Earlwood Farm as Insurgent Placemaking (or, reflections after our potluck soiree and barn dance)

Jeffrey Hou recently gave a talk at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich entitled ‘Urban Gardening as Insurgent Placemaking’. It was live tweeted, but from what I can gather it was neither recorded nor transcribed. So, based on the 10×120 character summary, I think Hou argued that community gardening in cities creates new public spaces and social groups. In some parts of the world these ventures are so successful in creating actual community, they are starting to be recognised institutionally in a variety of ways. Government organisations are incorporating these grass roots gardens into their social planning schemes. I want to read more of Hou’s work because I think the title implies a far more complex and political idea than the live tweets would suggest!* But at this stage, I’ve taken up on the idea impressed upon me by the title and ran with it! For me, the name implies that urban gardening is an insurgency against particular kinds of ‘placemaking’. Placemaking is a corporate buzzword for the intentional planning or structuring of community. It is a well intended buzzword, in the sense that it implies a need for livable cities, community and public space. But the word has been co-opted by those with financial stakes in ‘urban renewal projects’ (read: the bulldozing of former inner city industrial sites to make way for high-density luxury residential developments for the new managerial class). In theory, urban gardening projects counteract the kind of development that reduces the size of public space for private interests, which is to say the kind of development that requires strategic corporatised ‘placemaking’ to produce the feel of community and give the impression of public space, in order to make the place itself seem commercially appealing for investors. If urban gardening is insurgent placemaking, it must create community and public space that rebels against such corporate interests.

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Last week at Earlwood Farm we had a farm warming, subtitled ‘potluck soiree and barn dance‘, and many of our friends came round to see what we are doing up on this hill. We also had Deborah Bird Rose conduct a ritual blessing to help warm the farm and state our intentions for the house. After a short consultation the week before, Debbie summarised our thoughts better than we could:

“The Earlwood Farmers live here for very specific reasons – to find new ways of living in the city, new ways of living in community, to be always pressing against the edges of what is possible. Not to be fleeing the city, nor to succumb to its hype, but to take a stand for how a city can be, how a rental property can be, how an urban farm can be, how a community of people can be.”

We think our share house has an insurgent force within it. Although as I sit here writing this on a Sunday night in the warm buzz of the home, with flatmates preparing dinner, a glass of wine by my keyboard, a cardigan and a gingham table cloth, I don’t feel like a rebel. Nevertheless, this house is not just a place to temporarily rest while we rampantly consume all that the city will allow. It is not a stepping stone on the way to investing in a inner city apartment. This house is not a luxury commodity, where once-were-radical thirty somethings give up on their ideals, get ‘real’ jobs and let IKEA do all their domestic thinking for them. The house, or more specifically the garden, asks us to turn away from rampant consumption and engage in work: composting, weeding, tilling, planting, watering, harvesting and tilling again. Such activities interrupt the flow of capital within a beautiful and seductive city that tries to lure wallets out of their homes at every opportunity. Earlwood Farm demands we slow down and, in creating a new domestic ecology, we cause trouble in the larger economy. We don’t have to buy leafy greens for weeks on end, or radishes, watermelons or beans. So the more the garden grows, the less we have to shop. We get dirt under our nails instead of getting a manicure; we get muscles from labour rather than a gym membership. We are not claiming to be outside the economy: we don’t want to set The 1/4 Acre Independent Republic of Earlwood; this blog post is being written on a mac computer; and we were most excited to get online and purchase seeds and plants for the winter garden. But the farm refuses to be caught in the rapids of late capitalism and, as such, those tending the garden disrupt the system too.

Last week we invited a bunch of people around to help warm this farm. And people came and brought food and some stayed and danced in the shed until late in the evening. The farm has been officially blessed by all our friends. And hopefully this signals the beginning of our little domestic insurgency.

 

* I actually only learned about Hou’s though the RCC’s twitter feed! He has actually written heaps on these ideas and I will follow up on this after some proper reading of his work on these concepts.

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