Can Urban Communities Become Resilient?
With Gil Lopez - founder of Smiling Hogshead Ranch Community Garden in Queens
The story of Gil Lopez exemplifies the idea of resilience. When he moved from Florida to New York City after his divorce, Gil had two objectives: to find a public garden and to make new friends, people he could rely on. For Gil, creating a community garden is like starting a social club, a place to meet local friends and build a resilient community.
Community resilience was coined by Rob Hopkins, an activist and environmental writer, based in Totnes, England. He developed the concept of the resilient community in his first book, The Transition Handbook (2008). The idea is to learn by observing how natural and human systems adapt to shocks and replicate those models. While most people think of resilience as “bouncing back,” Hopkins and his Transition movement saw an opportunity to “bounce forward” to imagine different and better systems.
Gil is a self-described radical, and as a radical, what’s more, natural than using a vacant lot as a place to start a community garden?
During my interview with him in April 2020, Gil explained how in the dead of winter in late 2010, he and a friend identified a dozen possible sites. They went to look at the property tax assessor's office in downtown New York. Researching Oasis maps (Open Accessible Space Information System). a resource providing tax information and land use information, Gil and his friend biked to various sites before selecting one. “It had no fence. No posted, keep out, or no trespassing signs. It was big. It was out of the way. There were no plans for development,” he said.
The land was owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), but they weren't using it and the rusty railroad tracks on the ground had long been decommissioned.
After testing the soil, they gathered a small team and started what Gil calls a “guerrilla garden.” They occupied, trespassed, and used the land illegally. Gil and his group of ten collaborators pondered the risk they were willing to take. They talked about the legality, or should we say illegality, of their actions. What were they willing to invest that they could easily lose overnight if they were caught? The garden, located in an industrial part of Queens and hidden by a slop and bushes, went underground and remained a secret for the first year and a half.
Fast forward 11 years and the MTA lot is now called Smiling Hogshead Ranch. It is a booming, fully-legal community garden where neighbors gather with their kids to grow vegetables, compost their waste, have potlucks every Tuesday, organize parties in the summer, and… make friends.
“A lot of the urban communities are disjointed. Their people are brought together by music or by ideas, and they can meet at a central location that has nothing to do with where they live,” Gil said. A garden brings neighbors together. Since no one wants to get on the train for an hour to go to your garden on the weekend. People tend to gather around local gardens.
This physical proximity fosters a resilient community. “You can't be resilient with people who are miles away, especially in times of catastrophe when the transportation systems and the communication systems are down. You need a network of people who live close together that know one another and trust one another,” Gil said.
“Trust is one of the biggest things that we lack. We don't trust the people that live next door. We don't trust the people that we've passed by on the streets every day. It's not that they're bad people; we just don't know them,” says Gil. “But when we start to garden together, we start to understand that we might have our differences but we start to understand that our differences aren’t as divisive as we thought. We see what we have in common. We understand that we're all connected.”
I reached out to Gil last January to see how he was doing. I knew that, shortly after our initial interview, he had been furloughed. I also knew that he had been hired to work with New York City’s composting project. And, I wanted to hear how his garden helped him through-out the pandemic.
Gil told me that he had learned that one cannot expect much assistance from the government: “There's nothing that the government can do for us anymore, there's just no money. So, I've learned that we have to take care of ourselves, we have to offer mutual aid to our neighbors. We have to be in service to one another, and to uplift our communities through being in a community.”
Gil makes a distinction between volunteering that he sees as being a one-way street and being in a community. For him, this means creating connection, knowing one another, and being able to be called on and call upon others: “It is about knowing who can do what, how, and when so that we can be responsive and reflective on a hyperlocal level. I feel that a lot of people have come around to understanding that this is an urgent need.”
Unlike John Michael Greer who talked to me about the ideal of the Frontier Values–– every man for himself––Gil thinks that no one can survive on his or her own. “Any notions of self-sufficiency are delusional,” he told me. How could you expect to grow and raise your own food, teach your kids, and look after the healthcare of your entire family, while securing a day job to pay the taxes, rent, and student loans? This is hard enough in the countryside but impossible in a city.
Yet, in a world where climate change creates unimaginable challenges, where immigration and economic crises exacerbate individualism and populism, our global, connected economies have made our societies extremely fragile. There is hardly any sense of “the commons,” let alone class consciousness anymore.
As we strive for economic efficiency, we let go of local production, redundancy, and inventories. Cheap labor and products helped us build the Chinese economy (and increase the profit margins for Western executives), while the American middle class was legislated out of existence. “Economic efficiency comes at the expense of resilience because at the end of the day after you've pursued globalization and economic efficiency for decades, what you end up with is a very brittle, super network global economy,” said Richard Heinberg, an American journalist, and educator who has written extensively on energy, economic, and ecological issues, including oil depletion and the senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute in a conversation on March 2020.
Experiments such as Gil’s provide tiny oases of friendship, sustainabilities, and collaboration among neighbors. As our planet’s climate changes and our fossil fuel-based economy reaches its tipping point, local initiatives to become more resilient as a group is essential to prepare for what John Michael Greer calls The Long Descent.
The larger the city the more fragile its infrastructure is, but urban areas are also places where people with essential skills and knowledge are gathered: physicians, nurses, technicians, carpenters, and leaders of all kinds live there. When times are rough, a strong community is better equipped to face hardship than a secluded family.
To hear more about Gil’s story, listen to our podcast episode with him on Spotify, Podbean, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts!