Gardens Save the Day in 'WALL-E' and America's Cities

The feature film, "WALL-E," is a must-see for urban pioneers, environmentalists, teachers and community organizers because it reflects what can happen when citizens take control of their own lives -- and plant gardens.

The film opens with a scene of a lifeless earth devastated not by war or natural disaster but by trash. The piles upon piles of trash are so overwhelming that the people have left earth to live deep in space and wait until life on earth returns. The people, who are so overweight they've forgotten how to walk, spend their days lying on floating couches and sipping liquid food while robots tend to their every need.

Meanwhile, back on earth a lonely, trash compactor, WALL-E, (the acronym for Waste Allocation Load Lifters, Earth-class) is left to clean up the mess left behind.

WALL-E is a very industrious and curious robot. When he finds an interesting item, he takes it "home" and displays it on his shelf. One day he stumbles on a small plant and puts it in an old work boot.

A spaceship lands on earth and Eve, a probe, scans the terrain. She encounters WALL-E, they fall in love and he shows Eve the plant. She immediately takes it and scurries back to her spaceship. As the ship lifts off, WALL-E attaches himself to it in order to follow Eve.

The spaceship docks on the mother ship and Eve reports to the captain that she has found a plant. The captain realizes that the ship can return to earth but he must fight off Otto (short for auto-pilot), who is programmed to keep things running "normally," as he has for the past 700 years.

Once they are back on earth, the people begin their new life by planting gardens. Their work together makes them feel good and they work together happily.

One point of the film is that while consumerism on earth made the people wasteful and negligent, the conveniences of technology in space have made them soft, purposeless and dependent. Growing food turns out to be the key to their transformation.

Over the past 20 years gardens have been sprouting in cities all over the United States as people have decided to take control of their lives and their food system. That this phenomenon should happen in Detroit, the twentieth century industrial miracle of the world where the automobile was king, is particularly significant.

Cities were formed 5,000 years ago when humans learned how to grow and store crops. They no longer had to rely on what food they gathered or hunted. Neither did they have to do everything for themselves since they were organized to perform various functions like growing food, protecting the community, praying to the gods for good harvests and making pottery and cisterns for food and water storage. Cities thrived through agriculture and grew into important centers for commerce, government, religion and culture.

The early nineteenth century changed all that when cities became industrial centers. And although industry created more wealth, it lured people away from their farms, polluted the cities and negatively affected people's health. Factories also separated families and made workers cogs in an economic system whose only purpose was the efficiency and profitability of production.

The availability of cars and cheap fuel in the twentieth century provided people with greater mobility so that by mid-century they began to abandon the cities and pave over their farmlands. Gradually, people became disconnected from nature, the land, their food and each other.

Detroit, which has lost half of its peak population of 1.5 million since 1950, is the symbol of the Rust Belt tragedy where abandoned factories, empty office buildings and gutted neighborhoods dominate the cityscape. However, in 1992 urban gardens began to appear in vacant lots and open spaces as ordinary citizens decided to form communities and friendships through their gardens.

To celebrate this regeneration of the city, every August for the past 10 years, the Detroit Agriculture Network (, which coordinates several agricultural and gardening programs throughout the city, hosts an annual bus and bicycle tour to illustrate how neighborhood and backyard gardens are impacting the local food system. For example, gardens are producing thousands of pounds of fresh, nutritious produce for Detroit families through organic agriculture techniques, alternative uses of blighted spaces, creative income-generating activities and crop and product diversity. Gardens are also influencing larger social issues like reducing crime, cleaning up trash-strewn lots, connecting people to nature, nurturing leadership in citizens young and old and improving property values.

The first decade of the twenty-first century is making it evident that the era of cheap fuel is over, which definitively affects our agricultural and transportation systems. Meanwhile, as people yearn to re-connect themselves to nature and vibrant communities, they are turning to gardens as the means.

Detroit, the miracle of the industrial era and the epitome of industrial decline-is now a twenty-first century city on the mend through its urban gardens. And like the film, "WALL-E," people are committed to re-building their cities block by block by growing food -- and hope. And they are enjoying it!

Olga Bonfiglio, who grew up in Downriver Detroit and graduated from Wayne State University in Detroit, is now a professor at Kalamazoo College where she teaches a class in urban revitalization. Her website is and her e-mail address is

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