Sunday, October 2

In defense of urban oases

Oases are one of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet, bubbles of life surrounded by hostile deserts. The word comes from the Egyptian and means fertile place, referring to the more or less extensive portions of green land irrigated by a spring in the middle of the sands. In addition to offering water and cultivation spaces to those who live in its vicinity, they serve to supply the caravans that cross the seas of dunes. Essential locations for life to reproduce in hostile environments.

The oases have been considered sacred places, which had to be protected and cared for through strict maintenance rules in order to guarantee their continuity over time. Welcoming spaces, prone to tejer complicities, stimulate cooperation and pacify relations. Scenarios where hostilities and battles were banned, the risk of contaminating or damaging a well was too high.

The desert becomes inhabitable and passable by its existence, they are places where you can replenish your strength and forge alliances to face adversity. Something similar happens to cities, although in this case the oases do not pre-exist but must be built. For this, it is necessary to develop an institutional craft capable of generating places that promote contact between different people, community dynamics of mutual help, neighborhood collaboration through the establishment of face-to-face relationships or the renaturalization of gray areas. Initiatives capable of transforming the lives of the people involved and simultaneously promoting radical changes on a small scale.

A few days ago I read the anecdote that gave rise to the first community garden in New York in the seventies. In one of the thousands of rubble-filled vacant lots that plagued the city, a young white environmentalist, Liz Christy, saw a black boy playing inside an abandoned refrigerator, pretending it was a ship that allowed him to navigate the southern seas. She then asked her mother: “Why don’t you clean this space so that your son has a decent place to play?” To which she replied: “I have two jobs and four children. Why don’t you and your friends do it?

Picking up the gauntlet, Liz mobilized her friends to create a modest oasis in the middle of a city in crisis. In that lot besides plants and social relationships the Green Guerrillas were born, which in a few years helped more than a thousand orchards and gardens to flourish throughout the city. A story that speaks to us of social empathy and environmental justice, of complicity between different people, of the importance of our actions more than our opinions, and of the need for alternatives to transmit hope. Urban environments are habitable because they host many oases: neighborhood spaces, social centers, community gardens and collective facilities whose action is oriented towards local communities (schools, libraries, sports clubs…).

Faced with the growing threat posed by the eco-social crisis, cities should be facilitating the proliferation and expansion of urban oases, where people increase their knowledge, social skills and self-organization capacity to intervene in the world. Many oases have been able to grow in the face of laws and regulations, obstacles and institutional contempt, so it is pertinent to ask: What would they be capable of with greater legitimacy, support and recognition? What potential for change are we wasting due to the distrust of the institutions towards the citizenry?

Different local governments are dedicated to the systematic destruction of oases, with Madrid in the lead. The dismantling of the neighborhood garden in Lavapiés a few days ago is added to the felling of the neighborhood forest of Barajas, the eviction of neighborhood spaces or the contempt for mutual aid networks during the pandemic. More than fear towards the creativity and protagonism of the people, what underlies this arrogant and destructive form of government is the imposition of sadness and the will to feed our impotence.

In the Neverending Story, its protagonist, Atreyu, had to travel to the swamps of sadness to meet the wise turtle Vetusta Morla, and learn that the Nothing can only be faced if hope is maintained and imagination is cultivated. We social movements must recover from the discouragement that has invaded everything in our city, and one of the best ways to do so is to insist on the proliferation of oases, which, although they do not end the desert, continue to help us make it more habitable.

Many of these small initiatives are attacked not for what they are, but for what they can become. Their importance is that they can become unforeseen triggers of cultural change: practices capable of promoting a new sensitivity, satisfying needs in an alternative way, socializing other lifestyles, transferring unexpected images of the urban future and predisposing people to assume transformations of greater importance. wingspan. Mario Benedetti was not mistaken when he said that in certain oases the desert is just a mirage, since they allow us to anticipate and experience many of the features contained in the city we would like to inhabit.

South of the Sahara they have been building the Great Green Wall, a coordinated international strategy to plant millions of trees along an 8,000 km strip. A large-scale reforestation, soil restoration and promotion of family farming initiative promoted by the African Union with the aim of curbing the expansion of the desert. Political will and resources, determination and hope, allow us to successfully confront and gain ground in the desert.

Likewise, defending urban oases does not mean falling into complacency and resigning oneself to the desert, but rather having enclaves from which to face it. This archipelago of oasis does not stop barbarism by itself, but it is decisive when it comes to revitalizing any municipalist impulse that is capable of doing so.

In this context of eco-social crisis, municipalism is called to operate as a space for dialogue between social cooperation and public policies, safeguarding rights in proximity and an environment of experimentation, attachment to everyday problems and refuge from utopian impulses, rearguard and vanguard of the transformations to come. Oases are disturbing because they invite us to creatively and constructively redefine relations between governments and citizens. Those who care for them will have antidotes against distrust and will be able to virtuously articulate public-community cooperation dynamics.

Go down to the street, meet your neighbors and commit to caring for the oasis that is closest to you. They are the support points where to place the levers that move the world.

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