When Gardening is Graffiti

Despite the fact that the world produces an abundance of food each day to feed everyone alive, there are still areas like South Central Los Angeles, one of America’s poorest areas, plagued by low education rates and limited access to fresh food. A few years ago, the city tried to drop the “Central” from the name in hopes of rebranding away the stigma of high crime and poor people. It worked as well as you’d think.

I caught up with Ron Finley, an urban farmer and motivational speaker, working to change South Central’s current reality. Last year, Finley gave a potent TED talk with an idea to elevate poor kids that were stuck on dead-end paths toward crime or drugs by getting them to garden. “If you ain’t gardening, you ain’t gangsta,” he said he told kids to motivated them. Taking control of their food, Finley said, would be the first step to taking control of their communities. He started a program in the area encouraging people to plant anywhere they could—on their lawns, on the little strip of grass next to the curb, even on freeway medians. At first the city of Los Angeles objected, but later relented.

Since then, the message has grown legs. “I’ve got kids in India calling themselves gangsta gardeners,” he told me. He’s received calls from people trying to take back their public spaces in Lithuania and England and Australia.

The idea dovetails with a larger movement around the world known as guerrilla gardening, where even the smallest patches of land can be reclaimed for productive plants. The term guerrilla conveys the fact that the land isn’t always people’s to use. It’s often owned by cities, located in the middle of traffic circles, or in public parks. The point isn’t to break the law, but to protest using plants the way public space is used. In London a team of guerrilla gardeners tried to plant on a patch of grass that was going to be eliminated to widen a nearby road.

Finley seemed genuinely surprised that such a simple message had struck such a chord. A few months ago, a busload of students from Harvard came to hear his advice. Just take seeds and plant them in soil, he told them.

I told him that the novelty of the idea was in confronting two problems at once. A lot of people advocate to eliminate crime and a lot of people advocate for local food, but his idea did them together—a little like if you figured out how to save depleted fisheries while at the same time making nuclear power safer.

Finley accepted the compliment. But he added a caveat. He’s not looking to be a professional gardener or farmer. “I’m glad to show people how to plant, but after that, I’m not interested in maintaining your garden. I say grow your own s—. Grow your own food. My message is design your own life.” Nor is he interested in discussions about how much food you can reasonably grow on a small patch of soil next to the curb. “The point isn’t to grow food,” he said, “it’s to grow people.”