Some years ago when I was in high school I was interested in starting a community garden (I was a cool kid), so I went to the internet to find out how. What I found is that you should get some neighbours interested and ask the local council for permission to use a piece of land. Now I was way too scared of strangers to follow through with the first part of this plan but I also felt uneasy with the second stage. Why would the community need permission from the government to use common land for something that benefits the community?
At the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown, a group made up mostly of anarchists went to the end of Boundary Street in West End. There, they took a plot of unused state land and turned it into a patch of regenerative farmland. They then spread out and, at time of writing, have established three gardens in South Brisbane.They did this under the name Growing Forward, this name suits their goal. They built up these gardens to move towards a more ecologically sustainable world.
Those anarchists were part of the anti-authoritarian tradition of commoning and guerilla gardening. Commoning is the act of seizing owned land whether by a state, a company or an individual and turning it over to the local community. Guerilla gardening is when you plant something on privately owned land for food and/or for regenerating the nutrient poor soil.
All the food grown in Growing Forward gardens are available for the surrounding community to harvest. Any surplus is sent to grassroots community groups. Each garden provides a point of interaction between radicals and the general public. This interaction is more open than what people assume happens when “crazy” anarchists and the “sheep” masses meet. This is because of the undeniable good the project does the community.
The project has shown to be a powerful tool to raise consciousness amongst the non-radicals involved in the garden. This increased awarness has mostly been environmental but has lead to a wider array of anti-authoritarian politics. The fact that the guerilla gardens are under constant threat of state violence lends to people questioning how helpful a bureaucratic engine enforced by boots, bombs and batons really is.
Community hub or media opportunity?
While trying to learn more about commoning and guerilla gardening in general, I researched the last guerilla gardening project in Meanjin. “Right to the City” was a movement in 2016-7 based around the defence and expansion of public land. A group from this organisation set up a guerilla garden on company land taken over by weeds and locked behind temp fences.
For months the activists toiled behind the temp fence. There they came into contact with local community members including homeless people. A public opening event was posted on the Facebook page. On the day, the owner who claimed the land, backed by police, came and bulldozed the garden.
As part of my research, I interviewed activists involved in the wider movement as well as someone who were involved with the garden itself. In the conversation we discussed elements of the project. Two contrasting elements were the stated goal and the expected outcome. The stated goal was to build community space separate from state authority. These spaces would then come under direct community control. The expected outcome by many of the participants, as stated by all those interviewed, was that the project would face immediate state repression. This would result in media coverage as the community space was bulldozed .
These two outcomes are typical of two prominent tendencies within activism. These two trends are the slow community build and the rapid media attention strategy. To define these two tendencies, I will draw on examples typical of each trend. The slow community building strategy is a long-term project. It will generally involve years of engagement with the community to build popular organisation around an issue. The strength of this form of action is that it can form deep connections with the community. The rapid media attention trend involves a high profile action that will be covered by the media. This media attention spreads their message to the community. The strength of this strategy is that it reaches a large number of people. This media strategy is prominent within pacifist and insurrectionary strands of anarchism.
I do not see these two trends as rivals but as different opinions on where their own energy should go. For example Anti-Poverty Network Queensland leans more to the slow community build tendency. They also don’t reject media stunts out of principle. Last year they organised a media-oriented action called Rampage Day. On the other side there is the Extinction Rebellion chapter operating out of Meanjin. This group has more of a tendency towards getting media attention but there is some community building work being done.
The failure of the Right to the City campaign was due to the activists’ reliance on mass media based tactics. If they wanted the space to last, the campaign should have used the community engagement strategy. This would have built deep community support in the specific area rather than wide spread awareness.
Without a conscious push to build strong community bonds with the gardens, we are doomed to the fate of Right to the City. At the same time we are building community bonds, we also need to be building popular organisation. If resources and skills are dispersed throughout the communities, then we will have the power to resist the state when it clamps down on our projects.
Growing towards a green utopia
The work being undertaken by urban farming groups is incredibly important. Whether they are anti-state or not, they are building urban agricultural infrastructure. This has the ability to feed our city and heal the land on which we live.
Russian scientist and anarchist militant Pyotr Kropotkin discussed the potential of urban market gardens. When he was writing in the late 19th century, Paris had transitioned to a majority urban agricultural system. He wrote about how the complex web of small plot farmers were able to produce massive yields.
In Cuba, there is a large urban agricultural sector which makes up half to 70% of all fresh food consumed by the residents of Havana. Its chief source of petroleum and field machinery imports ceased as the USSR disintegrated in 1989-91, leading to a tightening of US economic sanctions and the average Cuban losing around 20 pounds. It was necessary to move towards urban agriculture to stop the reliance on tractors and petrol. The project has been a great success with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations stating: “In Cuba as a whole, agriculture is now practised by some 40 000 urban workers on an area estimated at 33 500 ha. It includes 145 000 small farm plots, 385 000 backyard gardens, 6 400 intensive gardens and 4 000 high-yielding organopónicos.”
A network of urban agriculture will become necessary in the near future. Climate change and colonial land ownership are turning former fertile lands into deserts. As the inland becomes dryer and rural communities are pushed to the coast, we in the city will need to rely on ourselves for food.
One of the key responsibilities for non-Indigenous actors of struggle in this project is to share resources with First Nations actors of struggle, and there are three reasons for this. One reason is that on stolen land, First Nations actors have the most right to political sovereignty. Another reason is that in environmental movements around the world, First Nations actors have taken the most initiative and have come up with the most effective strategies and tactics. Another reason is that the active genocide of First Nations people means that Indigenous people are marginalised and access to money and land is constrained by the colonial ruling class.
What remains now is to develop a strong radical ecological agricultural system. From the public farms we can share resources for gardening, so that working people can bring the ecological struggle to their backyards. In the coming years, we can build a radical food network as we will be connecting the two very real needs of climate action and food stability.
If you want to get involved at the gardens in South Brisbane or want some advice for starting your own radical community garden, check out Growing Forward on Facebook.
 Fields, Factories and Workshops – Peter Kropotkin (1912)
 Anarchy Works – Peter Gelderloos (2010)
 Havana: Growing Greener Cities in Latin America and the Caribbean – Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nation website (viewed 2021)