Conversation between Marjetica Potrč, Séverine Roussel, Philippe Zourgane and Carlos Semedo*

Marjetica Potrč  Carlos, do you think as we do that it is important at this time to celebrate and question multi-culturalism through La Semeuse? When I got familiar with Aubervilliers, I really understood it as a multicultural town. In their questions, Rozo mentioned Martinique poet and writer Edouard Glissant, who is really inspiring to me. I also thought about Ghana Siva, an Indian woman who funded a network for Sikh people. Both celebrate diversity, but by putting it down in words or in seedbags they also protect it. This is how I started to think about La Semeuse, as a monument to Aubervilliers. Do you agree with that? What is your opinion?

Carlos Semedo  Yes, of course. In the long-term history, Aubervilliers was a country-side place producing all sorts of vegetables for Parisians and they were supposed to be the best on the market! The name of this plain was “plain des Vertus” and it was a very big part of North Paris, plenty of small villages and very large fields and in the second half of 19th century, intensive production was mainly developed in Aubervilliers and la Courneuve and it became the first producer of fresh vegetables for Paris. There were plenty of small patents connected to intensive agriculture until the early 20th century. And most of the families, and even when you see the urban plan with the streets, etc, it is connected to that agricultural history. It remained until the period when workers started coming from different regions in France and then from all over the world. So this kind of work can connect with a very long-term period since the 18th-19th century and local history. And all people here can remember that and make connections with their past, with their ancesters.

Séverine Roussel  And do you think that the numerous organizations that are working on gardens, on plants are reflecting the history that you described?

CS  Yes. After the intensive agriculture period came the industrial period with the family gardens. We still have a very big field where about 100 families cultivate small kitchen gardens producing food. There you have the first generation of collective gardens, associative gardens, starting on the end of 19th, beginning of 20th century. Later, in the local history but not only – also in the rest of France, it is an environmental question -  periods when it is a very conservative vision: “fleurissement de la France”, quite “pétainiste”, when trees and flowers are used as décor for ugly towns, cheap cities and cheap houses. It still exists today, in a different way. In the 50’s and the 60’s it was a way of trying to put nature but beauty also in what was supposed to be an ugly place to live. Then came another kind of gardens, sometimes created by artists – we have 2 or 3 examples of artistic gardens that still exist, such as Une Oasis dans la Ville: a garden created by an artist who then invites people to participate in the project. It was both an artistic and social project. Then there is another generation of gardens with interaction with children, a pedagogical or educational proposal, either by schools or by the city outside of school hours. We have two or three of such “educational gardens” going on. And then, we have what we call “jardins d’insertion”, connecting people people from different countries, many women who are not so active in town outside of their motherhood activities and getting in a garden place to participate, to be together and work together and to appropriate a part of the town, of their urban space. We have a very good example of this kind of gardens by the Canal. Then comes the last generation of gardens, “community gardens” (“jardins partagés”). Several gardens are being implemented with non-profit organizations, neighbours, with a social, cultural and environmental project. It’s mixed. In that sense I should say that every period produced its own garden model. It is a kind of reflection of what a town was producing at this moment.

SR  Do you think that it is building one part of the identity of Aubervilliers?

CS  Yes, sometimes there are interesting links. For instance the last farm-house of Aubervilliers, Ferme Maziers (the name of an old agricultural family dating from the 18th) was then invested by Une Oasis dans la Ville for their own garden. Here we have a place with a strong history that becomes appropriated by a new project. So it can be a transitional, open  activity with different generations and culture. In Une Oasis for instance, most of the people are foreigners from all kinds of countries who knew nothing of the history of Aubervilliers until they came to this garden. Then they discovered that there was a farm house, agriculture and country people before them, producing vegetablesand selling them… That was an immediate possibility to connect with their own experience in their countries. So, yes, it can create links.
The other example is the “Société des Jardins Ouvriers des Vertus”, family gardens next to Aubervilliers’ fort. That is a link between the military history, the agriculture’s history, the workers’ history and now a place that can be in the center of important transformation of the city. So yes gardens are like symptoms or manifestations of the evolution of the city.

MP  How does the municipality evaluate such a project as les Petits Prés Verts? I was struck while I was bicycicling Aubervilliers to see quite many little unused gardens turned into community gardens. As you say, it shows that community gardens activate residents but it also produces urban agriculture and it adds to the identity of the city. For me this is really an important move that the municipality recognizes and you use it in your program. Is this celebrated in the municipality? Are other parts of Paris looking towards your policies?

CS  The idea of community gardens like les Petits Prés Verts is not a very original idea. We had heard of this kind of community projects working in other cities, not only in Paris but also in big towns around the world like New York… The question today is that we have plenty of people who are interested in meeting with common points, to share a place, to touch the Earth, to work with it, to make it produce something. We are going out from a kind of contemplative period when the municipality takes care of parks and gardens with professionals, where you can not touch the vegetables or the flowers towards much more invovlvment and investing their own knowledge on that. So the participation, we first had the idea in the main central square in Aubervilliers, Stalingrad park. It has been renewed, completely renovated, and part of it was dedicated to a collective garden which is now ruled by an organization called Bois de Senteurs, gathering maybe 15 people, mainly women. The president is called Raissa Abdesselem, she is Algerian. It’s mainly people who live around the park, some of them used to meet each other there, sitting with their children on the benches, then they are gardening in a part of the park. This also means a transformation in the professional culture of the gardeners, because at the beginning they were very worried about what could be their image if people don’t understand that this part is not taken care of by then and that it is under a collective, public responsibility. It was a kind of negociation with professional gardeners. Now we have a kind of mixed responsibility: they are coaching the inhabitants, the non-professional gardeners about technical issues such as water or plants growth. This way everyone has an active role.
Les Petits Prés Verts was a very small place.  There was a building demolished maybe 10 years ago and it was too little to have an autonomous project. It was quite difficult in the beginning because it is very exposed, it is surrounded by two streets with very intense traffic, it is not a very interesting place in itself, nobody stopped there until now. So it is a challenge to try to change it into a collective garden, a place where you feel comfortable and where you want to stay. So we have been coaching these people since one year and a half. Now there are 30 members in the organization, almost too much for  such a small place. They like to be there and most of the time they organize it as a place where they can come over the weekends to have a drink with their friends, organize their birthday parties… this is the demonstration of the success of the project! Because you are almost on the street! It’s very public. So we have other examples of that but everytime we have to find good persons and help them to carry the project on. I think it is a dialogue between the municipality and our services, our gardeners to coach people who, for most of them, know nothing about gardening. They always lived in flats and they re-discover things they heard or they saw but they never touched so they want to be coached by technicians and in the same tuime they don’t want to be coached too much. So we are discovering this kind of dialogue with some conflicts of course, but, that’s it!

MP  I think it is wonderful the way you describe it because people in these gardens also take on the responsibility. So they can manage the garden but also public space. I think that’s interesting. I think municipality also sees things as a potential because it is good for municipality that residents also appropriate Aubervilliers, appropriate public space.

Philippe Zourgane  I was thinking to go back to these particular times when vegetation was seen as a complete decoration and was completely put back away from the real economy. And at the same time people were seen as complete consumers of their own space and with this time of double discourse about vegetation that is not important because it is only here as a fake landscape reconstructed after to hide the kind of complete failure of what has been done by the architecture and landscape planning. I think it is interesting to witness this particular moment when people start to see it as a kind of joyful activity and by that mean – I mean we are seeing it as something political but it is more in relationship with the body itself. I think this particular way of seeing it, about joy, playing with children, being outside that’s very important and WOW it’s life! For me it is like renovating the body itself. To see each one with a capacity to produce something. And I think in all the examples that you gave it’s, in different ways, new opportunitiy to link the body and each individuality to a new construction. I think this kind of new construction is what is hidden in a way but we were very interested in this project in how this kind of mini-event pcould produce something at a bigger scale, or at least to give a light and to show that this is the kind of prduction of real life that is activating many things. I don’t know how we can deal with gardens and vegetation now to show this kind of potentiality. But I think it’s quite active in Aubervilliers.

CS  I have another example that I didn’t mention before. In the 70’s and 80’s there was a visionary approach of gardening and living differently in social houses. It was a residence with about 800 houses, la Maladrerie. There are hundreds of gardens of terrasses on each level, until 4th and 5th levels. It is very interesting because it was a test, in the beginning there was a sort of vision of the architect which was very generous and it was to give back a good physical contact with nature even if you live on the 4th floor. You don’t have flowers in a pot, but you have 45 square meters of earth and you take care of it as living thing. And it was very interesting as an experience because most of the people who came to live in these flats were unable to manage it. They were too afraid of doing bad things, planting bad trees, people did very bad things on the terraces with very bad species so they were also in the technocratic point of view of the owners. Because for some of the engineers it was a very bad thing, they were against the architect, there was a very strong polemic on that. It was a period when you were supposed to save energy and it was considered a very bad idea. Now we know that when you have a terrace you can save energy and I heard a conference at that time proving the contrary of that. Every kind of things were said. And there was a small organization called "Jardins à tous les étages" (Gardens on every floor), which was supporting people who wanted to learn how to deal with these terraces, giving tools or advice. But now we know that half of these gardens are not used as gardens; They are places where you can put your bike, or old things that you don’t know where to put and some of them are completely lost, it’s a waste. I think that La Semeuse can be the opposite of that: you make something available to everyone, and thos who want to take something from it come and ask and do. Intsead of being coached you do it yourself, you can come and participate and take something because you need it.

SR  And also I think that all those community gardens, the latest ones and also the municipality’s policies, all that is going on a new sense of relations between nature and human beings in the city. What La Semeuse really wants to work on is to participate in this new vision of how nature can be lived in a city, what is the relation between nature and the city. It really is the main point of the project.

MP  Actually, I just recently realized that Ebenezer Howard who actually made a concept about Garden City. And from the Garden City modernist development emerged. How he thought about the Garden City was that there would be a lot of community gardens and kitchens in the city and that residents would eventually own the space of the city. So it’s very interesting because after the 20th century we can revisit the original idea of the Garden City. It is somehow a spiral, there is this idea that is developing in a different way. For Modernist architecture basically the planers were deciding for residents. But now there is people appropriating the city and they are more involved in the city. It is interesting that Howard had this very idea at the beginning but they didn’t develop it in his way and in his time.

PZ  I just developed some ideas about garden cities and I think it was a very progressive model once. At the same time it is very interesting because it was taken by a very right wing and you can also see it as a kind of oppression towards workers and how you can control them not only during working hours but also the whole family, the whole unit, from the grand-mother to the wife and the children, also during their work hours. And I think once again it is like the model that Carlos was talking about for la Maladrerie. It’s very difficult to deal with this huge technocratic model where everything is preconceived and at the same time it is very easy to reoriented for whatver goal one is seeking to reach. And so this kind of opportunity to reinvent your life with much more anarchical model is no more permitted. I think that with La Semeuse we are much more concerned by an individual capacity that can bring this kind of technocratical concept away. I think that it is the most difficult to escape. Escape from this enclosure, and very concerned with this model of “gouvernance”, very closed to métissage and to the way that things can happen in a very unpredictable way. You are not supposed to control the system itself. It is very difficult to deal with this kind of unpredictability. And I think that we can deal with it through la Semeuse, to open some possibilities, some potentialities that we are not yet aware of. For me that’s the most interesting thing that we can produce.

MP  yes, this will be the process of la Semeuse. I understand the dynamics. I have one last question, Carlos, a totally wild one. I was doing some research about seeds banks, plants banks and so on. I also came to a new idea that is called “habitat banking”.
I know that it is not possible now that a housing developer or corporation would support preservation of nature in Aubervilliers but it is possible in the future: what do you think?

CS  I am probably not the best person here to talk about reglementations in this. I know that in the recent housing projects there are some symptoms of evolution. For instance near the canal in a new residence, there is an inside garden, a very traditional one, with one person taking care of it and trees. And the property managers contacted us to create a shared garden inside. They agreed on asking the municipality to help them to created a shared garden, sharing the responsibilities. It’s not yet habitat banking, it’s more about trying to connect with the movement, nowadays’ tendencies to relink the appropriation of the vegetables or small gardens and parks… This is what I observed here, we have 2 examples of that in 2 different properties. We, the municipality, have a very strong involvment in social housing in Aubervilliers which is the local office HLM. The president is a member of the municipality. We have a permanent, for instance we are currently working together on a convention to transform some of the gardens in social residencies into shared gardens, which should be signed by 3 parties: a non-profit organization, the social housing company and the municipality. So there is a very strong sensibility on that from the part of this company. And we are hoping for other social housing owners in the city to do so as well and we are connecting with them in order to encourage them towards this kind of evolution.

SR  Maybe what’s new, it’s not habitat banking but here it’s more the new links btw municipalities and inhabitants about nature. Before there was one kind of nature that was under the municipality control, and all the other kind of gardens were private or disconnected from the municipality. Now, from a political (politician?) point of view there is a new approach of nature and the municipality sees that it is part of the life of the city and that it is important to create these links, not to control it but to kind of organize things better and to let projects appear that are not possible without the help of one another.

CS  Exactly. I should say that it is the most important thing. Until very recently there were 2 kinds of situations: public gardens, completely under the responsibility of technicians. People were not supposed to touch the things, it was like a “vitrine”. You could see, you could walk around but you couldn’t go into. And private gardens for people living in pavilions. And now we are creating a third kind of things: co-responsible gardens. The land belongs to the municipality or to the social-housing owners; and they are managed by collectives and non-profit organizations. There we can share responsibilities. This kind of “co-gestion” of public space is a new thing that we are discovering all together. In this municipality mainly, there used to be a complete separation. If you live in a social housing, you are not the owner and you don’t feel it as your house. It’s a kind of alienation of your house. It doesn’t belong to you and you consider the owner responsible for any little problem happening. You are a passive customer. And it was the same for gardens. Now this is changing because you can do something by yourself. The main issue is that we don’t have free space to install lots of new gardens. The land is more and more expensive. There is very few parts of the city that belong to the municipality. Most of these parts are already gardens. We can change the use of it but you cannot change its allocation. It’s very hard to create new gardens. But for these small community gardens, there are in parts or the town that were not considered profitable in terms of housing rentability, at least for a while. So we can create gardens that will exist for ten years and then maybe it will change the place, in a nomadic way, maybe they will move to new places to be taken over from the big town’s evolution.

PZ  It is really interesting to see the way it change your perception of the outside space which is not seen as public space completely.

CS  You are a spectator

PZ  You think that this space is beyond your possibility of action.

CS  You turn from a customer into an actively involved person.

Interview published in Le Journal des Laboratoires May-August 2011