Exploring the Relationship Between Modes of Governance and Collective Empowerment of Grassroots Innovations in Agro-Food Sustainability Transitions: A Case Study of Urban Community Gardens in the Bronx, New York City
Gutiérrez Ribner, B.N.
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Capitalist industrial food systems have been widely recognized as unsustainable and have invoked calls for a sustainability transition towards a more sustainable food system (El Bilali, 2019). A systemic challenge within this industrial food system is unequal power dynamics between government, corporate actors, and civil society. Grassroots innovations offer opportunities to help (re)balance power dynamics by cultivating collective empowerment and leading social change. However, grassroots innovations have been recognized as being vulnerable to capture and translation effects by dominant regime actors (Pel, 2015). This suggests that governance dynamics be further investigated to understand if certain modes of governance influence grassroots innovations’ manifestations of collective empowerment. In this research, urban community gardens (UCG) in the Bronx, New York City, are taken as a case for grassroots innovations. Using a case study approach, four UCGs were empirically investigated to understand the relationship between modes of governance (Driessen et al., 2012) and collective empowerment (Hur, 2006). Results found that self and decentralized governance were the most common modes of governance that characterized UCGs. While there was considerable evidence of short-term government containment through top-down formal regulations (i.e., decentralized governance characteristics), this did not impede UCGs’ ability to manifest collective empowerment in the long-term. UCGs countered containment mechanisms by acting in solidarity with other civil society organizations and performing various acts of contestation. Findings suggest that characteristics of self- governance (i.e., bottom-up social learning, tailor-made goals, and self-crafted rules) contributed to all core components of collective empowerment, whereas characteristics of decentralized governance (i.e., uniform goals, formal rules, top-down interactions) only contributed to some components of collective empowerment. This research yields important societal implications which may help grassroots innovations strengthen their collective action strategies and more successfully contribute to a sustainability transition towards a more sustainable agro-food system.