From Sanctuaries to Prefigurative Social Change: Creating Health-Enabling Spaces in East London Community Gardens


  • Madeleine A. Guerlain
  • Catherine Campbell


How do community gardens impact the psycho-social well-being of marginalized groups in urban settings? And to what extent are they examples of prefigurative social change, understood as the development of social relations that prefigure a more equal and empowering social world? We explore these issues through qualitative research with four community garden groups in East London, thematically analysing interviews and group discussions with 28 gardeners, Photovoice with 12 gardeners producing 250 photographs, and 40 hours of participant observation. We offer two unique insights: a novel understanding of how participation in community gardens affects well-being through creating ‘health-enabling social spaces’ (Campbell, C., & Cornish, F. (2010). Towards a “fourth generation” of approaches to HIV/AIDS management: Creating contexts for effective community mobilization. AIDS Care, 22(Suppl. 2), 1569-1579); and a discussion of how creating these spaces is an act of prefigurative social change. Our findings suggest that in East London, participation in community gardens is not based on a common political intention or self-conscious motive to prefigure a new society, but instead on the shared practice of gardening. This results in unintended benefits that often address participants’ personal adversities in ways that contribute to the material, relational and symbolic deprivation of their daily lives – opening up new possibilities for being, seeing and doing. In this sense, community gardens in East London offer an alternative to traditional notions of prefigurative social action that are predicated on strategic intention. We argue for an understanding of prefiguration that better accounts for what participants themselves would like to achieve in their own lives, rather than in relation to externally imposed notions of what counts as political change.