Flower Power in the Entrepreneurial City

Cities are not so different from the garden, at least in the way we’ve come to think about them.  They can experience “growth” or “decay.”  Neighborhoods can become “blighted” much in the same way corn or potatoes can, and they can also be “revitalized” like a wilting plant in the rain.  Micro-economies can be “fertilized” by the introduction of a new ballpark, or a new streetcar line, while the growing police force “weeds” the sidewalks of crime, undesirables, and other “pests.”

My suggestion here is not that the city actually constitutes an organism (although it certainly has its own ecology and metabolism).  No.  The city is not an organism or a garden, and I will happily admit that all I have done in the above paragraph is trace a metaphor between the garden and the city, but one that is easily discernable to the reader and that expresses itself in our language.  In fact, I would argue that perhaps on some level, it is a metaphor we live by (Johnson and Lakoff, 1980) – that is, a metaphor that shapes the way we experience (and recreate) the social and physical world.

But we should bracket this idea for a moment and examine some of the broad changes that have been taking place in cities across the country.  In my past two blog posts, I have focused on problems that have originated in the history of anthropology’s engagement with gardening and my own take on how some of these problems can be resolved.  Although this may be interesting to me, and perhaps to a few of my professors, it might not be so interesting to my friends on Facebook or the people who I garden with in my fieldwork.  I have written in an academic register, but it is time for me to start talking out of both sides of my mouth and recall the politics of why I have taken up this project.  This blog post will refocus on the politics, or the political economy, of urban “renewal” and then pose the question of how this macro-level process is embodied in the urban garden.

The Entrepreneurial City

The entrepreneurial city?  There are plenty of examples from my own travels this summer:

Cocoa Beach, Florida: My parents’ hometown where I travel each summer has a rusting economy once-fueled by NASA and the space program.  With the shrinking of NASA’s funding and the privatization of the space industry, the Cocoa Beach government looks to develop its beaches to attract interstate tourism.  Old residents begin complaining about the flip-flop-stomping, skin-peeling tourists while Cocoa Beach and its private partners plaster I-95 billboards as far up as Fredericksburg with advertisements of long-legged women on sun-soaked beaches.  Cover-ups flirting with the wind.

Falls Church, Virginia:  My own hometown looks to neighboring Ballston and Clarendon with its dog-walking 20-somethings and its Whole Foods Market.  They can hear the tax dollars clinking into Arlington County coffers and Falls Church City Hall turns a Shakespearian green.  Early morning construction tears down Anthony’s Pizza and the old post office for “mixed-use” developments containing office-buildings, a Harris Teeter, and luxury apartments.  “Please come twenty-somethings.  You can bring your dogs, too,” begs city hall.

Lynchburg, Virginia:  I meet a guy heading a tech start-up.  He points to Liberty University, the historic buildings, the waterfront property.  He looks at me with confidence, “It’s a growing town, not a dying one.”  Somewhere in there I sense that he’s biting his nails.

Washington, D.C.:  And perhaps most obvious is Thursday night happy hour on U Street.  Police cars buffer both sides of the road while DC’s newest Washingtonians parade through areas of the city that once sent cold-sweats through the pores of Georgetown moms.  The old Washington stands on street corners bewildered.  They feel themselves sliding southeast across the district as the rents spiral out of control, and they cling to public housing where it still exists.  The DC Council eyes the Anacostia waterfront for a new development project and Prince George County waits below to receive Washington’s rejected tenants.

Despite my bout of poetics, I hope you can still see what I’m talking about here.  I’m talking about development.  I’m talking about inter-urban competition – the way cities seem to be racing one another for jobs, a commercial tax base, and fresh consumers.  I’m talking gentrification – the reason behind why some cities like DC are suddenly hip, sprouting up condos like some sort of luxury fungus, while other cities like Detroit lie “fallow.”  This is what geographer David Harvey calls the rise of the “entrepreneurial city,” referring to a shift in the objectives of urban governance world-wide.

David Harvey’s thesis states that “there seems to be a general consensus emerging throughout the advanced capitalist world that positive benefits are to be had by cities taking an entrepreneurial stance to economic development” (1989:4).  This entrepreneurial stance is the idea that urban governments and other powers in the city must become much more innovative and “willing to explore all kinds of avenues through which to alleviate their distressed conditions and thereby secure a better future for their populations” (1989:4).  In other words, cities have to market themselves.  This is something that I think a lot of people can relate to when they think of their home town.  I can certainly see this when I think of Colonial Williamsburg, which invests so much effort and innovation into marketing itself as the one-stop shop for historical tourism.

This is a project, undertaken by city governments and real estate developers, which appears to reverse engineer a sense of place in hopes of marketingit as a commodity to homebuyers, renters, tourists, and businesses.  This is true terraforming – not the type that you read about in science fiction novels – but a process which, over and over again, raises the urban landscape from its own ashes.  The entrepreneurial city transforms entire neighborhoods from “blighted” to “revitalized” – from “ghettos” to the types of places where urban professionals can go to “work, eat, and play.”


Gentrification and the Urban Garden

Gentrification is one aspect of this entrepreneurial turn.  It is a process that many of us who have lived near or in urban centers can easily discern.  A neighborhood becomes “tamed” and richer (often whiter) folks start moving in – often with the best of intentions.  Rents go up, prior residents can’t pay, and they must move elsewhere (often to a more suburban track of the metropolitan orbit).  Therein lies the paradox of gentrification – the neighborhood improves in terms of crime rates, real estate values, and education, but the poorer residents often can’t hang onto property long enough to enjoy these benefits.  To some, the market speculation which sends property values skyrocketing is the greatest thing since sliced bread, while to others this market speculation, and the individuals who embody it, is the force driving them out of their homes.

The gentrification project is often undertaken by city governments and real-estate developers, but I would argue that it must also be negotiated as a “bottom-up” process – one which involves and does work on the real individuals who occupy the shifting urban landscape.  In fact, how else could gentrification ever happen if its comprising individuals were never enlisted?

The urban garden is one such “bottom-up” space in which some academics have examined the process of gentrification (Eizenberg, 2012; Martinez, 2010; Quastel, 2009).  To all three of these scholars, a garden is not just a space with plants and nice flowers – an added greening of the concrete jungle.  Nor does the urban garden simply act as a charitable space to provide food to the needy.  No.  The garden is a place of politics, or political economy.  By laboring over the dirt – by creating a space filled with cucumbers, daffodils, cantaloupes, or pumpkins – the gardener is engaging in a political struggle in which the right to the city, the dominant economic paradigm, and the pro-development agenda of the city government are all at stake.  The garden is a question of flower power: who benefits from an urban garden, and who does not?

Each of these authors assigns a functional role to urban gardening within the broader performance of the entrepreneurial city (much like the functional role which Malinowski assigned to myth in my previous blog post).  Quastel (2009) writes about eco-gentrification and the way that environmental projects like urban gardens can often, despite altruistic motives, serve to discipline city’s poor and exclude them from the process of urban “renewal.”  By creating a certain aesthetic and encouraging certain consumptive practices, the urban garden often tames a neighborhood for bourgeois habitation.  By planting pretty greenery and managing vacant land, urban gardens in some sense prime the neighborhood for its further development.  Quastel writes that “[t]he idea of the poor rendered homeless so that urban professionals can feel altruistic about riding their bicycles to work is obscene, but not far from the ‘sustainable’ class conflicts of Vancouver [his case study ]” (719).  Therefore, according to Quastel, urban gardens constitute a grassroots, pro-gentrification force, although he notes that they by no means have to be.

Martinez (2010), on the other hand, examines the urban gardens of NYC’s Lower East Side to show that they have functioned as spaces in which actors negotiate and contest the gentrification process.  Through their gardens, New York’s puertorriqueños assert their right to the city, thereby functioning to contest gentrification.  Eizenberg (2012), in a similar vein, views community gardens as an “actually existing commons” which stands in opposition to gentrification and the commodification of place.  From this standpoint, gardening in the city – planting carrots, weeding beds, picking tomatoes – is revolutionary.  It allows gardeners to assert their right to a space, regardless of what the landlords decide rent should be.  It is a counter-hegemonic force, or at least it has the potential to be.

The problem with all three of these scholars is that in some sense they’re all right.  Each of the authors supports his/her argument with a specific case study which they use to show how urban gardens function within the broader political economy.  Within this schema, urban gardens are either supportive of the entrepreneurial city, or critical of it.  This is the same dilemma which Lévi-Strauss found with the functionalist study of myth – either the myth supports social structure, or it rebels against it.  Whether it consists of zucchinis or collards, kale or kohlarabi, the complex ecology of the garden – as well as the diverse ecology of urban gardens worldwide – is reduced to a binary in which plants are either our greatest liberators or the agents of hegemonic control.  The problem with this theoretical perspective can be stated more obviously: it is fairly easy to cast a particular case of urban gardening as either for or against gentrification, but this tells us very little about the meaning which people give to the garden, or the reasons why gardens emerge in the city as a particular mode of landscape.


The Symbolic City.  The Ritual Garden.

To the people I work with, the garden is not just a function.  It means something to them, and it means something to me too.  In a similar way, gentrification is not just a social process which stamps out city blocks across the urban landscape.  A neighborhood can only exist as a place insofar as it means something to people, although this meaning may change and it often signifies different things to different people.

Even just within Washington, D.C., urban gardens have emerged in a variety of neighborhoods which differ greatly from each other both qualitatively (in terms of aesthetic and history) and quantitatively (in terms of demographic composition).  It is hard to speak of gentrification as a uniform force because the project of (re)producing place in each of these neighborhoods is in some way unique to a particular urban landscape and history.  It is also difficult to talk about the effect which urban gardens have as somehow universal in each instance.

View DC Community gardens in a larger map

But we must not let the problem of generalizing the particularistic sway us from our initial line of inquiry:  Why do people garden in the entrepreneurial city?

The city is an entire world of symbolic classifications and although we think of it as a sanitized slab of concrete, Washington, D.C. is filled with just as much enchantment and ritual as the magic coral gardens of the Trobriand Islanders which Malinowski once studied.  Neighborhoods possess horizons which frame our perception and activity to create a particular sense of place.  When you come to Georgetown, you come to shop.  You come to stare at the million-dollar row-houses and walk down to the waterfront with a jealous mixture of admiration and disgust.  When you come downtown to the mall you come to see the Smithsonian, the monuments, and the sculpture gardens and you’ve probably brought a camera.  In fact, there’s the likelihood that you’ve come there with relatives from out of town – ones who have embarked on a secular pilgrimage to the nation’s capital.

Place is a horizon which frames our behavior within a given geography, and the horizons of DC are shifting rapidly.  The space occupied by Nationals Park now frames a very different type of ritual behavior than it did before the stadium was built.  Dupont Circle is now home to a DC “art scene” – something which hadn’t really existed in the District in the way that it does now.  Neighborhoods that were once home to crack dealers are now home to Washington’s budding professionals.

Within this context, urban gardening is a ritual which possesses a metaphorical similarity to the process of urban change.  We sow, grow, cull, cultivate, weed, nurture, and compost communities within the city.  Just as we exclude and include in the space of the garden, we exclude and include in the redeveloped spaces of the city.  We negotiate what ecologies can be planted and which ones must be pulled from the ground – ecologies of plants as well as ecologies of practices.  We grow food, just as we cultivate community.  This is what I meant at the start of this overgrown blog post when I cited Johnson and Lakoff’s (1980) metaphors we live by.  Through the ritual metaphor of the garden, we come to know – and change! – the city.

If there is any validity to this idea, then there is a lot at stake in the urban garden.  As the symbolic lines of the city are being redrawn, the garden can be a space in which the boundaries of class, race, gentrifier, and gentrified are composted and planted again.  Or it can be a space in which new boundaries and new symbols are cultivated for a politically potent community – one willing to confront the injustices of food insecurity, the assault on public housing, and the economic system which repeatedly turns place into a commodity which only some can afford.

I’d like to end with a quote from an “old school” symbolic anthropologist:

[D]irt shows itself as an apt symbol of creative formlessness… The danger which is risked by boundary transgression is power.  Those vulnerable margins and those attacking forces which threaten to destroy good order represent the powers inhering in the cosmos.  Ritual which can harness these for good is harnessing power indeed (Douglas, 1966:162).

There is something remarkably political in this statement and despite its academic origins it leads me to ask the applied question: As we continue to compost the city and our gardens, what type of communities do we want to grow?



Douglas, Mary.  1966.  Purity and Danger: An analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo.  London: Routledge & K. Paul.

Eizenberg, Efrat. 2012. “Actually Existing Commons: Three Moments of Space of Community Gardens in New York City.” Antipode 44 (3): 764-782.

Harvey, David. 1989. “From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism: The Transformation in Urban Governance in Late Capitalism.” Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography, 71(1):3-17.

Lackoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 1980. “Metaphors we live by.” Metaphors we live by.

Martinez, Miranda. 2010. Power at the Roots: Gentrification, Community Gardens, and the Puerto Ricans of the Lower East Side. New York: Lexington Books.

Quastel, Noah. 2009.  “Political Ecologies of Gentrification.” Urban Geography 30(7): 694-725.


  1. Anuraag Sensharma says:

    Hey Matt! Your posts have been very interesting so far – good work. I appreciated how, as you laid out your discussion here, you addressed both material and symbolic aspects of how people interact with urban gardens from an observer’s perspective. Based on your work so far, do you think either one of these dominates in how people consciously view the gardens? Do you think people tend to think primarily about the material functions, the symbolic functions, or an even mixture of both as they get involved in urban gardens?