Green City Growers’ CEO & Founder, Jessie Banhazl, reports from the road in Paris on her Eisenhower Fellowship. Learn more about her program objectives, and check out her previous posts from Swedish Cities, Gothenburg, Berlin,and Munich.
After leaving Sweden, my last stop on my EF Journey was Paris, France. I was excited about this stop well before taking off for my trip, as I had been following the trajectory of the city’s urban farming boom since 2016.
Paris was the second-largest city on my trip, with a population of over 2 million. (The largest city I visited was Berlin, population 4 million.) Paris does not have a reputation for being particularly progressive regarding environmental sustainability, so I was deeply intrigued as to why the city has had so much success with urban farming, especially through an economic development lens. The answer was actually simpler that I could have imagined and made a whole boatload of sense: the city requires urban agriculture to take place.
Culturally, urban farming makes a lot of sense for Paris. In the 18th century, ¾ of the city was dedicated to farmland. French cuisine is also coveted worldwide, in large part because it authentically local in nature–the country grows, packages, and exports local product throughout the world.
I had some amazing local meats, cheeses, and wines while on my trip. It makes sense to me that local produce would be considered valuable in a culture that truly values local food. On top of that, I got to experience the deep history of local food production and the passion around its existence by visiting Potager du roi (The Kitchen Garden of the King) at the palace of Versailles, established in 1678.
What Paris does not have a lot of, though, is space. Only through a commitment from the municipality to find and lease unused rooftop spaces was urban farming able to grow within city limits. This commitment came from the Mayor, Anne Hidalgo, who in 2014 made a public commitment to convert 100 hectares (247 acres) to greenspace, with 30 of those hectares dedicated urban agriculture. Five years later, over 60 urban farming organizations exist in Paris, with the world’s largest rooftop farm slated for completion in 2020.
Overall, I found that Paris is excelling at creating opportunities for urban farming businesses to thrive. Here are the organizations and businesses I met with on my week-long stay in the city:
My first meeting was with Marion Waller, Assistant Director of Town Planning and Smart Cities. I was interested in understanding what the motivations of the Mayor were to launch such an ambitious initiative. Marion didn’t know first-hand, but she believed the Mayor was motivated by a strong belief that green space is integral for quality of life in urban settings. The Mayor has also been motivated by examples of urban farming in action that she has seen internationally, solidifying her understanding that growing food within city limits has a multitude of benefits.
A deep enthusiasm for nature exists in the city due to the lack of green space currently available- when residents have access to it, they appreciate it. A 2014 mandate changing how public land is sold also helped as it prioritized the “best” project vs. the least expensive. Through this approach, the city created opportunities for innovation in design.
Most of the bids for public land since 2014 have included urban farming in their plans. Marion informed me that, before 2014, there were 2-3 notable urban farming companies in Paris. Since then, over 60 businesses and organizations have sprouted from the city’s initiatives alone. When asked if this trend was consumer-driven or because of the mayor’s commitment, Marion responded, “This is about the vision of the Mayor.” While urban agriculture was clearly the current priority, Marion discussed how the future of Paris’s landscape was going to be influenced by conversations around climate change. Next up for the city: limiting vehicle use within city limits and promoting public transportation.
Paris City Hall
With the Mayor’s vision as the catalyst, the city has been tasked with implementing the lofty 30 hectares by 2020 commitment. In 2016, Les Parisculteurs was launched. I met with Jacques-Olivier Bled, Project Manager of Urban Agriculture Methods of this organization. Jacques-Olivier’s organization identifies and leases viable rooftop farming spaces to businesses and organizations, while also providing infrastructure, ongoing support, and management of the relationships between building owners and the urban farmers.
Les Parisculteurs identified 80 hectares of viable roof space within Paris limits that could be leased for urban agriculture, as well as used for green roof installations. Of the available land, 1/3 is owned by the city, and 2/3 are privately owned commercial properties. They formalized a charter with public and private landowners to free these parcels up for lease and launched a public call for projects. While the city and property owners provide needed infrastructure such as water, safety railings, and in some cases ballasts for future greenhouses, they do not subsidize the projects. This initiative is supported by a city task force with cooperation from multiple departments, including land ownership, food safety, engineering, city planning, legal, and others. The city itself has invested 8M euros in this initiative, with 20% of the funding going to project management, and 80% to adapting the city-owned spaces to make them viable for urban agriculture purposes.
When asked what motivates private companies to participate, Jacques-Olivier believed that they either clearly saw the value of urban ag as a way to communicate their commitment to environmental sustainability and social impact or they were required by the city to have vegetation on their rooftops. As of 2016, any building undergoing renovations or new construction over 100 square meters (1076 sqft) in Paris is now required to have a green roof or rooftop farm. Any building over 5,000 square meters (54,000 sqft) must use the roof for urban farming specifically.
Jacques-Olivier believed that the public was strongly in support of these initiatives and use of space. He said that the only negative commentary has been from abutters concerned with impact of greenhouse projects on their views and from those opposed to the Mayor for political reasons. Despite these detractors, Jacques-Olivier believed urban farming is largely bi-partisan and widely supported in Paris.
At the time we met, only 18 hectares had been cultivated in the city. With the world’s largest rooftop farm set for completion in the city in 2020, Jacques-Olivier was confident they were on track to meet their goal. Once completed, the combined urban farming space will employ upwards of 270 people and grow 1.6 tons of local produce a year.
When I asked both Jacques-Olivier and Marion if they thought this surge of new companies might be considered a “bubble” that could pop, they both agreed. Both also agreed that even if some of the new companies don’t make it, urban farming is here to stay in Paris. Its value has already been shown.
My new Les Parisculteurs gardening apron!
I had the pleasure of meeting with Pascal Hardy, President and Founder of Agripolis, an urban farming company with eight urban farm locations around Paris. Pascal launched Agripolis in 2017 in response to the call for proposals through Les Parisculteurs. With a background in sustainability, engineering and agronomics, he was uniquely positioned to take advantage of the opportunity. Agripolis, which developed its own technology for its aeroponics system, is slated to manage the world’s largest rooftop farm starting this spring as a part of the Les Parisculteurs program.
There has been a huge amount of enthusiasm around their work, especially since the news hit about their upcoming, record-breaking project size. Challenges for Agripolis have come from the inability to get their system certified “organic” due to the regulatory language around soil-based vs. aeroponic organic growing. They are also tasked with providing education around the (minimal) impact of air pollution on urban agriculture, which has been voiced as a concern. (GCG is familiar with addressing this misconception as well.)
Agripolis was gearing up for their most ambitious project yet this spring. With a staff of 10 + to handle on-site farming labor, the team was excited about the future of urban agriculture and the potential for continued expansion both within France and beyond.
Rendering of Agripolis’ upcoming rooftop farm
I met with Laurent Couraudon, Founder of Weshgrow, a microgreens producer based out of a city-owned undergound parking lot in the 18th arrondissement of Paris. Laurent showed me around the winding parking facility, now home to 15 small businesses focused in food and agriculture. Mushrooms, endives, and microgreens were being grown, local food was being decentralized through localized cold storage facilities, and compost was being broken down to soil in anerobic digesters. It was a very cool space.
Laurent’s company, Weshgrow, is focused on microgreens production that they sell to local restaurants and grocers. With 150 restaurant clients and 30 grocery clients, Weshgrow was at max capacity. With over 30 species growing in their modest facility, Laurent let me taste a variety of the microgreens they were growing–all delicious and unique.
Laurent is passionate about utilizing available resources and staying “low tech” and minimal. The greens are delivered via electric bike, and Laurent has a small team of 4 employees working with him part time. While Laurent could scale, he’s taking it step by step. “We’ll stay poor, stay little, and take pleasure,” he exclaimed. “We’ll be OK. OK with a lot of pleasure.” Though small and “scrappy,” Weshgrow’s high quality product was in high demand and had potential to grow to service their every-growing market.
I met with Anne-Cécile Daniel, National Coordinator for the French Association of Professional Urban Agriculture (AFAUP). Her association provides support, research, and connections for French urban farming organizations. Founded out of a research center in 2012, Anne-Cécile has seen her association go from 6 members to 130 in short time. She hopes to make “the job easier” for urban farmers trying to succeed throughout the country.
In order to enter the association, organizations must have 50% of their activities be active agricultural production. While some of her members are urban planners, a majority are urban farming companies. Anne-Cécile believes that by providing this resource, farmers can save time and energy understanding their business models and crop choices, while also creating a safer, more successful urban farming industry overall.
She is also passionate about connecting the farmers from the countryside with urban farmers–urban farmers need to learn how to grow food efficiently that tastes good, skills rural farmers have honed for years. By working with traditional farmers, she sees huge value for both urban and rural to understand how to work together to enhance local agriculture and limit imports.
Anne-Cécile was highly regarded by all the urban farming companies I met with that were part of her organization. They saw real value in being a part of AFAUP. In fact, her model has been so successful that individuals in Belgium are looking to expand her organization to their country. Maybe the United States should be next?
One of the most unique visits on my travels was to Potager du roi, “The King’s Kitchen Garden” at the Palace de Versailles. Built in 1678, this palace kitchen garden produced vegetables and fruit for the royal families for hundreds of years. I was given a tour of the property by the garden’s Director, Antione Jacobsohn. The 20-acre garden and orchard’s produce are for sale to the public via an on-site farm stand. The site receives 40,000 visitors a year.
We discussed the challenges of managing pests, along with the challenges of keeping up a historical site to a certain level of quality with a limited budget. Antione had just been called out in the press for his decision to cease using any pest or fungal management (neither organic nor chemical) at the garden, receiving pushback about the current fragile state of the 100+ year old fruit trees and the future of the site. Antione’s controversial decision was driven by his desire to create a new normal for the site, one that reflected back to the 1600’s and the more environmentally sustainable approach to urban farming that took place during the site’s beginning years. He described it as “a system where medicine is not a permanent crutch.”
During our visit, questions about authenticity also arose–what era should the garden reflect? The 1600’s? 1800’s? Beloved features, like the espalier-style of the fruit trees in the orchard, were introduced later in the garden’s history in the 17th century. Should those stay or go? Issues around innovation came into question–if Potager du roi was innovative in its early years in its production methods and crop cultivation, would it be appropriate to innovate in modern times as a homage to the original historical site? “What is heritage, anyway?” Antione deliberated.
I appreciated the opportunity to have these questions arise without there being a definite conclusion to our conversation. I found Potager du roi’s past, present, and future to be fascinating. I’m looking forward to seeing how this historical site continues to evolve while honoring it’s long and important history.
Now that I have returned from my trip, I am adjusting back in to “normal” life and looking forward to summarizing the entirety of my five weeks in Europe- 8 cities, 50 meetings, and hours of conversation around urban farming, it’s been an incredible journey.
Next up: my trip summary!