Guerilla Tactics

graftsThose who hear not the music think the dancers mad.
— Unknown

“There he goes again,” my neighbor sighed grumpily, pointing to the older guy wandering our street with pruning shears.

“Come on,” I replied, “he’s harmless.”

“But I may not want my trees trimmed,” he grumped and went inside.

Once again my weird old neighbor was wandering the neighborhood fixing things that were not quite right (in his opinion). He sometimes walked the sidewalks trimming tree or shrub branches that intruded on the walkway. I had also seen him working the alleys, digging up or cutting down noxious weeds. He was always friendly and willing to answer questions or stop and chat, but adamant that what he was doing was the right thing. I suppose he got it wrong sometimes, but his heart was in the right place.

It seems to be a trait of human nature that we want to make a difference. Somehow, under some set of internal principles, everyone needs to do something that matters. Some people seek public office. Some seek fame for their creative skills in music, art, poetry or intellectual achievement. Some seek to save lives or build bridges or stand for justice. Some endow scholarships or educational institutions.

And some just want to make their world a better place. Human kindness, respect for life and nature — these traits drive us to do many things that we feel matter, regardless of others’ opinions. And even, sometimes, regardless of the law and social acceptability.

According to Ilana Strauss, there’s a group of people in San Francisco that call themselves Guerilla Grafters, who surreptitiously graft fruit branches onto city trees. “Grafting is an ancient farming practice based on the weird fact that trees will accept new limbs. If you tape a cherry branch to an ornamental tree, the branch will start growing cherries. For founder Margaretha Haughwout, grafting is a way to feed people for free. For the city of San Francisco, it’s a crime. But that’s okay; in fact, Haughwout is counting on it.”

Unfortunately, property owners and the city caught on and undid many of the projects that the Guerilla Gardeners completed. Strauss noted, “There’s a really problematic divide between private and public. Private spaces are for the wealthy. Public spaces are for nobody. Ornamental trees, for instance, are just decorations. They’re ‘in public,’ but you’re not supposed to touch them or interact with them, Haughwout said.”

“Most countries used to have ‘commons,’ public spaces that everyone could farm. In medieval England, for instance, farming communities shared a common growing space, which they’d organize at council meetings. A couple of centuries ago, the English government privatized the land, taking it from farmers and giving it to large agricultural businesses. And that’s pretty much where a lot of the world, including the U.S., stands today. Most people live in a world of private property.” And in this country, private property is inviolate.

Improving your community is a noble idea; however, it can be misconstrued as violating someone else’s rights. A more normally effective tactic is ‘tactical urbanism’, an approach to city-making that features the following five characteristics:
• A deliberate, phased approach to instigating change;
• An offering of local ideas for local planning challenges;
• Short-term commitment and realistic expectations;
• Low-risks, with a possible high reward; and
• The development of social capital between citizens, and the building of organizational capacity between public/private institutions, non-profit/NGOs, and their constituents.

‘Tactical urbanism’ has grown in popularity as a way for locals to get things done to improve their own community that institutional mechanisms do not address. Whether we live in urban areas, the suburbs or the exburbs, locals can develop a feel for things that are not quite right about where they spend their days. Sometimes, the governmental bureaucracy needs help focusing their efforts. That’s where the public comes in. Whether it’s tree planting, greening of unused spaces, repurposing abandoned buildings or cleaning up trashed out spaces, citizen action can make a difference.

For many residents, there’s a focus on overcoming the historic creation of automobile-centric developments, where you need to drive to all the places you want to go. These places are not designed for walking or biking, just driving. And, there’s a real desire for local green spaces and agriculture inside our communities. And for some, something just doesn’t feel right; there’s some thing that needs to be fixed.

Of course, some people just don’t see the need. However, if enough of us do we can mobilize effectively to get things done that are acceptable to our neighbors and our local bureaucracy. We can make a difference.

And maybe the nay-sayers can just learn to ignore the guerilla in the room.

Additional information:
Devita Davison, How Urban Agriculture is Transforming Detroit, April 2017, TEDTalks
Ellen Dunham-Jones, Architect, Retrofitting Suburbia, TedTalks, January 2010
James Howard Kunstler, The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs, TedTalks, February 2004
Ilana Strauss, Why Guerilla Gardeners Want to Get Caught, Treehugger Daily News, August 29, 2018
The Street Plans Collaborative, Tactical Urbanism 2, Short Term Action, Long Term Change, March 2, 2012
Galina Tachieva, Sprawl Repair: From Suburbia to Complete Communities, No. 28, Fall/Winter 2011
Steve Tarlton, Anna’s Friends,, 9/28/17


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