Shifting Grounds: How Urban Gardening Practices Enact the Relations between Play and Work

van Duppen, Jan (2017). Shifting Grounds: How Urban Gardening Practices Enact the Relations between Play and Work. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis discusses how urban gardening practices enact the relations between play and work, based upon a comparative ethnographic study of allotment, community and guerrilla gardening in London. It deploys participant observation and garden go-alongs, and makes use of photography to engage with the corporealities, textures, and creativities of these practices. Rather than binary conceptions of play and work, this thesis understands urban gardening practices as creating entangled contingencies of play and work in social life. It sees urban gardens as paradoxical spaces of play and work; and thereby develops cultural geography’s understanding of gardens as sites imbued with multiple and contradictory meanings. Gardening is enjoyed for its visceral experience confirming ideas of play as being fun, embodied and absorbing. Yet, it also demands work, because this seemingly voluntary activity implicates social, material and legal obligations. Furthermore, the research demonstrates how objects travel across spaces of play and work, as permeable garden boundaries are made and unmade constantly. By showing these relations between inside and outside, the thesis challenges ideas of the ‘garden’ and the ‘playground’ as fixed, enclosed time-spaces set apart from everyday life. Moreover, this ambiguity is further exemplified by how gardeners have varying perceptions of play, which overlap but also contest each other. This research also enhances debates on public spaces in cities, and more-than-human geographies, by showing how gardening breathes life into the urban through on-going encounters between people, plants and animals. It identifies four types of encounters, namely festive, chance, care-taking and contestation. The range of others encountered is multiple and diverse, and gardeners’ openness towards the contingencies of inhabiting these urban spaces alludes to a playful mode of engaging with the world.

The thesis argues that urban gardening practices feed into, complement and offer an alternative to neoliberal conceptions of play and work in post-fordist economies.

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