Why you should care

Here’s proof that revolutions don’t need to be violent. This guerrilla gardener has found a wonderful way to improve our cities, one green patch at a time. 

From the rooftops of Chicago to the corners of Seoul, a quiet revolution is sweeping urban landscapes: guerrilla gardening — the action of cultivating neglected land without permission.

At the forefront of this movement is Richard Reynolds, a long-limbed 36-year-old Brit who would never have thought when he first started sneaking out at night and planting flowers in public spaces that he would end up becoming, as he puts it, the “accidental leader of a global movement.”

Many people migrate to the city from the countryside, live stacked in tower blocks and crave nature.

As the face of illicit gardening, he travels around the world, speaking at all type of events, from TED conferences to architecture conventions. He is also the author of On Guerrilla Gardening available in seven countries and surprisingly popular in South Korea. “I think it’s relevant to them because many people migrate to the city from the countryside, live stacked in tower blocks and crave nature.”

Growing up in the Devon countryside, Reynolds learned to garden from his mother and grandmother. His passion followed him to boarding school and earned him some money as a teenager moaning over loans. He even considered landscaping as a career, but a teacher told him, “You are too smart to be a gardener.” So instead he studied geography at Oxford University.

Reynolds is considered a local hero in South London and an environmental leader worldwide.

After graduating, Reynolds took a job in advertising and moved into an apartment block in South London. In 2004, working nine to five in an office, he felt the itch to grow something but the question was “where?” “I had to do with flower pots for a while, but then I saw the possibility of public space.” And so he began to secretly plant green patches around the gray and over-developed neighborhood of Elephant & Castle.

Initially he aspired to nothing more than getting his gardening fix. “I didn’t have any environmental agenda. I just really wanted to do some gardening and make my neighborhood look better.” Knowing that the council was not going to give him permission, he decided to take the risk of doing it illegally.

I didn’t have any environmental agenda. I just really wanted to do some gardening and make my neighborhood look better.

Planting sunflower seeds can turn a grim-looking roundabout into a splash of spring, yet, for Reynolds, gardening isn’t about looks; it’s about community. “To be gardening on the street is a great conversation starter. I see it as an opportunity for people to come together.” He speaks from experience; he proposed to his wife in the same plot where they first met planting tulips in the dark, and they recently had their first child.

But guerrilla gardening is not all fun and games. There are cold nights, stubborn policemen and the constant risk that someone will steal your newly planted petunias. Yet Reynolds’s worst enemies are not thieves but politicians. “The most frustrating thing is that the council of Southwark, where I began gardening, is still not supporting us. I get paid to lecture on this, I’ve even met the royal family, and they still don’t appreciate that I could do much more if they only let me.”

The council isn’t his only source of opposition. The idea of people growing things where they shouldn’t makes many gardening purists uncomfortable. Some fear that amateur gardeners might get their seeds wrong and inadvertently interfere with the crucial process of pollination. Others don’t like the unofficial nature of it and see it as having “a strong element of japes and quick-fix about it, without any meaningful engagement.”

Despite the reticence of the gardening establishment, Reynolds is considered a local hero in South London and an environmental leader worldwide. Some might say he is a dreamer, but he is not the only one. When he began sharing his adventures online, he realized there were thousands of others already doing similar work and many more willing to join him in “fighting the filth with fork and flowers.”

The profile of the guerrilla gardener varies widely in terms of age, gender and motivation. Some do it out of love, like the man who gardens in a little town near Bologna, Italy, with the help of his 4-year-old son. Others do it for social purposes, like the charity in Rome that turns gardening workshops into big social occasions for poor housing states. Some even use guerrilla gardening for political purposes, like the Parisian group that makes “moss graffiti” to protest against Monsanto.

I think most people who do guerilla gardening share a sense of mischief and optimism.

According to Reynolds, they all have something in common. “The antithesis of guerrilla gardening is the terribly risk-averse and pessimistic people. The sort to always ask ’What’s the point?’ I think most people who do this share a sense of mischief and optimism.” He certainly does. His childlike enthusiasm is contagious and his sense of humor as genuinely British as his love of flora. “My father is a priest. Maybe that’s why I like preaching so much,” he jokes.

Despite being very outspoken and slightly quirky, Reynold says the people he admires most are “the quiet guerrilla gardeners. Those that have never bothered to do anything online, probably don’t even know what it’s called but do it just for the love of gardening.”

There is no ideology behind Reynolds’s work — just one question: “What if instead of paying under-qualified people to take care of our public spaces, we came together as a community to do it ourselves?”

3 people planting on incline outdoors on sunny day

Lavender Planting in the neighbourhood of Elephant & Castle, in London

His vision is not a utopian world without cars or ugly concrete buildings. Instead he would simply “love to see more local authorities publicly encouraging people to garden and for residential developers to find ways to help citizens shape the public realm themselves.” Any advice for wannabe growers? “If you see an opportunity, just go do it. It’s really not complicated.”

In the 10 years since Richard Reynolds kick-started what is today a worldwide movement, he has been shown to possess the qualities of a true gardener: patience and resilience. He continues to work as an advertising consultant: “I find it a fascinating world. Tomorrow I’m working on a Japanese chainsaw brand!” And despite his council’s stubbornness, he still lives in his South London flat. “I’ve put down roots here. Pun intended.”

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