Video: Garden Inside


Garden Inside: Communication, Representation and Transformation in Seville's Urban Gardens


There is something disarming about urban gardens. Heterogeneous yet familiar, they can be, at once, the most radical and least radical spaces in cities. While they were once common, productive gardens now represent aberrations in the urban fabric, where labour, communication, productivity, and time itself can take on new meanings with new significance.

There is nothing inherently radical or transformative about urban community gardens, the spaces largely reflect and reproduce broader social, economic and political dynamics. However by interrogating the discrepancies between city-wide processes and the micro-politics and micro-transformations occurring in these spaces, we can better understand the potential of urban community gardens not only to transform the self, but to transform the city.

The multi-dimensional contribution of urban agriculture to cities is well documented (see Mougeot, 2005; Redwood, 2008; Van Veenhuizen, 2006). Significant research has established the contribution of urban agriculture to the health of urban inhabitants (Bellows, Brown, & Smit, 2003; Brown & Jameton, 2000; Hodgson, Caton Campbell, & Bailkey, 2011), and food security in cities in the global North (such as Alaimo et al., 2008) and global South (Zezza & Tasciotti, 2010), as well as the therapeutic and well-being potentials of urban gardening (O’Brien, 2010).

Urban agriculture has been closely linked to community building, particularly for marginalized groups (Cabannes & Raposo, 2013; Saldivar-Tanaka & Kransey, 2004; Smit, Bailkey, & Van Veenhuizen, 2006). Urban community gardens are also notable for their capacity to foster diverse communities (Holland, 2004) and engage children and young people in community-oriented projects (Hung, 2004). But while there is nothing inherently transformative about urban community gardens (Pudup, 2008), they do represent potentially disruptive spaces in the broader urban context. As Efrat Eizenberg writes,

[An urban garden is] a contested arena of opposites, ambiguities, and as a paradigmatic site for the examination of struggles over space and the spatially embedded potentialities for social change (2012: 771).

With this critical, political potential in mind, this participatory video-making project is part of a broader, ongoing doctoral research project exploring the spatial and political significance of urban community gardens in Seville, Spain.

Participatory video-making is a process through which people collectively tell their own stories in their own ways. No two participatory video projects are the same, but typically the process involves training a small group of people to storyboard, shoot, edit, and distribute a film that explores an issue that is important to them and their community. The emphasis of a participatory video-making process is on collaboration, cooperation, and co-learning, which enables participants to have a voice regardless of age, gender, culture, or ethnicity. The film belongs to those who make it.

The use of video-making as a mode of action research is significant for a number of reasons. While the value of visual outputs is now broadly accepted, what has emerged over the past decade is a more nuanced understanding of the potentials of a participatory video-making process to create multiple, simultaneous spaces for critical engagement, dialogue, and participation. As Kindon argues,

The knowledges produced [through participatory video-making] are both for and by the participants, which challenges dominant representations and goes some way to breaking down usually hierarchical researcher/researched relationships (Kindon, 2003: 144).

In Seville, communities and collectives are practicing urban agriculture in different spaces, in different ways, and for different reasons. Young and old hortelanos (productive gardeners) grow organic vegetables on municipal, private, and occupied land in the urban centre and periphery. While some gardeners come actively seeking alternative political spaces and to reconnect with food production, others are only looking for tranquil spaces to escape their daily routine and the urban environment.

In May and June 2016, urban producers in Huerto del Rey Moro (HRM) and Parque de Miraflores (Miraflores) engaged in a participatory action research process, using participatory video to explore the themes of communication and transformation within and between the two gardens. HRM is a squatted permaculture garden (huerto okupado) in Macarena, in the old centre of Seville. A committed collective of younger and older food growers maintains the open and democratic space, used by women, men, girls, and boys from across the city—building new forms of self-organization and reconnecting with the land for sustainable food production. Miraflores, in Las Almenas in the north of Seville, was formerly a dump site for construction debris during the city’s rapid expansion in the 1960s and 1970s. Reclaimed by a mobilized community in the 1980s, the garden is now a tranquil and productive space. Retired gardeners work alongside school groups to grow organic vegetables, and preserve and share knowledge. The two gardens are approximately three kilometers apart, but prior to this video-making project, there was only minimal communication between the sites.

The primary participants—three female and one male—work in HRM on a daily to weekly basis and were involved in every aspect of video-making. The primary participants should be considered co-investigators in the research process, contributing variously to its thematic and methodological development, as well as to primary data collection and analysis. Throughout the process I worked as both a facilitator and primary participant.

The video-making process also engaged a larger pool of approximately ten secondary participants, who were present or contributed to one or more aspects of the video-making process. The process was carried out almost exclusively in open public space. These secondary participants were all regular users of HRM.

Over a period of six weeks the participants themselves took control of the camera across the two gardens on three to four days per week for six weeks. The process also included two half-day workshops—the first a problem tree workshop, the second a more in-depth discussion on the theme of communication—as well as a three-day participatory editing workshop in which the primary participants reviewed all footage and constructed a timeline for the film.

From the video output and video-making process it is possible to draw a number of tentative conclusions.

The first is that communication has a particular significance in the urban community gardens: between gardeners; between the gardeners and the neighbourhood; and between the gardeners and the space itself. Through the video-making process—'unpicking' what communication means and what 'good' communication looks like—the participants related the concept of communication to the process of autogestion and to the impacts of the garden in the neighbourhood.

The second is that a participatory video process has the potential to create and sustain a deep critical engagement around complex themes and issues. One male participant noted that he valued the opportunity afforded by video-making to look at the garden as both "an insider and an outsider." More specifically, the act of collectively representing a space-project-community, aesthetically and in terms of collective narrative-building, can facilitate a productive critical dialogue around the politics of representation: what should be revealed; what should be kept private; how does the presentation alter the message; and who has the right to decide?

The third is that urban community gardens in Seville are profoundly affecting the well-being of their users. Even a short engagement in the space can have enormous impact on how people value and engage critically with ideas of cooperation, resilience, sustainable consumption, and other concepts rendered almost invisible in the wider neoliberal city.                                           

Finally, this process has demonstrated that there is a direct relationship, identifiable at multiple scales, between the transformation of the space and the transformation of the self. The implications of this transformation for the wider city will be an ongoing question for this research project.

The aim of this video-making process has been to contribute to the growing understanding of the political and social significance of urban community gardens, as well as to build solidarity and share experiences among different urban community gardens and community-led projects in Seville, as well as with community-led projects in other cities.

The next phase of this research project will take place in Seville during September and October 2016, using a combination of visual, qualitative, and participatory research methods to better understand the impact of urban community gardens in historical and spatial contexts, and with the aim of enhancing the claims of urban inhabitants to transform urban food systems and remake urban spaces.

Christopher Yap is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University, UK. His project, entitled ‘Urban Agriculture and the Right to the City’, uses participatory video-making to explore the political and spatial significance of urban community gardens, focusing on how citizens produce, manage, and experience urban space, access land, and transform urban food systems.

Comments are welcome; please send directly to chriskyap {at} gmail {dot} com.



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