants resist being branded.

It is equally important to keep in mind the political (that is, the human) work that is required in order to leverage these biophysical characteristics of plants toward positive socio-natural change. As food sovereignty scholars argue, and more specifically as seed sovereignty scholars such as Jack Kloppenburg (2004, 2010) argue, people must (and already do) organize political projects to ensure that seeds and plants avoid being completely engulfed in proprietary ownership structures. Kloppenburg (2010) borrows from open source software movements and metaphors in arguing for a ‘biological open source’ movement (which is well underway) to facilitate the repossession of seed sovereignty, and to build up a protected commons, involving farmers, activists, plant breeders, etc., whose materials could be made widely available, traded, bartered for, and most importantly, protected from monopoly appropriation and privatization. Within this context, urban gardens—as socio-natural hybrids—can play a crucial role in providing accessible sites within which to build up the seed sovereignty, and ultimately food sovereignty movements.

Given the above discussion, I propose a political ecological framework for urban gardens, consisting of three key elements. The first of these is taking seriously the fact that urban gardens are both social and natural. This includes taking a cautious approach to untangling the ways in which they are social, the ways in which they are natural, and assessing how and to what extent these aspects might limit or enable radical social change. This also means understanding the ways in which broader political ecological and political economic processes work to structure particular kinds of human and non-human relationships.

Second, approaches to studying urban gardens need to be aware of the potential for an implicit tendency toward an anti-urban sentiment. Contrasting the ‘good’ of the urban garden with the ‘bad’ of the city is neither an accurate nor a productive distinction. As mentioned above, it is misleading to argue that urban gardens are ‘good’ because they bring ‘nature’ into the city. From a methodological perspective, this dichotomy has led to too many hasty celebrations of urban garden projects. I return to Lawson’s (2005) assertion, that there has been a tendency toward a ‘vague benevolent approval’ for urban garden projects by many urban scholars, and I suggest that much of this is based on fetishizing so-called ‘natural’ elements of urban gardens, while denigrating so-called ‘urban’ elements. A more productive maneuver is to strive to better understand the ‘urbanness’ of urban gardens, not as a respite from a too-social world, but rather as crucial and constitutive elements of the urban. At another level, anti-urban perspectives in urban garden scholarship might be responsible for an insular and parochial localism, in which the physical boundaries of the garden are fetishized in an effort to ‘keep the city out’. This might limit thinking about ways in which the physical and conceptual boundaries of the garden can be expanded or eliminated to enable a scaling up of urban agricultural practice.

Finally, and drawing here from Heynen et al. (2006), we need to approach the study and practice of urban gardening from the perspective of thinking about who is creating what kinds of socio-natural configurations for whom. The regressive politics that adhere in the processes of making urban environments, and the specific ways in which natural elements have been utilized in these processes, have been well exposed by urban political ecologists (Gandy 2002; Veron 2006). However, it is also an immanently worthwhile pursuit to examine the ways in which progressive or transformative politics might be working through the creation of urban environments. In other words, we need a whole-garden approach to urban garden analysis, one that takes into account both the ways in which the garden is challenging conventional configurations and the ways in which it is reinforcing them. This also means attending to various forms of marginalization (dietary, social, economic, ecological, cultural) that might exist within both the urban garden and the neighborhood and city it is in. Recent work by McClintock (2010, 2014), Alkon (2013) and Sbicca (2013) has established a firm footing for a nuanced, subtle, and ultimately hopeful analysis of the urban foodscape.

Ultimately, urban garden scholars and practitioners alike need to commit to taking the nature of urban gardens seriously. The above is offered as only an initial attempt to begin untangling the ways in which nature and society operate within urban garden scholarship and practice. I have argued that much urban garden scholarship tends to get the nature of urban gardens wrong by (a) understanding nature and society as separate and (b) assuming that nature is inherently good and beneficial. Furthermore I have attempted to demonstrate that getting the nature of urban gardens right—and by that I mean eschewing the idea that nature is imbued with certain inherent qualities and that nature is separate from society—will contribute to moving beyond a largely polarized urban agricultural scholarship. Much more work remains to be done in this respect.

Marginalization, discrimination, poverty, hunger, and other horrors of the contemporary urban condition are all the result of multiple socio-natural processes. And in a world of increasingly complicated socio-natural injustices, ever-sharper tools of analysis and action are required. Urban gardens are likely not a panacea for a radical overhaul of contemporary urban life. However, in an age of rising food prices, peak oil, unstable commodity markets, and ecological collapse, they may well figure prominently in our future. For this reason, we must dispense of the binary thinking endemic to a great deal of the literature on urban food, and move toward a more nimble conceptual framework based on hybridity.

Indeed the arguments I present above trade heavily on the notion of hybridity. I have demonstrated how thinking about society and nature as co-constitutive—and of urban gardens as socio-natural hybrids—can provide some nuance to our understanding of urban gardens. Implicit in this general framework, however, is the demand for specificity. Further conceptual work exploring the socio-natural character of urban gardens might, for example, draw on theories of place and positionality as a way of unpacking how socio-natural dynamics express within the micro-particularities of specific urban gardens. Urban gardens are, after all, as unique as the neighborhoods they are in, as dynamic as the people who labor within them, and as diverse as the natures within them.

Ultimately, more empirical work will lead the way both to sharper theoretical tools, and more substantive socio-ecological change. Projects grounded in place, which take into account social, political and cultural particularities, in concert with the biophysical, climatic and ecological context hold heretofore unrealized potential for scholar–advocates–activists. Getting the nature of urban gardens right holds the promise of better understanding the dynamic phenomenon of urban gardens within our contemporary, and varied, socio-ecological contexts. More importantly, it might enable urban garden practice to achieve its full potential in the effort to transform the multiple and interlocking injustices of the contemporary food system and those of late capitalism.


  1. 1.

    For the past two summers, I have tended a 140 square foot garden in the front yard of my apartment in Toronto, Ontario. I have previously grown vegetables in Windsor, Ontario and Calgary, Alberta in urban garden projects I helped launch in each city.

  2. 2.

    I use the term ‘urban garden’ here somewhat casually, and intend for it to cover what are conventionally understood as urban community gardens meant produce food, as well as achieve some other social, political or community development goal. I am drawn to use Pudup’s (2008) concept of ‘organized garden projects’, but have no desire to wade into debates about labels, so for the sake of simplicity use the phrase ‘urban garden’.

  3. 3.

    As one anonymous reviewer rightly pointed out, questions of urban gardens and alternative urban food politics are inevitably intertwined with the multiple and competing claims to urban space, and thus linked to themes of food access, inequality and marginalization. I agree wholeheartedly but leave a more thorough treatment of this question of space to subsequent work and authors. For a stellar review of ‘food politics’ see Levkoe (2011).

  4. 4.

    For some early work documenting the agency of non-human actors, see Wolch and Emel (1995, 1998), Philo and Wolch (1998), Wolch (2002).



I’d like to thank Dr. Gerda Wekerle for providing feedback on an earlier version of this article. My deep gratitude also goes to Dr. Harvey James and four anonymous reviewers for their insightful, constructive and helpful comments. Any shortcomings of the piece remain mine alone.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Environmental StudiesYork UniversityTorontoCanada

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