Community Gardening in Cities


Feeding the City

With an increasing majority of humankind now living in an urban environment (United Nations, 2014), combined with the challenges of CO2 emissions and number of people going hungry (Viljoen, 2005), the question rises as to how we can feed these people. Whilst we used to enjoy a positive relationship between human settlement and productive landscape, this is no longer the case (Ibid, 2005). Currently, our food production system is heavily embedded in the global economy, in which market mechanisms prioritise maximum profit above all other aspects of the economy (Gross, 2011). However, in response to rising energy prices, climate change, increasingly detached producer-consumer relationships, and the negative ecological, social and economic effects of the current food system, there is increasing support for regionalising the food system through food projects generally termed as ‘alternative’, of which urban gardening is perceived to be a key component (Hodgson et al. 2011, Holloway et al. 2007, Hill, 2011).
Despite this seeming support, little is currently being done by national agricultural policies to promote sustainable food production, let alone community gardening (Garnett, 2000), and the whole question of feeding our cities remains largely unaddressed. Urban community gardening therefore remains a relatively marginal activity [Tornaghi, 2014, Smit et al. 2001). This can be seen to be down to funding shortages due to governmental ties to priorities of ‘free market’ (Viljoen, 2005), as well as the increasing scarcity of urban land which puts pressure on food-growing land to be used for new building (Ferris et al. 2001).
Therefore, the questions remain: how can cities be reimagined as productive landscapes (Viljoen, 2005), how do we multiply, amplify and connect current activities (Dixon, 2010), how do we scale-up community gardening in cities? Is it a question of a cultural shift (Viljoen and Bohn, 2009), or a phase change in the urban food economy and urban land use (Bell and Cerulli, 2012), or perhaps it depends on large scale policy initiatives (Turner, 2011) or alternatively it could be about creating local coalitions which overlap with city-wide coalitions (Smith and Kurtz, 2003). The Bristol Guild of Food Producers (2014) consider ‘scaling-up’ to be as much about increasing the number of viable smaller enterprises as it is about the sustainable growth of individual operations.
This paper argues that the problem lies in the discursive barriers surrounding community gardening, which render the imagining of scaling-up community gardening difficult. Since we often define things in relation to their “other”, to what they are not, we often resort to methods of comparison and opposition, preoccupied by talking about things in terms of rather arbitrary binaries (Marston et al. 2005); global and local, big and small, urban and rural, society and nature, capitalist and non-capitalist, top-down and bottom-up etc. These dichotomies make it difficult to see community gardens as powerful, successful or economically important. I argue that recognition of community gardens as acting beyond these simply constructed binaries is essential for the scaling-up of community gardens in the city. As Sandberg and Sörlin state (1998) “The challenge of sustainability…is about imagining alternatives to the present dominant environmental discourse.” The solution, therefore, lies in changing the community garden discourse.

Community Gardens:

A model for sustainability in the city

Urban agriculture manifests itself in many shapes and sizes (Hodgson et al (2011), but this paper focuses on the community gardening subcategory within this. I employ the term community garden to refer to growing initiatives which are distinct from private gardens and allotments in that they emphasise, due to its public ownership and access, a degree of democratic control (Ferris et al. 2001) . I focus specifically on community gardens as their focus on social interaction amplifies opportunities for learning, with implications for social and political change (Cameron et al. 2011).
Community food growing initiatives have been put forward as a model for the implementation of sustainable development in cities (Bell and Cerulli, 2012, Turner, 2011, Stocker and Barnett, 1998, Viljoen and Bohn, 2009). However, what is grown is often secondary to what else is achieved, and there are many other benefits (Holland, 2004). For example, they are celebrated for their potential to raise awareness of the issues of sustainable development and acting as a catalyst for environmental concern (Garnett, 2000), promoting ecological sustainability by food growing, social sustainability by communal interaction, and economic sustainability by the use of gardens for training, research and skills development (Stocker and Barnett, 1998). It is seen to increase levels of social capital (‘Yotti’ Kingsley and Townsend, 2007), reintroducing and reconnecting urban citizens with their food (Beilin and Hunter, 2011), and with nature and community (Firth et al. 2011). It is perceived to generate local economic activity (Viljoen, 2005, Hodgson et al. 2011), and reduce the burden on welfare services, avoiding the costs of environmental damage (Garnett, 2000), and the vagaries of the market (Gross, 2011).
However, these benefits are largely anecdotal (Garnett, 2000) intangible (Viljoen and Bohn, 2009) and unrecognised (Smit et al. 2001), and thus community gardening remains a relatively marginal activity [Tornaghi, 2014, Smit et al. 2001). Whilst this can be attributed to problems such as insecure land tenure, lack of funding (Hodgson et al. 2011), and inappropriate policies (Smit et al. 2001), I argue that it can also be more fundamentally linked with assumptions and perceptions of urban community gardening in its current discourse.
Many of these assumptions are based on socio-cultural biases, such as the long-standing European view of what a city should be. Misconceptions about aesthetics, efficiency, hygiene and modernity have caused food growing to be treated as an ‘outcast’ industry (Smit et al. 2001), perceived of as a utilitarian, ‘non-urban landscape’, and of ‘lesser beauty’ (Viljoen and Bohn, 2009). Cities are perceived to be necessarily congested and built-up, affording them limited green space (Webb et al. 2014), whilst community gardens are considered as quirky and backwards (Gross, 2011), and niche, incapable of making any significant difference to the global food system or city provisions and rarely linked to overall environmental strategies (Hodgson et al. 2011). It is understood as being simply a novel activity in contrast to conventional understandings of food, with a large amount of public-sector scepticism (Garnett, 2000). There is also the assumption that it is unfeasible in what Garnett defines as “strictly economic terms” (2000, p487), and is therefore often seen as being in the way of development rather than inherently valuable to sustainable livelihoods (Buchanan, 2014), with planners regarding it as a “messy business” (Deelstra and Girardet, 2006, 46) and a high-risk activity (Smit et al. 2001). Agriculture in the urban environment is therefore unable to compete with other development opportunities that offer greater returns, thus remaining the domain of dedicated individuals and communities in response to failures of such urban renewal initiatives and increases in vacant land (Hodgson et al. 2011).
As Viljoen points out though, this need not be the case. He contends that the changing, unplanned and make-do characteristics of community gardens are challenging planners to review their perceptions of what constitutes good urban design (Viljoen, 2005). He offers the vision of a continuous productive urban landscape (CPUL) (2005) as an alternative imagining of what a city could look like, combining the sustainable concept of a productive landscape with the spatial concept of a continuous landscape. Key to this concept is the emphasis on connection and movement through corridors of open space (Viljoen and Bohn, 2009); enabling CPULs to knit-up types of settlement typically viewed as mutually contradictory, such as the city and the surrounding rural area, thus responding to the urban-rural binary. Rural is often seen to be the preserve of agriculture and forestry, relating to the concept of a rural idyll which is deeply embedded in our culture (Scott et al. 2007). By challenging these, CPULs can therefore open up the space for urban areas to be considered as areas for food growing and agriculture. In the same way that community economies seek to make visible the diverse activities that constitute the economy, so do CPULs endeavour to make visible and engage fully with the elements and resources required to support occupation, defining disregarded or hidden places as a place within the city, thus redefining the place of agriculture in the city (Viljoen, 2005).


The Limits of our Language:

Social constructions of reality

This paper takes a discursive approach to exploring the scaling-up of community gardens, critically analysing how such issues are constructed and managed in situ, and how different discursive strategies can be harnessed to account for and legitimise certain practices (Kurz et al. 2005).
Language has long been recognised as a creator of reality (Ferraro et al. 2005), affecting what people see, how they see it, and their subsequent interpretations. Language becomes self-fulfilling, as “the way people talk about the world has everything to do with the way the world is ultimately understood and acted in” (Eccles and Nohria, in Ferraro et al, 2005, 9). The way we talk about an object or issue can therefore be seen as a key restraint to its success, as noted by the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who proclaimed “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (1971). For Jamieson (1998), this is particularly true in the language of sustainability, which directs our attention towards some concerns and away from others. Therefore, the only ideas available to us are those that our language is capable of representing, much like Orwell’s concept of ‘Newspeak’ in his dystopian novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ which sought to “diminish the range of thought…by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum” (Orwell, in Jickling, 2001, p174).
These limiting aspects can be referred to as discursive barriers. Discursive barriers are not necessarily psychological but rather something that society draws upon in order to justify their behaviour with and among themselves, a “culturally shared cliché” (Kurz et al. 2005, 615) which becomes institutionalised. People use a variety of discursive strategies, whether wittingly or not, to justify or condemn certain activities. Most of our definitions ultimately resort to comparisons, defining things in terms of their perceived opposite, to what they are not (Cloke et al. 2005). These are known as binaries. Soja refers to this temptation as the “lure of binarism” – an urge to sort and divide things into simplified categories, shaping social space (in Sibley, 2001, 239). There are a number of these binaries, to name a few: ‘us’ versus ‘them’, global versus local, big versus small, urban versus rural, society versus nature, capitalist versus non-capitalist, top-down versus bottom-up, mainstream versus alternative. This binarism paints a picture in which whatever does not fall into these two distinct categories is an “impurity” (Sibley, 2001) and thus excludes them. These constructions simplify, silence and can be used for ideological effect (Cloke et al. 2005). They therefore tend to hide more than they reveal about the complex relationships between each element (Scott et al. 2007), and are often oppressive (Sibley, 2001), used to infer superiority of one side over the other (Cloke et al. 2005). For Borrelli, the challenge at hand is to stop thinking in terms of “bipolar moral scales” (2007, p302), and work through the tensions of “either/or” in order to question the law of the excluded middle (Sibley, 2001).
These limitations and binaries are particularly evident in current economic discourse, which according to Schumacher (1985) shapes activities of the world, supplying a “necessarily and methodologically narrow” criteria of what is ‘economic’ and ‘uneconomic’. According to him, ‘few words are as final and conclusive as “uneconomic” and behaving uneconomically is seen as a “fall from grace” (Ibid. 2985). Thus we can see how this discourse is not only questioning but explicitly denying an activity’s right to existence (Schumacher, 1985). Following this thinking, by challenging these binaries and discursive barriers of economic discourse then, we can broaden the horizons of economic possibility, increasing the potential for new (more sustainable) ways of being to emerge.
Gibson-Graham shares this approach to discourse and language, viewing economic discourse as performative; producing, rather than reflecting, the reality it describes (2002). She shows how capitalism has hijacked the way we talk about the economy (Gross, 2011), producing a capitalocentric discourse in which capitalism is represented as the only existing economic form against the debilitating mantra of TINA (There Is No Alternative) (Wright, 2010). Capitalism is represented as all-encompassing, uncontrollable, naturally expansive (Gibson-Graham, 2000), an “abstract commanding force” (Gibson-Graham, 2006, xxxiii), “the yardstick by which to assess all food economy initiatives” (Hill, 2014, p1). Here, ‘alternative’ economic activities are understood in relation to, the same as, the opposite of, the complement to or contained within capitalism (Gibson-Graham, 2000). They are represented as “capitalist becoming”- spaces waiting to be swept into the capitalist system (Wright, 2010, p310), as weak, powerless, scattered and fragmented, incapable of driving economic change (Ibid.), “the poor cousins of waged market economy” (Little et al. 2010, p1799). Whilst this capitalocentric framing may offer comfort (Gibson-Graham, 2002) and be compelling; resonating with the familiar political narrative which pits the powerless many in a struggle against the powerful few (Cameron and Wright, 2014), it is also damaging. This is because when language is restricted to wages and market transactions, reckless decisions are made (Gross, 2011), and the rich and diverse ways which constitute the economy; both capitalist and non-capitalist, are “invisibled” (Gibson-Graham, 1996, xi). Gibson-Graham argues that what is commonly regarded as the economy actually makes up just one small part of it, and without the support by the myriad forms of unpaid labour, non-market transactions that amass beneath it; this would collapse (Gross, 2011).

Community Economies:

Reading for difference rather dominance

Gibson-Graham offers a new economic ontology referred to as the community economy theory, drawing on diverse strands of feminist and post-structuralist thought to provide what she calls a post-capitalist politics; a broader understanding of economic activity beyond the capitalocentric binaries and barriers of current economic discourse. The aim of this is to expand our imaginary of what the economy is, from a narrow set of practices to a much more diverse array of practices and possibilities for intervention and change (Cameron, 2012). Fundamental to this is the visibility and value of all activities, destabilising economic dominance and ultimately realising alternative economic futures based on an ethic of sustainability and social justice (Buchanan, 2014). Rather than suggesting that this new vision should be transmitted via a mass-organisation however, she advocates that it should be transmitted through a new language of economy (Gibson-Graham, 2002), a counter-hegemonic, anti-binary discourse which broadens economic possibility and pursues economic experimentation, viewing the economy as simply the production and distribution of goods and services (2006).
Here, the economy is resocialised and repoliticised, exposed as “uncentered, dispersed, plural and partial” (1996, 259), and the logical consequence of very conscious political decisions. Rather than asking the time-old question of ‘what can be done’, they seek to find out ‘what is already being done’ (Graham and Roelvink, 2010) in order to render capitalism as simply one among a number of avenues to take toward development. This new language denounces the alternative versus mainstream binary, which tends to give more credence to the mainstream than it deserves (Cameron and Wright, 2014). Instead it seeks to replace the binary opposition of mainstream vs. alternative with a representation of the economy as a space of difference (Hill, 2014), re-theorising the economy as a multi-vocal and contradictory phenomenon, a rich and diverse mix of capitalist and non-capitalist activities. Spaces are redefined as beyond-capitalism, rather than capitalist-becoming (Wright, 2010). At the core of this is the negotiation of interdependence (Gibson-Graham and Roelvink, 2009), a recognition which renders the notion of the community economy as inherently non-essentialist as it does not advocate one particular model of development but embraces them all (Dixon, 2010).
Consequently, rather than being perceived as “out there, in the stock markets and corporate headquarters of global cities” the economy is “domesticated, brought down to size and made visible as a site of everyday activities and familiar institutions” (Graham and Roelvink, 2010). This has significance for potential solutions to contemporary problems, as rather than inferring that the economy can only be defeated and replaced by a mass-collective movement equal in size and force to that perceived of capitalism, this perspective suggests that a more realistic option is to transcend its limits (1996, 263). This will be explored further in the next chapter on the subject of scale.
This new economic discourse also subjects people in different ways, allowing them to experience themselves as free from capitalism and therefore enabling them to assume power in new ways and creating alternative economic identities that they can take on (Gibson-Graham, 2002). Rather than just perceiving of themselves as a wage labourer or capitalist consumer, they can recognise and build upon the many other identities that they own, thus reconceptualising themselves as active, innovative and effective agents of change (Little et al. 2010)
Applying this thinking to food systems highlights the need to shift from capitalocentric understandings of “food alternatives”, to “food diversity” (Cameron and Wright, 2014), and to put people at the centre of the model unlike agribusiness models which distance the producer from the consumer (Gross, 2011). This re-framing can help us recognise the diverse ways in which food in produced, distributed and consumed in the city. It can put forward community gardens as a legitimate part of the food landscape, and those who engage in it as active subjects in shaping diverse food futures (Larder et al. 2012), contributing towards the urban public good and right to the city (Harvey, 2008). This does not infer ignoring the “realities” and challenges of food systems, it just means accepting the politics of any reality and allowing for new ways of thinking and being in the world to emerge (Hill, 2014). Once again, Viljoen’s (2005) concept of CPUL resonates well with this non-essentialist thinking, seeking to incite a new socio-economic thinking and build upon the urban tissue rather than erase it completely, inciting incremental changes and diverse initiatives which exist alongside one another in various space types.

A Question of Scale:

One big one or lots of little ones?

Implicit in the community economy theory is the issue of scale, which inevitably must be brought to the table when discussing possibilities of ‘scaling up’ community food growing in Bristol. Talk of scale has sky-rocketed through observations about our increasingly “globalised” world (Moore, 2008), but what does it actually mean? According to the online Cambridge Dictionary, to scale something up is “to increase the size, amount, or importance of something, usually an organization or process”. Implicit in this are specific assumptions about the constitution and order of scale; that it is vertical, anchored by the endpoints of the global-local binary (Jones et al, 2007), fixed (Delaney and Leitner, 1997), and inherently hierarchical (Cameron and Hicks, 2013) with the global at the top of the hierarchy, followed by national, regional and local scale. This hierarchy assumes that power and influence come from above “The global is a force; the local is its field of play…The global is penetrating, synonymous with abstract space; whilst the local is penetrated and transformed, coded as place, community and defensiveness, small and relatively powerless; defined and confined by the global” (Gibson-Graham, 2002, p27).
This scalar thinking however obscures “the manifold ways in which such issues are created, constructed, regulated and contested between, across and among scales” (Bulkeley, 2005, 877). It is described by Moore (2008, p206) as ‘politically regressive’ because it unhelpfully reproduces socio-spatial inequalities and chokes off possibilities of resistance. It also implies that globally marshalled power is the only way to challenge globalisation, a view reinforced by Swyngedouw (2004). Gibson-Graham however criticises Swyngedouw’s assumption that power is naturally appropriated by the global and that local struggles need to be conducted on a larger scale in order to counteract globalisation (2002). For Cameron and Hicks (2013), this view limits our ability to recognise the transformative potential of grassroots initiatives, which are often seen as marginal endeavours, too small and fragmented; unable to match the global scale of contemporary issues and therefore stimulating reactions of assumed naivety (Gibson-Graham, 2002). Gibson-Graham advocates a need to overcome popular perceptions which link diversity with images of a fragmentary politics- the very enemy of “collective resistance” (2002, p29). She argues instead for the constitutive power of small and local processes (Gibson-Graham, 2002), inciting social transformations not just through large scale, coordinated political action but also through multiplying and diversifying small endeavours, (Cameron and Hicks, 2013), to transcend the limits of capitalism. Indeed, smaller scales have been supported as being preferable in urban agriculture initiatives for their ability to respond appropriately to changes in the market (Hodgson et al, 2001), changes in taste, for their genuine grassroots participation and community activity (Viljoen, 2005), and due to the “smallness and patchiness of human knowledge”, which according to Schumacher (1985, p22) relies on experiment more than on understanding.
Once again, language is a “fundamental ingredient” to how we perceive scale (Delaney and Leitner, 1997), and taking a discursive approach, we can reveal how scale is not just an external fact awaiting discovery, but a way of framing conceptions of reality (Ibid. 1997), operating epistemologically, as a lens (Jones et al, 2007) and comprising of networks of social associations that shape and transform spaces (Smith and Kurtz, 2003). This thinking allows us to “tune out the louder worlds” that steal our attention and frame our understandings of grassroots initiatives (Law, in Cameron and Hicks, 2013, p55). However, whilst avoiding these traditional assumptions of the global-local binary, we also need a richer understanding of scale than simply reverting to the logic that “global is bad, local is good” (Cameron and Wright, 2014).
An alternative to this stubborn scalar thinking has been expressed as a ‘flat ontology’, in which power and influence are not assumed to operate in from the top-down but according to the interweaving of the relationships and interactions which comprise of the specific site (Cameron and Hicks, 2013). Here, sites are “self-organising event-spaces dynamically composed of bodies, doings and sayings” (Jones et al, 2007, p265) which are “continually transformed through unfolding network connections with more extensive spaces” (Moore, 2008, p206). Consequently, traditional assumptions are challenged; scale is no longer seen as vertical or fixed but redefined as a process (Gross, 2011), and the hierarchy is shattered as power and influence are no longer seen to come from the top down but within and between network connections, allowing us to see the possibilities for action that are latent in any site or situation (Cameron and Hicks, 2013). This shifts the focus from a situation where projects are competing with others for “their portion of the funding pie” (Gibson and Cameron, 2001, p15) to collaborating to overcome joint obstacles and seize mutually beneficial opportunities, as noted by the Bristol Guild of Food Producers (2014). Therefore, it’s less a case of increasing the size, and more a case of multiplying and diversifying the number of valuable, mutually empowering relationships within these unfolding network connections. These can impact through their constitutive power, as well as their ability to work on “hearts and minds”- contributing to long term and wider catalytic effects (Cameron and Hicks, 2013, p62). As Viljoen states, “the key ingredient is people”, and whilst size determines the yield, it cannot determine the success of a site, it is the interconnectivity that will determine this (2005, 220).

Liberating Community:

Sustainability and the C-word

Another component of scalar thinking concerns the concept of ‘community’, the analysis of which is integral to exploring community gardens. Sustainable development is seen to operate most effectively on a grassroots, bottom-up level (Holland, 2004) and community is often referred to as the desirable social unit (Dixon, 2010), particularly on the topic of growing food (Larder et al. 2012). They are deemed “the preferred antidote to a host of contemporary social problems” (Pudup, in Cameron et al, 2010), which offer “the most fertile ground for planting seeds of change” (Winne, in Gross, 2011, p191). However, despite its popularity, ‘community’ remains difficult to define (Dominelli, in Holland, 2004). Many definitions move beyond mere geographical contexts to define it as a collection of people with differing but harmonious views, skills and perceptions (Khan, in Holland, 2004), shared interests and philosophies (Holland, 2004), connected by a common purpose (Firth et al. 2011), connoting a desire to overcome individuality and difference to produce a social wholeness and mutual identification (Young, in Gibson and Cameron, 2001).
However, this romanticised and somewhat nostalgic reference to an idealised model of organic connection tends to fall on deaf ears (Gibson and Cameron, 2001), and risks being unreflexive and defensive (Winter, 2003, Harris, 2009). Morton argues that “communities have become a cult, an object of warm-and-fuzzy ritual worship for politicians of all stripes, academics and the rapidly expanding new class of social commentators…nobody can get enough of the c-word…It is the camouflage behind which government has conducted a massive withdrawal from society in terms of its economic responsibilities, while at the same time promoting conservative, moralistic “community values” that endorse greater public involvement in citizens’ private lives” (in Gibson and Cameron, 2001, p1). In this way, it can be harnessed by different people to hide different agendas. This is the argument used by many academics who adopt a Foucauldian stance in arguing that community interventions can be used in a neoliberal context in order for community gardens to become a disciplinary and normalising technology, imposing qualities of individual responsibility, self-reliance, self-help and self-improvement (Cameron et al, 2010, Hobson and Hill, 2010, Allen et al. 2003, Pudup, 2008). Community initiatives are therefore often dismissed as being inevitably co-opted into the neoliberalisation of the environment (Cameron and Hicks, 2013). But what if the market can operate according to other principles? This framing of community initiatives as inevitably neoliberalist can limit the ability to recognise new political openings (Harris, 2009).
Gibson-Graham (2001 and 2006) advocates a more nuanced and less essentialist understanding of the constitution of community, liberating it from its implications of commonality and sameness, where ‘community’ is bound to conform to local, small-scale, face-to-face interaction (Dixon, 2012). These traditional understandings are limiting in two ways. Firstly, their implications of shared values risk an exclusionary moralism which limits possibilities for connections and economic experimentation (Miller, 2013). Secondly, they portray subjects as being already constituted, fixed and within a constructed ‘oneness’, therefore undermining ‘becoming’ as a way of being (Nancy, 1991, p5).
To overcome this, Gibson-Graham adopts Nancy’s ethical praxis of being-in-common which sees community as being based on a common existence rather than a common being, property or value. Here, the community economy remains in a constant state of ‘becoming’; requiring a daily ethical practice of “stitching, undoing and restitching” (2006, p183). This portrayal is characterised by a non-exclusionary, radical openness, in which all humans exist in community with others and the essence of ‘being’ is ‘being with’ co-present others in space and time (Popke, 2009, 18), allowing communities to connect with a diverse range of people and practices (Miller, 2013). Social networks are therefore evidently central to this distinction between understandings of community as denoting a ‘common being’, and community denoting ‘being-in-common’, working together to achieve both shared and individual ends (Dixon, 2010). This new fluidity enables us to see that there are many models of community. Despite its contested nature then, this paper takes community as the unit of inquiry by adopting a similar perspective of being-in-common.


Through my volunteering on the community garden sites across Bristol and the interview discussions, an understanding of the many binaries involved in community gardening discourses emerged that were both broad and in-depth, expected and surprising. Through conversation, these binaries were unpicked and challenged, and community garden discourse was brought into question as a strong factor in the way that they manifest themselves in reality. The following is an analysis of how these findings incorporate elements of the community economy theory and how this can be translated into a vision for scaling-up community gardening in Bristol. These analyses are organised in respect to my original research questions.

Economic Diversity in Bristol’s Community Gardens

The first research question was interested in finding out ‘what is already being done’, and how are community gardens in Bristol enacting the community economy. In keeping with Gibson-Graham’s theory of the economy infact being a site of difference and diversity, observations showed a wide variety of capitalist, alternative and non-capitalist enterprises, labour and transactions across Bristol’s community gardens. Transactions took the form of capitalist commodity exchange as well as exchange according to ethical and organic value, bartering, donations and gift giving, foraging and gleaning. Labour existed in both wage-labour forms as well as on a more informal voluntary basis paid in produce from the gardens, self-employed work, reciprocal and collective labour. Enterprise manifested itself according to both capitalist as well as more communal and cooperative principles, with surplus being distributed among non-producers, invested in social infrastructure for social and environmental benefits. These are noted in more detail in Fig.2 below.
As noted earlier, the production of food did indeed appear to be secondary to most of the other benefits across the gardens, and it was argued to be about “more than just carrots” (Speaker at LFF). The spaces reflected the unifying qualities of gardens noted by Viljoen, in that they tended to overlap between greenspace, dwelling and use (Viljoen, 2005) combining productive food-growing with spaces of social events, learning, celebrations, therapy, leisure, enterprise and work. As one diary entry described, “Many run days for adults with special needs or mental health problems, or educational days for children to connect them with nature, and engage with businesses in order to promote connections with nature and wider sustainable issues”. One garden operated with the goal of promoting community cohesion in areas where there had often been racial or ethnic tensions. Most of the gardens organised events linking their own activities to address wider issues of land security, public health, ecological biodiversity, resilience and sustainable food production.
Viewing community gardens through the community economy lens shows how they are created and sustained in ways that persistently defies the logics and demands of capitalism (Wright, 2010). It reveals the various ways in which they are able to tap into valuable urban assets and resource flows, turning linear throughputs into more circular systems (Viljoen, 2005, Bell and Cerulli, 2012) and making use of things generated by cities which are typically wasted in capitalist markets, such as heat, energy and organic waste (Carey, 2011), proving that ecosystems generate no waste (Capra, 2005). This perspective also provides a logical justification for the place of community gardens in cities, challenging the idea that agriculture is not an appropriate urban land use, and framing it in a wider physical and functional context (Hodgson et al. 2011). Acknowledging these diverse practices was fundamental to beginning to repopulate the discursive arena of community gardens and the values and meanings embodied in these acts, which will now be examined in the remaining discussion.

Uncovering Assumptions

In my research I was interested in finding out how practices are enabled or inhibited through broader discursive framing, and how the community gardeners with whom I had been working construct, represent, and account for community gardening. There was a real feeling of positivity in much of the conversations concerning community gardening in Bristol; “Bristol is absolutely thriving…it’s inspiring” (LFF speaker), expressing rejections of “problem focused culture” (LFF speaker) which resonated with the difficulties described by Gibson-Graham about shifting about from the “paranoid practices of critique and mastery” which tend to focus on what is wrong with the world (in Cave et al. 2012. p41). However, despite this initial apparent optimism for community gardens, on closer examination and through a critical study of the discourse used, I was able to detect a capitalocentric and therefore limiting language. This was also noted in my own reflective diary, where I struggled to avoid resorting to bold sweeping statements about the dire situation of neoliberal agriculture and overbearing presence of capitalism.
There were particular discursive strategies mobilised by community gardeners to account for and legitimise specific practices, harnessing a variety of binaries (see Fig. 3). One device which was used was one which pitched an ‘us’ against ‘them’, often inferring that “we’re doing good, others are doing bad”, as noted by Kurz et al. (2005). One participant explained; “we are so clearly the good guys in this, and Monsanto and all, they are so obviously the baddies” (Ken). Repetitive referral to “them” and “they” prompted reflections as to who actually ‘they’ were, and could be seen to be working as a form of blame, positioning the speaker as outside of the issue (Kurz et al. 2005). Implicit in this was also a reflection of the familiar political narrative mentioned earlier by Cameron and Wright (2014) which pits the powerless many in a struggle against the powerful few; “it is all decided a bunch of men in stuffed shirts in a boardroom somewhere” (Julie).
Indeed, this theme of assumed powerlessness was prevalent in all discussions throughout the study, with a complex that they are seen as “just these tiny little insignificant projects…powerless and hippyish” (Sam), “they think we are a bunch of hippies” (LFF speaker), “we’re just herded around” (Julie). There was a belief that community gardens existed in spite of and in opposition to the economy; “that is the ‘real world’, and we’re allergic to it” (Anita), “It’s contrary to everything in our system for something like this [Sims Hill Shared Harvest CSA] to exist)” (Growing Power speaker), existing ”against all odds” (Sam). They perceived themselves to be in opposition to “the system”, and there was frequent reference to an ‘economic climate’, adopting the capitalocentric framing which functioned to make it seem like a natural force. As explored earlier, there was a sense of despair and inevitability in participants’ descriptions of capitalism; “these projects are like juggernauts” (LFF speaker). One participant spoke how “[community garden projects] all just seem to get swallowed up by building projects at some point or another” (Julie). This reflected the perception of such spaces as being threatened and disappearing (Martin, 2009), and employed what Gibson-Graham call ‘the development discourse’, a story of linear growth which positions all non-capitalist initiatives as pre-capitalist and naturally co-opted into the neoliberal frame, emphasising their imminent destruction (Gibson-Graham, 2000).
This assumption of powerlessness very much linked up to discursive strategies which harnessed the global-local binary. These adhered to assumptions about its perceived hierarchical structure; “these are global things …hard to challenge just on this level” (Ken), presenting ‘local’ as inevitably insignificant, contained and ultimately dominated by global capitalist economy (Gibson-Graham, 2002). We can see these scalar assumptions affecting their imagined solutions to problems of feeding the city sustainably. “What we need is a revolution, but people are so fixed in their day-to-day lives that it is impossible to do this, to rally the troops” (Ken) depicting the only means of transformation as an apocalyptic one, on the same scale as capitalism. This is immediately dismissed as being impossible, demonstrating how the acceptance of this binary creates the belief that they cannot go against it.
This revolutionary undertone was maintained in discussions concerning how to best communicate with others ‘outside’ of the gardens, with individuals advocating the need to “stand up” and “have our voices heard” (LFF speaker). Nonetheless, there were also contrasting opinions between and within the community gardeners, who argued for a need to “not be childish and reactionary”, to “meet heart to heart and eye to eye” (LFF speaker). One woman claimed “we need to learn to speak their language” (LFF speaker) when discussing the interface with developers and planners. This resonates with Cameron et al. who state that the language of objectivity that has been otherwise condemned in this study can be used due to the fact that this is what resonates with certain audiences sometimes (2011). However, it is perhaps questionable as to what realities this is then creating, as this limited capitalocentric language is perpetuated through repetition. Rather than taking a reactionary or a capitalocentric stance, this paper argues for a language of difference.
Despite positive feedback on projects, there was also a degree of embarrassment detected in participants’ language, insinuating a tendency to feel shame for their opinions and stances; “I sound stupid” claimed one participant on discussing his optimistic views for community gardens, and one LFF speaker apologised “Sorry…I probably sound like a hippy” when discussing values for nature in cities. This exhibits Howard’s (2008) distinction between a high-status language- based on misguided yet widely accepted assumptions, and a low-status language- characterised by community-based values, concepts of self-sufficiency, place, craft, mutual support and everyday experiences, which is often dismissed as unnecessary. For Jickling, we need to stop apologising for those values that cannot be measured by scientific experimentation, and need to speak confidently about cultural, spiritual, aesthetic and intrinsic values (Jickling, 2001, Jamieson, 1998). This apologetic mechanism operated to render their own opinions as deviant and invalid, demoting themselves to a subordinate position of powerlessness.
The place of community gardens in the city was also expressed in relation to the urban-rural binary; the assumption that the urban and the rural are opposites (Scott et al. 2007); “[food production] is bound to be different here, because that was the country, and this is the city…a whole different kettle of fish really…” (Ken). This reflects the assumption that nature is seen as the antithesis to the city, beyond the city and the civilised (Sibley, 2001, Viljoen, 2005). Arguably, when fundamental assumptions see nature as being inherently opposed to the city, imaginings of future possibilities for community gardens will be radically restricted. It was also possible to detect socio-cultural biases which were outlined earlier, concerning specific assumptions about what a city should be. Sam stated how community gardening at present didn’t really appear to be “living in the 21st century”, implying a backwardness and counter-modern qualities, and Julie advocated a need for gardens to keep up with developments in the city “they’re getting so sleek now, I see pictures. We need to fit in with that somehow”. This provided distorted and seemingly objective representations of modernity and progress, to which community gardens must align themselves, or else fail.
There were also implicit depictions of community conforming to the romantic, traditional meanings discussed earlier, referred to as “a proper chocolate tin village” by Ken when discussing his childhood community, invoking the rural idyll as well as the “warm and fuzzy” connotations that Morton slandered earlier (in Gibson-Graham, 2001). This can be seen as being tied to a specific time and place (the participant’s childhood village) and therefore fixed and unchanging, presenting community as something potentially incompatible with the city, and risking excluding individuals with differing beliefs, ethos or values.
One surprising outcome from my observations concerned gender. In many of the gardens, women far outweighed the men, in terms of both volunteers and paid positions. Whilst this characteristic is generally restricted to urban agriculture in the global south (Viljoen, 2005) it is nonetheless significant. It could mean that there is a gendered element to the limited reach of community gardens, denoting a gender bias that does not recognise work done by women as a legitimate economic activity, seeing community gardening as ‘women’s agriculture’ even though it feeds the family and frees income for other expenditure (Smit et al. 2001).
Discourses tended to subscribe heavily to capitalist criteria of what is economic and what is uneconomic, particularly concerning the assumption that money must be made for something to be economic. Traditionally, an activity is deemed uneconomic if it fails to earn an adequate profit in terms of money to those who undertake it (Schumacher, 1985). Whilst championing the voluntary nature of much community garden work, participants expressed a need for more paid positions and profit, which, as discussed earlier, could potentially lead to a denial of an activities right to existence if it does not comply with this. A shared concern for a lack of time as being a key barrier to getting people involved (also noted by Gross, 2011 and Bristol Food Network, 2015), was perceived to be resolved by monetary compensations for individuals’ time, provoking thoughts as to how time should be valued.
From this exploration of discourse, we can identify a range of discursive barriers operating to justify or condemn certain activities. There appears to be a discrepancy between the rhetoric of the global economic order and the rhetoric of everyday experiences, between the hegemonic language of capitalism and that of economic difference; “I can put my cynical hat on and say that I think it is all doom and gloom […] But then again I can be the optimist and say that these collectives of projects are really powerful” (Sam). The final section will investigate if, and how, a new community garden discourse can be mobilised in order to expand the politics of possible and support the proliferation of gardens.

Developing the New Community Garden Discourse

I use the word ‘developing’ deliberately, as it connotes an understanding that such a language for sustainability already exists; merely requiring the appropriate conditions to become established (Howard, 2008). Indeed, through reflective discussions, the voices of non-capitalist practices began to emerge to reveal community gardens as incredibly diverse and intentional spaces-beyond-capitalism, disclosing many potential ways that we may expand the opportunities and possibilities for community gardens.
After prompting a deeper and more reflective response from participants, a variety of non-economic imperatives emerged. ”Yeah I could go down the shop and buy a bag of potatoes for a lot less money and time than I have probably invested in growing them, but I am not measuring it for its market value” said Sam, who later reflected on the values of knowing where the food has come from, and knowing its “story”, reflecting a drive to “re-establish trust, transparency and traceability in the food system”, as noted by Little et al. (2010, p1807). This also contradicted earlier arguments for compensating time with money, indicating a need to reconsider how we value our time. At the ‘Growing Power’ event, the audience discussed the meaning behind food, relating it to place and their shared heritage, which resonates with Wright’s observation that food production is also valued in ways that are intensely culturally and socially embedded (2010). These values show that other worlds exist, exposing the economy as a place of ethical action, not of submission to the ‘bottom line’ or the imperatives of capital, as is implied (Gibson-Graham and Roelvink, 2011). Beyond this, there were also deeper fundamental speculations as to what is ‘economic’ and what is ‘uneconomic’. Traditionally, an activity is deemed uneconomic if it fails to earn an adequate profit in terms of money to those who undertake it (Schumacher, 1985). The community gardeners, however, appeared to disagree with this, challenging it in two key ways. ‘Economic’ was redefined as the amount of wellbeing received from the activity; “it’s not just food though, I am also exercising, physically, mentally and spiritually, I am connecting to nature, and I am ticking all these boxes of the things that I need to survive” (Sam). Secondly, it was redefined as earning benefits for more than just those who engage in it; “we’re all working for the benefit of each other here, it is the opposite of selfish and individualistic” (Julie), thus highlighting the community economy as cultivating the self as a communal subject (Gibson-Graham, 2001).
The global/local binary and assumptions about power were contested by reflections on what the economy is; “the economy […] drives us all to earn money and buy things […] but then when I think about it like this, and hear myself saying it, it sounds silly. Because ‘the economy’ isn’t really real…it’s not a thing, it’s just how people work […] And it’s when I look at things like that that I can say that these kinds of projects are powerful because they are made up of people, just like the economy is. Why should it always be this thing of ‘poor us, we are powerless’, when it is all just people?” (Sam). This highlights the community economy as resocialising the economy, and echoes the argument made by Cameron et al (2014) that things do not act by themselves, there are only relations. This deconstruction exposes it as “plural and partial” (Gibson-Graham, 2006), resulting in solutions appearing a lot less daunting (Cloke et al. 2005). The emphasis on relations reflects the flat ontology described earlier by Cameron and Hicks (2013) in which power operates according to the interweaving of the relationships and interactions which comprise of the specific site (Cameron and Hicks, 2013). Similarly, through reflection, discourses of scale also began to challenge assumptions of size, hierarchy and power; “it’s not all about size because that doesn’t necessarily mean it will succeed in terms of sustainability […] we as a society don’t actually need to scale up our food production, but we need to shift it into other places (Isobel), implying ethical negotiations and decisions about the place and process of food production, rather than simply its size.
Participants also reconsidered their definitions of what constitutes as good urban design. Julie challenged the aesthetical assumptions about cities, arguing “it doesn’t all have to be clean cut and polished […] gardens can be normal and accepted in cities, they can be urban and beautiful at the same time […] it doesn’t all have to be so grey”. This can be seen to reflect Viljoen and Bohn’s concept of the urban ornament as being inherent in the visual patterns within the layout of community gardens (Viljoen and Bohn, 2009), challenging the idea of community gardens being simply a utilitarian landscape. Julie further questioned the definition of green spaces in cities as merely “a privatised view suitable only for the passive gaze of the privileged” (Mitchell, in Smith and Kurtz, 2003), arguing that they are “more than just somewhere to go and walk your dog”, and suggesting a more productive concept is necessary, like that of the CPUL. One speaker at the LFF criticised perceptions of urban land as being a site of development, reserved for shopping centres and roads, and food as being “out there”, grown elsewhere, challenging the urban-rural divide. This framing ultimately works to dismantle the image of the seemingly sterile and speculative site of consumption that the city has come to represent, and reconstructs ideas of nature so that cities can become part of it, as advocated by Viljoen (2005).
Despite definitions of community which seemed to echo traditional meanings, there was also a new concept that began to emerge on reflection of its potential new meaning. For example, Sam reflected; “I don’t think it’s all just an old-fashioned thing though…some people…make it sound like we’re going back to the good old days…I don’t think we’re going back to anything”. He highlighted the risks of exclusionary moralism “…actually, it was pretty racist, like…I would probably not be welcome on a garden back then”, challenging notions of sameness often accredited to meanings of community. The radical openness of Nancy’s (1991) ethic of being-in-common, with community as being in a state of becoming, was captured in people’s distinction of what makes it a community garden, which for them was due to it being “free”, “open 24 hours a day”, “open to anyone” and “a safe space”, responding to Feenstra’s description of the need for social space, where social interactions can take place and opportunities for coming together in a safe environment (2001). This ties to the notion of ‘being’ as ‘being-with’ (Nancy, 1991), emphasising the integral role of the relationships between people. In many of the discussions, there was a sense of progression rather than regression back to “traditional” ways, a sense of ‘moving forward’ out of capitalism, counteracting the assumption that everything is naturally subsumed by capitalism (Wright, 2010) and presenting community gardens as post-capitalist rather than pre-capitalist (Martin, 2009).
Rather than the tendency to read for dominance, discussions demonstrated an ability to read for difference as well, mirroring the anti-essentialist nature of the community economy. There was typically a notion of excitement about diversity and difference between people and approaches, which is, according to Dixon (2014), more likely to advance socio-environmental change. Rather than simply creating a binary of them vs. corporate agri-food business, they recognised the diversity of activities; “there’s more to it than just an ultimatum between what we’re doing […] and what is perceived to be the mainstream economy” (Sam). Isobel stated “[these projects] are not capitalist but then in some ways they are. They certainly sit alongside it […] we are not completely independent from the system […] more than anything we are trying to carve out a space amongst that”, responding to community economy notions of “creating space” in which these initiatives can germinate (Feenstra, 2001, 101). This can be seen in action in the recent confrontation between the Metrobus scheme and the Blue Finger land in Bristol, which created a discursive arena in which food production has been put on the cities agenda. One diary entry reflected “whether this ‘road vs. community garden’ binary raises important questions as to whether binaries can be constructive” as one side brings the other into debate rather than being necessarily oppressive, as indicated earlier by Sibley (2001).
A crucial part of my research was also interested in their economic identities, finding out how the community gardeners could experience themselves as free from the “body-snatching grip” of capitalocentric discourse (Gibson-Graham, 2002). Many participants began by appealing to capitalocentric discourse which repositioned them as outside the economy leading to identities evoking subservience, victimhood and economic impotence (Gibson-Graham, 2000). Some didn’t have waged employment at the time, and one had been recently made redundant, and they spoke of their feelings of ‘uselessness’ and lack of self-worth. Through conversation, my research sought to assist them in recognising and identifying with alternative economic subject positions framing them as valuable agents rather than victims within the economy (Gibson-Graham, 2001). Upon deliberation, participants were able to identify the many ways in which they participated in the economy other than wage labour, both within and outside of the gardens. Discourse progressed to a more positive and empowered representation of themselves as economic subjects; “I certainly meet my own needs through gardening, and probably help other people too” (Ken) “I even get to decide what exactly I get to eat […] what variety of tomatoes, type of salads” (Julie). This is a more fluid, unfixed economic identity, constantly under construction through the daily practices that leave openings for re-invention (Gibson-Graham, 2000).
There was an emerging recognition of the importance of discourse in constructing their available opportunities, both prompted and unprompted. One speaker at the LFF advocated a need to have confidence it telling this “story”, and Sam also referred to a need to change the “story” in favour of community gardens, whilst Isobel saw the main barrier to the proliferation of community gardens as being “in our mind”. This is important, as it is stories rather than data which is more likely to appeal to policymakers (Feenstra, 2001). Attention to definitions was also stressed as being important, as the audience at the ‘Growing Power’ event discussed how the challenge of food sustainability is a question of defining what food is, challenging its definition as simply ‘substance’ to having to meet a certain criteria of sustainable production.
From this analysis, we can detect a variety of negotiations of different non-economic imperatives involving social, cultural and ethical values as well as more fundamental negotiations of what they consider to be economic in the first place, redefining profit as being measured by well-being rather than monetary, and benefitting a wider community rather than the individual. These amalgamate to create what I have named here to be the community garden discourse. Here, a deconstruction and resocialisation of the economy reframes action as incremental, cumulative and people-centred, and economy as a site of decision-making, “carving out space” rather than proclaiming a revolution, and reframing reality as a “story” which is told through negotiations on a day-to-day basis. The urban is reconstructed as a site of nature, and gardens as both productive and beautiful, challenging the seeming incompatibility of community gardens and cities. Community is renegotiated to create a new, unprejudiced, radically open and fluid meaning which might best serve the proliferation of community gardens, progressive rather than regressive. And as we have discussed, these transformations have important ramifications for economic identities, reconstituting subjects according to their daily experiences on the gardens and putting them in a position of power. This new post-capitalist perspective thus presents community gardens in ways that make their transformative potential more apparent and more real (Cameron and Hicks, 2013).
Rather than any unifying ethics, evident in these results is the complex negotiated nature of values, which complements the diverse ways in which sustainability is applied and contested. For Ratner (2004), sustainability is meaningful not for its ability to unify different, simple and comprehensive solutions, but because it brings differences together “into a common field of dispute, dialogue, and potential agreement as the basis of collective action”, providing a rationale for seeing participation as necessary for deliberating the ends and means of development, rather than some obligation towards a predetermined goal, thus rendering it as inherently and truly democratic. Points of intervention are therefore brought down to these daily negotiations, using critical discourse a way to reveal new possibilities and opportunities.


This research has explored how discourse contributes to, or undermines, the scaling up of community gardens in Bristol. It did this by first addressing how community gardens in Bristol are indeed enacting the community economy, and then moved on to investigate how discourse is currently inhibiting or supporting the scaling up of community gardens, and how it may be altered to expand the opportunities and possibilities for community gardens and their place in the urban fabric.
The results have shown that, in response to Carey’s well-documented question ‘Who Feeds Bristol’; a plethora of different growers from across the city are engaging in a number of capitalist, alternative, and non-capitalist economies to produce “a highly pixelated mix of different practices” (Little et al. 2010, p1811). It has argued that the way we talk about community gardens has important ramifications for their perceived opportunities and barriers, and therefore it is through talking that we can increase the chances of generating new emergent possibilities (Cameron et al. 2014). Whilst many people may condemn the tendency to merely talk about problems, Kurz et al (2005) show how talking can be understood as a social action in its own right, able to carve out a new reality, “naming the things that are absent” in order to break the spell of the things that are (Marcuse, in Jickling, 2001, p177). Through positive and open dialogue, we can open up interesting conversations about expanding these initiatives, allowing us to explore new routes of access and affordability (Little et al. 2010) and revealing more opportunities for community gardens’ proliferation. Such a discursive approach risks accusation that it denies the reality of environmental degradation (Kurz et al. 2005). However, rather than being merely a blind faith, or naïve optimism, by reframing community gardens in this way using what Cameron and Hicks term as an “ethos of hope”, we can confront the challenges that face us, embracing the struggle with worldly assumptions, and draw on hope as a resource for finding ways through them (2013).
This study was highly grounded and specific to Bristol, its community gardens, and gardeners within those gardens. The outcomes of this research may seem insignificant in the context of contemporary sustainability issues, but, as has been argued by many others, “what is needed in these uncertain times are modest experiments from which we can harvest practices for new worlds” (Cameron et al. 2011, 505). It has been argued that “there are no ‘final solutions’, only a living solution achieved day by day” (Schumacher, 1985, p218), depending on billions of decisions being made by a range of actors (Hill, 2014), so it is therefore the day-to-day experiences and decisions that must be explored. Despite this, I argue that this case study does offer scope for a wider reach. This is because the cumulative effects of these conversations can galvanise critiques of the global food system, transforming into “a rallying point around which to enact more sustainable ways of living (Little et al. 2010). Furthermore, using Soja’s (1980) concept of the socio-spatial dialectic, through discourse, people are able to instigate a mutually interacting process whereby they shape the structure of their environment and are simultaneously affected by the structure of that environment, thus pushing its effect to wider audiences. It can therefore be seen as “pebbles thrown into a pond, producing ripples and reverberations that will contribute not to a massive overhaul or revision of a seemingly dominant food system but to the multiplication and proliferation of small scale endeavours” (Cameron et al. 2014. 129).
My intent has not been to create an ethnographic account of community gardens; but to contribute to building a picture of the economic relations and ways in which people are able to remake economies in different ways. This research is not a tidy and finite entity but rather a moment in a “chain of translation” (Callon and Law, in Cameron et al. 2014. 121). The most important implication for policy that arises from this study is a need to consider the discursive resources that individuals have at their disposal as being crucial influence in the scaling-up of community gardens. Future research may wish to explore discourse analysis to other aspects of sustainability in the city, or investigate deeper into the case of community gardening to explore how this new community garden discourse may best propagate into wider spheres. Issues of gender and the potential of binaries to be constructive, as touched upon in this paper, may offer interesting ground for further development.
The crucial implication of this for researchers will be acknowledging the significant role we play in the reproduction of discourse; facing a choice between continuing to marginalise the many hidden economic activities, or to make them the focus of research in order that they become more ‘real’, more credible, more viable and more present (Buchanan, 2014). Through this, we can identify practices that might be strengthened and reoriented towards enhancing sustainability (Gibson-Graham and Roelvink, 2011), negotiating how we can help participate in bringing these futures into being (Cameron et al. 2014).


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This entry has been an edit of my Master’s Thesis literature reviews and findings. The research was carried out in Bristol, UK, in 2015. If you would like to reference any of the information, please reference:

Denham. L. A (2015) Beyond Binaries in Bristol’s Community Gardens. University of the West of England, Bristol.

If you would like to get in touch about this research, please contact me at


One thought on “Community Gardening in Cities

  1. Pingback: A Quiet Revolution – Foodprints

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