Categories
Ecology

Julius and his community garden

Julius is an architect. He lives in the heart of the 19th district of Paris. Several years ago, together with many other people that live in his enormous building, Julius planted a community garden. From that day, it remained a passion project for him. The garden, labor, and fruits of which are shared by all the participating neighbors, allowed them to create an island of nature surrounded by the stone jungle of Paris.

In this interview for Draftsy Julius agreed to tell us more about his garden and how it changed the life of the building.

D: Julius, what was your motivation to create the community garden?

J: Well, the “garden” part came first, and the “community” came later. My primary motive was the simple pleasure of watching a seed grow into a plant and bear fruit, watching a visiting bee, the rain, and the sun do their part in it. Experimenting with tomatoes in my own 12th-floor balcony for a few years was enough to satisfy this pleasure. I guess this sort of intimate engagement with nature is the first and necessary element of our ecological being as a society. At the same time, I’ve also been looking for opportunities to shatter social norms, historically associated with urban green spaces, which are exclusively decorative and recreational in their purpose.

What do you do in the parks of big cities? You admire begonias, you jog, you have your picnics on the grass with friends, and you take care not to stain your nice clothes with grass and dirt. In a way, you treat it like a big veranda with flowerpots, attached to your living-room. Parks are full of signs forbidding you to do this and that which is far from the freedom you have while being in a forest.

My first idea was secretly planting some “unsightly”, rural vegetables in those beautiful flower beds all around Parisian parks. This subversive idea brought me to the “community” dimension because the urban space and social norms are unthinkable without sharing, without living together. You can’t undo big cities, but you can try changing them. This is how my connection with nature shaped into a sort of love triangle: nature, society, and the individual. I discovered many like-minded people in Paris, and in fact, this grass-root movement has been going on all over Europe for some time now. Some are moved by the return-to-roots motivation, others – by the looming ecological disaster, the collapse in the bee population, and the climate change.

The idea is to reclaim the urban green areas nearby, leaving the choices of how to make their urban environment greener for private citizens. Some of those reclaimed areas are tiny left-over spots: in German cities, and recently in Paris, people started “adopting” a three square meter area around a sidewalk tree, and planting wildflowers, pumpkins, and whatnot. Others temporarily squat the sites of demolished old buildings. The municipal authorities started following this essentially grass-roots trend and now provide assistance – something that was unthinkable twenty years ago. There are many such initiatives around Paris, and communal gardens are nowadays often included in new housing projects.

I am lucky to live in an apartment building with a large adjacent green area and share it with some like-minded neighbors. We asked the landowner to allocate us a plot for urban gardening. He gave us a go. Partly because, for better or worse, the ecology nowadays is an asset of fashion for housing companies, and partly because this way he saves on lawn maintenance costs.

Now we have a 600 square meter garden, which is rather big for a city that is one of the most densely built spots in the world. This is how our garden came into being, and we just gathered the third harvest.

D: What were the first steps for you and your neighbors to make it happen, once the decision was made, and everyone was on board?

J: The first steps were us trying to agree on what we want to do, how do we want it to happen, and deciding on what is the endgame of the project. This (still ongoing) discussion didn’t magically make the garden materialize but it’s still worth mentioning. France is a country with very strong traditions of social consciousness, and a tiny communal endeavor as this can quickly devolve into hot debates on social and political order. The idea of allotting land for individual use was discarded from the outset. Are we going to be a collective garden or a shared one? This question would perplex a person from some Nordic country, but the disagreement on it was nearly fatal for our group.

Credit: Julius

The steps that did advance the creation of the garden were getting up from the table in the middle of the discussion, going to our plot, building wooden frames, and working the soil. With time, we procured some funds to buy wood and tools and to replace the infertile soil. We learned to enjoy together what we used to enjoy privately in our balconies: watching the flowers and vegetable plants bloom, start to smell, ripen with fruit. There’s a very particular kind of pleasure in taking the elevator down to the garden to fetch some salad greens and cucumbers for dinner – in the middle of Paris! 

D: Who was helping you? How many people participated in the project? How much time do you spend working in the garden now?

J: The landlord – who is a semi-private social housing company – gave us a budget for our bigger expenses: the wood, irrigation pipes, and the new soil. The plans, workforce and logistics came from our group exclusively. This involved all kinds of know-how, ranging from carpentry to plumbing. Our group is very diverse profession-wise, but nearly all come from a white-collar professional background. There are opera singers, mathematicians… We had to rely a lot on my professional expertise as an architect. A lot of very specific knowledge, especially when it comes to gardening, comes from online resources, from YouTube, and so on.

We started with about 30 members in the beginning, but today the regulars count 5-10 devotees. Since we have extremely diverse skills and capacities, some work with the soil, others organize events, do paperwork or take photographs for the archive. Since we’re still in the “investment” stage, putting everything in shape takes a lot of time, but unlike the day job, the amount of work largely depends on the biological calendar, naturally. We are looking for outside funding, and this year the French government created an all-country financial assistance specifically for urban gardening. I’m counting on it to help us buy some trees and wood for the garden furniture.

D: How do you share the responsibilities of taking care of the garden and the harvest?

J: We never established a more tangible “constitution” of the group. There are however a couple of “red lines”: no individual appropriation of land, and no power hierarchy (except for my being a sort of unelected leader). We compensate for the lack of structure by playing by ear. I guess that puts us somewhere within the anarchist camp, but we don’t pigeonhole ourselves in political definitions. There’s an unwritten agreement though that we will keep with the ecological practices and philosophy.

As a general observation, there’s a big gap between the time and effort that people tend to invest into what is a hobby, after all, and the real needs of a well-managed garden, which will simply perish if you don’t water it the moment it needs to be watered. We have a WhatsApp group to quickly react to the weather and call for reinforcement when needed. Sometimes nobody’s available, and the plants take the toll.

While we have no hierarchic structure, we do have supervisors of technical areas: some are responsible for flowers, others for vegetables, for budget, for the compost, and so on. Most of those initiatives come spontaneously, and the person who introduces an idea is usually responsible for overseeing its realization. This makes the choice of the supervisor by voting somewhat irrelevant because it’s rare for several people to author the same idea. Some voices were calling for using voting to arbitrate every little decision, but this proved to be as time-consuming as counterproductive, mainly because gardening involves thousands of small choices that are purely technical. For example, a group can vote very evenhandedly for planting peas together with onions, but those two cultures will never grow well together. Some choices are less obvious because there are various philosophies of gardening. We are still divided over the question of whether we should mow our lawns the “English way” or let it grow wild in the spirit of “French garden”. We’ll have to hear the pros and cons and put it to vote.

Since the land is used commonly, we share the fruits of the garden in the most equitable way possible. The harvest is not big enough to set a quota for sharing, so eating the fruits is a largely symbolic act of sharing. Being- and having fun together is a very distinct dimension of the group, although this has little to do with its ecological purposes, properly speaking. But urban gardening and ecological consciousness have a strong social bond, almost a kinship. Even within the population of our high-rise residence overlooking the garden, our group and its activities are subjects of curiosity and talk. In this sense, our activity is very different from that of an agricultural professional, tending to his or hers obscure rural garden: it’s inevitably a theater stage for other townsfolk to watch. This may sound a bit negative, but at the same time, it’s a form of direct action in transforming the traditional urban mindset. All our new recruits joined us after seeing us through the window. On a broader scale, there are about fifteen similar garden projects in our district alone, which amounts to certain visibility in the city and its municipal ecological politics.

D: What do you usually plant? Did you have to change it at all in the process of trial and error (some plants did not work well, others made more sense, etc.)?

J: In the beginning, we were reduced to a narrow range of plants that could grow in our silty substrate that only had 1.5% of organic matter. Things got better after we added 40 cubic meters of rich soil. Now, besides the usual European-climate friendly vegetables, we grow various tomatoes, even Italian bell peppers. For the exotic peppers, we’ve built a greenhouse. Due to having no formal training in the field, we use the trial-and-error method. This year I tried growing the southern melons in the greenhouse, but in a humid greenhouse the mildew devastated the plants. Tomatoes do very well, although this summer was extremely cold. With flowers, we have the usual pleasure-garden beauties, but in general, we chose the most bee-friendly flowers.

D: In your opinion, will community gardens disappear in the future, or will they become even more common?

J: The urban community gardens can’t possibly disappear because their emerging follows similar reasons that back in the nineteenth century forced the authorities of big cities to create public gardens at the expense of the built areas. The trend is not only a matter of fashion but also an absolute ecological and social necessity. Unlike public parks though, the urban community gardens have lots of limitations: they appear where an empty spot in the built-up environment becomes available. But more and more city planners include such gardens in new housing projects. It’s becoming a norm with benefits.

D: Do you think the creation of community gardens in the big cities could be an alternative answer to the future problems with food?

J: Interesting question. There’s certainly a lot that can be done for cities to be able to provide themselves with agricultural produce, but there are certain limitations to be taken into account. The vegetation footprint in Paris is gradually spreading on the flat roofs, even on the walls, but it will always have to share space with other components and functions of the city. Sunlight is another thing to share. Certain vegetables and fruits are easy to grow even in the city but very difficult to transport from remote places. For example, fresh raspberries. There is a company in Paris that cultivates them on the rooftops and provides them directly to restaurants because a massive amount of berries goes bad very fast and can’t stand transportation. The same is true for salad greens and many other vegetables.

D: If you could have the power to make it happen, which other alternative do you think has the ability to improve the ecological situation in the big cities around the world?

J: Outside the lack of vegetation, there are dire ecological problems in the city that should be treated as quickly as possible, for instance, the transport and thermic insulation of buildings. If your question is more about the nature in the city, I wish I could transform flat rooftops into a real layer of thick greenery floating above the city, with occasional footbridges and small animal overpasses across the streets. It would be a new space for the same population, but it would have different norms of being together. Utopians of the nineteenth century called for combining the best of the city and the countryside, but the idea ended up with sad fenced suburban condominiums. So, this would be my shot. But that would require massive changes in building by-laws, construction codes, and even in the concept of land ownership. French people say Soyons réalistes, demandons l’impossible!

If you want to learn more about community gardens in the 19th district of Paris follow the link https://www.cheminsdejardins.com/ . The garden of Julius and his neigbours is under the number 24.