Double book review: Urban Gardening as Politics; Urban Climate Politics: Agency and Empowerment

reviewed by Tariro Kamuti

24 Mar 2023, 3:01 p.m.
Urban Gardening As Politics book cover Urban Climate Politics book cover

Chiara Tornaghi and Chiara Certomà (eds), Urban Gardening as Politics, Oxon: Routledge, 2019; 236 pp.: ISBN: 978-0-41579-380-3, £96.00 (hbk); ISBN: 9780367500399, £38.99 (pbk)

Jeroen van der Heijden, Harriet Bulkeley, and Chiara Certomà (eds), Urban Climate Politics: Agency and Empowerment, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019; 256 pp.: ISBN: 978-1-10849 297-3, £83.99/$105.00 (hbk); ISBN: 9781108730228, £36.99 (pbk)


More than half of the world’s people are urbanised and the proportion of people living in urban areas is expected to increase to about six billion by the middle of the 21st century. A high percentage of this urbanisation is projected to come from Asia and Africa. Cities already contribute almost three-quarters of the gross domestic product, resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions of the world. This draws much attention to the urban area concerning, for instance, human well-being, sustainability and climate change. A look at these two volumes; Urban Gardening as Politics and Urban Climate Politics: Agency and Empowerment, shows that the urban area is already at the centre of contestation. This contestation can be in terms of space for various land uses, including gardening, or the handling of the climate crisis that has become so topical in our current era, the Anthropocene. The issues of politics of urban climate and agriculture, therefore, matter, as shown by these two volumes. For example, the quest for land for gardening, albeit in the urban area, has not been as contentious in the Global North as the burning issue of access to land for agriculture or livelihood strategies within the countryside in the Global South. However, Urban Gardening as Politics (12 chapters) provides nuances of the contestation over urban space to grow flowers and vegetables in the Global North covering the UK, Canada, Germany, Italy, Belgium, France, Ireland and the USA.

In Urban Climate Politics (13 chapters), climate has become one of the foci of the Earth System Governance (ESG), a global research alliance, which is a social science research network in the areas of governance and global environmental change. Due to the dominance of the city in the global economy, this volume starts by pointing out that the 21st century is referred to as the ‘urban century’. This means a lot in terms of the role of the city in fighting the climate crisis. Urban areas contribute to, and are affected by, climate change, though there are dynamics and nuances associated with cities within and/or between the Global North and the Global South. For example, issues such as urban poverty and lack of clean air and water are more pronounced in cities of the Global South than in the Global North. Meanwhile, the levels of inequality between the poor and the well-off population are huge and rapidly increasing in both the Global North and the Global South. This volume is a culmination of a project in which the scholars put the urban at the centre of attention. They look at the main players, such as municipal governments and their associated transnational allies, ‘as critical agents of change in the transition towards a low carbon and resilient future’ (p. 2). There is also recognition that besides the municipal governments themselves, there have been questions concerning the governance of climate change emanating from higher levels of authority like the state and regional entities. Thus, in both volumes, actors outside the realm of the state have also stepped into the governance of urban climate and agriculture. These include an array of non-governmental organisations, citizen initiatives, community organisations, municipal associations across national borders, civic organisations, financial institutions and entrepreneurial entities.

In Urban Gardening as Politics, this form of urban governance is happening in the ‘post political age’ where political outcomes are no longer the preserve of official legislative provisions. The political results are also a result of negotiations happening beyond parliamentary arenas involving an intricate network of actors with similar interests in the urban, thus constituting ‘governance-beyond-the-state’ (p. 2). Gardening is viewed in the context of the post political age, where politics is not seen through the norm of electoral representation mechanisms but rather as an outcome of deliberations beyond the parliamentary sphere between a wide range of networks of interlocutors with a mutual interest. This is seen to usher in new regimes that are contrary to the democratic means of nurturing disagreement through legislated spaces of public engagement. However, the prevalent economic actors and powerful external players hold sway by capitalising on this new political agency to bring with them a dynamic form of governance that facilitates the entrance of new players in a field that is broad and fluid. This space is equated to Soja’s (1996)Thirdspace which is characterised as disruptive and lacking regulation, giving in to the rise of unbridled urbanity. There are creative forms of agency based on informal processes that involve direct interaction between participants with private players and entities. This happens without the intermediary role of state authorities whose exclusive mandate over the place and people is waning. It is within this context that the authors of Urban Gardening as Politics located urban gardening in terms of its settings, trajectory, tensions and challenges that it could become a proactive and liberating political force in the neoliberal city. The authors were fascinated by the concomitant action and hands-on approaches of citizens at the grassroots level in the deliberation of issues of public interest. Citizens set up alternative means to be heard, thus exercising their agency.

The volume on Urban Climate Politics notes that urban climate governance has been gradually picking up momentum as witnessed through some broad developments in the last three decades. Local governments and local communities have gained leverage over the politics and governance within their jurisdictions as a result of the combined effect of decentralisation and liberalisation. Decentralisation has increased the stakes through efficient and effective service delivery beyond mere fulfilment of national policy, while liberalisation has allowed other players to participate in public service delivery through arrangements such as sub-contracting and privatisation of municipal services. Just like in Urban Gardening as Politics, these developments have enabled local governments to be creative and innovative, in what has come to be called the smart city, in trying out improvements that are contingent on their service delivery needs. Subsequently, since the 1990s, local governments are actively participating in urban climate governance in conjunction with other private and civil society actors (including municipal networks at various levels), though their agenda has not necessarily been to tackle climate change. Within the same period, in the international arena, there have been concerted efforts to facilitate the major role of local governments in climate action. Key among these efforts was Local Agenda 21, a culmination of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. In the same vein, the United Nations and the World Bank have spearheaded a group of initiatives concerning the nexus between urbanisation and climate change, with special attention paid to cities within the Global South. Alongside the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris, France, in 2015, some engagements paved the way for cities and local authorities to move the agenda of climate change to the international stage. The Sustainable Development Goals of 2015 and the New Urban Agenda all strengthen the key functions of cities in tackling climate change.

As the volume on Urban Gardening as Politics shows, the motivation of the participants to embark on different forms of gardening pointed to the garden as not only a space for growing all sorts of plants (including tobacco). Their participation is rather symbolic of a movement towards evening out social, cultural, or economic contradictions within the city. The participants were mainly from grassroots organisations whose experiences covered different aspects of urban gardening. This helped the authors to carve the niche of exploring urban gardening to provide the reader with an eagle’s eye view of a wide spectrum of claims made around the politics of gardening. The dynamics surrounding urban gardening projects are well discussed in this fascinating collection of chapters which intricately parse the ways, works, and significance of urban gardening on the back of changes happening in neoliberal cities. There is an assortment of urban gardening arrangements that straddle both private and public land while putting these two spheres into contrast in terms of what they mean and signify to urban residents based on their claims over land and also their right to the city. For example, the idea of public-access community gardens (Chapter 5), can be viewed from two angles. Either the establishment of these community gardens in public common spaces is seen as some form of privatisation through attending to the needs of specific social groups or it signifies the creation of commons through extending access to marginalised groups who previously did not have the privilege. This and other arrangements of urban gardening inform the major themes that emerged from this academic inquiry into how gardening has become a formidable political tool and statement used by marginalised groups within the city. One could look at radical approaches like guerrilla gardening (Chapter 9), passing through allotment gardening (p. 16), which is mediated by legal provisions, to more elaborately negotiated arrangements to promote equality in the practice of gardening as a form of Do-It-Yourself Citizenship (Chapter 11). The contributions in this volume are well detailed and critical enough to give the nuances of each form of urban gardening identified, all of which reflect some kind of political urban activism against the dominant neoliberal leanings of cities in the Global North.

The broad developments referred to in Urban Climate Politics, within the arena of local government, particularly at the city level, have given way to the rise of new agents and new forms of agency in the governance of climate change beyond the classical boundaries. These new governance mechanisms have varying effects on different categories of people within the city, which has been a gap in the study of the trajectory of the urban climate. This edited volume is therefore timely in enhancing our understanding of the climate change actions of cities through this offering of critical analyses, by urban climate governance scholars, of compelling empirical studies drawn from both the Global North and the Global South. There is a problematisation of agency as a contentious concept that is varyingly perceived across the academy while trying to situate it within the context of urban climate governance. Different novel agents and forms of the agency have been identified and they have correspondingly influenced what has been broadly categorised as top-down, bottom-up and mixed approaches to urban climate governance that inform the various chapters of the book, just as in Urban Gardening as Politics. In the same way, the contributors asked several pertinent questions that helped to unpack the contested conceptualisation of empowerment in the transformation of urban climate governance. They trace the notion of empowerment back to the 1970s and differentiate getting ‘empowered’ as a result in itself and the ‘empowering’ context as a way to get to the result. They also explore the concept of empowerment through legal provisions versus empowerment through means that are beyond the legal route and discuss what all these arrangements mean for urban climate action and governance. The authors are, however, critical in their analysis by cautioning that the rise in agency within the urban climate governance milieu does not necessarily translate to increased empowerment. Even when a high level of agency impacts a high level of empowerment, the result may not be what is needed.

The content of the chapters in Urban Climate Politics is rich, well-structured and detailed in addition to being grounded in theoretical pickings such as Actor Network Theory (Chapter 2), Foucault’s (2009) governmentality (Chapter 5) and the application of urban political ecology theory (Chapter 6), to name just a few. I was awestruck with approaches like thick analysis, data-driven decision-making in urban climate governance and the idea of responsibilisation of citizens in urban climate adaptation. The role of transnational municipal networks in urban climate governance is palpable in this volume. This volume also has a chapter that draws lessons from urban agriculture concerning contingent climate change issues in cities of the Global South: Nairobi, Kenya; Kampala, Uganda; and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. This is quite interesting given the contentious role of urban gardening in the Urban Gardening as Politics volume. In Urban Gardening as Politics, I also give credit to the evidence of rigorous empirical research, by both emerging and seasoned scholars (some of whom double as activists in this field), that went into compiling this fine collection. A variety of methods were used: participant observation (including observing-participant) in the form of site visits to urban gardens, interviews, media analysis and ethnographic work for example. These empirical findings are also well grounded in a variety of theoretical and conceptual frameworks that all enhanced the analyses of urban gardening as part of urban politics. There are interesting reads on the use of Henri Lefebvre’s (1991, 1996) concept of the right to the city, invocation of Elinor Ostrom’s (1990) work on common-pool resources, theory of access by Ribot and Peluso (2003) and seminal works of Harvey (2008) among others. This volume significantly contributes to knowledge of the urban, for example, to enhance understanding of urban governance, the role of food-related activities in the fight against inequalities, or uplifting social and environmental justice, while opening up the scope for further research.

In conclusion, both volumes have elements of how different social groups and networks adopt various forms of agency to empower themselves in the pursuit of a common interest be it urban gardening or urban climate governance. The contestation surrounding these issues drives the trajectory of the governance mechanisms in general with different outcomes within the urban areas. Both volumes merge at the level of the thrust towards sustainable cities and the politics surrounding how to achieve that trajectory at the local government level. However, the interactions among the various stakeholders are multifaceted, as each of them is driven by their own interests. Therefore, novel forms of governance have emerged in both urban climate change and urban gardening. In closing, the two volumes reflect on their contributions in ways that stimulate further research. As noted in Urban Gardening as Politics, while the green agenda has been kept alive within and outside the academy, ‘little attention has been paid to the controversial and contentious aspects associated with the phenomenon of urban gardening’ (p. 210). So, this volume has, ‘taken up the challenge to reflect critically on the ways in which the political dimension has been articulated (or not) through urban gardening in the cities of the Global North’ (p. 210). In this regard, ‘post-foundational scholars have interrogated the changing dynamics and roles of politics’ by ‘distinguishing between politics and the political’ (p. 210). Therefore, the authors pose the question, ‘Political gardening or gardening as politics?’ for reflection (p. 210). On the other hand, Urban Climate Politics: Agency and Empowerment reflects on the ramifications caused by ‘the shifting nature of agency being produced within cities to address climate change’ (p. 234). So, there are different forms of agency shown by the various urban actors as they interact at different levels and ways, as delineated between ‘individual and collective agency (Chapters 3), place-based and global agency (Chapter 2), and fragmented or weak versus united or strong agency (Chapter 11)’ (p. 234). These reflections for instance, call for more ‘research on increasing agency and contested empowerment in the politics of urban climate futures’ (p. 239). The two volumes are insightful in exploring agency, empowerment, equity, sustainability and justice within the urban set-up across the world. These two volumes are critical sources of literature for scholars of urban politics in general, followed by urban climate politics and urban agriculture in particular. In addition, practitioners, policymakers and interested parties alike will find these two books to be quite useful resources in shedding light on their coverage of the pertinent issues surrounding urban politics in policy and practice.



Foucault M (2009) Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977–1978. London: Macmillan. Google Scholar

Harvey D (2008) The right to the city. New Left Review 53: 23–40. Google Scholar

Lefebvre H (1991) Critique of Everyday life. London: Verso. Google Scholar

Lefebvre H (1996) Writings on Cities (Trans. Kofman E, Lebas E) Oxford: Blackwell. Google Scholar

Ostrom E (1990) Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Crossref | Google Scholar

Ribot JC, Peluso NL (2003) A theory of access. Rural Sociology 68(2): 153–181. Crossref | ISI | Google Scholar

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