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Backstory: Green-thumbed guerrillas hatching secret plots!

By Brendan O'NeillCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 23, 2006


In Stratford, in the farthest reaches of East London, a band of guerrillas has taken over a plot of land. It's the wrong side of 11 p.m. on a hot, sticky night, the air heavy with rain that refuses to fall. Passersby - some full of a night of revelry, others only now dragging home from work - gawp at the guerrillas as they lay claim to a patch ofground at the entrance to a small block of apartments.

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"We have reclaimed it from the local government!" says a youthful, ruddy-faced guerrilla, brandishing his "weapon" defiantly.

Another looks out for "the law," which might decide to barge in and break up this miniature invasion of one of London's flattest, most featureless suburbs, better known for having a big train station than for underground activity.

What's going on? Why has this bit of East London gone all El Salvador for the evening?

These are guerrillas with a difference. They're "guerrilla gardeners" to be precise. Their weapons are shovels and trowels, and they plant shrubs and chrysanthemums, not bombs. They're here to make green a gray patch of land.

It's true: If ever two words didn't feel right together, it is "guerrilla" and "gardener." The first conjures up images of Che-style idealists with make-do weaponry and homemade uniforms launching surprise attacks against a hated government; the second conjures images of the retired middle classes daintily trimming hedges or adding dashes of flowery color to beloved bits of land in front of their semi-detacheds.

"We like the contradiction in the phrase 'guerrilla gardening,' " says Richard Reynolds, erstwhile leader of the movement thathe kick-started into existence two summers ago. Initially it was just him, on his lonesome, carrying out "solo missions of horticultural regeneration."

"I saw neglected, orphaned land around the dual carriageways [divided highways] of the Elephant and Castle [a big, smoggy, concrete intersection in London] and decided to do something about it," says Mr. Reynolds, an advertising account planner by day.

From these inauspicious roots, the movement has grown exponentially, sprouting new chapters from Vancouver to Brussels and inspiring more green-fingered do-gooders to venture out in the dead of night to prettify ugly urban spaces.

The movement's aim is simple: to make public space more attractive. Activities are organized via the website Typically, a resident who's had enough of living in a cityspace where things are vastly more gray than green, writes to the site and asks for help. The guerrillas decide which cases are most pressing, then ready "troops," and descend on a section of the chosen spot to sprinkle seeds of hope and regeneration.

On this recent night in Stratford, 54 of the "green-fingered terrorists" (Reynolds's words) are braving the humidity to transform a walled-in garden in front of a block of flats that hasn't been tended by local authorities for three years. It could easily, with a bit of TLC, host grass and even flowers. By the end of night, the guerrillas hope, it will. They are crammed onto the tiny plot, each digging, weeding, and gravelling.

"We're taking responsibility for our city," says Amy Littler, an actress, ripping some weeds from the earth. "This is about reclaiming public space."

From whom?

"From whoever should be caring for it, but clearly isn't," she declares. "They have left bits of the city to go to wrack and ruin, so we are standing up and saying, 'No, that mustn't happen.' We are bringing beauty back to the city."