Four years ago, Ron Finley was given an arrest warrant for planting carrots. Finley, who lives in South Central L.A., was tired of driving miles to find healthy food, so he’d planted a vegetable garden in the small strip of city-owned land between the sidewalk in front of his house and the street, an area he was required to maintain. The problem? The city required a $400 permit to use it as a garden, which Finley didn’t pay.
After some media coverage of the garden and a petition from community activists, the warrant was later revoked, and the project started to inspire more guerrilla gardening throughout the city. Now, L.A. has finally changed its policy: Under a new law, the city will allow free gardens next to sidewalks.
“In some of these neighborhoods, that’s the only place people have to plant,” says Finley. “Between the concrete, asphalt, and chain link fences, they don’t have any other places. To me, it’s about making food hyperlocal. Not just local, hyperlocal.”
The gardens help give neighborhoods control over their own food. “It’s about being self-sustaining,” Finley says. “It’s about you changing your life and being responsible for your health, and for your community. It’s you taking a stand that this is mine. … We’ve basically been enslaved by food companies, and they’re killing us slowly. There’s other means and other ways to supply food.”
For Finley, the sidewalk gardens are also about more than food. “It’s walking outside your door and being greeted by hummingbirds and dragonflies and bees, and a green, healthy ecosystem that’s not in these communities—it doesn’t exist,” he says. “I have birds that I’d never seen in my life before coming to my garden now. And you’re filtering the air. People walk by and see beautiful things, instead of just concrete.”
Finley’s garden, which he shared in a TED talk, has inspired others to grow in vacant lots around the world, from Brazil to South Korea. “I’m the simplest man you know,” he says. “I’m not one of those academics that don’t do shit but reads about it. The difference is, I do shit. I have a proof of concept and it works. I don’t need studies—I know that this kid put a carrot in the ground and she saw it grow, and she took it out of the ground and was proud as hell, and she wiped it off and put it in her mouth and ate it. Now she has skin in the game.”
“I tell people, ‘Change your food, change your life,” he says. “Grow your food, save your life.”
The new ordinance will go into effect next month.
Adele Peters is a writer who focuses on sustainability and design and lives in Oakland, California. She’s worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley