George McKay, Radical Gardening. Politics, Idealism and Rebellion in the garden, London, Frances Lincoln, 2011; 224pp, 12.99 [pounds sterling] paperback
If you have ever looked at gardening as a mere leisure and relaxation activity, and at gardens as places far from ordinary troubles and political struggles, Radical Gardening. Politics, Idealism and Rebellion in the garden by George McKay is the right book to challenge those ideas. Just forget about the description of the aesthetic pleasantness of multicoloured flower beds and the moral virtues plant care adds to daily people's life; do not expect any history of the progressive erasure of wilderness from modern cities, or about the art of creating a greener urbanscape. Far from these common interpretations of gardening, McKay proposes an altogether different perspective by exploring the political relevance of gardens and gardening in cities. He tells us a captivating story about the subversive, innovative and creative character of gardening and the role of gardens in western history, with particular focus on Britain and the United States. Specifically, the author offers readers a description of the public politics of gardening as developed, managed and transformed by grassroots movements.
The author spells out three intertwined plots in the book; the first provides a story of how green space has been progressively appropriated by people (through claiming, planning and planting) so as to become part of the public imaginary; the second follows the evolution of gardening rhetoric in political propaganda and in the constitution of social mentality; the last plot tell us about the connection between gardens, plants, flowers, gardening, and political ideologies. A further plot, in my opinion, emerges from the narrative; namely the constant shifting between gardens (and lands, terrains, parks, allotments, and so on) as ad hoc spaces for political expression, and gardens as the object of political claims. These two statuses of gardens (i.e. means and objects) are often not clearly distinguishable (some gardens, such as community gardens, are at the same time, places for the manifestation of people's political will and objects of their political claims). Nevertheless, it is evident that throughout history, gardens constituted a materialisation of political and social ideologies (this is the case with organicism, fascism, anarchism and so on), and the loci where a number of political issues 'condensed' (such as genetic modification issues, food policy, capitalist systems, multiculturalism and so on).
McKay's book intentionally focuses on the last two centuries but leaves aside certain types of gardens that represent the institutional point of view (such as the imperial garden, the public park celebrating the social order and governmental values, the landscape plans fuelled by states or private investors). The book moves from the first uses of public gardens as locations for subversive events and critical engagement at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and leads us to discover the way in which gardens, and urban green spaces in general, have been appropriated by the people through gardening; and how gardening entered the contemporary dialogic of the urban future and the 'extreme space in the contestation of cityscape' (p194). Ironically, even if public green spaces have frequently been provided by local authorities as a means to prevent revolutions, from the Victorian age onward, they rapidly evolved into venues for working class demonstrations and nurseries for social movements (Hyde Park is an example of this). As a consequence, public urban green spaces evolve into a space available for political activism, and 'function as a special zone for the common articulation of social change, social experimentation, the critical rejection of some aspects of society, and even the confrontation with authority' (p12). In the same years, the Garden City movement emerged. …