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More than flowers!

On the transformative practice of commoning urban gardens

Time: Mon 2023-11-13 10.00

Location: Kollegiesalen, Brinellvägen 8, Stockholm

Video link:

Language: English

Subject area: Planning and Decision Analysis, Strategies for sustainable development

Doctoral student: Nathalie Bergame , Strategiska hållbarhetsstudier

Opponent: Associate Professor Flaminia Paddeu, Université Sorbonne, Aubervilliers, France

Supervisor: Docent Rebecka Milestad, Strategiska hållbarhetsstudier; Universitetslektor Sara Borgström, Strategiska hållbarhetsstudier

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QC 20231019


Urban gardening is a burgeoning practice that increasingly takes place in urban centres of the world. In this thesis, I define urban gardens as socially mediated yet materially rooted phenomenon through which social and material relations are elaborated in common through time and space. And, I understand the garden not as an object, but as an entity that emerges out of the relationships between gardeners and non-human nature. I draw on the recent turn in commons’ theory shifting the focus on commoning, and not, as in earlier commons research, on the commons as structure. Grounded in the case of a new wave of urban gardening initiatives in the City of Stockholm, Sweden, I examine how commoning urban gardens transforms the people doing the gardening, the commoners, including their agency, subjectivity, and identity. But also how the commoners shape their structural environment.

Ontologically, I deploy a critical realist social theory perspective which means that I acknowledge the a priori existence of structures and agency and their conditioning by each other relationally. This means that I (i) look at how spatial, societal and temporal structures affect the agency of gardeners (ii) how those gardeners are affecting their structural environment through the practice of urban gardening, as (iii) well as how their agency is conditioned by the practice.

I deploy a qualitative mixed methods approach, comprising of interviews, a questionnaire, observations, participatory dissemination and poetic inquiry and find that high green public space availability in the City of Stockholm, municipal policies in favour of urban gardening, and a rich historic culture of associational life in Sweden provide a supportive context for urban gardening. I find that commoning gardens in public spaces bring together people and build collective relations despite a context of neoliberal individualisation. It emancipates individuals by reorganising the management of urban space, and changes how the City of Stockholm is urbanising towards more collective organising. Among those that partake in urban gardening, some remain grounded in a need-fulfilment (“I want to garden to be more in nature”), whereas others change through the commitment of being part of an urban garden, become political and collective subjectivities with a social identity that overlaps with their personal identity. This shows that structures condition people differently, and do not deterministically affect agency in the same way for everyone. Yet many remain entirely excluded from the new urban garden commons, such as people of colour, indicating that urban gardening, while it can be transformative for those that partake, is reproductive of structures of whiteness in urban public space. At the same time, historical structures of patriarchy in public spaces are being transformed. At the expense of the unpaid social reproductive labour of female gardeners, who make out the majority of urban gardeners, public green space is being transformed into spaces of care and community.

I conclude that urban gardening deserves a critical analysis of its immanent contradictions to safeguard against unwanted and unintentional reproduction of injustices and for the promotion of practices that emancipate and empower people.