What if we sought inspiration from the soil?

Questioning concepts of land ownership in the gardens of my mothers

Reimagining Economic Possibilities
9 min readOct 27, 2022


Text says “Lisa Palmer” in italic font, on a purple background. To the right is a graphic image of a pumpkin.

This blog is part of the Reimagining Economics Possibilities series. This series accompanies the Neighbourhood Doughnut portfolio of work in which CIVIC SQUARE, along with many neighbours, researchers, partners and visionaries have, since 2019, been exploring large and small scale ways to reimagine economic possibilities.

The series brings together 15 commissioned works by visionaries who are reimagining economic possibility from a number of different angles. We are deeply passionate about Doughnut Economics and recognise the wealth of possibilities it unlocks, as well as its limitations. As Kate Raworth has said, quoting British statistician George E. P. Box, “all frameworks are wrong, but some are useful.” Therefore, we want to be able to stretch as far and wide as the Doughnut Economics Action Lab invites us to, seeing it as a platform to organise, whilst also encompassing a plurality of bold visions.

In this essay DR LISA PALMER shares a personal story of growing up in the gardens of Birmingham’s Caribbean community, where community and connection was nurtured, in order to critique concepts of land ownership and call for a return to the commons.

Lisa Palmer is an Associate Professor and the Interim Director of the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre at De Montfort University, Leicester. Her research focuses on Black feminism, Black cultural politics and the intersection of race, racism, gender and sexuality. She is the co-author of the book Blackness in Britain (2016) and is currently writing her book on Black women in the UK’s lover’s rock reggae scene.

“Gardens and green spaces have defined who I am and how I am in the world for all of my life.”

The subtitle of my contribution to this series is a play on Alice Walker’s book, In Search of Our Mother’s Garden where she writes in relation to the creativity of unseen labouring black women that “We must fearlessly pull out of ourselves and look at and identify with our lives the living creativity some of our great-grandmothers were not allowed to know.”

Gardens and green spaces have defined who I am and how I am in the world for all of my life, even though in the past I had never really given this much thought. Growing up in north Birmingham in the late 1970s on the 14th floor of Tweed Tower in the Perry Barr area of the city, I remember being on the balcony looking down on the A34 flyover watching buses and cars whizzing past on the Birchfield Road towards Walsall or Birmingham city centre. In my mind, I remember that this concrete urban landscape was also punctuated by green spaces. In the playground park at the bottom of Tweed Tower I would meet with my cousins who lived across the road on the other side of the A34 to play ‘tig and tag’ in between hopping on and off the swings, slides and roundabouts. Livingston Road Allotments, just behind Tweed Tower, would come alive in the summer months with Caribbean elders sharing their surplus crop of callaloo, pumpkins, peas and other produce amongst friends and family who needed these ingredients to recreate the taste of familiar food from back home in the Caribbean. Less than a mile to the north east of Perry Barr was Aston Park with its turquoise blue splash pool and neatly manicured hedges and beautifully scented garden beds. And to the north west was Handsworth park, the site of African Liberation Day captured in the stunning photography of Vanley Burke and home to what would become Handsworth Carnival.

All of these green spaces played an important role in how I had access to public land in the industrial heartlands of Birmingham. They had given me, my family and the wider communities around us maps of pleasure providing an outlet for gathering, partying, celebration, playing, protest, snogging, exploration, beauty and feasting; for community, connectedness and cultivation that were all part of the everyday mundane eb and flow of daily life in the city. Through austere economic times, green spaces have remained important to the rhythms of inner-city life in Birmingham, a city that boasts regularly about its gardening and horticultural heritage.

“For me the garden represented the possibility of attending to caring futures, of sowing and reaping care into the land.”

The gardens of my mother and grandmothers were also important to this very intimate and personal mapping of the city. My Jamaican grandmother’s garden in Aston would be planted with red peas and spring onions, known as scallion in Jamaica, and was filled with the scent of common thyme in late summer. Approaching early autumn, the garden would be full with pods of kidney beans that were ‘fit’ and ready to be picked. The dried brown paper-like pods would be split open revealing the glistening jewel like burgundy pink speckled peas ready to be used in red peas soup or rice and peas seasoned with fresh coconut milk, scallion and country pepper purchased from the Caribbean food stall in the Bull Ring Market.

About 15 mins away from Aston, I lived with my mom and dad in the New Oscott area of the city. In the early 1980s we moved from Tweed Tower into a newly built three-bedroom council house. My mom would recall the story that these new houses were in what the housing officer at the time had called, ‘closed areas’. The term ‘closed area’ was code meaning areas reserved and prioritised for white residents of the city. Mom seemed less concerned with her own tenacious determination in navigating the racist politics of social housing in Birmingham and more excited about the possibilities of the land that she would now occupy.

My mom, often known as Sweet, Elethia or Bev depending on how you came to know her, was a keen and avid gardener. The garden that wrapped itself around her end terrace council home from front to back seemed vast and generous back then. She felt lucky because our next-door neighbour also loved her garden and they found common ground sharing tips and advice. Not a single blade of grass was there that was not planted by her, not one shrub, petal, root or stem. Over the years and in-between her shifts as a Night Care worker for Birmingham Social Services, on this patch of land, Mom’s artistry was sewn into her garden with an attention to beauty, care and love. For my mom, my sisters and I and later her grandchildren, the garden became a haven to just be. For me, the garden represented the possibility of attending to caring futures, of sowing and reaping care into the land and watching, season by season, how the land returns its care and beauty in abundance.

“In this time of economic, political, social and climate crisis, I am interested in asking questions about who has access to land, how and by what means?”

In writing this short, intimate, personal and reflective history on my grandmothers and mothers gardens, I am briefly and perhaps narrowly sketching out a history of Caribbean life in the city of Birmingham that we often overlook or take for granted. In telling this story, I am clearing the ground to extend the narratives and textures of what we know and understand about the under-explored stories of how our parents and grandparents came to reconfigure their lives as they settled and made futures for themselves in this city. We have stories that are complex, that sit with and alongside the depth of social inequities and structural forms of racist violence that remain a constant feature of those of us descended from our Caribbean grandmothers who were born and raised in colonised territories.

In reality, these micro and macro stories are not separate from each other. They are interwoven in the way that our everyday movements within and between the spaces that we live have consequences in relation to land ownership here and in the colonies, as well as to local social policy around allotments, parks, social housing and the right of access to public spaces. These questions may also seem smaller in scale in comparison to the larger crisis of climate collapse and the prospect of irreversible damage to our planet. However, we can only start from where our feet touch the ground. And as we already know, the current climate crisis has been fuelled by the processes of unfettered colonial and imperial expansion and extraction.

“Who has the right to live on this land, to play and walk on it, to swim in the rivers and lakes on this land freely without fear of trespass or contamination? Who can grow, cultivate and harvest the land, repurpose and reimagine it?”

In this time of economic, political, social and climate crisis, I am interested in asking questions about who has access to land, how and by what means? Who has the right to live on this land, to play and walk on it, to swim in the rivers and lakes on this land freely without fear of trespass or contamination? Who can grow, cultivate and harvest the land, repurpose and reimagine it? Who can attend to the land when the commodification of land has a long history, as long as the history of my own ancestors whose lives and person hoods were commodified under systems of chattel slavery and colonialism.

Where, we must ask, are the commons in our contemporary times and by what means can we protect or reclaim them to dismantle extractive practices in order to design redistributive models of land that go beyond concepts of land ownership? These questions cannot be answered sufficiently enough in this article and so I am offering them as a set of provocations for now. To extend this provocation even further, I want to end with considering Rinaldo Walcott’s proposal that we abandon the idea of property all together as part of a broader abolitionist politics:

The abolition of property undergirds a Black understanding and reworking of what communism is and means, but it is also part of a philosophy that takes the idea of the commons, meaning the collective ownership of the earth’s resources by all of us, seriously again. Policing and criminal punishment continue to further strip our relationship to the commons, replacing it with private property and heavily circumscribed and policed public property. If we return to an order of knowledge of collective ownership, as the commons previously suggested before capitalism, in which we are collectively responsible for managing the natural and social resources that make human life possible, then we will have a different society. This means we would have to transform our thinking about how we care for each other and how we manage conflict and other transgressions”.

It’s beautiful that I have been given this opportunity to trace my intimate personal narrative history about my relationship to land in this city. However, as we consider mapping these stories of our relationship to green spaces, it is important to recognise the people who do the work of land justice who act upon this transformative politics. Shout out to Shades of Black, CIVIC SQUARE, Yard House and MAIA Group as well as Grand Union and Martineau Gardens. These are the spaces that offer us new futures and ways of being through the rekindling of other ways of being in our world.

Reimagining Economics Possibilities also builds upon CIVIC SQUARE’s Department of Dreams portfolio of work, a site to imagine bold new futures that weave together the dreams of many.

Whilst understanding, investing, and unpacking the dark matter of large scale system change, we have learned quite deeply through the practice, inspirational movements, and from imagineers and pioneers that came before us that we must also invest in the dream matter — the artists, writers, designers, dreamers and creative visionaries — those who dare to dream up bold new futures for humanity, and have the capacity to stretch our imaginations further than we ever thought possible.

Thinkers, doers and makers dreaming beyond our existing systems have played, are playing and will continue to play a central role in crafting collective visions that transcend our current reality, and radically illuminate the responsibilities we hold to future generations. This is particularly driven by practices of imagination and identity, and, when woven together with dark matter findings and interventions, has the power to create a supernovae of transformation; the thinking, relating and behaving differently required to usher in a new reality that becomes irresistible, that we can all build and craft together.

Find out more by exploring the following materials from Department of Dreams 2020–2021:

Initial Dept of Dreams Blog — May 2020
Watch Back Re_ Fest Talks — June 2020
Dream Library Launch — November 2021
The Matter of Dreams: 2020–2021 — December 2021



Reimagining Economic Possibilities

Demonstrating neighbourhood-scale civic infrastructure for social + ecological transition, together with many people + partners in Ladywood, Birmingham