Published on 11 December 2018
Un employé de la startup Aéromate aménage la toiture d’un des bâtiments parisiens de la RATP. Benjamin Cremel/AFP

Agnès Lelièvre, lecturer in agronomy at AgroParisTech, Baptiste Grard, postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory of Functional Ecology and Ecotoxicology of Agroecosystems (AgroParisTech/INRA), Christine Aubry, head of the Urban Agriculture research team at AgroParisTech, and Véronique Saint-Ges, economist at INRA, tell us about the different forms of urban agriculture.

We hear a lot about urban agriculture, but what is it exactly? How is it different from traditional agriculture? What is the difference between rural farms and urban farms?

New definitions of that concept have emerged in the past few years—including that of Canadian expert Luc J.A. Mougeot (2000) and French experts Paula Nahmias et Yvon Le Caro (2012)—, along with new typologies such as those of CeremaExp’AU and IAU. In the present case we will use Mougeot’s definition of urban agriculture:

“A production unit located within a city or metropolis (urban) or in its direct vicinity (peri-urban) that produces, raises, processes and distributes a diversity of food or non-food products by massively (re)using human and material resources, products and services from that urban area and its surroundings, and providing human and material resources, products and services to that same area.”

To depict the different forms of urban farming, we have chosen to use the analogy of “Happy Families”, where each category of urban agriculture is a family. For each family, we will relate the story of its ancestors and parents (the ancient forms) as well as that of its children (the current forms).

Without further ado, let’s get to know all these happy families.

1. The “Feet in the soil” family

This family has historically lived in an urban environment, while staying deeply connected to the soil. In today’s context, this category suffers from two recurring issues: access to land and pollution.

The ancestors of that category were the vegetable gardens of aristocrats, such as the well-known “King’s garden”, established in Versailles during the 17th century to provide fruit and vegetables to Louis XIV’s court.

In this family, the parents are a popular and commercial version of their ancestors. They are, for example, the marais ("swamps") at the heart of Paris, which have led to the French word maraîchage (“market gardening”). These farmers were great initiators and inventors of agricultural techniques that are still being used today. They practiced intensive agriculture on small areas using frames or glass domes to cultivate earlier in the season. Horse manure (which at that time was abundant in the city) and urban mud were some of the resources commonly used. This shows how helpful market gardeners were to city dwellers.

They have a large, varied descent that includes peri-urban farms, often pushed outside of the cities due to urban densification and hygienization. These farmers continue to sell their products to city dwellers, i.e. mainly vegetable produce and small animals (chickens, eggs, etc.). Over the past fifteen years, these farms have become increasingly popular through the development of short, local distribution networks such as AMAPs. These farms usually cover a few hectares each. In 2010, almost half of French farms producing vegetables and honey sold their produce through short distribution networks.

However, some farmers have managed to establish themselves within cities—or to maintain ancestral farms, although this is less common—by diversifying their activities. Some of them do community work, for instance for individuals that have been disconnected from the job market (such as the gardens of association Aurore), others do educational work (Veni Verdi  for vegetable production, Bergers urbains for urban pastoralism) or organize cultural events (La ferme du bonheur).

The closest descendants of market gardeners work in production farms (such as Perma G’Rennes), located on former agricultural plots, or in schools or parks with plots from a few hundred m2 to 1 or 2 hectares.

The garden of the Pierre Mendès France college in Paris, overseen by the Veni Verdi association. (Michèle Foin/Vimeo, 2016).

2. The “Rooftop” family

This family has been around for centuries, as plants were already found on rooftop terraces in ancient Egypt, as shown in certain images of the book Palais et Maisons du Caire ("Palaces and houses of Cairo"), on the architecture of the 13th-16th centuries. Today urban honey is harvested from beehives installed on the roof of many public and private buildings.

There has been a growing interest in "green roofs" (i.e. not producing food) since the 1980s. Now the “agricultural descent” of this family includes farm that are community-oriented—to foster social interactions (Culticimes), for educational or experimental purposes (AgroParisTech‘s rooftop) or for event planning (Jardins suspendus). Some roofs also host farms for productive purposes (AéromateAgriPolis).

Interview of Louise Doulliet, co-founder of startup Aéromate. (Supbiotech/YouTube, 2017).

These “rooftop farms” have specific requirements as they have limited space compared to regular land farms. Today, rooftop vegetable gardens can be seen as a solution to issues related to land access and soil pollution, to the point that in a growing number of cities, new constructions anticipate their presence. Yet many questions remain unanswered, including about their design and the growing medium used.

3. The “Vertical” family

Growing produce on walls may seem risky... Yet Montreuil’s peach walls were renowned worldwide during the 19th century for the quality of their production: the fruits were exported as far as the Russian Tsar’s court. Vines have also been climbing on small walls and all kinds of arbors since antiquity.

Whether in museums, hospitals or malls, living walls designed for decorative purposes have become increasingly popular since the 90’s and 2000’s. Today living walls producing vegetables or hop are also found next to urban microbreweries. Farms specializing in event planning also use walls on rooftops. This family is less common than the two previous ones.

4. The “Greenhouse” family

Greenhouse farming extends the production period of fruit and vegetables. The aristocracy was the first to reap its benefits through orangeries and winter gardens. During the 19th century, greenhouses were built in Auteuil and Paris’s Jardin des plantes to ensure the conservation of varieties and species constituting plant collections.

Today, greenhouses are extensively used in agriculture­—including in the well-known Dutch production units—but also in cities for productive purposes (Skygreen) or on rooftops (Les Fermes LufaThe New Farm). They can also be used to educate or experiment on social reinsertion and food therapy (such as in the Cité maraîchère in Romainville).

Culture de chou kale sous serre dans les Fermes de Loufa, à Montréal. Page Facebook Les Fermes Lufa

Greenhouse kale crops in Montreal’s Loufa farms. Les Fermes Lufa Facebook page

Aquaponics is another form of greenhouse farming that combines raising fish and growing vegetables. Although this type of production can be done in tanks based on a living substrate (with fertilizing power for the plants), it is usually based on a neutral substrate in hydroponic systems where the necessary elements for plants—and fish, if any—are provided through water. This type of production is currently being studied as part of a national research project.

5. The “Shade” family

The ancestors of this family developed underground, in mushroom and endive farms. They are known as produits de cave (“basement products”) and are commonly found in the greater Paris area. The parents haven’t diversified their products, yet they have developed new production systems. The children took over the family business by diversifying the offer, through micro-sprouts in particular, and by reusing new types of waste generated by the city, such as coffee grounds. It is mostly production-oriented (Boîte à champignonsLa Caverne).

La Boîte à champignons. Agnès Lelièvre

The Boîte à champignons (mushroom box). Agnès Lelièvre

A high tech “parent” has appeared in the last few years with growth in a controlled environment (light, atmosphere, etc.) thanks to recent progress in spatial research. Its children are using existing buildings or recycled containers (AgricoolFarmbox). This family is strongly developing in some countries with high population density or facing intense climatic stress. In France, it has been used as an opportunity to reuse areas such as abandoned parking lots, and in certain cases, to establish mobile farms.

6. The “Sunday gardening” family

The ancestor of the individual garden has led to private gardens, but also to group gardening with allotment gardens, which emerged at the end of the 19th century.

The children of this family continue to maintain private gardens on balconies, terraces and actual gardens, which can be produce high yields. They also practice collective gardening which covers shared gardensfamily gardens and multiple hybrid experiments. While private gardening is aimed at growing vegetables, collective gardening also has a social and educational purpose.

This family has grown a lot since the 20th century and it has become increasingly popular, especially in the case of collective gardening. There are over 1,000 collective gardens in Île-de-France, covering at least 900 hectares, in a context where professional vegetable production covers 5,000 hectares. It is a great success, even though obtaining a plot to cultivate in the city or its surroundings remains difficult, as evidenced by the long waiting lists to access a family or collective garden.

Jardins familiaux dans le parc des Lilas à Vitry-sur-Seine (94). Agnès Lelièvre

Family gardens in the Lilas public park in Vitry-sur-Seine (94). Agnès Lelièvre.

7. The “Self-service” family

Inspired my movements such as Guerrilla gardening, which, in the 70s, started reclaiming land that had been built and abandoned, this is a family of creative, conquering activists.

It has given birth to active offspring seeking to establish plant production in public spaces for everyone to enjoy. It includes international initiatives such as the Incredible edibles, as well as initiatives launched by cities themselves such as permis de végétaliser ("license to plant") and the reintroduction of fruit trees in public parks. Although still discreet, this family has a bright future, as it is an inspiration to local communities.


The original version of this article was published on The Conversation.