Back to Earth

The city has become a hostile environment, a sort of “gray machine” that feeds on pollution and the fear of those who inhabit on it. The city has become an issue that is always a matter of the neighbor, the government, the other.

In many Latin American cities that are just waking up and moving to that place called “development,” urban space has become the epicenter of chaos, noise, insecurity and traffic. Street corners have become public toilets where passersby discharge their bladders (or bowels, in more extreme cases).

The spaces under the bridges have become home to those who have been shifted and pushed by the voracious city to live in degrading conditions, in places and situations that local governments “fix” with irrational deterrents, like piling sharp stones in the under-bridge spaces to keep anyone, indigent or not, from appropriating them.

Hunger stalks and its insatiable need pushes city-dwellers to capitalize on any piece of tin, hydrant or cable that can be stolen, then be sold or traded. The open square, the dark alley, the smelly corner are a stage for criminals to seize opportunities.

To break the silence and banish the absent glance, the indifferent urban attitude, a group of designers in Bogotá have taken up the task of restoring some dignity to their city and its inhabitants, of revalidating the public space, and making it beautiful and safe. Notably, María José Olmos and Santiago Mejia recently decided to respond to the violence and the hostility of this city of nearly 8 million people with art and gardens. Walking through the streets, the two guys decided to start plant seeds and make murals in those corners or hot areas of the city. Activism in the shape of art and gardens. Insurgency in the form of plants.

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The idea is not new. Back in the ‘70s, Liz Christy, a lover of chlorophyll and the contrast between green and gray, began to appropriate the Bowery Houston area of New York with guerrilla gardens. From that re/de/colonization by rhizomes and flowers of the asphalt, movements in over 30 other countries woke up and began to reclaim the sidewalks and corners as places that can be embellished with plants.

The guerrilla gardening movement is strongly environmental, and its activist purpose has been crossed and hybridized a new movement, with the speech and actions of urbanites who have begun to cultivate orchards in their backyards and garages. The mini-crops are a kind of statement aiming to promote responsible consumption.

The purpose of Olmos and Mejia is not just to beautify the city and make statements that invite community participation, but more importantly to provide security, to occupy dangerous places with plants and murals and to convince criminals with beauty, to coax them into using these spaces as places of green calm, rather than places of violence.

Step by step, the insurgent gardeners are winning over the underworld, armed with aloe, dandelions and blooms of all kinds. "Our job is not welfare, the gardens are a possibility of change, new landscapes that will always depend on the community to thrive. If the community is committed and has the interest and love of caring, thrive, otherwise die by neglect," explain Mejía and Olmos, who have already planted about 5 gardens in different parts of Bogotá.

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1) Boots, umbrellas and a friend. Go for a walk through the streets of your neighborhood and identify areas where Pedro Navajas and Juanito Alimaña meet for criminal actions or investigate those dirty places where rubbish is dumped.

2) Plant wisely. Aloe, flowering plants, dandelions are good choices, and adapt easily.

3) Choose the proper pot. These may become the targets of thieves or people who use them to recycle or sell. So use baskets, old furniture or drawers to build your own pots.

4) With the plants, attach artistic statements to the walls, which strengthen the concept of revalidating your corner as an art space.

5) Talk to neighbors to distribute the gardening work.

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Photo courtesy of: Carlos Basto (SPOON)