"We just have to get them growing their own food" : The cultural politics of community gardens : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
at Massey University, Manawatu,
Community gardens remain a popular and persistent response to a range of social ills from food security to social isolation. Scholars often frame gardens as political movements, sites of radical opposition to a globalised, homogenised and hegemonic food system. From this perspective, gardeners are actively cultivating a more environmentally sustainable and socially just way of producing and distributing food and seeking alternative ways of feeding communities. There is no consensus on this perspective, however, and the literature offers a lively debate on the extent to which gardens reinforce or subvert socio-economic structures and inequalities. My research adds to this debate by providing an analysis that shows how community gardens work as sites of identity construction where dominant cultural values are transmitted to select gardeners by those with a sense of governmental belonging.
My research is an ethnographic and auto-ethnographic examination of what garden organisers or instigators think they are doing when they do community gardens. I find that garden organisers are trying to shore up a national identity that they perceive as being at risk of being lost. This identity reflects the values of self-reliance, thriftiness, and good neighbourliness that organisers consider themselves to embody and that they believe others lack. It is possible to interpret these values as being symptomatic of processes of neoliberalisation, and the gardens as evidence of the successful depoliticisation of issues of food security and hunger. However, I find that they also reflect deep concern about, and resistance to, these processes. Garden organisers draw on nostalgia for a positively evaluated past world in response to a deficient present world. By invoking the past, gardeners mobilise to overcome what they consider to be the contemporary experience of loss of identity, and absence of community.
I joined three community gardens as a volunteer in Palmerston North, Aotearoa New Zealand, to explore the motivations of garden organisers. In each site, I found complex and transversal processes of governance and resistance. I have interpreted these using a theoretical framework assembled from the work of Ghassan Hage on governmental belonging and the politics of hope; Michel Foucault’s work on governmentality and resistance; and Gilles Clément’s work on the agency of plants. I spent intensive time in the gardens, growing garden produce and taking it home to eat. The materiality of the gardens and produce revealed a set of assumptions about the availability of domestic labour and enabled me to build up a detailed picture of the limitations and potential community gardens as sites of alternate ways of doing food and community.