1: Introduction

Author:

While introducing the case studies and the broad argument of the book, this chapter situates the intervention of the book in the international communal growing literature, explaining the approach to community, politics and justice as empirical phenomena. The introduction introduces the concept of escape as a useful way to think about a series of important questions about how the city is lived. Collective escape centres the relationship between communal growing’s urban intervention and its politics, providing insight into the way people within the urban community projects understand their action. The chapter fleshes out how thinking through escape as an ambivalent practice can move us beyond some of the arguments around politics and subject formation to appreciate communal growing as social action. It also sets out the ethnographic research that forms the methodological basis for the book’s argument.

A meadow in winter, a garden in spring

In the mornings, the North Kelvin Meadow is a calm place, periodically enlivened by dog walkers and people passing through as a shortcut to destinations both nearby and further afield in Glasgow. A mother and daughter pass through on the way to school, greeting the dogs. For them, passing through creates a break between the clamour to leave the house and the pressures of work and school. Others climb through the gaps in fences or walk between cheerfully painted bollards to sit among the trees reading a newspaper in a slither of sunlight coming through the branches of the birch trees. For some the meadow is a place to linger, to embrace the slowness of seasonality; or to speed up the boredom of having little to do. In the summer, the meadow’s tree-lined edge blocks out the surrounding houses, lending the space a sense of disconnection from the rest of the city. In the middle of the meadow, it opens out: raised beds along one side and into the corner, open grass in the middle, worn through by use in places to its previous red, crumbling sports surface.1

In my early research encounters with the meadow in December 2014, it was brittle with frost, the ground hard and the days short. Walking through with a local campaigner and long-time resident, Alasdair, who insisted that we leave the warmth of his flat where we were talking to take in the meadow around the corner in the early dusk of mid-winter, we spontaneously met others who wanted to talk about old shell casings found on the meadow, the history of the space. Alasdair was enthusiastic, garrulous even, in spite of the freezing temperatures. I had initially reached out to him to discuss the meadow’s fight against the sale of the land for development but Alasdair insisted that to understand the space and its value, I had to appreciate its rich, common ordinariness in person and immediately. As he put it, “It’s communal, everyone’s entitled to use it.” In the meadow, the intertwined threads of mundane use and political campaigning against its development highlight critical tensions around who makes the city and how it might be remade and reimagined.

The meadow is embedded in the rhythms of everyday life for many local people; an everyday green space in the fabric of the city. It reconnects them with the pace of meadow growth and seasonal change and offers a sanctuary of sorts. The meadow is a cyclical place, each year turning through the seasons. It has a collective rhythm of daily routines made up of moments of coalescence and dispersal. Connecting with these rhythms contains the potential for an escape from tarmac and concrete, from the dismal indoors, the frenetic or glacial pace of everyday life. It offers a change in tempo within everyday life (Sharma, 2014).

A brisk 20 minutes’ walk from the North Kelvin Meadow, towards the M8 motorway that runs through Glasgow’s heart, sits the Woodlands Community Garden. I first encountered the garden in the rain in April as it emerged from overwintering. Early in the growing season, there were few people about and most of the raised beds were under seaweed, a carpet of leaves or green compost. As the days got warmer, more people emerged to engage in collective cultivation and the beds too began to come to life. As a raised bed grower, Cathy, put it on a rare sunny day in spring, “The sun is bringing everyone out, they’re just sprouting!” This seasonality brings an annual pattern of decay and rebirth to the lives of communal growers, each spring marked by a reconnection to the garden and a recurrence of activity.

The Woodlands Community Garden site consists mostly of raised beds, landscaped up to street level from the foundations of the tenement that sat there until it burnt down in the 1970s. An individual or family owns each raised bed, and there are around 40 raised beds in total. It is an unstable number, as beds may be subdivided, rot and are reimagined, or are crafted from scratch by the team that work in the garden. Around them, the fruit trees and bushes are communally owned and tended in the space, along with communal beds and a tyre wall with herbs cascading down one side. The mulching compost bays slumber for months under pieces of donated carpet, warm and full of worms, until they are ready to be used; people drop off food waste and chop and turn younger compost. A shipping container filled with tools and useful paraphernalia sits towards the back of the site, close to the building known as the Hub. The aptly named Hub becomes a social centre twice a week during growing sessions, a space to share a conversation, a cup of tea and a biscuit. After the sessions end, the garden quietens down, with an occasional visitor perhaps popping by to read a book under the fruit trees. These rhythms of life in the growing project mark moments of escape. Done collectively, it is a communal escape and indeed an escape from individualized lives into communality itself. The vagaries of this collective escape are the focus of what follows in this book.

Communal growing projects

Communal growing projects are collective spaces of cultivation with varying levels of organization around them, often considered as community gardens or a form of urban agriculture. Pudup (2008) uses the idea of ‘organised growing projects’ to encapsulate a very similar activity, preferring to steer away from the vagueness of community gardening as a term. Such terminological evasions would not suit here, as they turn away from rather than engage communality as a critical, if complex, idea within the practice. Here, I attend to community as a key mechanism by which spaces such as the meadow and garden are built into this fabric of urban time and space as punctuation and respite. Communal growing projects are also often contested places; places with rich histories of ordinary people organizing for change. As such, community green spaces like urban meadows and community gardens are both political and prosaic, both spectacularly contested and considered principally as a backdrop against which everyday life plays out. This makes them provocative and kaleidoscopic research objects, and spaces where much broader social dynamics can be explored in microcosm (Barron, 2017; Douglas, 2018).

Communal growing projects are important points of intervention in the local landscape and can offer a reimagination of everyday urban life. They do so through practices of being communal and inclusive, and through challenging relations to urban land. In the contemporary climate of suspicion around immigration and difference in the UK, community has the potential to become a nostalgic throwback, but it also presents a horizon of renewal. The reinvigoration of a sense of collective interconnection prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020 presents an opportunity to re-centre interdependence, as people such as the Care Collective (2020) argue is necessary to reimagining our politics. Others, such as Gregory Claeys (2022), see sociability and interconnection as critical to imagining a sustainable future. This book, in its humble way, contributes to this conversation through foregrounding the mundane ways that politics, justice and community intertwine in everyday spaces of sociality in the city. An attention to practice is necessary to unfold processes of exclusion, community and urban land development, and I argue that everyday urban politics must always be considered in context, rather than seeing urban gardens as automatically exemplifying a distinctive politics or space of urban (in)justice.

Collective escape

Thinking with the idea of collective escape can help open up a series of important questions about how the city is lived. Collective escape centres the relationship between communal growing’s urban intervention and its politics, providing insight into the way people within the urban community projects understand their action. Communal growing projects necessarily engage with urban struggles in the city, shifting the experience of social exclusion and reshaping local development and aesthetics. That this happens often outside of the language of politics raises questions about what shapes the emergence of politicized (or otherwise) understandings of growing. Escape is in this sense an ambivalent terrain, capturing how communal urban spaces create both inclusion and boundaries, and are troubled by attempting to balance autonomy against the depoliticizing influence of grant funding.

Through boundary work and narratives of inclusion, growing is a site for contesting social categories but also reproducing them. To unfold the intersection of these exclusions requires engagement with gender, race, class, employment and disability. I raise questions about the limits of inclusion as a practice of justice through following how inclusivity plays into larger questions of claiming a right to the city (Lefebvre, 1996). This has important implications for how we think about urban resistance in the everyday, particularly in relation to the capacity of communities to prefigure a systematic alternative to capitalist urbanity and rebuild cities for more sustainable futures. Given the systemic emissions from food production, distribution, consumption and waste, spaces in which to reimagine food futures are critical and timely, but there is a need to understand the limits and contradictions of such collective urban spaces.

The pressures of the global pandemic highlighted in the popular and academic imaginations how our lives are fundamentally interconnected (Oncini, 2021). The flourishing of collective support groups, mutual aid, neighbourly WhatsApp groups and spectacles of common cause such as the UK’s weekly ‘clap for carers’ demonstrated how deeply social even socially distant lives are. But the COVID-19 pandemic, with its emphasis on closing borders and imported variants, also emphasizes how the local is always connected within and beyond imagined communities across scales (see Anderson, 2006). With the challenges of what has been called the ‘post-COVID decade’ emerging, the importance of understanding communality is acute, as it underpins the challenges facing society in rebuilding common life (British Academy, 2021).

Commentators concerned with justice have variously called for solutions such as Universal Basic Income (Standing, 2017) or the need for a ‘promiscuous ethic of care’ (Care Collective, 2020). In disparate ways, such solutions are often about making more time and space for, and truly valuing, the relational work that underpins reciprocity and social connection (Berlant, 2016). Relating to others requires time, space and effort, but enriches and indeed gives a foundation for social life and social meaning, as the pandemic increasingly made clear through its absence. As such, while this book draws the majority of its data from before the pandemic, in taking communality seriously as a practice and an idea, it opens up a way of thinking about collective life that is alive to the challenges and hopes inherent in being communal that is highly relevant as we face the enormity of building sustainable futures (Claeys, 2022).

Given the international conversation within community growing literatures, with much of it emerging from gardens in the US, speaking from Glasgow’s growing spaces can add a specific viewpoint on communal growing, theorizing from the mundane opportunities of a post-industrial city where the land-use politics offer perhaps more space for reimagination away from hyper-commoditization. Nevertheless, Glasgow faces its own distinct challenges of inequality, unevenly distributed poverty and austerity, which has decimated the council’s capacity to fulfil services. Further, the continuities around the neoliberalization of cities and similar patterns of class and ethnic exclusion mean that questions raised in Glasgow have resonance across the global north. That strong political tendencies and justice questions emerge from the diverse contexts of the community growing literature suggests the broad applicability of thinking about growing as a common, collective practice that intersects with urban regeneration, practices of care and micro-level actions towards connection and inclusion, although it always does so within a particular set of local relations.

Exploring escape is a way of looking to what can be learned in the mundane everyday lives of alternative spaces. Davina Cooper’s (2013) writing on Everyday Utopias reminds the reader of the hopeful, utopian moments of alternative subcultural spaces, the futures that might be imagined from marginal practices. Communal growing offers such a space, with a distinct imaginary in the Glaswegian context of both communality and justice, the latter primarily viewed through the idea of ‘inclusion’ but also latent in the practices of reshaping the city towards care and the natural world. As Douglas (2018) argues, in-depth studies of niche cultural moments can speak far beyond their immediate contexts. The prism of escape offers a way of conceptualizing practices of communality that positions community not as a problematic object, but as an ongoing practice and a utopian horizon. Escaping into communality presents a paradoxical kind of freedom, but it also demonstrates the interplay between mundane social connection as a much-sought-after but also ever-present aspect of urban life (Studdert and Walkerdine, 2016b, 2016a; Blokland, 2017). The practices explored in this book are thus at once unusual in that they present a mode of living the city that is posited on creating a better, more connected kind of urban experience, and at the same time the most basic human kind of behaviour: the collaborative building of meaning in space, the collective endeavour.

Cultivating communal life

While the present cultural moment seems to confirm the importance of the communal, the term community bears a rather heavy moral and political weight. Since the 2000s, community has been evoked in a policy setting as a solution to a growing social disconnection, with community as an idea valorized and utilized to promote a variety of policy interventions. Within UK politics and across different governance levels, from the Conservative Party’s ‘Big Society’ through to Scottish legislation that has centred community empowerment, such as the Community Empowerment Act (Scotland) 2015, community was a resurgent policy idea (Wallace, 2010; Lawson and Kearns, 2014). These different interventions are obviously not continuous with each other, but they do reflect a political focus on community as a solution, whether to social breakdown in the ‘Big Society’ or to concentrated land ownership and disempowerment in Scottish community empowerment narratives. The COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020 took this further, with narratives around community groups responding to the needs of each other praised from many sides as people around the world wrestled with the socially disruptive nature of a global pandemic.

The positioning of ‘community’ as a salve for social ills has made the idea increasingly vacuous and plastic. It challenges any sense of a singular concept or definition yet requires attention for its role in everyday social life. Drawing on work that considers community as a practice, such as Talja Blokland’s (2017), and work that situates community as a kind of ‘micro-sociality’ (Studdert, 2016; Studdert and Walkerdine, 2016a) can open up the everyday instances of communal life that exist within and against these politicized discourses. Seeing community as a practice, or perhaps more precisely attending to communality, helps to ground the analysis in social life and recognize its plasticity as lively – and as a lived ambiguity, not only a slippery political signifier. As Neo and Chua (2017) point out in relation to community gardening, growing and community provide two poles towards which people are more or less closely aligned. But they are also co-emergent: gardening provides a reason for people to gather, but gathering enriches the gardening, giving people interlocutors with whom to reflect on growing and the natural world, arguably bringing them closer together with both the human and non-human within the space of the garden.

As such, growing as a collective exercise necessarily intersects with murky questions of community and its various meanings. Community as an idea creates a conceptual tension within community gardening. It embodies an idealized notion of ‘morally valued social relations’ but also a sense of geography (Kurtz, 2001, p 661). This sense of geographical scale within the idea of community is reflected in its use descriptively, as a synonym for neighbourhood or place. This has resonance with the rich vein of community studies (Elias and Scotston, 1965; Bell and Newby, 1971), which also tended to take communities as geographically given, if socially constructed. Taxonomical distinctions can be drawn between gardens which are interest-based or place-based, as Firth et al (2011) do, as a way of discussing the variation in the make-up of communities that emerge around growing together. Yet even self-defining communities come in a wide range of forms, from online chat groups through village idylls to middle grounds that defy easy categorization (Calhoun, 1998; Brint, 2001). Taxonomy may capture distinctions between social groups that identify with the idea of community, but the idea itself becomes stretched in this usage.

Despite, or indeed because of its ubiquity, community is an imprecise concept – to the point where the myriad of activities under that banner can lead to a conclusion akin to the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s (1991), which is to say that community is ‘inoperable’ as a concept. Nevertheless, the power of the term and its ability to shape social life remains significant, and processes of being communal remain central in accounts of everyday life (Walkerdine and Studdert, 2012; Mulligan, 2015). Thus, community is a symbolically important frame for action, but an impossible object. Here, Goffman’s (1975) notion of the frame becomes useful as a way to suggest that community is not just a social construct, but a socially constructed frame towards which communal action is oriented. In Goffman’s (1975) terms, community is the answer to the question, ‘what is going here?’ Frames can encompass a myriad of definitions and how well a frame resonates is an empirical question that is critical here in capturing how community can take on a multitude of meanings in everyday life.

If ‘community’ and ‘growing’ offer different (and sometimes contradictory) frames within collective growing enterprises (Neo and Chua, 2017), this can produce tensions particularly around how and whether gardens become ‘inclusive’. Neo and Chua’s (2017) explanation of community as a process of responsibilization in Singaporean growing spaces offers a great deal in explaining that tension, and the different moments of contradiction regarding the prioritization of communal behaviour or success in growing. Yet seeing community as a process of governmentality, while helpful in understanding how communal behaviour is cultural and learnt, doesn’t engage with the full range of what communality is. Community is also the idea that makes possible the collectivity of growing, and its ambiguity lends its own difficulties and possibilities (Traill, 2021). Thus, I contend that more attention is needed to community as an everyday enactment that is central to the practice of growing together.

Although the research was framed around two growing spaces that self-identify as communities, only one is a community garden in the strictest sense. The other is an urban meadow and wood, introduced in the opening vignette. Thus, the book revolves around the idea of ‘communal growing projects’ as a way of spanning the commonality of growing collectively, without requiring a strict adherence to a particularly form, whether micro-allotments or collaborative cultivation. Taking a comparative view of collective growing here allows an exploration of how the different structures of organization and activity can shape communal growing, and the similarities that emerge despite formal difference. Pudup (2008) suggests the idea of the ‘organized growing project’ to address the multiplicity of phenomenon she was discussing, out of a certain frustration with the idea of a community garden as too broad a concept to be functional. However, the idea of community is important in shaping what emerged, and so to obscure its centrality in the referent object seems to obscure part of the core focus here.

The projects with whom I worked proved particularly aware of the difficulty and fluidity of the community idea, creating a fertile ground to explore how it works as a concept, and how people relate their actions to community as an idealized notion. In what follows, then, community will be used as a category of practice (Brubaker, 2013). This reflects the lack of analytical usefulness of using community to conceptualize the practices of being communal. Yet that community as an idea retains emotive and political power is important; it shapes what emerges in significant ways. As the book will explore in later chapters, this has ramifications for the politics of growing and has serious implications for whether growing can be a practice of justice. Rather than discuss this as community building or creation, however, it makes analytic sense to explore these as ways of being communal, as negotiations and struggles within the urban environment. This shift is intended to conceptually address the issue of the continued emotional valence of community while remaining sceptical of the relevance of community as a definable or discoverable social form. The questions in this context then become: what does this communing do, and what does it change? One answer to these questions that I want to explore in what follows is that it changes how we might think of practices of escape as a collective phenomenon.

Politics and growing

Exploring escape in growing opens a path beyond the stalemate reached within the literature around the politics of communal growing. Urban growing has invited a range of political interpretations. In notions of ‘radical gardening’ (McKay, 2011) and ‘digging … [as] anarchy in action’ (Hodgkinson, 2005, p 67), the radical intention within some forms of growing is positioned as a kind of direct action. Into this category falls growing that foregrounds land use, resistance to global food, acts of refusing capitalist food systems and seeing growing as a form of imagining other ways of doing things. This radical interpretation of growing is akin to ‘guerrilla gardening’ and its implications of subversive action and land reclamation (Adams and Hardman, 2014). As Certomà et al (2019, p 1) note, ‘[p]lanting tomatoes – under specific conditions and in specific contexts – has thus been broadly appreciated as a political gesture’.

The contextual point is of course crucial – plenty of growing projects have a far more implicit politics, or certainly less radical ones. Nettle (2014), in response to this, restricts her work on community gardening as direct action across Australia to those projects whose politics are overt and whose position is clear. Recognizing the limited impact of community gardening at even an urban scale, she situates growing as demonstrating an alternative way of living the city and relating to other urban dwellers, a politics of prefiguration and example. Yet in this a question arises about whether any kind of an alterity is posed in community gardening more broadly, and what role intentionality and taking an overt political position plays in how we assess the urban interventions of communal growing. It also raises the question of what precise contexts and conditions lead to the emergence of a political growing space. These are questions this book begins to offer an answer to.

Any consideration of the politics of growing also intersects with its relation to broader systemic shifts, particularly around welfare state retreat. As St Clair et al (2020) note, in increasing the competition between organizations for funding, the broader austerity context in Manchester, UK, makes it hard for organizations to collaborate on urban agriculture projects. Neoliberalization has often been used to reference the shifting complex of policy and economic decision-making reshaping contemporary cities. Described as a ‘hegemonic project’ by Stuart Hall (2011, p 728) and a ‘new religion’ by Peck and Tickell (2002, p 381), neoliberalism is the dominant driving discourse in this context promoting free market ideology, which David Harvey (2007) has explored as a class project. It is however disputed because of its shape-shifting nature, tied as it is to particular ‘path-dependencies’ that provoke specific urban manifestations that bear only family resemblance to each other (Peck et al, 2009). It is questioned as a result by radical geographers such as Gibson-Graham (2008) who see focusing on neoliberal processes as counterproductive because of the way it creates a false unity and can be disempowering. Equally, though from a different angle, Barnett (2010, p 269) has argued that critiques of neoliberalization have tended to ‘reduce the social to a residual effect of more fundamental political-economic rationalities’, thus questioning whether centring economic ideations is beneficial in the study of social processes. For communal growing, neoliberalism is an inescapable context in which growing emerges, yet it is not always central to the politics that emerge there.

A more subtle politics of growing is found among scholars who have questioned the role of community gardens under neoliberal conditions. It has been suggested that growing projects may be unwittingly (or unwillingly) supportive of neoliberalizing governance strategies, even while expressing a collectivity that runs contrary to its vaunted individualism (McClintock, 2014). Community garden activists and organizers often reproduce a narrative of growing as a (temporary) way to ameliorate urban vacancy, despite seeing community gardens as good in and of themselves (Drake and Lawson, 2014). It would be possible to read this as the internalization of a neoliberal discourse, but it seems more akin to Tonkiss’ (2013) discussion of the anti-utopianism of temporary projects in the neoliberal city: a willingness to work between, rather than against, the dictates of contemporary capitalism. This suggests the need for a deeper consideration of the live politics of communal growing projects – not only as an analytical category but as a live phenomenon, often making concessions in the face of less-than-perfect conditions (see Ginn and Ascensão, 2018).

In working with escape, my contention echoes this moment of pragmatism, to deliberately turn away from orientations to political economic narratives to attend from the ground up to a more everyday politics. Similarly, Pudup (2008) questions the automatic resistance associated with community gardening, suggesting a more complex idea around the potential production of neoliberal subjectivities in gardening under certain conditions. These subjectivities vary, and need not be totally depoliticized, but depend on the context of their production. Within both Pudup’s (2008) and Drake and Lawson’s (2014) work, their slightly pessimistic analyses are still about a tension between tacit support of neoliberal policy and the radical intent of projects themselves. This core tension around whether or not growing can be situated as political is often addressed at an analytical level but is not directly explored as a lived phenomenon. In what follows, I want to stay with the everyday (de)politicizations of communal growing. Gibson-Graham (1996) suggest that the unity and power that scholars attribute to capitalism is often a result of that work, rather than a real coherence or unity in the hegemonic project. In sympathy with such an ethic, I want to stay with the ambiguities of political tensions as a lived phenomenon negotiated in the everyday life of communal growing projects.

Situating the culture of the field sites as escapist is a way of characterizing its politics as neither contesting nor complicit, but as deeply ambivalent to questions of politics and justice. While analytically there is a case for the radical potential of growing spaces, it remains a potential and as the case studies here suggest – particularly through the practical conditions affecting the emergence of these two projects – that potential is not always realized. Escape offers a way to characterize this ambivalence; a route into considering the limitations as well as the possibilities of the land politics of communal growing.

Common garden justice

Where there is a radical element to the projects, it centres on reimagining the spaces, and resituating a place for communality within the city (Cumbers et al, 2018). It is naturally not a universal prospect, located and reproducing distinctly narrow community practices around growing. Yet the work of community gardens can still be seen to be aiming at justice. As such, they constitute imperfect actualizations of justice in the city, emerging in situated and contingent ways. I am building here on a vein of community gardening literature that sees the spatial claims of growing and their interventions in the food system as claims on the grounds of justice (Barron, 2017).

The everyday practices of justice in growing are expressed in cultures of inclusion and exclusion, and often in the literature focused on spatial justice. Gardening projects are not always geared overtly towards overcoming exclusions, but the communal in community gardening can be helpful in improving social capital and bridging racial or class barriers (Glover, 2004; Cumbers et al, 2018). But community gardens have also been linked to rising local house prices (Voicu and Been, 2008) and argued to demonstrate gentrifying behaviours (Egerer and Fairbairn, 2018); leading to arguments around the need to be ‘just green enough’ to make aesthetic improvements without creating adverse gentrifying dynamics (Wolch et al, 2014). Given the increasingly accepted terrain of urban greening as a process replete with political tensions, this book responds to calls to consider the ways urban greening projects and interventions, of which community growing projects are but one type, are limited from becoming radical projects of justice (Anguelovski et al, 2020), while remaining critical terrain for the production of the sustainable city, embedded in the Glaswegian context in tree planting, growing and sustainable food strategies. Through considering inclusivity as the key terrain on which justice is imagined in the field, I explore the pathways taken by community projects towards imagining the just city.

Justice has been understood as consisting in multiple cross-cutting ways, and approaches such as those building on the work of Nancy Fraser (2008) delineate justice as ‘multidimensional and intersectional, composed of socio-economic redistribution, cultural recognition and political representation’ (Herman, 2021, p 428). Not only, Fraser argues, must we take account of how social goods are shared out, but justice scholarship must also take account of the distribution of equal respect and the ability of all to take part in political life. Fraser (2008) also suggested that the frames of justice are critical – thus it is not just what she calls the what of justice that is contested, but the who – which is to say, who is considered to be a valid claim-maker, and how the boundaries of claim-making are established, often in stabilized and implicit fashion. Rather than setting up a range of criteria to be met, I treat justice as an empirical topic, tracing the articulation of inclusivity as a way that justice is imagined and practised in the field.

Questions of distribution, recognition and membership in bounded, localized communal practices are highly pertinent. Yet following these concerns through a localized and situated phenomenon does require a certain degree of care, noting as Williams (2016) does the ways in which actually existing practices of justice are ‘always becoming’ (p 519). This reflects Fraser’s (2008) notion that making claims and adjustments to the ways in which justice is framed is iterative:

Granted, as I noted before, any frame will produce exclusions. But the question arises as to whether these exclusions are unjust, and if so, whether there is a way to remedy them. Granted, too, any remedy will produce its own exclusions, which may generate claims for further reframing, if the newer exclusions are seen as unjust. Thus, in the best-case scenarios, we should envision an ongoing process of critique, reframing, critique, reframing, and so on. (Fraser, 2008, pp 149–50)

Through tracing often-imperfect articulations of justice, it is possible to engage with the utopian element of communal growing, the reimagination of city and urban life, that is inherent to community growing as a practice and to recognize processes of critique and reframing on the ground. This is to stay with the attempts, however imperfectly, to envision a more communal urban life to include as many as possible, recognize difference and to represent heterogeneous neighbourhoods; rather than to critique communal growing for failing to reinvent the world without a hitch (Ginn and Ascensão, 2018).

In recognizing the many facets of justice theoretically, and calls to get beyond operationalizations of justice that focus on distribution, recognition and participation (Anguelovski et al, 2020), in what follows, I attend to the micro-processes of attempting to actualize just spaces in the city. In exploring such everyday justice, this book benefits from temporal distance from the initial research. A period of five years between the end of the initial fieldwork and another wave of interviews and visits allows for a reflection not only on the ways in which the ethnographic fieldwork offered a snapshot in time, but offers too a window onto the continued and iterative work of community growing organizations in reflecting on their practice and aiming to improve. Organizations are not static, and they do not remain as they were. They are inherently seasonal, and tend to evolve and mutate as the years pass and as events shift their meaning and purpose.

Tracing practices of justice within communal growing draws out the tensions and possibilities inherent within the projects; and highlights the interlinkages between the challenges of the localized scale and broader urban (in)justices. Concerns have emerged about what is asked of community gardens when they are held to seemingly impossible standards (Ginn and Ascensão, 2018). To get away from a critique from an unreasonable Archimedean point requires an excavation of the utopian moment within communal growing as a way of considering justice as a horizon and a live practice.

Time, place, practice

Contestation and challenge within communal urbanism emerge through the production of a specific escapist space and time. Critical questions arise about what relation this space and time has to the wider urban environment in which it is enmeshed. Is it supportive of dominant temporal narratives, or a source of real contestation? When space is appropriated, when it is enlivened, and lived, it is not always contrary – even if the use of that space is counter to its intended use. This is the point Alistair Jones (2013) is making when he talks about ludic space. Important here is not that contrary spaces, as in some extremely critical formulations, are actually part of the neoliberal urban production of space (Spinney, 2010). It is that some engagements with space are playful rather than subversive, avoiding rather than engaging with power structures. Jones quotes Thrift (1997a) who sums this up perfectly: ‘Play eludes power, rather than confronts it’ (Jones, 2013, p 1147). Using space is not itself enough: there is a need for a deliberate consciousness and practised subversion in order for a use of space to be deliberately resistant in this sense (cf perhaps the Situationist movement). In the context of crafting communality, this is about the intention as much as the action: community itself is hardly a radical term. As such, the question becomes not just what kind of alternative social practices are produced in the context of communal growing, but what relation they bear to the outside dynamics of the city and what intentions focus the projects.

The concept of rhythm is a useful tool in opening up the relation between internal dynamics and experiences of the broader city. A Lefebvrian notion of ‘rhythmanalysis’ provides a basis for this in the understanding that ‘[e]verywhere where there is interaction between a place, a time and an expenditure of energy, there is rhythm’ (Lefebvre, 2004, p 25, emphasis in original). Relating in part to the therapeutic aspect of gardening, the spaces of the case studies arguably reflect a rhythmic break from the experience of the wider urban landscape. The emphasis on seasonality and slowness, certain experiences of being present with others, offer a different experience not only of space but also of time. In this respect, it could be seen to critique contemporary time-relations, a rejection of accelerated time, or time-space compression, of liquidity (Bauman, 2000) and of the disruptive effect of technologies and practices which disconnect from what Ellison (2013) called ‘thick time’. Thick time refers to a specific kind of experience of temporality associated with clock time and fixed, continuous spatialities.

The relation communal growing has with time however is more complex than simply offering a bucolic respite from the experience of contemporary time-pressure, especially since this latter itself is problematic, with the acceleration of some depending on the temporal fixity and slowness of others (Southerton, 2009). The regulation of time and the rhythmicity of the field sites play an important part in the structure of their community practice, curtailing as well as creating opportunities for escape. Creating spaces of difference, of other ways of living, as I will explore in what follows, needs to be understood in its class context. Rhythm is not just a site for the production of alternatives but also a space for the production of exclusion (see Sharma, 2014). In this vein, the alterity of communal growing’s urban intervention will be discussed here: as potential sites of exclusion, and as potentially problematic escapes for the White middle classes.

Researching community growing projects

The idea of escape as a way to characterize the practice of communal growing in Glasgow grew out of sustained engagement with two such sites over two years in 2015 and 2016; and regular visits to the sites since. Although the term ethnography has been increasingly questioned, the research here involved ‘open-ended commitment, generous attentiveness, relational depth, and sensitivity to context’ (Ingold, 2014, p 384), all of which are associated with ethnographic methods. During the research, I lived in the West End of Glasgow where the research was carried out. In this sense, I was enmeshed in the broader milieu of both sites. As Swann and Hughes (2016, p 686) note, quoting Elias, this brings ‘problems of involvement and detachment’. I was for the most part a stranger to Glasgow initially, but research touched my life in ways that were daily, readily eroding its peculiarity. As Fraser (2013) found in his work on Glasgow gangs, I would regularly bump into people from the field in my daily life. Fraser notes that ‘[d]uring the fieldwork period, [he] could scarcely go out for a pint of milk without bumping into one or more of them’ (Fraser, 2013, p 975). Participants were my neighbours; others’ paths crossed mine seemingly randomly in the West End.

I carried out over 200 hours of participant observation and 36 interviews across the two projects, focused on how people used, thought of, felt, organized, worked, relaxed, cared, shared, and otherwise incorporated into their daily lives, the spaces and practices under consideration. Taking an ethnographic approach that combined interviews and observational methods allowed me to explore communality and community, without relying on what people say they do as a good indicator of their behaviour (Jerolmack and Khan, 2014), while giving space to their narrations and understandings.

An ethnographic approach offers a way to be sensitive to the local specificity of the projects (Byrne, 2005; Hall, 2013) in ways that resonate with the relationships gardens had with their neighbourhoods and broader contexts – including the relevance of Scottish politics, Glasgow City Council and the various struggles around neighbourhood distinctions. Utilizing multi-sited research allowed for comparison between similar phenomena, allowing for reflections on the particularities and continuities between the different locales (Carney, 2017). Comparing growing sites is common in community gardening research precisely for its value in teasing out the particular and the specific (Pudup, 2008; Ghose and Pettygrove, 2014; Crossan et al, 2016).

Two case studies were selected from a range of community gardens mapped by what was then known as the Glasgow Local Food Network (it has since become the Glasgow Community Food Network, with many of the same actors involved). Both case studies present established gardens on the edge of the middle-class West End, allowing for the exploration of the evolving dynamics in these edge neighbourhoods. I spent time throughout the active growing seasons of 2015 and 2016 (roughly March to September) volunteering, observing and attending community events, as well as interviewing key organizational figures at both sites. The data gathered differed across the sites. At Woodlands, I took part in regular volunteering at their gardening sessions, whereas at the meadow this tended to be irregular, project-focused volunteering such as shed painting. This inevitably led to a skew in the participant observation data towards Woodlands, and the resultant gap was filled through a focus on interviews with activists and users of the meadow. A slightly different approach across the sites was designed to capture better their distinct characters.

As Coffey writes, ‘[t]he image of the heroic ethnographer confronting an alien culture is now untenable, and fails to reflect much of what ethnographers do, if indeed it ever did reflect the lived reality of fieldwork’ (Coffey, 1999, p 22). In engaging in this research, I was regularly positioned not just as researcher, but as a mother, and as a White, middle-class person. At any given moment, I was talking to those I was similar to, those I differed from, along many axes, and, for the sake of rapport, I often emphasized different personal narratives to reflect this – as Sultana (2007) has argued, difference is constructed in the research moment, and negotiated in the process. Seeing reflexivity as a critical and ongoing practice (Benson and O’Reilly, 2022) helps situate the research as a fluid set of encounters that shift over time.

Parenthood also lent me a personal prism through which to see motherhood particularly, and certain discomforts I felt in the field informed some of the analysis in those sections. I reflect on those moments in what follows, where it becomes relevant. However, as Matthew Desmond (2016) argues in a postscript to Evicted, there’s a danger of ethnographic writing becoming about the researcher in first-person narratives. As far as possible, I focus on other people’s stories, feelings and doings to illustrate the narrative. Nevertheless, there are notable ways in which I became to some extent part of the fabric of the garden and meadow: not least because as a White European with a child occasionally in tow, I blended in. I am sure I owe some of the material on parenting to this; yet what I hope to foreground in what follows is the many interweaving lives, ideas and concepts that might illuminate how we understand spaces of urban escape.

The original ethnographic fieldwork for this book finished in 2016, and although I have been writing about the work since then, I only returned to live in Glasgow again in 2019. Becoming a gardener again at the Woodlands Community Garden, and returning to the meadow, required developing a new relationship to the space – less focused on analysing and unfurling the relations of the space in situ, though still attending to shifts over time. This allowed me to appreciate the spaces in new ways, and in particular the peace of both places became hugely important to myself and my small family during the COVID-19 pandemic until we moved again in 2022. In returning to the material to form the book, my writing is now, as ever, positioned through and within this sensibility – not only as an academic but as a parent and Glasgow-resident. As Farhana Sultana (2007) reminds us, the intricacies of who we are in relation to the field are neither simple nor static.

Woven throughout the following chapters are the way that the concept of escape illuminates the practices of communal growing as an urban intervention that has a distinctive politics that is contradictory (McClintock, 2014; Ginn and Ascensão, 2018) – at once radical and not, liberating but connecting people in tighter webs of obligation, both inclusive and exclusive. In order to pursue this in the pages that follow, the book begins with an opening chapter that offers brief histories and sketches of the case studies and their constituencies, upon whose experience this book necessarily rests. It also introduces the broader context of Glasgow, its growing project networks and its present and recent historical forays into regeneration. Chapter 3 takes off from the idea of escape, offering an ethnographic exploration of the concept and its grounding in everyday experiences. Chapter 4 then asks the question of justice begged in much of this: who gets to escape? In doing so, it fleshes out the inclusionary discourses around both case studies and asks what can be learned from the boundedness of the projects. The next chapter then develops this picture, expanding on the concrete interventions communal growing makes in urban space in order to draw out the materiality and discourse of situating the case studies in order to understand escapism as a performance of a specific kind of urbanism. Chapter 6 looks at communal escape’s paradox – the idea of escaping into care and responsibility to each other. This draws out contemporary community theory and notions of positive freedom to expand on this initially contradictory idea. Chapters 7 and 8 ask what politics might be situated within the practice of escape, the former engaging with strategic neutrality as a policy for negotiating the field of community gardening; while the latter explores the subjective political imaginations of the project. Both chapters thus deal with the political ambivalence of urban escapism between narratives of justice, imaginations of politics and practices of closure. Chapter 9 then takes a longer view on changes over time, arguing for a longer temporal view on communal growing as necessary for considering how community, politics and justice emerge. The book concludes with considerations around how this contributes to our understanding of coming challenges around sustainable cities. Throughout, thinking with escape is a way to think with the ultimate ambivalence of growing as a practice, and this opens up to an array of similar community-oriented practices whose collective politics are inherently obscured.

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