Joel Rosenberg: Seedbombing New Urban Culture

Interview with Delai Sam Moscow participant – coordinator of Dodo from Helsinki. After his urban gardening and seed bomb making workshop, we invited Joel to Timiryazev agricultural academy to show him the green houses and to choose plants for an urban gardening interventions.


Dodo, the organization that you are working for is mostly non-profit, which means that most projects are not financed and that people involved cannot fully devote themselves to what they really care about – environmental issues  as they also need to earn their living. Do you think there is a way to fund the projects and allow people to make a living out of it?

Well, I believe that when you do things that you love and really care about, money issue becomes insignificant. We are all doing it for our own pleasure, because that is what makes our lives meaningful and exciting. We are basically like artists, we have the need to express ourselves. If talking about urban gardening specifically, there are a couple of ways that we are making money; for example we rent out pieces of land for people who want to grow their own vegetables. Some of our activists also give lectures about urban gardening. Recently, I also have been hired to cooperate with one of the big department stores in Helsinki and work for them, and now I actually have a salary, so gardening is my main activity these days. Anyway urban gardening is just one of the many initiatives of the Dodo organization, if talking about Dodo in general, it is a rather big organization with numerous branches, and urban gardening is just one of them. Some branches are financially supported by the government and local authorities.


Seedbombs made during Joel's workshop.

Can you see any substantial results of your work?

Yes, definitely. Recently there has been a great interest in private little gardens. People who live in apartment blocks buy from us wooden boxes with soil and plants, so they can have their own private little garden in the yard. Also more and more often we are invited to lay out gardens for various organizations. We used to do a couple of times a year, but this trend is definitely spreading. Moreover, other organizations started to make those urban gardens too. It is easier to find funding for some of our projects these days too. When we started it was just 5 of us, friends of mine. Even though the core group is still made up of these 5 pioneers, we have more followers today, like some sort of a satellite system when everyone is connected through the main group. And just a few weeks ago the city planning office contacted us with a proposal to develop a strategy to improve living conditions in the suburbs with our methods. This is a huge step, although they still don’t give out money that easily and we would really like to have a couple of people paid for this work, so they could do that full-time. All in all, those are very positive signs.


There is this stereotype in Russia that gardening is exclusively for the elderly. Basically, gardening is not considered hip these days, so there are very few young people interested in this kind of thing. Is it true for Finland and if yes, what do you think can change this attitude?

First of all, you should just follow your heart and do what you truly believe in regardless of the current trends, at least in my opinion. Urban gardening is really not that popular among the young in Helsinki, but doing things together, being a part of a group, that's what makes it fun. The other thing is that young people are sick and tired of just talking – they need action, they want to do something with their own hands. Gardening provides a perfect opportunity for them.


Can you say that the concept ‘Think global, act local’ relates your projects?

There are two levels that environmental issues could approached at – one dealing with more international organizations and initiatives, the other is to work in local communities, with the real people that surround you. These two approaches are both essential and complimentary. Even though it is indeed necessary to sign petitions and raise public awareness, without doing things locally there would hardly be any substantial changes in people’s mindset.


In most of your work you combine guerrilla methods with cooperating with government and local authorities. What do you think is more efficient and what kind of help do you get?

I’ll have to say again that combination of methods is of course the most efficient strategy. It is not always easy to find funding, but most of our work is supported and approved by the government. One of the most inspiring projects is told about in the book “Helsinki Beyond Dreams” released just a couple of days ago by one of my friends. It is about the history of urban planning, about any worthwhile movements and initiatives that take place in Finland. For example, Restaurant Day. Organized by people who cannot afford establishing their own restaurant. It first took place a couple of years ago in one of the parks in Helsinki, but now it is an annual event approved by authorities. Some of the projects would be just unthinkable without sufficient funding.


What impact do these initiatives have on the life in Helsinki?

One of the examples would be the situation with the 2 main harbors in the center of the city. There used to be 2 big harbors near the center of Helsinki and since they have been moved away, there are two huge ares that could be used somehow. Of course, the urban planning office has made plans for building new apartment blocks. But it will take around 20 years to make these areas ready, so now they are available for temporary projects. For example, containers where they screen movies and such. Local authorities support these ideas, because it is beneficial for the city, and creates a better image of the city. That means more tourists and more money as well. It makes the city more open.


Can you formulate a goal of your work?

At the moment I don’t really see goals. There are just so many things I have to do now, I have these never ending to-do lists – to call this person, to get that guy, to prepare this, to get that. As they say, I really just can't see the forest for the trees. Ask me this question in 10 years, maybe then I'll have an answer.


Can you tell us please, some more about your city interventions?

One of the projects that I had was 6 years ago, when a few friends and I decided to put up street signs translated into Arabic around the city. The idea was to create somewhat familiar surroundings for new-coming immigrants. To make them feel welcomed, you know. We picked certain street names that we felt suited our purpose. We had Arabian Street and Peace Street and a few others. Then our friend from Sudan did those signs and we just put them up. We wanted to show newcomers that Helsinki is a tolerant place.


Street sign intervention on Arabian street.


Another project of mine is called the Guantanomo project that I did in 2005. I was quite pissed with the situation in the US at that time, when people were treated as if there were empty spaces. So one of the roofs where you can see the Parliament House in the background we spelled the word 'Guantanomo' with 600 blank papers that symbolized those people.


For the opening of one of the botanical gardens, we prepared a project titled 'Your every day bread'. There are official recommendations as to how much grain, oils and fruit a person should eat per day, so I calculated how much food according to these recommendations a vegetarian is supposed to eat and calculated how much space it would take to grow all of these. Then we took a wooden dinner table on which we planted all the necessary plants.


One of my latest projects was 'Ecosystem service'. You know how when you buy fruit in a supermarket you weigh them? And then you have a little price tag on them? We went to a shop to see how much an apple would cost, and then created a bunch of stickers and stuck those on apples growing on an apple tree in the street. I wanted to remind people with this project of these invisible resources that nature has to offer us in a city, to make people recognize how valuable they are. Each apple costs very little, just 20 cents per piece. Very limited economic value. But what nature has to give us is limitless, you cannot put that in prices.



Shushana Manakhimova