Community Organizing & Urban Agriculture

A U.S. & Spain Comparison

Philanthropy, volunteerism, and community activism:

Many of the differences between urban agriculture in Spain and the US are rooted in differences in philanthropy culture. In the US, there is a tradition of individual and institutional giving. Wealthy individuals and everyday Americans donate to organizations like charities and foundations. Corporations make financial contributions or in-kind donations of supplies, services, or space. All together, these donations help support myriad social services and community projects. Non-profits then rely on grant funding from foundations or government and corporate sponsorship to do their good work. 

In addition to financial support, groups in the US are also bolstered by our volunteer culture. Whether through school, work, church or individually, we're encouraged to give our time to those in need or causes we care about. In New York City, for example, New York Cares helps match those interested in volunteering with groups that have volunteer needs all across the city. Many non-profits employ a staff+volunteer system so that dedicated paid people can keep the effort organized and moving ahead while volunteers can do a lot of the less skilled leg work. Yet some groups also provide ways for volunteers or members to get more involved and take on a leadership role. Members of the NYC chapter of the US Green Building Council can serve on committee to help plan events or provide expertise; dedicated volunteers with the Gowanus Canal Conservancy can serve as volunteer coordinators leading other volunteers in activities they have become experts at; and the New York City Coalition Against Hunger coordinates Food Action Boards where neighborhood residents receive training and are organized to advocate on their own behalf for food justice.

However, in Spain, there is not a significant philanthropy culture. Caixa Bank and a few others give, but that is typically for larger projects, not smaller-scale neighborhood projects. While funding is a major boon to community projects like urban agriculture, there are nevertheless pros and cons of receiving these funds. For one, much time and effort goes into applying for funding - grant applications must be filled out, details of projects fleshed out, a budget proposed, and metrics projected. Then, if funding is received, grantees then are not only bound by the proposed use of funds from the application but also must document how funds were used, calculate metrics, and submit reports. With this burden, many projects in the US simply don't have the capacity and rely solely on volunteer labor, as do most projects in Spain, and things like fundraising events to pay for any supplies needed. The benefit of this, however, is that volunteers may be more invested because they know project success relies on them alone.

Another difference reliant on funding is that there is professionalized organizing in the US. Community organizer can actually be a job and that person doesn't necessarily come from the community. Alternatively, without someone to garner resident support, advocate on the group's behalf, and coordinate meetings, participants must do that work themselves.

In both countries, though, there is a DIY culture amongst grassroots efforts – groups emerge out of need or desire to address an issue. There is something to be done and they are going to do it themselves. However, succeeding and keeping a project going can be a significant struggle. Where Occupy Wall Street failed to maintain momentum, 15M in Spain has continued and resulted in political change. Though both are non-hierarchical and share similar demands, be it cultural differences or situational differences in the ways in which activists mobilized and organized themselves, something about the Spanish movement has led to greater success.

Urban Agriculture:

While urban agriculture has emerged as a trend in Spain only in the last decade, we've been growing in cities in the US for decades dating back to victory gardens during World War I.  In the 1970s, New York saw its first community garden as residents took over abandoned lots blighting their neighborhoods resulting from the city's economic collapse. This set the community gardening movement in motion, and they were galvanized to come together when lots were threatened by development in the 1990s, forming the New York City Community Garden Coalition. Urban agriculture today has grown immensely beyond just community gardens, to include rooftop farms and greenhouses, urban farms, and hydroponics.

The nascent movement in Madrid more closely mirrors the movement of NYC in the last 30 years of the 20th Century. Similarly, in Madrid community members are coming together to reclaim and activate vacant lots and transform them into public green spaces for residents. And the Red de Huertos Urbanos  (Network of Urban Gardens) resembles the NYC Community Garden Coalition. ivenHowever, many projects across Madrid are also embracing a more mixed-use model, with varied spaces dedicated to purposes other than gardening or as part of initiatives that undertake non-gardening projects as well (see El Campo de Cebada, Espacio Vecinal Arganzuela, or Paisaje Tetuan for example). These mixed-use projects and spaces exist in NYC as well, such as La Plaza Cultural or Hattie Carthan garden, but in general the focus in community gardens is more on growing space and less on other uses. Perhaps this reflects the fact that there are more community centers or other organizations that support those other community functions.

Furthermore, urban agriculture in the US has taken on more of a health and food access slant, as well as economic development aims. Communities are motivated to improve their local food environment and improve access to healthy foods. And many community projects and larger-scale urban agriculture projects sell their produce to reinvest in the projects, provide income to members, or to turn a profit. In this sense, there is a focus on not just the means - the community development process and benefits - but also the end - production. Whereas in Madrid, the production is less emphasized. There are also staffed urban agriculture projects in the US, which enables these projects to take on more ambitious aims such as composting and increased production.

With an urban agriculture movement fueled by a community gardening tradition that's been active for almost 50 years, NYC's movement is much more robust. An array of organizations exist to support and advance their activities, such as Just Food, GrowNYC, and the Parks Department's GreenThumb. Also of note is 596 Acres, which identifies vacant lots across the city as well as their ownership and other pertinent information about them, in order to serve as a resource to residents seeking open spaces. Something similar could be useful in Madrid given the movement there's basis in residents reasserting their right to the city.