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The Community Gardens of Taipei

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
4th December 2010


1.12.2010

Taipei Organic Acupuncture
Marco Casagrande / Ruin Academy

Acupuncture is the procedure of inserting and manipulating needles into various points on the body to relieve pain or for therapeutic purposes.

Urban planning integrates land use planning and transportation planning to improve the built, economic and social environments of communities.

Urban design concerns the arrangement, appearance and functionality of towns and cities, and in particular the shaping and uses of urban public space.

Environmental art is art dealing with ecological issues and possibly in political, historical or social context.

Sociology
is a science of human social activity.

Anarchy is acting without waiting for instructions or official permission. The root of anarchism is the single impulse to do it yourself: everything else follows from this.

The community gardens and urban farms of Taipei are astonishing. They pop up like mushrooms on the degenerated, neglected or sleeping areas of the city, which could be referred to as urban composts.

These areas are operating outside the official urban control or the economic standard mechanisms. They are voids in the urban structure that suck in ad-hoc community actions and present a platform for anarchy through gardening.

The punctual community gardens and urban farms of Taipei. C-LAB

For the vitality of Taipei, the networks of the anarchist gardens seem to provide a positive social disorder; positive terrorism. They are tuning the industrial city towards the organic, towards accident and in this sense they are ruining the modern urbanism. They are punctual organic revolutions and the seeds of the Third Generation City, the organic ruin of the industrial city.

Corners are windy

Claude Lévi-Strauss believes in the beauty of the human nature as part of nature. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno lost all the hope for the industrial development and said it has failed the promise of the Enlightment – it had corrupted humanity. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalke (Mosfilm, 1979) is taking sophisticated people into the Zone, where their deepest wishes may come true. The Zone which is the organic ruin mirroring the surrounding mechanical reality. For the Strugatsky brothers (Arkady & Boris) the Zone was a Roadside Picnic.

Missis Lee in the Gongguan community garden.

The community gardens of Taipei are Roadside Picnic. Grandmothers can take us there, like Stalker. The honorable Lévi-Strauss could be happy to start new ethnographical research between the parallel realities of the cultures of the urban compost gardens and the surrounding city – the reversed modernization and focusing in Local Knowledge. Horkheimers & Adorno’s graves should be moved in one of these urban acupuncture spots of Taipei. Here even they would find hope, surrounded by the valueless modernity and hard industrialism. Prof. Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila has said: “The valueless void of the society of today will be filled with ethics: the corners are windy.” With the recognition of the urban farms and community gardens Taipei has found its corners.

101 community garden in-between Taipei 101 and World Trade Center. Photo: Isis Kang.


What is the ethics then pushing through these corners into the city? It could be called Local Knowledge, site-specific reactions building a bridge between the modern man and nature. The gardens of Taipei, these acupuncture points, are penetrating through the industrial surface of the city and reaching the original ground. The self organized community gardens are the urban acupuncture needles of Taipei. Local Knowledge is in connection with the first generation city, when the built human environment was dependent on nature and regulated by nature. Now the anarchist gardeners are regulating the industrial city.

Dominate the no-man’s land

The community gardens are taking over abandoned construction sites and ruined housing areas, empty city-blocks waiting for development, flood banks of the rivers and even grave-yards out of fashion. In many cases the gardens are flourishing on spots of land where the land-owner issues are unsettle or complicated. Sometimes the garden will stay in the spot for only a couple of years, as in the cases of soon to be developed areas and sometimes the urban farming has decades long traditions as with the river flood plains or on the island in-between Zhongxiao and Zhongshing bridges. The smaller urban farms are flexible and eager to overtake the empty spots of the city, eager to dominate the no-man’s land.

Treasure Hill in 2003. Photo: Stephen Wilde.

One of the more famous urban farming communities of Taipei was the Treasure Hill settlement, originally an illegal community of KMT veterans. During its legitimating process Treasure Hill became so famous that eventually the original community was kicked away by the city government and the houses were taken over by artists and art related organizations. All the farms were destroyed on the process. Sounds like urban warfare against urban acupuncture. Treasure Hill was powerful and self-sustained when it was illegal. The community built its own houses and its own farms and it made its own rules. The official city wanted to eliminate this unofficial organic rival. NGOs found the issue sexy and stepped in to protect and legitimize the settlement. In the end the NGOs and artists took over the now-famous community and hooked up with the city government. The original urban farmers didn’t fit the picture anymore and had to leave. Now you can listen gansta-rap in a yellow plastic tent where the gardens used to be. Local knowledge died.

Missis Chen, the leader of the Treasure Hill urban farming community.

But Treasure Hill is not alone. Urban farming happens through different social classes and through out the city. The socially disordered citizens are ready to occupy land and start the community farms over and over again. Some acupuncture spots get hot and benefit the surrounding urban tissue while others fade away. The industrial surface of the city keeps constantly being broken up and herbs and vegetables are planted into the cracks. People are ruining the industrial city. Ruin is when man-made has become part of nature.

Urban Editors

Compared to Western cities Taipei plays in quite different rules. The aesthetics of the city is dominated by the functionality of a big collective machine and the urban mechanism is constantly being edited and rendered as with changing the micro-chips or other parts of a super-computer into more powerful ones. The urban data is people and this is what the machine needs to process. Mostly it goes smoothly, but also people get viruses – they get together to spontaneous demonstrations, they do tai-chi in improvised city-corners, they launch ad-hoc night markets or under-bridge sales on temporarily occupied streets or city corners. And they do farms – they are squeezing organic material into the machine like a creeper crawling into an air-conditioning box. Why they do this? Why does the nature want to break the machine?

Hyena Man. Photo: Pieter Hugo

Developers are the true urban editors. They are linked with the city authorities and necessary political powers and they make the urban editing. Architects are in a secondary role – something like the hyenas after the lions have made the kill. Money is a good consultant and the generating force of the developer run urban editing process. This is not urban acupuncture though; it is more like a western style medical practice – operations on the body removing, changing or maintaining parts – or even plastic surgery. (Oh, Shanghai has bigger tits than Taipei.) The body is not necessarily seen as one big organism.

In this rough editing process the anarchist gardeners seem to act as micro-editors, parasites benefiting of the slow circles of the big-scale development. They occupy the not so sexy areas of the city and they jump in the more sleepy parts of the development cycle. For example – the developer buys a whole city block with originally many land-owners. The process is slow because he has to negotiate with all of them. While the process is dragging behind the urban farmers step in and start farming the area. The developer doesn’t want to cause any more fuss and let it happen. It takes 3-5 years before the developer has got all the area to his possession and those same years the site acts as the community garden. When the actual construction starts the gardeners have already occupied a next vacant spot in the city.

Third Generation City

First generation city was the human settlement in straight connection with nature and dependent on nature. The fertile and rich Taipei basing provided a fruitful environment for such a settlement. The rivers were full of fish and good for transportation and the mountains protected the farmed plains from the straightest hits of the frequent typhoons.

Taipei Basin – a river valley surrounded by mountains on three sides and opening up to the Pacific Ocean.

The second generation city is the industrial city. Industrialism claimed the citizens independence from nature – a mechanical environment could provide human everything needed. Nature was seen as something un-necessary or as something hostile – it was walled away from the mechanical reality.

Third Generation City is the organic ruin of the industrial city. The community gardens of Taipei are fragments of the third generation urbanism when they exist together with the industrial surroundings. Local Knowledge is present in the city and this is where Ruin Academy focuses its research. Among the urban gardeners are the local knowledge professors of Taipei. Third Generation City is true when the city recognizes its local knowledge and allows itself to be part of nature.


The paper is based on independent Ruin Academy research (2010) in co-operation with the National Taiwan University Department of Sociology. Special thanks to Professors Yen-Fen Tseng and Chia-Ling Wu, to RA researchers Frank Chen and Yu-Chen Chiu, to Project Manager Nikita Wu and for Roan Ching-Yueh and Hsieh Ying-Chun to keep the talk up.

The Ruin Academy research is kindly supported by the JUT Foundation for Arts & Architecture.

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One Response to “The Community Gardens of Taipei”

  1. El Oso » Archive » Protest Infatuation and the 4th Wave of Democratization Says:

    [...] has been ignored by the government and absentee property owners. Activists in Taiwan, for example, regularly reclaim neglected areas of Taipei to create community gardens with a strong focus on herbal medicine and acupuncture. It is doubtful [...]

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