Community Reclamation through Urban Gardening as a Liberatory Praxis

Photograph of Sophia Banegas

by Sophia Banegas, Edited by Dominique Thomas

This piece originally published in The Community Psychologist (TCP) Spring 2022 Volume 55 Number 2. All TCP columns are available online, at

The goal of this article is to pose a simple method of land reclamation in hopes of empowering communities, reconnecting people to land, and growing towards community liberation and autonomy. Communities are able to partake in revolutionary acts of autonomy and reclamation through the actions of physically reclaiming land in urban landscapes by eradicating colonizer plants with those plants that are Indigenous to their environments. Communities that experience police brutality, displacement, and are located in food deserts can partake in this process of reconnection and reclamation together to begin the process of liberation. The goal of community reclamation through urban gardening as a liberatory praxis is to move the community towards working the land with their hands and begin the conversations that will progress communities towards healing, liberation, and autonomy.

Having lived in low-income Los Angeles communities for the past twenty-eight years, I have witnessed the detrimental effects of colonization, capitalism, white supremacy, and the patriarchy. My insider perspective is that of a working class Xicana, a mother, and a community member. I have experienced living in food deserts and witnessing police brutality on community members for a lifetime. Neighborhoods like the one I live in have a better chance at obtaining alcohol than having access to fresh produce; there is far more concrete than untouched land. The trauma that communities endure together continues to persist as the conditions which we all live in continue to worsen. Perhaps one of the most draconian oppressors we face is capitalism which terrorizes communities by continuously valuing profit over people, and by perpetuating the classism that separates us all.

In order to form solidarity across communities, we must address our oppressors face on. Through the struggle of resistance to the hegemonic ways of living via capitalism and colonization we can move towards building a better world by focusing locally in our own communities. As a community psychology student, I recognize my responsibility to my community, and the urgent need for autogestion; the autonomous organizing of communities to work towards liberation and economy from an oppressive state (Ortiz Torres 2020). Rather than work from a “neutral” or “objective” psychological standpoint as a “researcher”, I make the conscious decision to reject the normalization of disconnection from my work due to my focus on community liberation. The tool of community psychology is key in organizing communities towards liberation and autonomy; and our roles as community psychologists are to take a stance and collaborate within our communities to work towards radical change. In Ortiz-Torres’ (2020) study of decoloniality they write:

“Autonomous organising does not imply removing the state’s responsibility to guarantee the basic rights of all citizens. In fact, it implies the opposite, to promote the empowerment/strengthening of citizens and communities to demand what they deserve, when they need it” (p.6).

Working towards autonomy is not to move away from a system with resources and the ability to care for its people, but actually moving towards building a caring system.

Colonization and Capitalism go Hand in Hand: Shifting the Paradigm Towards Decolonization
Capitalism was made possible by first establishing hierarchies through colonization and implementing violent structures to keep these hierarchies in place (Dutta, 2018). Through the industrious implementation of capitalism, the exploitation of people and communities began to benefit only a select few of so-called “elite” (oppressive) groups and due to its success for this small group capitalism continues to run our society into the ground and our Earth is teetering on the brink of Extinction. Capitalism and colonization have disconnected us from our ancestral roots, from the land we depend on, as well as from one another. Urban gardening offers a way of working towards liberation and reconnection within our own communities. The anti-capitalist resistance of urban gardening also creates the opportunity for conversation that can eventually reach a place of connection building within communities, specifically here in Los Angeles. The disconnection between communities and land is reversible and can be reestablished through thoughtful acts of reclamation. Reclaiming the land on a larger scale can look like the concept of “Land Back”.

Land Back! and Other Healing Processes
The Land Back movement is a necessary step towards decolonization. By giving the land back to Indigenous people we could begin to move towards autonomy and liberation by stepping away from the reliance on a capitalist system that continuously works to degrade the Earth in the name of profits like we saw in Standing Rock where water protectors (Indigenous people and allies) risked their lives to shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline. Returning the land to its Indigenous caretakers could be a step towards ending the degradation and disrespect of our Earth like we saw in Standing rock, and in many other instances throughout history. The work that must be done is to prioritize the value of all living things over profits or wealth.

The concept of buen vivir (living well) is centered in Indigenous thought processes, values, and ways of life. Ruttenberg’s (2013) study on buen vivir expands on the concept and its function in South America:

“In both Ecuador and Bolivia, the buen vivir experience offers a hopeful example of local values and wellbeing needs being articulated by indigenous populations and incorporated into government policies, effectively establishing a two-way policy relationship between bottom-up and top-down approaches to development” (p. 84).

Integrating the concept of buen vivir into our society as more than a concept but a way of life would bring radical transformation towards community empowerment and liberation. Reclamation of land and buen vivir can be reached through community gardening and transformation of urban land into spaces of environmental resistance. A major aspect of this work involves reimaging what our current landscape, or rather cityscape, looks like and how we function in connection to the land.

What does Urban Gardening Look Like?
The process of urban gardening is an opportunity to focus on our reclamation efforts on a local level, and in the place that affects our lives the most: in our communities. “Thus, the particular conceptual frameworks adopted by community psychology are not merely academic discourses but are intimately linked to larger social justice agendas” (Dutta 2016). Community psychology cannot remain in the classroom, but it must be applied towards actions of liberation and autonomy.

Centering my reclamation efforts in Los Angeles I will be focusing on my own neighborhood of City Terrace; a neighborhood that has been built on Indigenous Tongva land. Like many cities in America, my city struggles to survive under the oppression of capitalism. This city is no stranger to organizational efforts, to resistance, and resilience not only in recent years but throughout its history. Both the land and people have survived colonization but continue to endure the trauma. Urban gardening is the taking back of land and sense of community in order to transform it through healing processes, and to guide the community members towards healing through their work with the land.

By choosing specific grass areas along public sidewalks, and patches of land in between and sparsely placed throughout a largely concrete urban landscape we are choosing to take land back from capitalism and colonization. In these accessible spaces we can recycle materials, and use space to grow produce, or to reclaim land with plants that are Indigenous to their environments and benefit land and life. The rate of houseless individuals (formerly referred to as homeless) in Los Angeles is shockingly high and continuously increasing. What could our communities look like if we used sidewalks to grow produce? These transformations are steps to building a new world as a collective community.

Moving away from the perpetual let down of the State that is meant to protect us by learning to rely on each other, our communities can learn self-reliance in an effort to work towards liberation and autonomy. Though urban gardening may seem like a small act, its effects ripple waves throughout our communities. At their simplest forms, these urban gardens will serve as conversation starters that will lead towards change. In the city of Los Angeles where communities have witnessed the constant value of profit over lives, liberation is key to autonomy. Placing our focus and efforts at our local community level is an anti-capitalist act of love and bravery. Reclamation of land through urban gardening is Liberatory work in praxis, it is revolutionary, and it is radical transformation.

Dutta, U. 2016. Prioritizing the local in an era of globalization: A proposal for decentering community psychology. American Journal of Community Psychology, 58(3-4), 329-338.

Dutta, U. (2018). Decolonizing “community” in community psychology. American Journal of Community Psychology, 62(3-4), 272-282.

Ortiz Torres, B. (2020). Decoloniality and community-psychology practice in Puerto Rico: Autonomous organising (autogestión) and self-determination. International review of psychiatry, 32(4), 359-364.

Ruttenberg, T. (2013). Wellbeing economics and Buen Vivir: Development alternatives for inclusive human security. PRAXIS The Fletcher Journal of Human Security, 28, 68-93.

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