Chickens on the balcony, tomatoes on the roof - France discovers urban agriculture
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Beehives, rooftop gardens, chicken coops on balconies - these are part of the growing phenomenon of urban agriculture in France. It's so new that no one really knows what will be the impact on the environment, food production and urban development. But agronomists, community activists, city planners and architects are all being drawn to the incongruous idea of growing vegetables and raising livestock in or around cities.
Most people at Paris's agricultural engineering school, AgroParisTech, don't realise that over their classrooms, five floors above street level, there are tomatoes.
“We planted this experimental garden to anticipate the need for technical references for rooftop gardens,” explains agronomist Christine Aubry.
Bees buzz around tufts of wildflowers growing in between planter boxes on the roof of the building. They're full of tomato plants growing in different types of soil compositions. This is an experiment to find the lightest mix that promotes the most growth.
Aubry says it’s not easy to grow vegetables on a roof: “There is a lot of wind. We have to deal with urban pests, like pigeons. And there are technical issues, like how solid or waterproof the building is.”
She says she’s been approached by building developers who have been asked to incorporate rooftop gardens. And more and more community groups are planting on roofs or in abandoned lots in the city.
Aubry considers these gardens to be part of the urban agriculture movement, which she defines as fruit and vegetable production in or near a city, producing products for the city itself, not for wholesale or export.
Europe actually developed this way, with cities and towns surrounded by farmland. But as cities expanded and took over farmland, urban and agricultural life became two separate spheres.
Aubry says the revival of urban agriculture began in the 1990s in developing countries. In Europe, the interest is more recent.
Some of the most successful urban agriculture experiments in France have been with beehives. Cities have become ideal environments for bees, as there are more varieties of plants than in monoculture fields in the countryside. Paris stopped using pesticides in city parks a few years ago and bee populations have been flourishing.
Beekeeping courses at Paris’s Luxembourg gardens have a two-year waiting list, and hives are being installed on the roofs of municipal buildings and new developments in Paris and the surrounding area.
Amele Elmori takes care of six hives on the roof of the city hall of Aubervilliers, a town that borders Paris to the north. She also recently helped instal six hives on the roof of the Millénaire, a new shopping centre in Aubervilliers.
The hives sit lonely on the expanse of tarpaper covering the roof but, up close, there is a frenzy of activity. Elmori points out bees coming in and out with pollen stuck to their hind legs.
Aubervilliers is not an idyllic city. In previous centuries it provided food for the city, but today there is more concrete than cornfields – a legacy of 20th century industrialisation. Despite this, Elmori says the roof of the shopping centre is a good place for bees.
“There are three or four parks nearby. There are no pesticides, because there are no fields. And there are flowers all year, so the bees like it,” she says.
Marketing manager Julien Bart says the bees are part of the mall’s efforts to develop “activities that are not just about shopping” – a marketing tool, of sorts. And this reveals one of the tensions in the urban agriculture movement.
Those who plant vegetable gardens and tend beehives in the city are often thinking about alternative modes of food production and consumption. Yet here bees are on the roof of a mall, a temple of modern consumerism.
Aubervilliers deputy mayor Teddy Maiza says this is not greenwashing.
“We can imagine in the future that the restaurants in this shopping centre could serve endives from Aubervilliers, lettuce from [neighbouring] St Denis and carrots from northern Paris,” he says, pointing out that this was the case in previous centuries.
Aubervilliers does have a history of urban agriculture. It and other cities bordering Paris produced vegetables and fruits for the city until the industrialization of the 20th century, when factories and concrete buildings replaced market gardens.
Now there is an interest in bringing back some of Aubervilliers preindustrialised agriculture. Maiza says the town will soon open an organic vegetable garden on a five-hectare piece of city land.
The growing interest in urban agriculture has piqued the interest of entrepreneurs. About a year ago Stanislas de Beaumont started Ecopoules to make chicken coops.
“I had made a chicken coop which quite frankly, was very ugly,” says his daughter Nadège. “And my father said, why don't we make some pretty coops for people like you.”
She works as an accountant for the company based in Volgelsheim, near Colmar in eastern France, which receives about 10 orders a day for its modular, wood-framed coops.
De Beaumont says most clients live in suburbs but she’s seen several orders for balcony-sized chicken coops.
“There’s been an explosion of interest in the past few years, with talk about ecology. People are looking to go back to their roots. They want good eggs, and they want to teach their children where eggs come from,” says Nadège de Beaumont.
Patricia Guyon, who has a small vegetable garden in her front yard in Strasbourg, the capital of the Alsace region, where Ecopoules is based, decided to get chickens for just that reason.
“My children are very excited to come home after school to see if there are eggs. They say we have the best eggs in the world, that their mom makes the best crepes in the world!”
Guyon says there is an environmental advantage to the chickens, as they eat table scraps. A chicken can eat up to 150 kilogrammes of organic waste each year, making them ideal for those cities that are starting to weigh household waste and charge for it.
And Guyon says they produce enough eggs for the family. So for urban agriculture enthusiasts, who are hoping cities might be able to feed themselves, egg production might be one step towards that goal.
But it’s not so much self-sufficiency as taste that drives many consumers of local products.
Local tastes good
“Organic products in the grocery store do not have the same taste what comes from farms. There is less time between the field and the plate, so things taste better. They've travelled less, they're fresher,” says Nathalie, a woman shopping at the Epicérie Paysanne du Quartier (the neighbourhood country store), a shop on a small side street in the southern French port city of Marseille.
This store sells products within a hundred-kilometre radius of the city.
“We know that farmers from the city ... could feed the citizens of the city, but currently it's not the case,” says co-owner Guillaume Pautrat. “Currently, food for citizens of Marseille comes from Morocco, Spain and other countries, which for us is a little crazy.”
Agronomist Christine Aubry considers urban agriculture to encompass not just food grown inside city limits but also farms close by that provide food for the city.
Many of these farms are connected with the Amap, France’s nationwide community-supported agriculture programme, where groups of city-dwellers team up to support a farmer who provides weekly shipments of organic produce.
But the shop in Marseille aims to make that food available in a more commercial setting. Here you fill up your bags with fruits and vegetables, meat and cheese, and bring them to the wooden counter where a cashier rings them up, just like any other store.
Pautrat says the idea of the store was to support local farmers, who hare having a hard time keeping their land. Marseille is growing and he says developers are buying fields that once were outside the city limits. This is the case for Marseille as well as other cities on the coast.
While the store’s aim is protecting local farms, customers are interested in other aspects.
Anne shops here because she likes to know her food is free from pesticides.
"When I was younger, my mother did not have very much money and we ate very poorly," she explains. "My sister now has bone problems and I have cholesterol problems, so I try to eat well."
Just as people have differing reasons for why they want to eat local food, the same way there are a variety of reasons why people start gardens in cities.
Agronomist Christine Aubry talks of the "multifunctionality" of urban agriculture, which is not just about food production but has social benefits as well.
"These gardens have an economic role, and a growing role for the families, but they have social roles. It's very notable, for example, that on the outskirts of Paris, in the banlieues that have social problems, when you create a garden, there is peace."
Sheep among the tower-blocks
This has been the case in Bagnolet, a town bordering Paris to the west. Very dense, it's full of housing estates, all of them with obligatory green spaces around them. These tend to be drab bits of grass - and not much else.
"Our idea is that grass at the foot of a housing estate could be a garden, but it could be a field as well. You just have to change your perspective," says Gilles Amar.
Dread-locked, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, he is a founding member of a group that has been planting vegetable gardens around housing estates. Recently, he built a sheep shed at the bottom of one of the tower-blocks.
A wooden shack with a sloped roof, the barn houses four sheep and four goats. At lunchtime, children from the school across the street come by. The barn is never locked and over the past year the animals have become part of the neighbourhood.
Amar considers this not so much urban farming as empowering people to take over their public space.
Fabienne Giboudeaux, deputy mayor of Paris in charge of green spaces, is interested by these community-founded projects, and says they are the way French cities are going to change.
"People need to propose alternatives, so that ideas for the city don't come just from above," she says. Many at Paris city hall don't see the point of urban farms and community gardening, she says, which why people themselves need to start their own projects.
And that's what Amar and his group did in Bagnolet. They started digging, then they were joined by residents, and the city followed.
"Usage makes the law," he says. "But not just by one person. We started working with children at first and it caught the eye of the adults. And then the city said OK, go ahead."
Amar is sceptical of urban agriculture ideas coming from architects and urban planners.
"Nowadays, everyone is in favour of more nature in the city, or growing vegetables or having animals, but the thing is that it should involve aspects of our collective life," he says. " We don't struggle directly for more nature in the city but we struggle for the city that we want."
The result, of course, is urban agriculture. The sheep are taken out into the city streets and eat grass and plants. They are fed hay in the barn, and the group plans to breed the animals to have about 20 goats, who will produce enough milk to supply a cheese-maker.
Amar, who studied farming in the south of France for two years, says while the project shows how good agriculture can be done, urban agriculture will never replace traditional farmers.
"We want to defend the farmers that are in the countryside. The cities won't feed the world. But farmers, they will, if we let them feed us in a good way," he says.
Odd as it may sound, there evidence that urban agriculture is informing traditional farming.
"City people don't know the business of farming as well as the farmers do, of course not. But people start getting a taste of what farming can be during their leisure time in the city," explains Jérôme Veil, who works with Terra Vitae, an organisation that promotes permaculture and small farms.
He says that many small farmers setting up on the outskirts of French cities do not have farming roots.
"All these people came from the cities," he says, adding that they learned about agriculture in community gardens and are often very idealistic, changing careers out of a personal conviction or to try to change the world.
Christine Aubry has seen the same trend.
"They make a professional mutation, and they try to make an ecological agriculture 10 to 20 kilometres away from Paris," says Aubry.
"They are starting small vegetable farms, in relationship with the Amap. And this is a real phenomenon”
Veil says that people from the city do not have the economic and ideological baggage of a traditional farmer.
"They don't have to deal with producing this or this crop only, because that is what has always been done," he says. "They could decide to plan their project according to what they have learned. These are the people who today are bringing this little revolution in the rural areas."
So while urban agriculture itself will not feed cities, some of the ideas are informing traditional farming. Overall the movement is making people think more about where their food comes from.
"In European cities, I think it's not very credible that urban agriculture will feed the city by itself but it will contribute," says Aubry. "All the big cities of the world are thinking about where their food supply comes from. This strategy of feeding the city is something that is very recent, but I think it will be growing."
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