Sunday, May 10, 2015

Social Work and sustainable urbanism: from seed bombs and brownfields to community gardens, bike lanes to sustainable urbanism


I have a vivid memory of a cold February bike ride with the Occupy Wall Street Sustainably Committee, collaborating with several garden and cycling groups.  We rode from Zuccotti Park up through some vacant lots throughout the Lower East Side.  Borrowing a page from the Green Guerillas, we spent the ride throwing Seed Bombs into the lots.  Falling, each seed clashed on the ground, colliding with the dirt while laying the groundwork for a new community garden and by extension a different way of looking at the world.  Each offered a new possibly for a spring which just might sprout something wonderful.  Taking part, we were all invited to see urban lots as green spaces and the city as a sustainable space capable of regenerating itself.  Of course, many of these seeds were dislodged from their roots and the earth the following fall when the waves of Hurricane Sandy crashed over the shore.  That’s part of why so many of us, some 400,000 or so were inspired to join the People’s Climate March. Throughout the march, we’d see dinosaurs and swordfish bikes, flooding bodies and bouncing globes, tumbling trees, clashing forces and melting statues, crashing bodies, colliding and creating something new.  I got involved in the organizing for the event only a few days after returning from our summer hike through Spain, attending meeting after meeting, making banner after banner, prop after prop.  The climate march was grand, but the week after was possibly more important.  We all rode through NYC to an old vacant lot, a brown field along vacant railroad between Long Island City and Brooklyn turned community garden, where we planted seed bombs. Doing so, we connected multiple ingredients of urban climate activism, linking the transformation of brownfields into community gardens, bike lanes and non-polluting transportation with models of sustainable urbanism.  The urban farm, dubbed Smiling Hogshead Ranch, would later be made into a city park, where cohorts of youth now learn lessons of urban agriculture and environmental science.  The work connected my experiences with ecological social work, do-it-yourself politics, community gardens, non polluting transportation as parts of expanding model of sustainable urbanism. Exploring these livable models of engagement, this paper connects such elements to outline a livable model of social change activism around models of remediation, cites and climate.        

Eco Social Work

               Social workers have long talked about looking at people in their environments.  Yet, the emphasis has tended to focus on the social world.[i]  Yet, there is a physical world which impacts the lives of people around the world, the majority of whom now live in cities, riddled with brown fields, pollutants, toxic waste, congestion, polluted water, tornados, hurricanes, people fighting over resources, and increasing temperatures.   Social work is well equipped to cope with such challenges, capable of connecting the self and the world we live in, through more holistic models of practice.[ii]  The question is will it?  Will is take on a climate crisis which seems to be hitting a tipping point?[iii]  To do so, the profession of social work could benefit from learning from social movements the world over coping with environmental challenges.  Such thinking merges a view of social work in the context of an ecological crisis, that has been described as a something akin to a game of Jinga: if you take out enough pieces, the whole planet crumbles just like this kids game.[iv]  Engaging in this question, we invite students to examine environmental problems as we take the “Person and Environment” framework seriously, expanding it with a global perspective.  By considering the physical environment we take on a more authentic approach to our profession, while learning to be better equipped to be activists and change agents.  

               I first become a involved with green/environmental social work when, I saw what was happening when humans take Mother Nature for granted, the environmental disasters/hazards and social injustices, such as earthquakes I saw experienced in California, super storms on the East Coast, and skyrocketing asthma rates among low income populations living in toxic environments with few green spaces.  Moving to New York in the mid-1990s, I became avidly involved with community gardens, believing that they are a solution to help us fashion more livable cities.  Yet, there was more to it than this.  Many of the people involved with urban gardening were also involved with efforts around non-polluting forms of transportation, connecting streets with green spaces. Together, we worked to clean up polluted urban spaces and using tools such as bio-remediation  to  help fix such spaces and possibly the planet.

Through such community practice, practitioners and activists hone a fresh and analytical picture of a new positive (= solution-oriented ) opportunities of social work in enabling sustainable urban communities to grow by turning towards social activism, opening a community based path for social work as a profession and a practice, ideally moving it beyond the crossroads the editors identify in the introduction.  Here, the distinctions between solutions oriented social work and social policy are bridged within an engaged practice.  Countless models of research can be cited which build on this model of sustainable urbanism.[v]   

Yet, to do so, many organizers take a distinct approach to coping with social problems, beginning with community organizing and development, extending through four core areas of sustainable urbanism.  These include: dialogue and deliberation to examine options for meeting the challenges, remediation to fix what is wrong, prevention and development to slow problems while creating alternatives, and social justice based models of social action, from direct action to direct services.[vi]   Models of remediation involve taking what is wrong with the world and fixing them.  For example, bioremediation is “a process by which microorganisms, fungi, and plants degrade pollutant chemicals through use or transformation of the substances.” [vii]  Here, everyday materials, such as oyster shells and mushrooms, break down oil from spills, reminding us there are simple feasible solutions to countless problems we face in our communities; in a nutshell, grow mushrooms, clean the earth.[viii]  But remediation extends in countless directions.   For example, members of the Occupy Wall Street Sustainability Committee held various bioremediation balls in a community gardens, wherein members played and experimented with natural elements.  “Eat oysters for the shells, make mud balls for waterways,” noted the invitation for the 2014 Bioremediation Ball. “Learn the Pharma Seed game for future pharmacy, sow sunflower seeds to pull toxins from soil, crush shells for soil, grow mushrooms, stomp cob for bricks, make egg-carton balls for play...”  The group connected countless community development strategies, linking direct action to direct services, mutual aid, dialog and deliberation, with efforts to create and support spaces, such as community gardens like El Jardin Paraiso where the Bioremediation Ball took place.  Here, people talk, listen, share skills, and build community.  

For cyclists, the approach builds on what is known as the Copenhagen Theory of Change, whereby regular people are engaged to support small gestures, of personal changes which have a large impact on cities.  Rather than waiting for a solution at a policy meeting, regular people find their own solutions in themselves. Five decades ago, the people of Copenhagen were as reliant on cars as those in the most suburban places in the world.  But after the oil crisis and a spike in child deaths by automobiles, the Dutch ‘Stop de Kindermoord’ (Stop the Child Murder) movement ignited a change.  Hereby, regular people made a commitment to cycle more and drive less, thereby reducing carbon emissions and deaths by automobile.   Today, most everyone there rides bikes rather than drives to work.[ix]  Such practice is very much built of a do-it-yourself approach to activism and community engagement, wherein individual people committed to save the climate by taking multiple small actions.  Imagine if every city around the world emulated the Copenhagen approach to non-polluting transportation and New York’s approach to allowing neighborhoods to create community gardens?  We might start to move in the right direction. Through the application of this approach, we can trace a lineage of activism, from direct action based campaigns to create public space, community gardens, and non-polluting transportation offering a future of cities, pointing us toward a more livable world.


               Through DIY politics, we consider contradictions between ideas and art, bodies and movements on streets and public spaces.  Along the way, a dialectical approach helps us explore the interconnections between street activism and social history.  “Themes of imagination, creativity and desire run throughout the radical left movements,” explains Shukaitis.[x]  Such thinking ties together projects ranging from Mujeres Libres to today’s Critical Mass bike rides.  Often neglected, these help remind us that we are not passive spectators of history. There are other ways of living. It is up to us to recreate them and set out a path toward different kinds of stories.  They help us think of cites as mutable DIY spaces we can impact through the merging of our liberatory gestures and direct action with a closer, more humane model of what cites can and should be, one garden, bike ride and prank at a time.   Through such actions, cites are engaged in a process of becoming.  We can all be part of this.

               I first started thinking about such a politics as an organizer and social worker, balancing my days working with people with AIDS in the Bronx and organizing in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where I lived.  There, we connected struggles to save urban gardens with the deforestation Earth First was contesting on the West Coast of the United State.  Many of us took part in the Battle of Seattle that fall of 1999, connecting various DIY campaigns.[xi]  Here  a problem solving, community building spirit extended from punk to a do it yourself ethos, building a community with what ever one had, with zines, music, people getting together and creating a public space. Such an ambition extended from squatting homes out of abandoned buildings to creating shows for your friends- building something of one’s own own.  People want something authentic with which to connect.  Hence the appeal of punk shows, dance music, rave culture in 90s in Britain, loud, pulsing bands, and other cultural streams anarchism.  It's people sharing a space together, a bohemian space, a blurry space - ambivalent sexual space, where desires reflect the biodiversity of nature and vice versa.  Here we found life was far more random than any of us could imagine.                

               When I got to NY in the mid 90s, I found the Lower East Side Collective, where we organized in an intersectional way, working with local anarchists, squatters, graduate students, and even local elected Democrats - whoever we needed to work with.  We had a strike team, a public space, a community gardening group, community labor coalition;  we did graffiti, sticking campaigns, our big events were dance events,  dancing and building a community together.  We didn't believe in any isms.  Every three weeks we had a general community meeting; everyone had 3 minutes to say what their project had done, what they wanted.  Not allowed to talk about ideology.  Meetings were short, five affinity groups getting together.  We got green grocers back wages, created community gardens, and participated in the workings of a movement which would later be dubbed the global justice movement, helping it link local ambitions, gardens, squats, and aids activism with global activism.[xii]  

DiY is more than any ideology or political philosophy; rather it builds on a diverse culture of anarchism, cultural activism, and community organization.   Through it, regular people come together to organize, injecting a pulse of freedom into the practice of social change work,  connecting autonomy of bodies and freedom to be queer in public space.  This is anarchism in self organization and self determination.  The idea is affinity groups, ten of us in the room can do it ourselves. That's what the other best campaigns, ACT UP and Occupy, do.  It is born through retail politics – people shaking hands, having a conversation, unmerited marches – expanding an awareness of pubic commons. This commons we are talking about, is earth.  

Practicing this approach, many of us are acutely aware that our city, New York City faces a stark choice: either will be transformed into a sustainable city or it will be flooded.  Yet, solutions are everywhere.  We can walk; we can use solar energy, ride bikes, expand our own sustainable agriculture – and hopefully survive this, trying to use common sense tools, greening public space, supporting alternative energy.   If not we'll see more Super storm Sandys.

We are already seeing the benefits of this approach.             The city has made bike lanes because a lot of people said we'll ride.   When Super Storm Sandy hit, Occupy Sandy, groups of organizers - brought cargo and energy bikes with marine power batteries, to help people recharge, connect, get supplies and talk.  Under the slogan, "Mutual aid, not charity".  Cyclists moved thousands of pounds of food from Brooklyn to Queens, charging phones in the Rockaways, and pointing to the possibilities of non-polluting transportation as a vital resource for post disaster cities. [xiii] The best organizing takes place when people have a conversation.  Throughout this activism, we considered the social, cultural and ecological costs of life in cities and redevelopment, wondering if there could be a different more ecologically balanced, livable, more community based model for development.  Could there be another story?  Will this city follow a path toward more ecological disrepair or toward sustainable urbanism?

Social movements and creative activism are fundamentally about telling many different kinds of stories, engaging  the polyglot nature of our society rather than submitting to the limitations of a single narrative. Here, the practice and art and activism merges into a distinct mode of artistic activism, aimed at transforming urban spaces into living, breathing, mutable works of art. Some look to paint brushes and graffiti. Others use their bodies or public spaces. McKay and Furness  look to gardening and cycling as ways of creating new models of sustainable urbanism. Nettle and McKay  fashions gardening as a form of resistance culture, as a model of social action, tracing an alternative history of the practice. [xiv]

Gardens, bikes and urban ecology

This is a city connected between people and ideas, streets and green spaces, bike lanes and sidewalks, spaces for cars, and pedestrians, as well as those who yearn for public spaces, where they can actually put their hands in the dirt – everyone sharing delicate community ecology, worth preserving and honoring.   When we lose a green space, this balance is threatened in a similar way. We lose our sense of community or self. The private invades the public.  Everything is interconnected in this naked city.

One Saturday in  April of 2015, I left the house to make streets memorials for pedestrians killed by automobiles in the morning and to highlight community gardens under threat in New York City.  After the morning of painting memorials, I dropped by the Brooklyn Commons, where they were putting on workshop on climate justice.  “Everything is connected,” declared the sign.  And that’s the point.  All winter long, we pointed out that green housing is not built on green gardens, that community gardens help offer a solution to a city facing the threats of flooding, climate extremes, congestion, and rippling threats to the sustainability of the city. They should not be sacrificed.  These spaces offer a wide number of benefits to our concrete jungle, making cities better spaces in which to live.  A few of these include:

1)     Providing food security, nutrients, and resources to underserved communities.

2)     Reducing food and transportation costs.

3)     Lessening the “heat island” effects in local areas.

4)     Promoting civil engagement in the same way social settlements once did.

5)     Reducing food waste via composting.[xv]

Part of what is important about these stories and approaches is the way they point to forms of activism which impacts everyday life. One need not purchase a train or airplane ticket or use sick days to participate in these forms of activism, which are transforming cities the world over. Through such low threshold endeavors, everyone can take part in shaping their city as a work of art. All you have to do is get on your bike and ride, join your local community garden or create your own solution.

[i] Bronfronbrenner, 1979. The Ecology of Human Development. Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press.
[ii] See Introduction to this book. Aila-Leena and Kati Narhi. Social work and social policy in the context of a comprehensive ecosocial transition of societies.   Also see Loretta Pyles and Gwendolyn J. Adam.  Eds. 2016. Holistic Engagement: Transformative Social Work Education in the 21st Century. Oxford University Press
[iii] Barnosky, Anthony et al. 2012.  Approaching a State Shift in the Earth’s Atmosphere. Nature.
[iv] Bill Nye. Climate 101.

[v] HEssle, Sven. 2014.  Environmental Change and Sustainable Social Development: Social Work-Social Development Volume II.  Ashgate.Shepard, Benjamin. 2012.  Community Gardens, Creative Community Organizing & Environmental Activism.  In Gray, M., Coates, J., Hetherington, T. (2012). Environmental Social Work. New York: Routledge. Shepard, Benjamin 2014. Community Projects as Social Activism. Sage 2014. Shepard, Benjamin. 2015 Rebel Friendships. New York: Palgrave Shepard, Benjamin. 2011.  Play, Creativity and Social Movements: If I Can’t Dance Its Not My Revolution, New York: Routledge. Shepard, Benjamin and Smithsimon, Greg. 2011. The Beach Beneath the Streets: Contesting New York’s Public Spaces. New York SUNY Press.

[vi] Shepard, B. Totten, V., Homans, M. (2012). The Human Services Response to Social Problems – How, Who, and Why. Plenary Address National Organization of Human Services Conference.  Milwaukee, Wi.
[vii] Rhodes, C. (2014). Mycoremediation (Bioremediation with Fungi) – Growing Mushrooms to Clean the Earth. A mini-review. Chemical Speciation &Bioavailability Accessed 30 January from
[viii] Rhodes, 2014
[ix] Gernot Wagner. 2015. Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ.
[x] Shukaitis, Stevphen. 2009. Imaginal Machines: Autonomy & Self-Organization in the Revolutions of Everyday Life: Autonomy & Self-Organization in the Revolutions of Everyday Life.  Autonomedia. 2009 (pp. 13–14).
[xi] Duncombe, Steve. 1997.  Notes from the Underground.  Zines and the Politics of Underground
Culture. Verso New York.  George McKay. 1998. DiY Culture: Party and Protest in Nineties Britain.London: Verso.
[xii] Shepard, Benjamin. 2011.  Play, Creativity and Social Movements.  New York: Routledge.
[xiii] Shepard, B (2013). From Flooded Neighborhoods to Sustainable Urbanism: A New York Diary.  Socialism and Democracy.  27(2): 42-46
[xiv] George Mckay. 2011. Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism, and Rebellion in the Garden. Frances Lincoln. London; Zack Furness 2010. one less car: bicycling and the politics of automobility. Temple University Press; Claire Nettle. 2014.  Community Gardening as Social Activism.  Ashgate; Efrat Eizenberg. 2013.  From the Ground Up. Community Gardens in New York City and the Politics of Spacial Transformation. UK: Ashgate.
[xv] Allison Paisner. 2015.  Five Reasons Why You Should be Promoting Urban Agriculture in Your City. 9 May.

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