Renegade Gardener: Ron Finley

Having identified his South Central Los Angeles neighborhood as a “food desert” – one of many areas devoid of fresh, healthy food – Ron Finley set out to interrupt the cycle of wasting health and wasted resources that such a desert inflicts by transforming his yard into a “food forest.” With his urban gardening initiative, Finley dug up the patchy, unproductive grass covering the sidewalk median in front of his house and replaced it with an abundant garden, replete with all manner of edibles. In the process he unwittingly provoked a mass reconsideration of what it means to be food independent and how best to utilize neglected public space for social good. Finley’s message has ricocheted around the world since he presented it as a TED Talk at the annual convention of big ideas in February. Of course, the appeal of Finley’s insistent message, as he points out, is its simplicity: “Grow your own food.”



 

An artist and designer, Finley’s initial inspiration for his garden was an appreciation of beauty. “I wanted to beautify my block. And my first thought was smell. I wanted people to come by and smell lavender, and jasmine – I wanted to just bombard people’s senses with smell. That’s basically where it started.” But his artistic impulse was paired with a sense of mission. “I just got tired of the fact that there was no healthy food to be had in this neighborhood. These neighborhoods, they need triage. It’s just like a disaster or war zone or anything else. It has to happen. You have to do it.”
Though unintentional, Finley embraces the role of community activist and finds the most fulfilling aspect of this role to be the receptivity shown to his simple message. As an example, he describes the actions of a kid named David, who credits Finley as the inspiration for his Neighborhood Grocery Store project. The youth constructed his own home garden in Austin, Texas from which he distributes produce – everything from zucchinis to jalapenos – to his neighbors for free. “He sends me these photos. He built planters in his front yard and he’s growing food out of them for his neighborhood. That a kid saw my video and did this, that’s what gets me.”

 

Significantly, his initiative has had an effect on local ordinances, which had until now prohibited gardening on the city-owned median without a $400 permit. As a result of his efforts and those of like-minded renegade gardeners, new regulations will permit the cultivation of edibles on sidewalk medians. What’s more, the city has promised to dedicate some of its vacant lots to community gardening. The most important result for Finley, though, is the change in perspective among those in his community. People are seizing the initiative to grow their own food. “More people are coming by to see this garden. There are a couple of gardens popping up in the community that I have nothing to do with. The fact that we had a list of volunteers that probably went from 50 to 500 within a month.”

Finley is far from idle, busy promoting his message of food liberation; nonetheless he has expansive plans for his next endeavor – the Ron Finley Project. He envisions a hub of modified shipping container cafes paired with the gardens that will supply them with fresh ingredients. On par with Finley’s notion of “using public space for the public,” each site will serve as a training center for emerging gardeners and cooks while also serving as a center of community enterprise.

Finley is partnering with the Alternative Apparel Grants Project in awarding $1000 to a community initiative to foster gardening and agriculture in Venice. He recognizes Alternative’s values of empowerment, play, and impact as in accord with his own. “Gardens empower people to take over their lives. Play – that’s what you do in the soil. That’s playing in nature.”



 

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Joe O’Donnell
Photos by Stephen Zeigler

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