The countryside the city

The renaturation of cities offers several advantages in terms of health, urban planning and economics. But urban vegetable gardens can also become the Trojan horse of gentrification. Is their culture really a counterculture??

The urban-rural link is increasingly in vogue among architects and urban planners, as evidenced by the importance of productions on this subject in recent years. This work echoes the growing interest of municipalities in the renaturation of spaces, whether it involves adapting to climate chaos by making the city spongy (Sponge City), to mitigate air pollution thanks to urban trees and forests, to improve the diet of city dwellers, or even, in the most daring (and delusional) projections, to achieve a city that would be self-sufficient.

Urban agriculture is part of this dynamic, which sees a proliferation of urban garden and urban farm projects within the densest metropolises, if necessary on the roofs of buildings, in new real estate projects, where it is often a question of greening the roofs to continue graying the surface.

Urban vegetable gardens

Through her three study sites, Detroit, New York and Paris, Flaminia Paddeu takes a caring but critical look at the phenomenon of urban gardening. This, as is often the case when it comes to a phenomenon newis in reality part of a long history, very well known to historians, if not to the collective consciousness.

Because urban vegetable gardens are as old as the industrial revolution and even the emergence of big cities. At XVIe century, the Venetian adventurer Niccolo Manucci praised the cleanliness of the streets of Isfahan, whose inhabitants preciously collected animal droppings and numerous beasts of burden to improve their vegetable gardens. From this point of view, it is the city zoned in monofunctional spaces of Le Corbusier which constitutes the exception and not the rule.

But massive urbanization being a recent phenomenon, it is indeed the spirit of the Athens Charter which has formatted the urban fabric in the last half century. In this respect, the return to favor of urban vegetable gardens appears as a counter-culture.

However, the author invites us to distinguish two social phenomena. On the one hand, a movement of a protest nature, whose founding act in 1973 was the birth of guerrilla gardening, a movement initiated by artist Liz Christy New York. It is the time of flower power and the first militants threw seed bombs over the fences of wastelands before claiming management of the abandoned places to reclaim them. This dynamic is rather the work of white populations with strong social and cultural capital, even if they may be economically hampered or precarious in the face of rising real estate prices and job insecurity.

On the other hand, a movement with much older roots in the search for subsistence through the self-production of food, particularly fresh food, often the work of working classes with still recent rural origins and whose link to food self-production is still alive. Detroit, the first Gardening Angels from the 1980s are Afro-American seniors, who perpetuate family know-how imported by their ancestors in their migration to the industrial North, from the rural and segregationist South. New York or the Paris region, these are allotment gardens renamed family gardens.

From renaturation to gentrification

However, the movement is a victim of its success. Urban agriculture in all its forms never develops on prime plots, but on neglected ones. Marginal populations in terms of power occupy marginal local spaces. Their immediate concern, by investing in a wasteland where dumps and illegal activities thrive (drug trafficking, prostitution), is to improve their environment and their living conditions, through the self-production of food and the restoration of their environment.

In doing so, they help eliminate poverty, restore value to the neighborhood, and even prepare for its gentrification. Private owners, like municipalities, have fully understood this phenomenon and widely use urban agriculture projects as a temporary means of avoiding the deterioration of an area, before improving it. This improvement often leads to eviction actors, not only plots of urban agriculture intended to be built, but sometimes the entire neighborhood when, having become tendency, housing prices are starting to rise again. Urban agriculture can, in some cases, become the Trojan horse of gentrification.

Gentrification and the precariousness of urban agriculture therefore raise the question of property and land use rights. From this angle, Detroit, with its urban neglect, and New York and Paris, with their extreme land pressure, constitute two opposite poles. However, even in Detroit, many commitments remain precarious and therefore at the mercy of a trend reversal.

To protect themselves, promoters of popular and civic urban agriculture are required to develop partnerships, mainly with municipalities, to try to sustain their investment. When they can, they opt for the formula to live happily, let's live hidden.


However, it is very difficult to escape land pressure, especially when it becomes speculative. Sooner or later, the garden gives way to a stamped real estate project Green. A great anthropologist if there ever was one, Goscinny lent Caesar, in The Domain of the Godsthe project of raze the fort to make a natural park. We couldn't say it better.

Even when their promoters invest urban agriculture projects with civic functions, it is difficult to escape the inner self. The collective discipline necessary for the maintenance of a garden, the limits of its opening to the public, which brings its share of degradation and incivility, often run the risk of privatization for the benefit of a small collective which is sometimes very culturally homogeneous. The line between appropriation by residents and privatization by a small club is thin. The inclusive dream does not always hold up to reality, which can pose a problem when it comes to public land.

Latest avatar: urban agriculture, which has become trendy, constitutes a new sector of investment, with the proliferation of high-tech start-ups which pride themselves on producing hydroponic strawberries on roofs or even in cellars using LED lamps. We will be happy that mint replaces cannabis. But there is little question anymore of the social or ecological functions of urban agriculture.

Will the commons save soldier Liz Christy?

To prevent bad money from driving out good money and keep urban agriculture its transformative, even subversive, character, the author suggests using the theory of the commons and establishing a land law in the city. However, this would have much more force if it were accompanied by a rigorous tax policy to stem speculation and restore the means to collective action.

Flaminia Paddeu's work is informative, of good analytical quality and generally free of jargon. It is of course dependent on its limited object: three terrains. We will therefore not find a global summary of the phenomenon at the international level, particularly in the metropolises of Asia, Africa or Latin America, where urban agriculture still plays a considerable food role, increasingly better documented by the FAO.

The book also does not address global ecological issues, nor the uncertainty over the sustainability of metropolises. The subject remains socio-political. The author introduces the tensions around urban agriculture into a broader framework of gender, liberalism, racism, etc. , with the risk that there is always an over-mobilization of these concepts as total explanatory keys. We sometimes have a feeling of being stuck in reality. But it is undoubtedly the subject of a healthy discussion among sociologists.

One regret, however: the length of the book and numerous redundancies. The author and her editor did not take the time to keep things short. It's a shame. The essay risks losing the readers its argument deserves.