Urban cultivation: Protecting nature in the city

Project Leader, Multi'Colors


Near to the Paris ring road, shielded from the din of the motorway by an apartment block, nestled between two high-rises, lies an oasis of peace. It is a community garden created by Multi’Colors, and is just one of the many “urban sanctuaries” it has created in underprivileged neighbourhoods in and around the French capital.

For the past 12 years, the Multi’Colors association has been organising activities which are designed to promote urban greening and which attach equal importance to the social and natural environment. These initiatives also address educational and cultural issues. The resultant projects are aimed at people who, for the most part, live in difficult conditions that prevent them from participating in a shared garden. Their hand-to-mouth existence means that it would never cross their mind to create a garden and spend time and money on it without a guarantee of a substantial harvest at the end.

Fortunately, the members of Multi’Colors are not afraid of difficulties: we are optimistic and love a challenge! Our projects are aimed at reducing social inequalities, whether it be in terms of accessing resources such as green spaces, or of being involved in decisions concerning the transformation of one’s immediate surroundings by encouraging the creation of gardens in public places and in front of tower blocks where children gather to play. The gardens are for gardening and for visiting, but they always retain a wild side, thereby bringing a touch of poetry to these very soulless places.

Our decision to use these gardens as a means of educating about nature was also driven by a sense of urgency. The planet’s resources are fast being exhausted by an economic system primarily founded on the mistaken belief that the only form of well-being is material. The gardens, born from a desire to inject some beauty into the often neglected areas of deprived neighbourhoods, are designed and fashioned from start to finish by the participants, regardless of their age. Often they are children who then convince their parents to get involved. The collective creation of these gardens, based upon principles of sustainable gardening, is underpinned by the simple message that we are all an intimate part of nature. By recovering rainwater, sorting and composting waste, respecting biodiversity, and preserving wasteland, the garden becomes a sanctuary for living things as well as a place of learning, with the teaching resources needed to help people gain a better understanding of the environment so that they can better protect it. Multi’Colors is convinced that gardening to protect biodiversity is an essential political and civic act in the defence of our earth, which is humanity’s greatest treasure.

Our objective is to put city dwellers in touch with the everyday nature surrounding them in these dense urban environments. To date, a total of 900 children have been able to learn about nature first-hand by volunteering to attend free workshops in towns, grow their own gardens with Multi’Colors, and use art workshops to organise a photo exhibition and create a practical guide for birdwatching gardeners, along with other content that can be downloaded on the association’s website.

The garden is a place for everyone to inhabit; it is also a way of giving children the keys to their future, as gardening is about having fun while watching the environment in action and discovering flora and fauna. It is also a chance to tell stories, transmit knowledge, and create bonds of friendship and trust among members of the same and different generations. For children, being in contact with nature is an experience which encourages autonomy, creativity, self-confidence and fosters co-operation. These children, who rarely get to leave their neighbourhood, can become a part of something, and develop their identities in contact with nature and with the support of caring adults who respect their individual differences and their needs.

Since 2003 Multi’Colors has created 14 educational gardens in large social housing estates, a children’s garden, an education centre with a class for the newly arrived children of migrants, and a garden for horticultural therapy in a day-care centre for Alzheimer’s sufferers. Our most recent example is the Little World Garden, which is special because it is on a site which belongs to the City of Paris, Reuilly train station in the 12th arrondissement. This reflects the political will of the elected representatives of the City of Paris to open every available space to urban vegetation projects. At this location, we welcome children from the neighbouring nursery school and any local residents looking for advice on their own vegetation projects. The garden also contains medicinal and kitchen plants grouped together by their continent of origin.

The planted surface area of these 14 small gardens amounts in all to half a hectare, and they produce enough vegetables to allow a weekly cookery class to be organised–because while a lot of the children involved know what a Halloween pumpkin looks like, few of them actually know what it tastes like.

Multi’Colors has managed to create these gardens thanks to the collective efforts of paid members and volunteers in partnership with the offices of the City of Paris, local and environmental associations, foundations, and social landlords. We also offer advisory services to social landlords and local authorities in the Île-de-France region for the creation and delivery of sustainable gardens designed to let nature reclaim its place in the city.

Multi’Colors’ ambitions to make the city greener do not end at the garden gate. In the 20th arrondissement of Paris, we have brought nature into the street! The Saint-Blaise district is one of the most populated places in Europe, where a built environment dominated by concrete allows very little room for vegetation. Multi’Colors has installed a 600-metrelong green corridor connecting different ecological gardens. It is made up of 100 flowerpots which have been individually decorated in art workshops by young and old residents alike. These flowerpots, which are cared for by children and local residents, have been mounted on the top of the bollards separating the pavement from the road. By organising participative initiatives targeting urban vegetation, we are contributing to the overall reclassification of a district as a major urban renewal project. This pilot scheme is part of the Biodiversity Plan adopted by the Council of Paris in 2011.

In the near future, Multi’Colors is going to experiment with new urban spaces by transforming a rooftop terrace into a community garden designed to host a variety of media providing information on good practices to adopt in urban agriculture. Cookery workshops using produce from the gardens are a way of discovering the benefits of a healthy diet using seasonal foods. Sharing healthy, lovely, tasty cooking is undoubtedly one of the keys to happy urban co-habitation, in harmony with nature!

Visit www.multicolors.org (in French)    

©OECD Observer No 304, November 2015

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