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From the Field

Working-Class Ecology Versus Olympic Urbanism

Chronicles of a Community Garden in Paris

In Aubervilliers, north of Paris, swathes of a community garden—the Jardins Ouvriers des Vertus—have been destroyed as part of preparations for the Paris 2024 Olympics. Flaminia Paddeu recounts the action taken by some of the Vertus gardeners and defends calls for a “right to land in the city”

Winter 2021 in Aubervilliers, in the northern inner suburbs of Paris. Behind a building site, between gardens and a few old buildings, a group of gardeners and residents with placards chant slogans such as: “Rangez vos engins, laissez-nous les jardins !” (“Take away your machines, give us back our gardens!”; and “Des potirons, pas du béton !” (“Squash, not cement!”). On this winter’s day, developer Grand Paris Aménagement came to present a project for a training pool for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, which would require the destruction of several plots of community gardens (allotments) known as the Jardins Ouvriers des Vertus, created in 1935 at the initiative of a local association. Faced with the influx of demonstrators—and following their intrusion into the room booked for the occasion—the meeting was postponed.

Seine-Saint-Denis, one of France’s most disadvantaged and densely urbanized départements (counties), will be the main venue for the Paris 2024 Olympics. While this event promises to be unprecedented in terms of the scale of the expected tourist flows and economic revenues, it is also part of structural metropolitan transformations. For several decades now, the area of Paris’s northern suburbs known as the Plaine de France has been home to new offices, housing, and facilities as a result of urban development policies. These developments, intended to act as an economic lever for the département, are contested by local collectives who criticize a context of “democratic dispossession” (Gintrac and Kloeckner 2019), the deterioration of living conditions for former residents, and an increase in environmental inequalities (Canabate 2017).

For most organizations involved in urban production, the 2024 Olympic Games are seen as a unique opportunity to build and finance facilities (Decker 2022). Despite declarations of an “ecologically responsible” bid, elected officials, developers, promoters and investors are embracing the Olympic urban planning model. This form of derogatory urban planning is rooted in the metropolitan and economic logics of mega-events, mobilizing local, national and international players behind a common agenda that is supposed to act as a gas pedal of major urban projects (Roult and Lefebvre 2010).

In this context, where mega-events are seen by town councillors as a means of increasing the influence, tourist appeal and economic growth of their area, allotments and gardens appear negligible. By contrast, they are part of a form of working-class ecology (Billen 2023; Comby and Malier 2022), characterized by a modest lifestyle, self-production and a taste for the outdoors, nature and agriculture. The use value of these spaces is generally little recognized by institutions, allowing them to be considered as land reserves that can be mobilized for more profitable uses.

This article is based on an investigation carried out at the Jardins Ouvriers des Vertus, based on interviews with gardeners and “observing participation” (Soulé 2007) in the mobilization to defend the gardens. [1] This unexpected mobilization revealed the capacity of a coalition of actors to organize to defend the spaces of subsistence and working-class ecology they hold dear (Adam et al. 2023). But despite a major mobilization, and even a legal victory, the plots were finally destroyed to make way for the swimming pool. The courts did indeed recognize the ecological value of the gardens, but only after they had been destroyed.

As the Olympic Games get underway in just a few months’ time, this outcome reveals the power of Olympic urban planning to override the law, to the detriment of working-class ecology.

From resignation to mobilization

In June 2020, several gardeners learned that their plots were to be destroyed. The outgoing municipal team—led by Myriem Derkaoui (French Communist Party; left)—had identified a parking lot adjacent to the gardens for the construction of an aquatic training center for the Olympic Games. The solarium is to be built on 4,000 m² (43,000 sq. ft) of land, part of a 7-hectare (17-acre) cultivated area located between a metro station, the Courtillières housing estate and the wooded moat of the former miliatary Fort d’Aubervilliers. The EPIC (public industrial and commercial establishment) Grand Paris Aménagement, owner of the land and developer of the site, promises to reconstitute it in the adjacent town of Pantin. Concerned Vertus gardeners first turned to the new mayor of Aubervilliers, Karine Franclet (Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI); center-right): she defended the project, pointing out the lack of swimming pools and the poor swimming skills of the town’s children and young people. The gardens’ management association, hostile to any rebellion, accepts the principle of environmental compensation: the plots destroyed will be rebuilt elsewhere. Resignation is the order of the day: “You see, here, under my garden, it will be the metro platforms,” laments one gardener (interview with Pascal, March 2021). [2]

Figure 1. Map showing the location of the Jardins Ouvriers des Vertus in Aubervilliers

© Flaminia Paddeu, 2024.

The Jardins Ouvriers des Vertus are emblematic of a form of working-class gardening that has been developing in Europe since the end of the 19th century (Cabedoce and Pierson 1996). Today, these inner-city gardens serve as a social space for subsistence. They are places structured around agricultural work and strong neighborhood relations, where working-class and racialized people, often elderly, predominate. Using skills often inherited from migratory journeys from rural areas to the metropolis, gardeners cultivate species that are valued as part of their food cultures, such as choy sum for Chinese gardeners, christophines for people from overseas or palm kale for Portuguese gardeners. A household cultivating a 250 m² (2,690 sq. ft) plot has very little need to buy fruit and vegetables, thanks to time-consuming farm work, an extended gardening season, the cultivation of storage vegetables and preservation and processing practices. Self-production also provides access to vegetables with little or no phytosanitary products, which are expensive in conventional supply chains. Vegetable gardens are also places for mutual support and socializing, with gardening competitions, barbecues and card games.

Figure 2. Working-class gardening in the Jardins Ouvriers des Vertus

© Flaminia Paddeu, 2021.

Allotments and community gardens, while highly productive, are on the other hand frequently marked by a “mobilization deficit” (Robert-Bœuf 2019). Unlike shared gardens or occupation gardens, which are intended to be visible (Granchamp and Glatron 2021), they occupy a discreet place in the public arena. Public utility inquiries, expropriations for reasons of public utility, non-renewed leases and powerful public-private partnerships between elected representatives, investors, developers and promoters all contribute to the disappearance of community gardens that stand in the way of future urban projects. [3] But at the Vertus gardens, against all odds, the managing association’s collaboration with the developers prompted a group of dissident gardeners to band together to make their protest heard. A collective to defend the Aubervilliers allotments was formed at the end of summer 2020, and began to mobilize.

Defending the soil against cement

The formation of the Collectif de Défense///Defense Collective can be explained in part by recent changes in the sociology of Vertus gardeners. The arrival of new, younger members, belonging to the educated bangs of the middle classes and politicized on the left, reflects the changing sociological make-up of the commune. The Collectif thus brings together different social categories: more modest and elderly gardeners, as well as middle-class gardeners, newly arrived thanks to the Covid‑19 pandemic. They were soon joined by Aubervilliers residents and environmental activists sympathetic to their cause (Extinction Rebellion, Youth for Climate, Alternatiba, Collectif pour le Triangle de Gonesse).

Their action begins by publicizing the Olympic threat to the vegetable gardens. Every week, the Collectif organizes visits to the gardens, taking advantage of the immersion in this “oasis” (interview with Khadidja, March 2021) to raise visitors’ awareness of the importance of preserving it. Drawing on its contacts in the Parisian media and cultural networks, the Collectif brings in journalists, publishes opinion pieces, sets up a social networking account and circulates a petition that attracts over 95,000 signatures. In these documents, it highlights the heritage value of the gardens, their exceptional flora and fauna - the European hedgehog and the Italian cricket - and their role in providing food. He stresses its importance in the face of environmental injustice and climate change: in Aubervilliers, the average amount of green space per inhabitant is 1.4 m² (15 sq. ft), in line with the World Health Organization’s recommendation of 10 m² (108 sq. ft). During increasingly frequent heatwaves, gardens significantly reduce the urban heat island effect. The Collectif rejects the principle of “environmental compensation” out of hand, arguing that gardens cultivated and planted with trees for almost a century cannot be moved. Compensation implies an irremediable loss of biodiversity and soil quality—all the more so because the new gardens would be set in wooded and vegetated areas, leading in fine to an increase in soil artificialisation.

Several gatherings were organized by the Collectif, which benefited from a favorable situation between 2020 and 2021, linked to the rise of collectives focusing on issues of subsistence, working-class gardening and the fight against land artificialisation (Brigades de solidarité populaire, Coalition des jardins populaires en lutte, Soulèvements de la Terre) and the creation of groups contesting the Paris Olympics (Comité de vigilance JO 2024, Saccage 2024). The Collectif de défense thus links up with collectives at other sites impacted by the Olympic Games and other gardens threatened by major urban projects, for example in Besançon (Jardins des Vaîtes) or Dijon (Quartier Libre des Lentillères). In April 2021, on the occasion of a national ecological mobilization day, a large demonstration in support of the Vertus gardens will bring together several hundred people.

Figure 3. Gathering during a meeting held by Grand Paris Aménagement

© Flaminia Paddeu, 2021.

The aim is to put pressure on the institutional players who support the project, and to tell other stories. Meetings were held and letters sent to Aubervilliers town hall, Plaine Commune, the Département, Grand Paris Aménagement, the Prefecture and Regional Council, the City of Paris, the French Presidency and the International Olympic Committee. The Collectif denies that the aquatic center will increase access to swimming for the town’s residents: according to its estimates, entry to the swimming and fitness area will cost around 16 euros, an exorbitant price for the working classes. While some members of the Collectif are opposed to the Olympic Games and their logic in general, others are particularly opposed to the fact that the solarium will require the destruction of the gardens. They propose an architectural counter-project: by moving the solarium to the roof of the swimming pool, the gardens could be preserved. The lack of response from the institutional players approached goes hand in hand with the pursuit of the compensation strategy and the construction site’s rapid progress.

For its part, the management association is stepping up its efforts to control the space in order to dissuade mobilization: removing banners, locking up the gardens and appealing to the prefect. Other gardeners, such as these former construction workers who don’t see themselves as part of the struggle against artificialization, find it hard to take a stand. They vacillate between distance from militancy, faith in urban development and gloom over the loss of their gardens. No steps were taken, and the shovels began to move. In the spring of 2021, the parking lot is screened off and work begins.

Faced with this urgent situation, the Collectif de défense des jardins embarked on both legal action and a strategy of civil disobedience, which were seen as complementary. In the summer of 2021, a “JAD” (jardin à défendre, “garden to defend”) was born: the occupied vegetable gardens were adorned with banners, tents and straw fortifications, where activities and collective meals were organized. The name chosen conjures up images of the ZAD (Notre-Dame-des-Landes) and attracts activists from all over France. The occupiers held out for four months before being evicted by the forces of law and order. In September 2021, a successful appeal against the building permit led to the temporary suspension of work. A few months later, as work resumed, activists chained themselves to a cement mixer to prevent a slab from being poured in place of the gardens, before being arrested by the police on February 2, 2022. In all, 19 gardens are destroyed, replaced by a hole.

Figure 4. The occupied vegetable gardens or “JADs” (jardins à défendre, “gardens to defend”)

© Flaminia Paddeu, 2021.

The right to land in the city flouted by Olympic urbanism

Ironically, on February 10, 2022, just one week after the vegetable gardens were destroyed, the courts ruled in favor of the gardeners who had challenged Plaine Commune’s Intermunicipal Local Planning Scheme (plan local d’urbanisme intercommunal, or PLUI). The Court found that urbanization of the western fringe of the Vertus gardens would undermine the preservation of a core of primary biodiversity and increase existing ecological discontinuities. [4] As a member of the Coalition des jardins populaires en lutte reminds us, “in the end, we make a lot of use of the law on protected species, because no law protects the people who garden” (interview with Audrey, March 2023).

However, work on the pool continued for another month, until it was suspended following a petition filed by members of the Collectif. In July 2022, the city of Aubervilliers announced that the solarium would not be built, but that the Olympic facilities would be ready by 2024: the gardens had been destroyed for nothing. At the start of the new school year, those charged with obstructing public works were acquitted.

Although the courts finally ruled in favor of the gardens’ cause, Olympic urban planning has prevailed over the law to the detriment of working-class ecology on several occasions. Elected representatives, promoters and developers have begun work with contentious building permits and a PLUI that contravenes the protection of areas recognized for their ecological quality. The discrepancy between the time constraints imposed by the courts and the forced march of the construction work has resulted in this Pyrrhic victory: trees have been uprooted, plots of land levelled, concrete poured, unnecessarily. The destruction of the vegetable gardens, despite a militant and legal victory, reveals their vulnerability in the face of derogatory urban planning, which is far from being restricted to Olympic planning and uses urgency to force its way through.

Beyond the swimming pool, the gardens are threatened by an “eco-neighborhood” and the construction of a Grand Paris Express station. In February 2023, the public inquiry gave a negative opinion on the encroachment of the station project on the gardens. In particular, it considered that the removal of 1 hectare (2.5 acres) of gardens was too extensive to be compatible with the Schéma Directeur de la Région Île-de-France (Paris Regional Master Plan), and was unfavorable to the planned compensation. It remains to be seen to what extent this legal resource will be sufficient to protect them, given the ability of the dominant players in urban production to override the law in their favor.

This calls for reflection on the need to claim a “right to land in the city” (Paddeu 2021), conceived as a form of updating Lefebvre’s (1968) concept of the right to the city in the light of contemporary ecological and climatic challenges, in order to protect urban open spaces in the face of soil artificialisation. Understood as a fundamental and perennial right to access, appropriate and use undeveloped urban spaces, it would bring people into contact with nature and enable them to grow food. It would offer a means of reinforcing the rights of gardeners and residents, and safeguarding and even extending working-class ecological spaces.


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To cite this article:

Flaminia Paddeu & translated by Oliver Waine, “Working-Class Ecology Versus Olympic Urbanism. Chronicles of a Community Garden in Paris”, Metropolitics, 19 April 2024. URL :

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