PERSPECTIVES IN URBAN AGRICULTURES

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To think of inhabited environments, is to imagine balances between agricultural and urban cultures, ecosystems and anthropization. If, in European rural culture, the agricultural farm is a mixed entity adapted to the socio-economic conditions of its time[1], other apparatuses and landscapes are concretising in our urban era. We are in fact undergoing paradigmatic changes in our ways of apprehending our relationship to our environment[2]. Urban agriculture has thus become one of the solutions recommended by the FAO[3] to counteract loss of agricultural land and food needs with a concern for quality (fresh, healthy and tasty fruit and vegetables) and the environment (urban waste management, energy autonomy, etc.). This usually takes the form of private or collective gardens but it is now also exploring other modalities including vertical agriculture. This involves imagining possible combinations between the dynamics of culture and nature through the creation of other types of synergy, when it is now patently obvious that questions concerning fertile land, water and energy are crucial. In this respect, the concord between agriculture and urban environments is highly significant.

 

The heritage of the garden

Whether close to palaces, monasteries, châteaux, villas or urban dwellings, or whether their purpose is initiatic, aesthetic or productive, gardens are testimonies to the knowledge and effort required to benefit from what nature has to give us and cleverly deal with the unknown, unforeseeable and threatening.

The garden is thus an expression of the art of living in and modifying a world that has as many munificences as cataclysms. It is an order created out of disorder, the fertile union between culture and nature necessary to transform, plant, harvest and recharge one’s batteries. It is precisely this perpetual process of birth, germination and growth that is inherent in the Latin origin of the word nature, natura, meaning both “to give birth to” and “to be born”. This term conveys the meaning the Greek physis, whose root, phύ, to “grow” or “give forth” in turn conveys the importance of the regenerative power of nature.

When one tends a garden, one cannot ignore its physical and biological realities, or that it will always be subjected to the phases and gestations of nature, the cycles of life and death, weather conditions and vagaries over which one has no control. We have to “make do” with what we’ve got. But family and community gardens and allotments are not solely the sources of home-grown produce that have always played their part in the working-class lifestyle, they are also places of pleasure, sharing, exchange and meditation, places to meet neighbours and passers-by and exchange produce. The work and loving care they involve and the resulting produce are admired. They are also places where imagination and talent is revealed. Combining the useful and beautiful, they transmute a place of food security, the vegetable garden, into a place of pleasure and creation. Poetry, painting and the practical arts of the gardener, architect, landscape gardener and inhabitant have made it into both a work of art and a technical marvel – roses in the snow, hanging gardens – and they are a laboratory of knowledge and a crucible of extravagances. Nature can be so diverted from its natural course as to become almost unrecognisable. This triumph of artifice can produce the most extraordinary results, but they can also degenerate if the nature of nature is floated.

Gardens are manifestations of wisdom acquired by successive generations through experience and patient apprenticeship, counterbalancing misplaced inspiration and attempts at genial creations. Like Voltaire’s Candide, who constantly repeats that “we must cultivate our garden”, the garden and gardener are often represented as figures of both usefulness and wisdom, and reciprocally as that which wards off and counteracts moral and intellectual idleness and protects us from futile speculation. The gardener embodies the persevering, laborious and salutary knowledge of a solitary individual, against ambitious presumptions and futility. To “cultivate one’s garden” becomes a call to mind one’s own business, or, as Foucault says, “take care of oneself” by endeavouring to cultivate what we have – in short, striving to live and live well. Epicurus’s garden can enable us to find happiness, providing we “live in accord with nature”, far from the tumult and superficiality of public life in the Greek city then in crisis. This is neither a luxury nor an invitation to torpor and nonchalance, but an acknowledgment of reality itself, of the condition of men shackled to their daily existence and confronted with their limits, the briefness of their lives and the many ills besetting them. Often regarded as a “mysterious path” (Novalis) between rediscovering one’s roots and initiation – not only in The Dream of Poliphilus – “the garden is the smallest fragment of the world and at the same time represents its totality.”[4]

Thus the art of gardening is primarily a school of time because it is subjected to the perpetual trial of life, which creates and destroys all it engenders. Everything is in constant evolution and transformation. It is at once a physical, sensorial, emotional and spiritual experience. In gardens in both the West and East which succeed in appealing to both our senses and sensitivity, it is the dual alchemy of the sensual and the spiritual that is exalted. Our relationship to the nature of which we are part is cultivated in carnal and existential proximity, enabling us to create and renew fruitful relationships, and in doing so reactivate what Maldiney calls the “surprise of being”.

Because serious consideration of biodiversity and phytoremediation is now unavoidable, urban planning concepts are changing profoundly. What heritages and mutations are to be envisaged?

 

The critical re-emergence of the urban arts of subsistence

The necessity for sustainable and community-based urban development demands that we question our ways of living and capacities for staying alive, but also that we render cities pleasant to live in, whether in so-called subsistence economies or in so-called advanced economies.

Although the omnipresence of the elements and the animal and vegetable, and also an awareness of a longer time span in which the past is a heritage and the present the repetition and perpetuation of gestures and customs, have for a long time been characteristics of the rural culture of traditional societies, the urban environment has been associated with shorter, rapid temporalities[5] with superimposed tempos and synchronisations. More distant and fragmented social communications have developed there, in which changing fashions and tendencies play an important role by increasingly fragmenting lives. The urban environment has incontestably taken the vertiginous lability of places and links to its paroxysm.

This new condition is profoundly transforming food practices. Modernity, which has muddled the characteristic references of traditional societies, is now being relayed by a new orientation: putting nature back into the urban, combined with a new, paradoxical “affective economy”, a mixture of consumerism and resistance, hygienism and aestheticism, cosmopolitanism and localism, tradition and creation, pleasure and citizenship, nature and artefact. It seems to be affecting every sector of private and public life. There are two central paradoxes in this:

- A uniformising massivisation associated with a demand for tailor-made development and a re-evaluation of the community
The generalised reinforcement of a dual process of massivisation and individualisation is manifest. This influence is being spread by the media, which convey references that are both standardised and fragmented. Giddens[6] analyses how, as lifestyles are diversifying so is product marketing, which can now propose a wide range of "personalised offers" catering for national and local specificities. Values and practices regarding food lie at the crux of the uniformising pressure exerted by mass society and singular forms. Because as lifestyles are diversifying the homogenisation process is also spreading.

- A dual concern with security and care
Security is becoming one of the most resonant contemporary obsessions. A latent defiance is insidiously establishing itself in ordinary life: fears of toxicity, pollution and genetic and psychological manipulations, etc. Ulrich Beck regards present-day industrial societies as risk societies[7][7] faced with a profound crisis in their institutions, in as much as they are no longer capable of protecting their members from the various ills (ecological, social and political insecurity) that they themselves seem to be creating. This spread of underlying fears is a major factor in the deterioration of our ability to live together in the world. The question of food quality is an overriding concern in urban societies torn between a juxtaposition of serial singularities, the reinforcement of communitarist tendencies associated with segregations and exclusions, and a reactivation of convivial practices.

Thus that banal yet priceless, ancestral yet contemporary bond, the sharing of a meal is continuing, disappearing and regenerating itself. And of course the origin and traceability of products, their effects on the organism, impact on the environment and recycling are now prime concerns. The growing infatuation with the “organic” appears to be an antidote or a potential for regeneration in a context strongly marked and unbalanced by artifice. The aspiration towards an “ethic of solicitude” is spreading. The search for responsible solutions and complicities is being mobilised by the integration and mastery of new technologies, and by an ethico-political repositioning of the relationships of cultures to nature, societies to techniques and men amongst themselves to take care of the world.

 

Imagining other possible synergies in the configuration of inhabited environments

Physis and techne are indissociable in the invention of an art of inhabiting and an architecture of habitats. Deserts, seas and mountains fascinate us because they are wild, while the landscape, garden and city attract us because they are interweavings of the natural and artificial. Another paradigm has superimposed itself on the ancient medieval polarity, both the opposition and complementarity of the city with the surrounding countryside and the wilderness of the forest beyond, then the polarity linking town and country: establishing an envigorating relationship between nature and culture, life and techne, by exploring different types of fertile encounters.

In architecture this now involves adjusting to contexts rather than relying on generic models and pre-established recipes. In the era of the tenable, another type of architecture has to be deployed, putting the part and the whole into synergy. In human establishments,[8] different modalities of reliance[9]must therefore be conceived as apparatuses of alliances and coexistences, and this requires an ethical ecology and an aesthetic of action.

The abandonment of models and re-evaluation of the specificity of local situations, whilst taking into account the stakes and effects of globalisation, constitutes one of the facets of the evolutions at the core of the local and translocal. The creating of relationships, passages and porosities between the inanimate and the living is the operative factor in the interlacing of scales by which the big and small can coexist in a continuum. These connections can inherited but also need to be sought from complementary active relationships, in order to find and recreate a certain equilibrium between man and mixed environments. This requires representations and conceptions capable of articulating different problematic spatiotemporal scales, not a priori corresponding to urban forms but to dynamic interrelations and equilibriums establishing fertile symbioses. Well beyond a “meagre positivity”, architecture has to weave links and configure a world, meeting “the demands of inventing a relationship where there is no longer any cosmotheological order”.[10] And as such it is an event.

 

Vertical farm projects

Due to the loss of agricultural land and the growth of the urban population, vertical farms must be imagined and situated in terms of ecological environments and integrated into the city, the landscape and the environment. The environment is always multiple, an aggregate of several mingling and superimposed environments (social, natural, technical, cultural, etc.). Like a biotope, every environment requires an understanding of the interactions, interpenetrations and interdependences between climatic, mechanical, chemical, biotic and cultural factors. Because in the artificial, which means “doing with art”, there is the possibility immoderation, of a Promethean will but also of the skills, knowledge and ruses needed to find corhythms.

This will require equilibriums and recreations, nature and artifice, between agricultural and urban cultures, integrated into an aesthetic of transactional arrangements. The vernacular farms that are part of the landscape had to protect themselves from the cold and wind, be near a spring and have adequate sunlight. In our era of ecological urgency, what is at stake with vertical farms is the protecting habitats, economising resources, recycling, using rainwater, sunlight, wind, cold and heat, germination and ecosystems to live better.

 

with courtesy to Chris Younès and the LUA Agricultural Urbanism LAB, Paris