Leisure, Cultivation, Creativity, Politics

By David Crouch.

Emeritus Professor David Crouch (Cultural Geography); Humanities. University of Derby

Image: Painting by David Crouch

In this blog piece I reflect on leisure concerns and leisure-related policy through three books that have come my way in recent months. Things connect, in often unexpected ways. None of these books is explicitly and disciplinarily ‘Leisure’. Two of these books enlighten ideas of the significance of one of the most overlooked, often considered mundane components of leisure. Despite gardening being the most popular leisure in the UK and likely across much of the world, it is often ignored in leisure studies, yet other subject areas find it a valuable focus for understanding much of the unexpected character of leisure practices and their contemporary example in political action and leisure policy, mutual (in)tolerance and community relations, as well, with increasing prominence, environmentally responsible leisure, as well as health and good food supply. Matters of politics and policy, access to, and opportunity for leisure have long been at the centre of leisure studies and its association, and these are themes of leisure ingrained in these books.

The two books on cultivation happen to circulate around community gardening (‘allotment holding’ to those particularly in the UK). In a fascinating series Urban Agriculture, Carolin Mees’ book focuses fruitfully on Participatory Design and Self-building in Shared Urban Open Spaces: community gardens and casitas in New York City, published by Springer 2017. Carolin extends from New York across the similar but individually distinct histories and continuing occurrence of food cultivation in Germany, France, the UK and Canada, wrapping these distinctive stories to focus the distinctive character of half a century of Community Gardens in New York.

The New York experience displays the liveliness of community action (where these gardens appear from empty lots and badly cared for car parks, resonant of planting one million trees in German car parks hailed by the installation artist Joseph Beuys in the nineteen seventies). Especially from the nineteen sixties New Yorker activism for rented garden plot sites became intense, though building on long – smouldering pressures. Indeed, through recent decades New York has been pioneered popular action for land with superstar fame. Mee documents many aspects of this Movement, where experience was shared and tactics learnt by both community-cultivation activists and policy people. Policymakers came to appreciate that community gardens brought the twin emphases of Mee’s thesis: shared open spaces, self- design and construction of buildings that frequently serve as more than just a place for storing tools and crops. In places like the South Bronx the casitas, community and identity come together through the production of food amongst families. Casitas exemplify Puerto Rican homes and lives; and speak of their cultural identity and distinctive cultural heritage. At the same time, buildings became numerous and for local governments speak to some as poverty and even as an expression of illegal activities. It is ironic, as one source informs Mees, that casitas which have helped stabilise and revitalise neighbourhoods have unwittingly contributed to another wave of Puerto Rican displacement. Now four decades on, the building of casitas, robust homes providing close access to cultivate crops enhanced the districts in which they were found; real estate developers found them attractive as largely stabilised city zones. These stories are brilliantly illuminated with a richness of photographs, predominantly from Carolin’s own portfolios and frequently in colour, that would make authors in (at least) the UK most jealous. Mee is a professional photographer and community garden researcher.

The movement to claim land for these shared garden sites nourished many components of living, amongst which a central theme is political, in the sense of politicisation of the connected needs of the people; the importance of self- and collective identity, the practicality of making food at low-cost by doing it yourself, similarly with shared building help; being creative; sustaining communities and community relationships; changing policy at every level – all leisure characteristicsYet too often ‘political’ is hidden under the idea of ‘taking sides’ naked power, internal fighting, for land, for life. These oppositional impositions conceal (or can be construed to conceal) the richness of culture, creativity, shared living and designing, shared growing and much more that brings people together, replaces cities’ previous dullness with living things, brings together the identities of people needing better housing and those who want, need, to grow food- and come together. As in the UK and elsewhere, those with allotment garden plots and those in housing need are often put against each other by policy and official politics. In fact, they are both the victims of the same thing – wealth consolidation, to the shame of many policymakers in the UK in both central and local government, whilst in other districts, a humanitarian understanding accommodates both.

The thoughts, collaborations, actions and cultivation cut across numerous arenas of human creativity, and working with other-than humans in the cultivation. They sustain and can cement communities. These innovations can have challenges and ones that may need ‘outside’ support, help, much as life in any situation can. Groups of self-builders and cultivators of shared land can negotiate, can make things work. Importantly these connect the New York experience to campaigns and practical action across the world, for decent self-built homes and land to cultivate- a worldwide challenge, where leisure and work combine; conjoined with food security issues, climate change concerns and human rights to land. If in different terminologies over the centuries, these are perennial concerns and challenges for which people across Europe, US, Africa and Asia have acted and continue to act to secure their human need and rights.

The characteristics of Mee’s in-depth investigation (her Doctorate was with Professor Gert Groening, my allotment collaborator, at Berlin University) streams outwards in the varied themes and events in a book that prioritises the politics in gardening, Urban Gardening as Politics, edited by Chiaras Tornaghi and Certoma and published by Routledge 2019 in its series Equity, Justice and the Sustainable City. Over 20 authors contribute to 12 chapters that each focuses on one aspect of gardening with politics/political concerns/political actions at the fore. Their subject areas include environmental sciences and studies, human geography, sociology, education, planning, political economy and each contributor leans towards environmental sustainability.

‘as Politics’ encounters cultivation to be a right for people, access to growing food, almost as a necessary underpinning to living for millions across the world, where local action can be a vital components. Another growing activity and attitude surrounds guerrilla gardening, whereby individuals, most like in groups, temporarily occupy public land (without landowners’ permission) for the purpose of converting from spaces unfigured or marginal beautification to growing food. DIY citizenship takes the debate to Glasgow’s efforts to enable individual plotters to work collectively in organising the use of their site, rather than using a ‘citizenship’ model of individual plot renters’ isolation bureaucratically from each other. I am not sure that this collective, shared action tends to be excluded from allotments more generally. Rather, it is usually achieved as people get together spontaneously anyway whatever the ‘delivery mesh’. In each case there is a demonstrable politics in terms of attitude, values and beliefs, actions.

The editors’ and contributors’ speak in terms of social reproduction and environment matters intersecting; of urban planning and the production of space being crucial in the growing debate on equity and social justice in the city– concerns that might well occupy leisure ideas and policies in one way or another. One increasingly distinctive characteristic of common-or-garden allotments is that each plotholder is able to cultivate as they wish. Ironically the risk I have experienced occurred at a site near our previous home. Curious to take on a community group-shaped allotment plot, one of several run mainly by a very focused, keen ‘leader’ was my being directed as to what to grow on a slice of land during the first year I might have rented. I would spend that time only focused on looking after a strawberry bed; any see sowing to be done diurnally. Interesting local politics; a key idea of mine on allotments has always been its openness to individual- as well as group- creativity, freedom.

It is not clear to me why the title ‘urban’ is rendered the importance in the headline. Growing a fruit tree in a bit of land in ‘countryside’ or in a city space are much the same. The authors tend to identify collective involvement and action as the distinctive leitmotif of urban in this sense. Yet beyond that I would argue gently that generally, components of gardening on shared land, allotments/community gardens wherever they are is much the same: particular relationship with plants and other cultivators; being close to the ground; fresh air and a way to better sustaining health; the perhaps wider, deeper, rights to food; climate change and food security; rights to land for cultivation; defence of land from loss, development and alienation. Groups of people get to know each other and may act together over-allotment/community gardening matters. Curiously such campaigns, sometimes successful, are unconsidered in this collection; their concern is hybridic self-appointed action.

However, of what there is, each component action demonstrates leisure in action: caring; producing, creating/constructing/ resolving, bringing people together/ exploring one another, sharing actions or enabling enjoyed isolation; exercise and relaxation. The editors identify categories of gardening as politics. Whilst this collection looks beyond individual households, garden ownership or renting as part of a rented home, it may be argued that single-household gardening in private gardens may bear a political character too. The geographer Roger Lee found that amongst individual homes-with-gardens a cluster of bonds: simply swapping seeds and garden hints, ideas, tried methods; the possibility of pressure on policymakers to act in ways that may enable their gardening; local shared events. The politics is as much amongst as dividing people.

A third book to have reached my desk recently is about creativity and places of human activities, that necessarily include leisure practices. Across cultural geography during the last two decades or more there has been an increasing interest in our methods to enable a closer understanding and richness of what happens in life, in particular spaces, doing particular things, in ways that do not entrap life in narrow categories of making sense. The increasingly dated predominance of quantitative methods has of course contributed to this more creative innovation in research work. For some, a farther shore of this openness beyond tight and apparently tidy numbers has developed from collaborative research between geographers and artists of different kinds, from the design of sites of practices and events to actually engaging ‘respondents’ in artwork. This is a strong theme in my third book, Alison Barnes’ Creative Representations of Place, published by Routledge in its series Culture, Space and Identity. Alison is a graphic designer.

Barnes’ considerations in her own work remind me of the anthropologist of contemporary cultures, Daniel Miller, in his research for the book The Comfort of things: why things matter. In-depth interviews in people’s homes enable a thoroughgoing opening to what people say and the way they say it, connecting with simple but often much-loved objects around them at home. Barnes highlights the persistent importance of food, multi-culturalism and belonging; home, collecting and meaningful possessions: materiality, memory and affect, that all appear strongly in the words and images that individual ‘subjects’ may inscribe in their assemblages of things, bits, stuff, that matter to them – and why.

Other perhaps ‘experimental’ endeavours, often threatening to Research Councils because the research has such control, the panels fear them, are ways to engage ‘our’ ‘research subjects’ in creative practice; making drawings, visiting themed exhibitions of sculpture, for example the British sculptor Anthony Gormley’s work, often situated in particular unexpected surroundings, perhaps speaking to a different way of being there. In some of my own work, I have shared conversations with individuals without seeking ‘best places’ or reductively squeezing out the drops of idealisation in this or that location- for a walk, a football game, sailing, horse riding or helping out at a food bank. In these examples, just as in Sarah Cohen’s lively writing on music making at home or home-based knitting groups, leisure shifts from the category-limited to the realisation of creativity in what human beings do. A lot of this ‘stuff’ (evidence) may not satisfy immediate action-directed research. ‘Creativity’ became popular in leisure thinking when it came served as ‘creative industries’: ‘policy’ understood the point in making money; less in enabling a multitude of confidence, hope, opportunity, community building for its own (multiple) sake (each of which and much more indirectly save money!).

Sometimes the creative in new work prioritises improving the way we come to understand for the purposes of unpicking the complex. Beyond such a more introverted way of progress is the use of creative approaches to understand the creative power of individuals and collectivities around us – thereby to enable their greater influence and control over their own lives.

This way we can become critically aware of ourselves, better mutually to understand others, as long as we can be honest with ourselves too. Maybe this is to suggest that research and writing in our leisure studies might more confidently embrace such openness.

Some sources

Crouch 2019 Gardening and the garden forthcoming in Kobyashi A. editor, International Encyclopaedia of Human Geography Elsevier

Crouch D. and Parker G. (2003) Digging-up Utopia: space, place and land use heritage Geoforum34.3:395-408

Crouch D. and Ward C. (1988, 1993, 2008) The Allotment: its landscape and cultureLondon Faber and Faber, Nottingham, Five Leaves Books

Crouch D. (2016) Flirting with Space: journeys and creativity, London Routledge

Crouch D. Director and Author of national surveys of allotments, 1995 and 2006. (poacher and gamekeeper?) Government Reports.

Crouch D. Producer, The Plot BBC2 1994.

Lee R. (2000) Shelter from the Storm: geographies of regard in the worlds of horticultural consumption and production Geoforum31.2:137-157.

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