Challenges in Sustainability | 2016 | Volume 4 | Issue 1 | Pages 10–19
DOI: 10.12924/cis2016.04010010
ISSN: 2297–6477
Challenges in
Research Article
Urban Agriculture, Commons and Urban Policies: Scaling up
Local Innovation
Franc¸ois Mancebo
International Research Center on Sustainability, Rheims University, Rheims, France
E-Mail:; Tel.: +33 612537446
Submitted: 29 December 2015 | In revised form: 17 April 2016 | Accepted: 20 April 2016 |
Published: 17 May 2016
May urban agriculture be the cornerstone that helps reconfigure more sustainable cities and if so,
under which conditions? And if so, what type of urban agriculture? Such are the two issues underlying this
article. Why not counteracting urban sprawl by fostering what could be called “rural sprawl”, by introducing
nature and rural characteristics such as farming within the city, in its interstitial areas and wastelands?
In this perspective, urban agriculture becomes a common good, bringing people together and reshaping
the whole urban fabric that would eventually propose a radical remaking of the urban. Urban agriculture
lends particularly well to long-lasting urban policies, especially those turning environmental “bads”—such as
brownfields and wastelands—into environmental goods” and urban amenities. Urban agriculture in interstitial
abandoned urban areas may be one of cities’ main seedbeds of creative innovation. It is all about the right to
decide and the power to create, renewing and deepening what Henri Lefebvre called The Right to the City.
common goods; inclusiveness; local innovation; sustainable city; sustainable design; urban
agriculture; urban planning; urban policies
1. Introduction: Promoting “Rural Sprawl” across the
Rural-Urban Continuum
Traditionally, sustainable urbanization is identified with the
historical model of European cities, with their dense cen-
ters and their suburbs, while low density cities are usually
associated with soil squandering and heavy traffic—when
taking one’s car is the only solution to move from one place
to another [
]. Thus, the compact city is often perceived
as a universal model for urban transition to sustainability
]. Even more so given the fact that urban sustainability
is generally discussed in the light of making a better use
of what already exists, which is well in line with the spatial
dynamics of a compact city: Recycling the urban fabric and
the urban functions without going through phases of obso-
lescence and degraded neighborhoods [3,4]. But this view
is becoming controversial for at least three reasons. First,
high densities also generate huge environmental nuisances
and constraints [
], and besides climate policies introduce
arguments for considering positively lower-density urban-
ization: For example, green neighborhoods planted with
trees presenting a high water loss coefficient can lower the
local temperature (10% of vegetation increase lowers the
temperature as much as 1
C within a 100 m radius) [6].
Second, establishing a compact city may prove impracti-
cable in the long run because it goes against market pref-
erences and people’s desires for individual housing [
We must admit that whatever huge efforts were made by
public authorities wherever in the world over more than fifty
years to limit urban sprawl, they failed [
]: Sprawl has
become the usual mode of production of the contemporary
city, whatever its size, its administrative configuration or its
2016 by the authors; licensee Librello, Switzerland. This open access article was published
under a Creative Commons Attribution License (
policies [
]. Even “shrinking cities” and those facing
decline and abandonment, have to deal with fragmentation
and urban sprawl [14].
Third, many aspects of urban sustainability cannot be
addressed within the limits of the compact city. For example,
any city—be it sustainable or not—has to provide water and
energy to its inhabitants, while reducing pollution and pro-
cessing all the urban waste [
]. Beyond all the well-known
technical solutions—smart grids, selective sorting, urban
heating, wastewater treatment plants, intelligent buildings,
etc.—the energy, the resources, the water and the food
still come from outside the city limits. Sewage plants and
garbage dumps are also outside. Even a large number of
the people that work in the city live outside, when they can-
not afford the expensive—and sometimes gentrified—urban
centers [
]. When a place looks sustainable by giving
to other places the burden of its sustainability—exporting
pollution and polluting activities, while siphoning resources—
this place is not really sustainable. It benefits from what
David Pearce calls imported sustainability [
], which is
a major bias against the implementation of sustainability
Thus, it is impossible to address urban sustainability
by considering only urban centers. It is crucial to design
sustainability across areas large enough to include most
of the fluxes of the urban metabolism, which means areas
encompassing suburban, periurban, and dependent rural
or natural places [
]. As a matter of fact, the social, eco-
nomic, scientific, technical and cultural transformations of
the last few decades have produced deep changes in how
society relates to space. Today, urban areas have either
no boundaries or very fuzzy ones, as showed by Bernardo
Secchi [
] with the notion of Citta Diffusa or by Thomas
Sieverts [
] with the notion of Zwichenstadt. Why on earth
are we supposed to set up a false dichotomy between urban
and rural area, given that lifestyle, facilities and amenities
are not so different? It is much more consistent to start
addressing a whole “urban region” when considering urban
transition to sustainability as shown by the European project
PLUREL [23,24].
How to address sustainability across the urban-rural
continuum—suburban, periurban, and dependent rural or
natural areas—, considering (i) that urban sprawl has
proven very difficult to stop (if not impossible), and (ii) that
distinguishing between rural life and urban life makes no
real sense anymore?
Since lower-density urbanization offers some advan-
tages as far as sustainability is concerned and is no more
considered an absolute evil, why not counteract urban
sprawl by fostering what could be called “rural sprawl”, by
introducing nature and rural characteristics such as farming
within the city—within its interstitial areas and wastelands?
After all, low-density urbanization was once the rule than
the exception for centuries all around the world [
]: In vil-
lages and hamlets, small communities had a very dynamic
social life in a nice environment. Such a position postu-
lates that urban agriculture might be the source of a new
type of urban arrangement, that if generalized would deeply
transform urban systems while contributing to a more sus-
tainable future. But what do we really call urban agriculture
in this article?
2. What Type of Urban Agriculture Are We Speaking
Basically, urban agriculture is the practice of cultivating, pro-
cessing, and distributing food in or around a village, town,
or city [
]. This notwithstanding, there are very different
types of urban agriculture that don’t have much in com-
mon except that they consist of growing edible plants in the
city: Intensive vertical farming, micro-farming, kitchen and
community gardens, etc.
Thus, are we speaking of the new farming architec-
tures that have been proliferating since the nineties in
the wake of the Smart Cities movement, such as Verti-
cal Farming—cultivating plants or breeding animals within
tall greenhouse buildings or vertically inclined surfaces
]—epitomized by the mainstream medias as the paragon
of urban agriculture? Vertical farming takes form in sev-
eral ways [
]: Crops being grown in the interior floors
of midrise buildings with apparatuses that rotate crops on
belts (, rooftop farming, tree-
like skyscrapers ( The point of this
farming laden with eco-technologies is exploiting syner-
gies between the built environment and intensive—if not
industrial—agriculture [
]: Recirculating hydroponics and
aeroponics that significantly reduce the amount of water
needed, collecting rain and treating wastewater, producing
photovoltaic green energy, etc. [30].
It was Dickson Despommier who started using the term
“vertical farming” in 1999, first to qualify the cultivation of
plants on flat roofs, and then inside retrofitted empty mid-
rise buildings [
]. But his vision of a vertical farm was that
of “a neighborhood concept couched in futuristic terms, but
with a homespun intent” [
]. This is quite different from
the brand-new smart buildings—tree-like skyscrapers and
high-rise agritectures—proposed today as the be-all-and-
end-all of urban agriculture, which eventually are projects
that remain projects: None have ever been built, which says
a lot about their feasibility. There are many huge problems
inherent to this vertical farming:
Even if a building is largely fenestrated, plants still
need soil and additional sunlight to survive. When
Sunlight is replaced by LEDs, it has a huge energy
Controlling humidity and air circulation, and evacuat-
ing the heat released by the LEDS also has a huge
energy cost.
Fertilizers would always be necessary, as would pesti-
cides due the mildew and other pests found in green-
houses today.
As such, realizing such vertical farms would require
significant technological breakthroughs [33].
In real life, vertical farmers are far more modest, and
much closer to Despommier’s intuition: A three-story build-
ing with solar panels on its roof in the South Korean city
of Suwon; a three floors underground farm in the city of
Den Bosch in the Netherlands, with plants cultivated without
sunlight by a private company—PlantLab. And it is logical,
since vertical farming is an old idea finally, that is not nec-
essarily linked with Smart Cities, ecotechnology and big
data. Indigenous people in South America have long used
vertically layered growing techniques, and the rice terraces
of East Asia follow the same principle; as did the hanging
gardens of Babylon, thousands of years ago. And, by the
way, it was Gilbert Ellis Bailey who first coined the term
“vertical farming” in 1915, long before anybody heard about
any smart-whatsit [34].
As beautifully put by Stan Cox and David Van Tassel,
recent vertical farming looks like a dreamy idea with a solid fi-
nancial and political hidden agendas, which would ultimately
become even more industrialized than modern rural agricul-
ture [
]. Indeed, to defend this type of urban farming many
authors argue that fossil fuels, fertilizers, and government
subsidies to industrial farming are also expensive [
]. Doing
so, they consider implicitly that vertical farming and industrial
farming should be of the same nature and have the same
standards. It says a lot about the financial interests and
real objectives. Such a type of urban agriculture is all but
sustainable, and can certainly not foster urban sustainability.
Besides, there are many good reasons why high-rise
buildings do not already have trees: It is hot or cold or windy
or both, up there. Nearly every climate variable is more ex-
treme than at street level. As mentioned by Tim De Chant:
“If—and it’s a big if—any of these buildings ever get built,
odds are they’ll be stripped of their foliage quicker than a
developer can say return on investment”’ [
]. Besides,
what would be the economic and social cost to water and
fertilize these trees? Concerning cattle, what would be the
real productivity of such farms, when a single cow needs
more than 1.5 ha of grassland in his life. And even veg-
etable crops grow better on natural soil than indoors or on
roofs [
]. There is obviously a huge discrepancy between
the dream—or the nightmare—and the reality.
The final point, which for me constitutes the first on
the sustainability planning level, is: How the urban fabric
may be inclusive of this type of farming? As highlighted
by Saskia Sassen, in the broader perspective of the Smart
Cities movement: “These technologies have not been suf-
ficiently ‘urbanized’. That is, they have not been made to
work within a particular urban context. It is not feasible
simply to plop down a new technology in an urban space”
]. Focusing on these agritectures may lead to ignoring
promising alternatives of urban development [40].
Eco-technologies are not an end in themselves, and
may certainly not be considered sustainable by nature: A
hammer can be used indifferently to knock in nails or to
shatter skulls, but the hammer is neither bad nor good. It
is the person that uses it who decides. The same goes
for eco-technologies. Never underestimate the negative ef-
fects of the new technological and networked infrastructures
needed for a city to be smart [
]. Thus, the success of
sustainability policies depends on their objectives and their
local ownership by the people concerned [
]: An issue too
often dodged by the designers of smart-agritectures. When
trying to determine if urban agriculture may contribute to a
sustainable future, the primary question to ask is: Will this
agriculture be at the service of the inhabitants—and not the
other way around. Indeed, it is crucial to keep in mind that
the “environment”, far from being pure transcendence, is
embedded in societies, as demonstrated by Maarten Hajer
]. In a former article for Challenges in Sustainability
I explained how the human being builds a representation
of the ecosystems he lives in and calls it “environment”
out of the usages he makes of its resources: takings (us-
age of air, water, minerals), inputs (pollution), alterations
(housing, transport) [
]. Thus to address urban sustain-
ability, it is crucial to know what a “good environment” is for
the people and the communities living there; one in which
the enhancement of environmental conditions stricto sensu
(water quality, air, biodiversity, prudent use of resources,
land and energy, etc.) improves living conditions and facili-
tates new lifestyles. A polluted environment can be a place
where life is good. Just think about the price of a square
meter in the very center of the very noisy and very polluted
Manhattan, Paris or London. Conversely, an environment
with clean air and clean water can be quite intolerable as
evidenced by windswept, segregated social-housing blocks
settled in the middle of nowhere.
3. A Common Good
All of the above leads us to consider that to design a more
sustainable future in the rural-urban continuum we should
rather focus on a more traditional type of urban agriculture
that gives consistency to the whole urban fabric. That is
to say an urban agriculture made of community gardens,
kitchen gardens, crofting and micro-farming, land shar-
ing, low-rise rooftop gardens or schoolyard greenhouses—
which are different things but strongly linked to each other
because they develop the potential for people to exercise
significant influence over the place where they live [
The point is longer-lasting change, in the spirit of Rob Hop-
kins’ Transition Towns [
]. Tim Beatley’s Green Urban-
ism also resonates with the type of urban agriculture we
contemplate in this paper. Green Urbanism identifies six
issues by which a city complies with urban sustainability all
of which may apply to community and kitchen gardens, as
well as crofting: The city should be (i) living within its ecolog-
ical limits, (ii) functioning in ways analogous to nature, (iii)
striving to achieve a circular rather than a linear metabolism,
(iv) striving toward local self-sufficiency, (v) facilitating more
sustainable lifestyles, and (vi) last but not least emphasizing
neighborhood and community life [50,51].
This urban agriculture varies a lot according to the cli-
mate, and the economic and social situation of the city. In
many urban areas of Central and South America, Africa
or South East Asia, urban agriculture is essentially a food
security issue, related to the fight against poverty and mal-
nutrition [
]. The situation is quite different in Euro-
pean cities [
], North American cities [
], or Japanese
cities [
]. In these regions, many official urban agricultural
projects result from “greening” agendas created under the
umbrella of the Green New Deal, which aims to address
global warming and the financial crises rather than food
issues as mentioned by Tim Jackson [
]. In most other
cities, the landscaping aspect and the recreational dimen-
sion are highlighted. In all these cases, urban agriculture is
mainly seen as a social innovation that improves the quality
of life, fosters social links among neighbors, and enhances
urban landscapes. In so-called “Northern” cities urban agri-
culture is not so much about food, really [
]. In any event,
all these urban agricultures—whatever their form, their goal
and their means—share significantly common features: The
size and shape of the field plots, the informality, the ability
to create or foster neighborhoods relations, etc. [59].
Their common features result from the fact that all these
agricultures have been in the cities—where they met the
same needs and fulfilled the same purposes—since time
immemorial. Urban agriculture is not such a fresh idea.
Moreover, it is certainly not an offspring of sustainable de-
velopment. Urban agriculture existed for centuries in very
different places around the world, such as the chinam-
pas in Tenochtitlan—the actual Mexico city—since the 15th
century or sooner [
], the hortillonnages in Amiens—a
French city north of Paris—for more than twenty centuries
], or the interstitial gardens (agriculture d’interstice) in
e—Cameroon’s capital—where they accompanied
the foundation of the city in the 19th century [62].
Urbanization has gone hand-in-hand with agriculture from
the beginning, as matter of fact since the Neolithic period [
Agricultural activities have been crucial to the foundation of
new colonies since Greek and Roman ages [
]. Even in
medieval times when walls and defensive structures left out
most of the farmland, agricultural patches were available
inside the city and next to the city walls [
]. Jane Jacobs
even assumes that agriculture was initially within human set-
tlements that could be called primitive urban places, and
migrated to the countryside only later [67].
But while cities and agriculture have long been inseparable
and mutually reinforcing, everything changed during the twen-
tieth century: Increased mobility and progressive globalization
made pointless the previous need for geographical proximity
between the farmers and the urban consumers. Farming
was then more or less banned from the city under the com-
bined forces of urban densification and planning regulation
[68]. This period could be qualified as the great rupture.
The new craze for the form of urban agriculture that
we are dealing with in this paper began 20 years ago. It
renewed—but also transformed deeply—the old tradition of
nineteenth century backyard gardens that existed before
the great rupture. Beyond traditional allotment gardening,
urban agriculture appeared in front lawns, kitchen gardens,
pavement verges, railway embankments and any interstitial
spaces, which is more unusual. In many ways, the citizens
involved in this type of urban agriculture claimed ownership
over the city, and particularly over the policies and projects
developed by the city [69].
It means that the relation between urban agriculture and
the sustainable city is not just a matter of food or greening, it
is also about inclusiveness and ownership. One among the
many challenges of urban sustainability is reestablishing
the inclusiveness of the urban fabric instead of just popping-
up parks, green spaces or smart-buildings. The current
regional master plan of Paris proposes—as an important
mean to foster sustainability—a quantitative objective of
10 m
of public green area per inhabitant; as though it were
sufficient to display “green” to become suddenly sustainable.
Shocking but understandable: mayors, representatives and
more generally elected officials adore showcasing actions
that are very visible. They are less interested in citizen own-
ership and holistic approaches, which are more important
to make the city sustainable but harder to implement and
less profitable as an electoral issue. Besides, French es-
paces verts (green spaces) do not necessarily bring people
together. They may also be used to separate, in line with
the Parisian history: The introduction of greenery by Hauss-
mann was an attempt to control the use of public space
by a technical approach [
]: “. . . by losing its name, the
old park is deprived of its positive attributes... the espace
vert is no longer a place but rather an indistinct area whose
boundaries are decided in the abstract world of the master
plans. . . [71].
All things considered, when trying to make a city sustain-
able, there may be some good sense in promoting urban
agriculture instead of manicured sophisticated green ar-
eas. In this perspective urban agriculture would propose a
radical remaking of the urban [
], which breaks with the
urban-rural dichotomy. This option paves the way to a rein-
vention of the urban form and its management through new
lifestyles and through the reconstruction of some kind of
urban commons [
]. Such an urban agriculture should
be considered as a common good, bringing people together
and reshaping the whole urban fabric.
Is it really doable? Has it already been done, and if
so where and how? In all the historical examples given
before—hortillonnages, chinampas, agriculture d’interstice,
etc.—as well as in recent cases where urban citizens and
gardeners gain ownership of the city, it appears that urban
agriculture “works better” when no public or private actor
explains to the population what the procedure should be
and how people should act. To say it otherwise, it looks like
urban agriculture “works better” when nobody looks: That
is when the inhabitants first transform their living environ-
ment outside of any legal framework or official urban project,
and their actions are only integrated afterwards into urban
planning or urban policies. In France, the Trames Vertes
et Bleues (Green and Blue Grids) are a perfect example of
what not to do. These Trames are land management tools
dedicated to the preservation of biodiversity—especially in
urban and periurban areas—created in the aftermath of
the Grenelle de l’Environnement [
], after 2007 [
]. The
procedure was way too formal and technocratic to succeed
in the constitution of a true regional Trame Verte [
]. No-
body asked the local communities and the inhabitants for
their views. Thus, in many places the implementation of
the Trames turned confrontational, and resulted finally in
inconsistent and incomplete grids [78].
On the other hand, the remarkable history of La
ere shows how a squatted wasteland in a poor place
near social housing blocks turned into a very popular park
based on urban agriculture. The inhabitants created this
place by themselves, seeking their own objectives. In the end,
the local authorities had no choice but to enact their initiative
and legalize it, re-commoning urban land through agriculture.
4. Inclusiveness, Ownership and Local Innovation:
The Case of La Fournilli
To understand what happened at La Fournilli
ere it is neces-
sary first to apprehend the historical context. The place was
a village—annexed to the French city of Nantes in 1908—
that became an industrial suburb with fruit and vegetable
canneries (Figure 1). A rich soil that allows cultivation of
field peas, baby carrots, or asparagus, explains why the
canneries settled there. These companies provided kitchen
gardens to their employees within the policy framework of
industrial paternalism. During the post-war boom major
changes took place: Social housing complexes were built
and successive projects were developed on the site of these
kitchen gardens. The first one was an access highway to
downtown Nantes. The gardeners were evicted and their
gardens ceased to exist. This first project was finally aban-
doned. Others projects followed but they failed to become
effective due to local political turmoil. Finally, nothing hap-
pened and in the seventies the place turned into wasteland
of more than 3 hectares [79].
The people living nearby—especially those from the
social housing blocks who didn’t have access to nature—
started eyeing this abandoned land and its rich soil with
interest (Figure 2). From the mid-seventies—one after the
other—they progressively occupied La Fournilli
ere, first
at night and finally in broad daylight. By the end of the
nineties, there were more than 70 squatting gardeners
there. As mentioned by Elisabeth Pasquier, to get a piece
of land there you simply had to start digging the ground
somewhere—a corner that looks vacant—and wait. If no-
body were coming at you, you could keep digging and start
tending your future garden. A few days more, or a week,
without any hostility from your neighbors meant that this
piece of land was ostensibly yours. You could than start
fencing, sowing, and socializing with your neighbors [
At the end, two categories of squatting gardeners worked a
piece of land at La Fournilli
ere [81].
On the one side, some of the former evicted gardeners—
or their children—came back. They were locals, most of
them descended from Brittany or Vend
ee (two French re-
gions). They were few. They stuck together and kept
closely connected via common emblematic activities, such
as p
etanque (bocce tournament), ap
eritif (before-dinner
drinks) or barbecues. This category of gardeners was made
of poor but not marginalized people. They lived in substan-
dard one-family houses. There were usually old people with
a small retirement pension or younger poor workers; they
knew how to cultivate a small piece of land.
Figure 1. Situation map of La Fournilli
ere downtown Nantes. Source: Google Maps.
Figure 2. La Fournilli
ere in the early seventies. Source: City Archives of Nantes.
On the other side was a completely different category.
These gardeners came from the disadvantaged social hous-
ing complexes around La Fournilli
ere. They had differ-
ent origins and ethnic background, being mainly North
Africans. Many among them were unemployed and lived
on social benefits. For them, ”owning” a piece of land at La
ere was a way of keeping active, and it was a place
where they could settle symbolically—a “circulatory space”
(territoire circulatoire), within the meaning of Alain Tarrius—,
a place where they could grow roots, literally [
]. These
gardeners were called “les autres” (the others) by the local
gardeners from the first category, but they represented an
overwhelming majority with nearly 4 gardeners out of 5.
Both groups tended to ignore each other, but an ele-
ment of solidarity brings them together: They were all fully
aware of how precarious and uncertain their future in La
ere was. As squatters, they could be expelled at
any time. They all knew they had to stand united to respond
effectively to any of the many menaces that might threaten
their plot—a new urban project, theft and vandalism from
the people outside, etc. Such a situation fosters social links.
Nothing changed until the early nineties, when a new
elected city council took interest again in La Fournilli
This time the new project was a neighborhood park. Some-
thing unusual happened then. The two groups of gardeners
started uniting their forces and organizing to impose their
views on the project. They also knew that the game of ille-
gally occupying pieces of land couldn’t go on forever. It was
time for them to make their situation legal, preferably on
their own terms. A form of collective intelligence emerged,
and with it the seeds of a collective identity [83].
Rather than making demands and organizing protests,
they decided to draw out an in-depth report on the actual
situation at La Fournilli
ere, providing an exact overview plus
maps of the different pieces of land, including the spatial
pattern of the different gardens and their history. The report
displayed the long work of clearing and planting that they
had done as well as the public goods they had created. It
illustrated the social and ecological value of these gardens
for the whole city. The gardeners demonstrated that La
ere was a well of common good as it was, whereas
the project developed by the municipality could very well
fail and destroy the whole site unless they took into account
their own experiences and the actual organization of La
ere. Finally, they claimed that they wanted to be
decision-making partners in the project and have a seat at
the decision-making table.
The planners of the city of Nantes understood that the
opposition of the gardeners was not a negative NIMBY
reaction but the expression of collective wills and skills
]. Once they realized that an alternative proposal with
strong local community (and therefore, electors) support
was emerging, they agreed to discuss with the gardener’s
collective. At the end of a long process of negotiations—and
against all odds—the city council decided to support the
gardeners’ alternative project and to abandon its own pro-
posal. The new project envisioned a park organized around
the existing gardens, forming islets or patches. Paths for
walkers and runners entwined with the islets, connecting
them. At the very center of the park a venue was placed
to initiate visitors to the recycling of material and waste
in urban gardening, including waste sorting and compost-
ing to enhance biomass and biodiversity. The gardeners
determined themselves the rules for living together: More
frugal and wiser water-management; a ban on cutting any
tree in one’s own gardens, since trees are considered to
be common goods etc. [
]. In some sense, the case of
La Fournilli
ere is prototypical of Alberto Magnaghi’s idea
of combining both bottom up and top down processes of
decision-making in the urbanization process [86].
Today, La Fournilli
ere is a particularly charming and un-
usually large urban farming land that one can only reach by
walking. Two narrow lanes lead to a kind of huge clearing
covered by gardens, scattered trees, and bushes (Figure 3).
Large colored water tanks surround shacks made out of recy-
cled materials gathered in small patches. A maze of service
alleys spreads around five key items: three wells, a pond, and
an improvised p
etanque court. La Fournilli
ere is also a social
theater. These kitchen gardens give grown-ups a place where
they can get away from it all and become kids again: a paren-
thesis in their ordinary lives since at the end of the day they go
back home. They indulge themselves by putting things in the
garden that wouldnt be permitted anywhere else in the city:
a doll’s head impaled on a pole, a teddy bear crucified on a
picket fence, etc. Apart from the magic of the place, they are
also kitchen gardens and also have, as such, straightforward
economic interests: cabbages, potatoes, and other vegetables
are planted to feed the family year-round. Two larger paths
cross the whole area. They were created by the footsteps of
thousands of people. Placed in the middle of the city, traversing
La Fournilli
ere is a shortcut for many men and women going
to school, to work, or simply to the market in Nantes.
5. Conclusion: The Right to Decide and the Power to
As I discussed in a recent paper a city does not arise from
the sole will and skill of architects, planners, surveyors, and
politicians [
]. It has to be nurtured and molded by its in-
habitants to bring it to life. Such a process needs time, quite
differently from the frenetic timeline and knee-jerk reactions to
any opposition that elected officials and planners, guided by
their own short-term interests impose on urban policies (the
next election, compliance with construction deadlines etc.).
Urban agriculture lends particularly well to long-lasting ur-
ban policies, especially those turning environmental “bads”
such as brownfields and wastelands—into environmental
goods and urban amenities. Naturally, it will not be possible
everywhere. There are also health issues when redeveloping
brownfields for urban agriculture, due to potentially polluted
groundwater and soils. Nonetheless, it would make sense
to establish productive lands as a key component of urban
design when possible, as proposed by Andre Viljoen and Joe
Howe [
]. A network of agricultural plots, which would pen-
etrate the smallest nooks and crannies of the urban fabric,
should be a wonderful tool to link the different components
of the city, while providing other ecosystem services such as
walking and leisure activities. Besides, such a network would
greatly improve urban resilience, by linking formerly scattered
vegetated places within a consistent system. Squares, parks,
gardens—community gardens and kitchen gardens, as well
as public gardens—and more generally all vegetated urban
public spaces will be connected by urban agriculture.
Figure 3. A Shack and a Garden at La Fournilli
ere. Source: Miraorti
In this perspective, urban agriculture embodies the
proper use of slowness (Le bon usage de la lenteur) in
urban planning and design as depicted by Pierre Sansot
]. And the history of La Fournilli
ere illustrates it perfectly:
Had only one of the successive lunatic projects designed in
the seventies been built, these gardens would have never
existed. It is also a symbol of what can be done when every-
body is involved in the planning procedures, which means
sitting everyone at the table so that all the inhabitants un-
derstand that the urban affairs are also their affairs. This
urban agriculture is about the right to decide and the power
to create, renewing and deepening what Henri Lefebvre
called Le Droit
a la Ville (The Right to the City) [89].
As a general rule, urban transitions to sustainability—to
which these urban agricultures relate—require involving ev-
ery citizen in the decision that affect them, and especially
in the designing of the urban projects—and not only by
“consulting” them. The more top-down repairing planning
procedures the less results, if not linked with grassroots
collaborative process and with negotiation between local
communities and local authorities [
]. Grasping what hap-
pened at La Fournilli
ere eventually means deciphering the
eternal game between what the authorities—whatever their
form—try to impose on the social fabric, and what the social
fabric—represented by the gardeners—impose on the au-
thorities, through deception or force, through confrontation
or bargaining. It is all about how people take ownership
over their own city. In this way, urban agriculture can re-
ally be the cornerstone that helps reconfigure urban areas,
and the backbone of a new and more sustainable urban
arrangement to foster urban transition to sustainability.
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