Jean has the hands of a labourer and the smile of a small child. He works the earth with joy, shares his knowledge on old and new varieties of vegetables with generosity. Jean is the heart and soul of the small communal garden “La Ruche” which I visited last week in Toulouse. Jean and the two women explain what this garden, next to the Garonne river, is about:
“There was this small piece of land here behind the estate – inconspicuous, squeezed behind dike. A year ago we had the idea that we could use it together, so we went to the city and asked for a permit to cultivate it as a small kitchen garden. The city, which has a set of rules for the function of communal gardens, accepted.”
There are more than thirty people from the estate involved in the project, but also some who come from other parts of the city to work here. They plant, reap and cook together in the small community. The garden is open to the public – that is one of the rules of the city for communal gardens – but only those that work there can pick vegetables. Jean, a botanist and gardener, is interested in rare or old varieties of vegetables as much as in the common experience of working the earth.
I used to look at the urban gardening phenomenon from a certain ironical distance: as a fashionable game of the urban elites (and in many cases that is what it is), but I now realize there is a lot more to it.
Projects of self-organization are nothing new, but either their number is growing or we pay more attention to them. They may mean very different things to different people in different places: in poor areas they could be a means of survival, adding to subsistence or exchange; for others it can be the focus of community-building, a new way of creating the “commons” outside or in relation to the market. I think it is worth taking a closer look, so I will try to do so from the pages of this blog in the near future. If you have any experiences – not only urban gardening, but any kind of community self-organization – and you would like to share it with me, I’d be very grateful.