Saturday, May 31, 2008

Guerrilla Gardeners

There was a time far back in our country's history when gardening was an integral part of the lives of the majority of our citizens. Even city dwellers, at least those with access to a plot of land, grew their own vegetables and often had a pot or two of geraniums that received loving care.

During WWI and WWII, Liberty Gardens and Victory Gardens were both practical and patriotic. Wikipedia explains:

"Victory gardens were planted in backyards and on apartment-building rooftops, with the occasional vacant lot 'commandeered for the war effort' and put to use as a cornfield or a squash patch. During World War II, sections of lawn were publicly plowed for plots in Hyde Park, London, to publicize the movement. In New York City, the lawns around vacant Riverside were devoted to victory gardens, as were portions of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park."

Although avid vegetable gardeners remain among us, somewhere along the way the ease of purchasing food at the local supermarket changed the way the majority of the population thought about home vegetable gardens (even though homegrown food tastes a million times better than supermarket produce and you can actually harvest it when it's ripe). Eventually gardening in general gave way to landscaping, with appearance playing a more important role than function. For many people, it often became just another chore, eagerly handed off to hired help by those who could afford it.

Coming from a gardening family, I was delighted to read an LA Times article by Joe Robinson about the rise of guerrilla gardeners, brave souls who take on street medians, traffic islands and vacant lots, planting them with everything from greenery to flowers to food. Robinson reports:

"Part beautification, part eco-activism, part social outlet, the activity has been fueled by Internet gardening blogs and sites such as, where before-and-after photos of the latest 'troop digs' inspire 45,000 visitors a month to make derelict soil bloom."

I was even more delighted to read that this is an international phenomenon: the Guerrilla Gardening website founder is Richard Reynolds, who lives in London and refers to his plantings as "weapons of mass beautification." His site has links to groups in Canada, Germany, France, Italy and the U.S.

With both the rising cost of food and increased awareness of the fragility of our environment, this is a perfect time to rethink our relationship to the land in urban areas. Using the land as a source of food or a source of beauty is a crucial part of humanizing our cityscapes.

In another post I wrote about green roofs which are environmentally sensitive as well as a wonderful way to beautify our cities. Here, in addition to the Guerrilla Gardening website, are some links to get us all thinking about creating green public land that is otherwise ignored or forgotten:

Homegrown Evolution - Los Angeles urban homesteaders planted a vegetable garden in the parkway across from their home.

Green Guerrillas - a New York group that mixes advocacy, education and the involvement of youth to cultivate community gardens on public land.

Public Space - a Canadian group based in Toronto that has as its slogan: "Graffiti with nature."

Disclaimer: Guerrilla gardening is illegal. You are commandeering land that you don't personally own for the purpose of planting veggies or flowers or other greenery. This action, depending on where you live, will either be appreciated or prosecuted. Although I confess that the political statement made by citizens turning derelict public land into a lovely garden appeals to my sixties sensibilities, if you have concerns about the legality of guerrilla gardening, check out The American Community Gardening Association for ideas about getting your civic leaders to cooperate with your efforts.

Although I'm no longer a gardener, I have fond memories of the small vegetable garden in the backyard of my childhood home. I was thrilled every time I pulled up a carrot I had planted myself. The neighbors shared raspberries from their bushes across the alley, a grape vine draped along another neighboring fence, and we had a small peach tree that, as I recall, gave us very few peaches over the years but still looked lovely. My parents continued to garden after moving to another town, filling their yard with flowers, vegetables (including a few rows of cornstalks!) and strawberry rings. My father chased away crows regularly. Even when they moved to an apartment, Mom kept planters of onions and chives on the balcony.

Today, my mother finds it quite annoying that her current apartment managers won't allow her to keep a small container garden on her front porch. But, unstoppable at almost age 86, she and a few of her neighbors are successfully guerilla gardening the building's courtyard with flowers. Come next summer, I wouldn't be surprised to find an onion or two hidden amongst the marigolds!

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Juxtapositions: L.A. Heat Wave, Asian Disasters and Mukesh Ambani's House

It's hot in Los Angeles today. In the high 90s, I'd guess, which can be pretty miserable if you're out and about, especially when you get into a car that's been sitting in the sun for a couple of hours, as I did earlier today. I turned on the air conditioner and was uncomfortably cruising home on the freeway for about ten minutes before the car cooled down enough to be tolerable. Oh, poor me.

Meanwhile, the government of Myanmar is still balking at opening the borders of its country to allow access to foreigners who want to offer aid to victims of the cyclone that killed an estimated 78,000 people. The U.N. ambassador from Myanmar has even accused the French of sending a "war ship" to anchor just off their shores. It isn't a war ship, of course, but a ship laden with food and medical supplies, along with medical personnel. Over two million people were affected by the cyclone and are desperately in need of this aid.

Over in China, it's estimated that ultimately the Sichuan earthquake will have claimed 50,000 lives; many more will have suffered injuries and losses. Fortunately, aid is being accepted there. Three days of mourning have been declared by the Chinese government. On Monday, in a unique and moving gesture, "China will ask its 1.2 billion people to observe three minutes of silence before sounding their car, truck, train, ship and air-raid horns in a collective cry of grief."

And in Mumbai, India, Forbes Magazine reports that Mukesh Ambani and his wife are building their dream home, a skyscraper palace costing almost two billion dollars. "When the Ambani residence is finished in January, completing a four-year process, it will be 550 feet high with 400,000 square feet of interior space. . . [N]o two floors are alike in either plans or materials used. At the request of Nita Ambani, say the designers, if a metal, wood or crystal is part of the ninth-floor design, it shouldn't be used on the eleventh floor, for example. The idea is to blend styles and architectural elements so spaces give the feel of consistency, but without repetition. . . Atop six stories of parking lots, [the] living quarters begin at a lobby with nine elevators, as well as several storage rooms and lounges." (Thanks to pro organizer Jeri Dansky for the link to the San Francisco Chronicle's online column by Mark Morford about this. Jeri must have been amused to read that, in spite of the enormous amount of space they'll have, the Ambanis still require several storage rooms!)

Now, obviously, on the global scale of things, my little complaint about hot weather hardly rates a blink of the eye when compared to the tragic natural disasters that have occurred half-way around the world. And I suppose that my modest townhouse would rate hardly the blink of an eye from the Ambanis as far as their definition of "suitable" housing goes, even though I find living here quite comfortable. But I'm hard pressed to think of a greater juxtaposition than that between the people, many already incredibly impoverished, who suffered through those disasters and a guy who's worth around $63 billion and is in the middle of constructing a home the size of a world-class hotel.

To get a little perspective, we can note that Mr. Ambani's net worth is over two-thirds the GDP of the entire country of Myanmar. But, let's stay closer to home: Mr. Ambani's hometown, Mumbai (formerly Bombay), is a huge, sophisticated metropolis in a country that is chronically beset by crushing poverty. According to IndiaOneStop, "India still has the world’s largest number of poor people in a single country. Of its nearly 1 billion inhabitants, an estimated 350-400 million are below the poverty line, 75 per cent of them in the rural areas." The nominal per capita income in India is $1,089.

I know that there will never be exact parity of wealth throughout the world, nor do I even think that's a particularly necessary or worthy goal. I have no problem with exceptional people reaping exceptional rewards (Mr. Ambani inherited his wealth, but that's another issue). However, to paraphrase Stan Lee, I do think that with great wealth comes great responsibility. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, two incredibly wealthy individuals, have given away huge amounts of money through their own charitable foundations (yes, Mr. Gates lives lavishly, but even he didn't spend nearly as much on his house as Mr. Ambani is spending!). Perhaps Mr. Ambani has been generous with his wealth, too, although if he has, it may have been handled privately; a brief review on Google provided no indication of charitable giving.

So, I've been pondering the quirks of fate that lead some of us to be born in favorable or unfavorable circumstances. I've been wondering about the randomness of natural disasters and our vulnerabilities when they strike. But of all these juxtapositions, there's one that I find the most mystifying:

When so many people are so needy, how can anyone build a $2 billion house?

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Global Water Crisis

Late last Friday afternoon, the water main that serves our row of townhouses broke. An unlucky owner a few doors down had his garage flooded. The water was shut off until late Saturday afternoon. Twenty-two hours with no running water at all.

Because we live in Earthquake Central, I try to be reasonably prepared to function for a few days without municipal services, so there was plenty of water stashed away in those big five-gallon jugs we all complain about because they're plastic. Friday, I loved those plastic jugs. They allowed us to have water for basic hygienic needs and water to drink. The phones worked, cable tv was fine, internet functioned, heat and a/c were unaffected. We went out to dinner. The lack of running water was a temporary inconvenience, not a disaster.

Not so elsewhere.

We take for granted the access we have to clean running water, but, even in our country, there are areas in which our citizens suffer without that fundamental benefit of civilization. I've written previously about the Navajo Water Haulers; here's further information from an article in The Arizona Republic.

Water problems in Africa are legendary. You can read about one Seattle woman's experience in Ethiopia in her January blog post for The Common Language Project. She explains, "I’m here to research and write on water scarcity issues. In the past three days I’ve interviewed a woman whose son died of typhoid and a man who held four of his children as diarrhea from waterborne dysentery drained the life from their small bodies. I watched an old woman fall to her knees and kiss the ground in thanks of water."

CNN Money offers an article about the problems of farmers in India as they attempt to cope with a water shortage that prevents them from growing their crops. Inefficient government subsidies, the overuse of tube wells and a maxed-out electrical grid have resulted in a dramatic lowering of the water table. According to the article, Shreekant Gupta, professor of economics at Delhi University, say, "It's a classic example of bad economic policies having serious environmental consequences."

Colin Beavan at the No Impact Man blog speculates about when what's happening to gas happens to drinking water. His post offers a chilling scenario about supply and demand in which companies like Nestle, Coca-Cola and Pepsi buy up water rights the same way that only a few now infamous companies bought oil drilling rights.

Back here at home, the LA Times reports that we're facing the worst water shortage in decades.

Fortunately, there are organizations working to make clean water available to everyone. Living Water International is a fine example.

But the problem isn't just one of infrastructure (although that's certainly a key element); it's one of attitude: the attitude of entitlement that those of us with easy access to clean running water have. It's that same attitude of entitlement that makes us feel like we "need" so much more -- of everything -- than we have. It's definitely not an attitude that will allow us to thrive as stewards of our small planet. It's an attitude that may not even allow us to survive.

I turned on the tap this morning and clean water poured out. For a brief moment, I barely remembered not being able to enjoy the wonder of that privilege just days ago. Then I smiled with appreciation for all the things we take for granted that make our lives comfortable.

Focusing on the basics always makes it easier to keep all the other "stuff" in perspective.

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob