Los Angeles community garden tangles with City Hall – and wins

Food gardening seems like a pretty innocuous activity. Even “radical” acts like guerrilla gardening are pretty tame in the overall scheme of things. But we’ve already seen one instance in which a gardener faced jail time – simply for gardening (and, no, there weren’t any illegal plants involved).

You might be tempted to argue “Oh, but that was small town Michigan. Of course they’re going to respond negatively to something different.” But before you hang your hat on that argument, consider the case of Ron Finley, a fashion designer and Los Angeles resident. After taking a gardening course at the Natural History Museum, Ron decided to turn the 10 x 150-foot parkway in front of his home – the whole thing – into a food garden. Living in the Crenshaw neighborhood, Ron had taken his instructor’s words about edible food gardens in urban “food deserts” to heart, and began to share produce with his neighbors once it began to ripen.

Then the inspectors arrived.

Yep, you guessed it: Ron had planted his garden in space technically owned by the city, and his garden didn’t meet regulations. In fact, the food plants themselves were described as “overgrown vegetation.” Unlike Julie Bass, Ron wasn’t facing jail time. He would, however, have to cough up at least $400 for a permit, and replant according to standards for parkway vegetation (which many of his food plants wouldn’t have met). On the upside, Ron’s garden had become a focal point for the neighborhood: he was generous with the food grown (especially with neighbors down on their luck), and the garden itself had become a social hub. Over 500 neighbors signed a petition in support of his effort to keep the garden without paying for a permit.

Ron’s situation is different from Julie’s also in that, ultimately, he didn’t face the kind of intransigence she did: his city councilman Herb Wesson supported the garden, telling The LA Times that “This [fertilizer] shouldn’t even have made it to my office.” The councilman did whatever it is that those in power do, and got the hearing on the matter canceled. Despite the bureaucratic hassles, Ron is still upbeat about the concept of community gardening, and even envisions a network of such spaces to grow even more food for needy residents. He started the organization L.A. Green Grounds to support this vision.

I’ve never heard of gardeners having run-ins with the law until this Summer – and now I’ve seen two incidents of really short-sighted enforcement of codes that undermine efforts at self-sufficiency and community empowerment through gardening. In each case, the local governments backed off – and, in LA, they’re even looking at the wording of regulations governing parkways – but I’m guessing these won’t be the last stories like this we hear.

Know of local governments going out of their way to support community gardening, or to revise regulations that stand in its way? Let us know about them – I’m sure there’s lots of good news out there on this front, also.


Photo: A portion of Ron’s garden in February, 2011 Credit: LAGreenGrounds under a Creative Commons license