A political geography of the city: urban agriculture and public space

From Baripedia

The city is part of the range of actors that is multiplying in the sub-discipline of political geography. We will talk about the city, namely urban agriculture and public spaces. NaVille is a project that focuses on social and political recompositions around the question of nature in cities. One entry is through urban gardening especially urban agriculture. We must take the city as a political space. It can be understood in many ways, because the city is political because it is produced by public policies, it is also produced by the practices of the inhabitants and the various actors within the framework of a societal project, the city is also the object of power relations. One of the issues at stake in these power relations is that of legitimacy and the production of modes of legitimacy concerning the development of urban spaces. Therefore, comparing legitimacy raises the question of the legitimacy of uses, namely who has the legitimacy to produce the city, is it politics as an elected representative for example, is it the inhabitant, who is legitimated to decide to grant legitimacy to someone.

The question of the production of legitimacy is going to be done around the question of urban agriculture. We will see how the emergence of urban agriculture questions the urban public space by the particular entry of the question of the modes of legitimation of the various actors. Namely, how relations X or Y between actors will mobilize different modes of legitimation that will refer to different ways of referring to the public space. It is through the mobilization of a definition of public space that they will legitimize their own actions. Several central terms will be defined, notably "public space", "urban public space", the notion of "urban agriculture" which may seem contradictory, there is a case study concerning Beaulieu Park and more particularly the space of the Beaulieu collective behind the Cornavin station.

Public space: space and its public[edit | edit source]


There are different ways in geography in the social sciences to speak of public space. A very simple and restrictive way is the legal definition, that is, public space is space that is not private. In other words, they are property regimes. One definition that may be of more interest to a geography that is interested in society, practices and actions of social actors is the question of accessibility. This is the question of public space according to usage, that is, public space is a space that becomes accessible to most of society. A legally private area could well be public in terms of access.

A third definition is that of advertising and visibility. It is the public quality of something, it is therefore the space where society is seen, namely a space where social relations are made visible, seen and staged. The notion of the public sphere was theorized by Jürgen Habermas, referring to the Greek agora, as a vision of the public space as the political space par excellence, the space of the public thing, the space of public debate and the space where society takes shape and is built. Public space will be an interesting notion to explore urban space because it will refer to questions of land, use and accessibility, but also to questions of visibility and will ask political questions one with the notion public sphere.

The first three definitions take space as a material reality, i.e. a space that is private or public, accessible and where one can see oneself, the last definition conceives public space rather as an abstraction.


The term "public" tends to often be opposed to "community". It is in French where the term "public" and "community" are most often opposed with a negative connotation referring to "communautarisme" whereas in the English language, it is different, because "communities" are not necessarily negatively connoted. What is the philosophical notion that we seek to put behind the term "public space"? Eric Tassin thinks the "public" in the term "public space" as a mutual property, that is to say, when I am in the public space, I belong only to myself and I am there in as a member of society, but in the end I am not divested myself by my presence in this space, I can instead express my political ideas and live my social existence within my peers, while for Ticino the community would be rather, an ultimate form of divestment of oneself is in fact the fear of communitarianism which is ultimately that the person is self-denial for the benefit of something more encompassing than the community. It is also possible to think of the community in a more specialized way as communities of practice, epistemic communities or a community of interests. The difference is ultimately not as explicit as it seems between "public" and "community" because at some point, doing "community" can be a first step before making "public". Don Mitchell is one of the great American authors on public space issues who in an analysis of collective gardens in New York shows how some New Yorkers who were in this case Puerto Rican immigrants and on the margins of society, gathering together in their community in the public space, making gardens collectively were a first step to access the public space to make themselves visible in urban society and finally to participate in the "police" in the sense of the life of the city.

We must be attentive to the way in which these references are used explicitly or implicitly by the actors, how in a relationship, in a controversy between two actors, by presenting a project as being "public" or as being rather "community", it will there is a goal behind to credit or discredit some actors. It is interesting to see how for a given public space and delimit the space that must be public, how the very notion of "public" is defined as either exclusive or rather inclusive.

The emergence of urban agriculture and its challenges[edit | edit source]

When we think of the term "agriculture", we think of the farmer or the peasant, but when we speak of "urban agriculture" we think of it as a citizen and a city dweller. This raises the question of what agriculture is today and who is a farmer today.

Source: Nahmias et le Caro, 2012.

The aim of this scheme is to decentralize the question of urban agriculture from the city centre, i.e. to ask whether agriculture is an animal or plant production activity, whether or not it is professional. In urban geography, when we think of the city, we tend to speak of the urban, that is, the city as a compact and well delimited morphological entity that loses importance to the benefit of a culture that would be generalized.

With this scheme, Nahmias and Caro reflect on all modes of agriculture as they relate to the different ways of defining the city. They propose the city-centre as a place where urban agriculture, the urban fringes which are rather the outskirts, the peri-urban space and the rural space can be dispensed with. It is an arbitrary typology, but it makes it possible to think in terms of gradation of spaces, but it also makes it possible to see the different types of agriculture, agriculture in long circuit which is conventional agriculture, agriculture in short circuit like contractual agriculture of proximity, interstitial agriculture which is agriculture which still exists in hollow teeth in town and then private gardens and leisure agriculture. The criteria for these different types of agriculture are unclear. Nevertheless, we see that urban agriculture is agriculture that is practiced in the city and in the outskirts, but it is agriculture that is both professional and amateur because we really have both agriculture in the true sense and gardens. This is done as in private spaces as in public spaces since we are talking about private gardens on one side and urban interstices on the other. What is interesting is that we are in long circuits. In the case of Switzerland, pastoralism in the Bernese mountains, the simple fact that they dedicate a certain part of their production to an urban market will somehow make their agriculture urban. Agriculture will have different ways of being urban, it will also be all the agricultural spaces that will be practiced by urban people bringing an urban way of being there. It is a definition that is perhaps a little too broad.

Source : Direction générale de l’Agriculture, Canton de Genève, 2013.

Another definition is produced by the Canton of Geneva by the General Directorate of Agriculture. This graph summarizes what urban agriculture could be in Geneva. For various and varied reasons, the term "urban agriculture" has been abandoned in favour of "urban agricultural production". The authors of this graph focus on something more specific which is any agriculture produced in an agglomeration. This restricts and takes into account the specific stakes of this agriculture which would make more logical to take it like everything else. Perhaps the location in an agglomeration has its own issues that agriculture does not have even if it is at the destination of the city when it is made in the countryside.

What is interesting is the spatial question since the agglomeration, in this case in Geneva, is the Franco-Vaud-Geneva agglomeration perimeter which is subdivided into building zones. Part of urban agriculture is done well in the agricultural zone and part in the building zone. Some of the categories are border and will pose more problems, such as what lies between the agricultural zone and which tend to be developed in the city. This will be the case of what is happening in Baulieu Park to show an example of this friction as soon as a legitimate actor in the agricultural space will appropriate a space in the city centre.

This will take different forms and be done by different actors such as associations, individual actors in private gardens, professional actors such as farmers in municipal or cantonal institutions or landowners. On this new theme, many actors are concerned and wonder what to do about these new faces of urban space and soil. This raises the question of what to do about these new uses of urban space and land. This raises the question of governance that Nahmias and Hellier in Urban Governance in Question: The Case of Places of Cultivated Nature published in 2012 define as the coordination of varied interests for the pursuit of a collective object. In other words, asking the question of governance is broader than asking the question of government. In fact, the different actors who have an interest each participate in their own way in defining the treatment of a subject, be they elected representatives, appointed persons, but also all interest groups and all inhabitants who form associations, etc. Each will try to influence the future of the spaces. This governmentality can be implicit, but also explicit. As far as urban agriculture is concerned, it explicitly raises the question of governance because it is transversal and there are currently no urban agriculture departments in municipalities.

The question of public space consists in asking what is the status of each of the spaces. All the "gardens" previously seen refer to different statuses both in legal terms and in terms of accessibility which ultimately denote different gradations between public and private. For example, there are private gardens, allotments, community gardens, some of which are locked with a key and some of which are open, urban farms owned by a farmer that are almost private, urban farms that are rather collectivist. These spaces and projects of urban agriculture refer to very diverse gradations between the public and the private. It is a theme that crosses the types of agriculture, that crosses the types of actors, that crosses the types of spaces and that cross the public and private borders. As this theme is also transversal, it means that undeniably, there will be actors who will try to appropriate this theme more than others. In Geneva recently, this theme is going to explode in the sense that there are more and more institutional and associative players who are interested in it and some of whom are really trying to position themselves as central players. This way of positioning oneself will notably involve references to public space and to what today constitutes an acceptable public space and an acceptable public use of space.

In Geneva, there is peri-urban agriculture, but also the particularity of the free zones which is agriculture under glass, very early, the canton of Geneva set up a policy of relative autonomy with regard to foreign markets. There has also been the development of more contemporary forms of agriculture and intra-urban agriculture. In recent times, we have seen the development in many communes of the canton of urban vegetable gardens and "planting" describing the emergence of intra-urban collective gardens which differs from allotment and allotment gardens which are often located rather at the urban fringe, gardens, urban plantings and urban vegetable gardens will be mobilized as a new model of urban gardening which will generally be done at the foot of buildings. The inhabitants are almost always asked to live less than five minutes' walk from the plantation or urban vegetable garden, which is radically different from the family garden. This development is particularly supported by municipal actors such as in Geneva and Vernier where we have had this development since 2006 of this policy of plantations and urban vegetable gardens. An associative actor who has become a key player on this issue is Equitaire, which has a virtual monopoly on urban vegetable gardens in the Canton of Geneva. There were also the creation of two urban farms, roof gardens also emerged and also the development of hen houses and hives in town.

In the city of Geneva, a working group has been set up that cuts across several social services, green spaces, schools and Agenda 21. This working group tries to respond to the many requests they receive from agricultural projects and to develop a space policy about it. The policy currently being developed is to favour vegetable gardens at the foot of buildings.

Case study: Collectif Beaulieu, Geneva[edit | edit source]

Beaulieu Park is a park located just behind the Cornavin station dating from the 18th century which was originally a master estate. In the 1930s, this estate was bought by the city of Geneva. For 10 years, this belonged to the city of Geneva without being transformed into a public space and it was in the 1940s that the park was truly transformed into a public park. It was also during this period that the green spaces department built its horticultural production centre. Geneva's green spaces department produces a good part of these plants itself in what is called a horticultural production centre from 1940 until 2008. In 2008, the green spaces department started to find that it was a bit small and was going to move its horticultural production centre near Carouge. In 2009, a collective, the Beaulieu collective, will be created and will re-appropriate this space. Several actors were interested in urban agriculture issues and were looking for a place to do it. Several associations, in particular the artichoke association, which produces young seedlings which are then sold to local contract farming. In 2010, the collective obtained funding from the city of Geneva to occupy this space. The other change that will take place is the setting up just next to this horticultural production centre by the social service of an urban vegetable garden.

The Green Spaces Department proposed to dig and prepare a collective garden for the inhabitants of the neighbourhood right next to the horticultural centre. Now he doesn't exist. In 2009, on the one hand, a collective garden made by the social service of the city of Geneva and on the other hand the collective Baulieu which had appropriated the horticultural production centre to make urban agriculture, but rather in a professional way. In this same park, two different models of urban agriculture were neighbours at one time these actors entered into a relationship. The plantation of the social service was 20 plots of 6m2 which served 20 people of the district which were selected on the basis of a whole household which had been distributed to the population of the district proposing to them to acquire a plot on which each participant has a lease of two years non-renewable. Thus, there are small unfenced plots that constitute a kind of collective garden. However, the tools could be shared and the water supply was common. For the project of the Beaulieu collective, Artichokes and the first associations new associations are grafted. Each of the two projects to take shape one next to the other. Since 2001, the park has been undergoing a restructuring project called the Beaulieu project, which brings together different stakeholders, in particular the green spaces department, but it also involves Agenda 21, the social service and also the Beaulieu collective, which can participate as key stakeholders. It was around this project that a controversy and antagonistic positions began to crystallize between the social service, which would rather take care of the urban vegetable garden and develop an amateur urban agriculture model for the inhabitants, and on the other hand the Beaulieu collective, which would rather propose a professional urban agriculture model.

From there, we will see how, in the ways of the actors, of each of the projects, to position themselves vis-à-vis each other, the question of the uses of public spaces appears, i.e. in what way each of the actors considers that his project is legitimate in a public space and that of the other actor less so and in what way this is intrinsically linked to a certain definition of what is the spatiality of each of the projects and of what is each of the publics of each project. In other words, in the notion of public space, a distinction must be made between the spatial and social aspects of the project.

The UAC will define the spatiality of its urban vegetable garden project as being the neighbourhood, that is to say that the urban vegetable garden is not only part of a park, but is mainly part of the neighbourhood. The UAC's way of life is to take care of the social life of the neighbourhood: "this place must above all be a neighbourhood place for the citizens of the neighbourhood, especially from the top of the neighbourhood, Beaulieu, Vermont, Grand Pré, Vidollet, who have no neighbourhood infrastructure". It's really defined as a place that has to fit into the neighbourhood more than the park. As for the Beaulieu collective, the specialty will be defined differently. The collective defines itself in completely different action spaces and spatialities which are in fact multiscalar. On the one hand and in a very comprehensive way, the collective wants to be a member of the Via Campesina which is an international peasant movement that defends small-scale agriculture as well as peasant agriculture and that opposes the seizure of power by the large seed companies projecting themselves in a very broad spatiality. The second way of thinking about the speciality of the Beaulieu collective and the fact that the seedlings they produce will be sold to various local contract farming projects in the canton. A large number of agricultural projects throughout the township use the seedlings that are produced in Beaulieu. A third way to reflect on the spatiality of the Beaulieu collective is through the picking garden. The way it has been defined is so that anyone who lives in or passes through the city of Geneva can come and enjoy it. The preamble actions is the mobile neighbourhood house which has vocation to work on a neighbourhood scale and to ensure that Beaulieu's space is also a place for its own activities.

In relation to the UAC project and the social service that really addresses the neighbourhood, the collective is part of a multitude of spatialities that they also take shape in the registration of different networks. The question of spatial framing is the way in which the promoters of each project define the spatial inscription of their project, referring to a first aspect of the question of public space. There remains the question of the public. This is intrinsically linked to the spatial issue. For the UAC this is explicit: "We must take advantage of it to enhance it, but enhance it, whether it is used by people in the neighbourhood. It is true that there is a very strong proximity with the Caves, we immediately have a tendency to say the people of the district it is the Caves [...] finally what interests us is that it is also something for the people of Vermont, for the people who live towards Chandieu, which are a little depenaillés places ". The social framework is above all for people from the neighbourhood. The possibility of being able to come to garden is entirely conditioned to come to live in the district, there is no possible exemption. For the Beaulieu collective, it depends on which part of the project we are talking about.

In short, one of the actors who is the Social Service will focus on the place of residence and it is the place of residence that will define the criterion of participation with a dichotomous discourse between those who can participate and those who cannot participate and between the different spaces of the district. It is a criterion of spatial belonging that defines the public. The other actor who is the collective proposes to actors from anywhere to participate, the criterion is not so much to live in a place, but to share a certain type of project. The UAC and the Social Service more generally will seek to legitimize themselves in particular within the framework of the Beaulieu project by pointing out the faults which it thinks of the Beaulieu collective and in particular the faults in terms of definition of a spatiality and an audience. Within the framework of the Beaulieu project, it is a question of redeveloping the park and thinking about whether the greenhouses should be kept, what to do with the buildings, should this neighbourhood be made a multi-purpose place or should it remain on the theme of flowers and agriculture. The Social Service issued a relatively harsh criticism of the Beaulieu collective. The first criticism on the social aspect is the following: "If we go too much into the theme, after what happens? We have already proved it several times, eh, we do not act without proof, it is that we find ourselves with an audience of insiders, of people, who, here, all have a certain socio-cultural level, and who practice their ideals, as best they can, but the whole Court of Miracles, it is far away. It is a dichotomous discourse between an audience that would be an insider audience, people with a high socio-cultural level if not a high socio-economic level, and on the other hand, the population described as the Court of Miracles. This shows that the idea is that a thematic project specialized on an issue and which takes part through a network of multilocalized actions appears too specialized for the public of the district. The second criticism is that "We are in a way the guarantors that this type of space and service is not reserved for a small club of people who know each other, and really serve the population, and that we know how to periodically question ourselves, that's the price to pay, is that we really serve the inhabitants? ». In parallel to the somewhat closed and elitist criticism of the associative project, on the other hand, the administration will tend to put itself forward as being the guarantor of the project's openness. We are beginning to come to see different notions of who a space should be open to, which is for certain actors to act as guarantors of the publicity of space by designating others as actors in the privatization of space. The space aspect will also be criticized by certain actors of the administration by saying that "These things of the seedlings, it is really not for the people of the district, it is an industrial production', well agricultural, semi-industrial, but it is a project of niche". We are less saying that this is elitist, but it does not concern the neighbourhood. In other words, local production leaves the neighbourhood. Some actors tend to say that this project has no more place here than any other. The outsider's argument and the rhetoric of local and proximity are mobilized.

The collective responded quickly. The inclusion in the social space that gives a local basis to the project because the preamble is a "mobile neighbourhood house", moreover, has since been developed the "farm schools" that have greatly welcomed schools in the neighborhood showing that the collective participates in education. More and more, in the various official documents, the reference to neighbourhoods is emerging. In the permits documents, this was an "open space for all", a "collective space", a "common open space", more and more it is a "space ready to welcome the inhabitants of the district". We see that there is a discourse that adapts to the demand to address the neighbourhood more. At the financial level, the majority of the collective's financing comes from the sale of seedlings to the ACP. Even if the discourse and some practices are oriented towards the local level and towards other types of actors, the collective is largely dependent on its integration into the ACP network.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The park is one of the contemporary incarnations of public space. From the 19th century onwards, the public park really emerged as one of the symbols of public space in the city. Parks have become symbols of the city's opening to the public. The uses are in competition with public space and with symbols of public space.

With the collective, the space it reclaimed was not the public heart of the park, but the horticultural production centre that belonged in legal terms to the public community, but private by access. The collective, which is a group of people from civil society, has re-appropriated this space and opened it up to new types of activities that bring members of civil society into this space, producing an opening of this site. Nevertheless, gradually, we have seen the criticism emerge that this space in the horticultural centre is not accessible enough, not because it is badly located, but because the project itself would be too elitist to address these people.

This raises the question that when we speak of a public space, it is also where but to whom it is accessible and who has legitimacy. For the UAC, the public is the people of the neighbourhood, the initiates who come in the Beaulieu collective are the people of the community which is a political community. This raises the question of whether the people in the neighbourhood are more the public than the people in the city who come to pick, it also raises the question of what is done there, what makes agriculture fit into a public space and it raises the question of governance, that is, who should manage this space. We must see what is at stake in a project that is rather municipal where the actor who would govern this space would be a municipal actor who represents, on the other hand it is rather an association. This means that the degree of publicity of a place would also be linked to the type of actor who governs it. This raises the question of whether the municipality is more public than an association.

These different definitions of the public and its spatiality, on the one hand, it is the spatial origin that must be that of the neighbourhood denoting a spatial vision of the public and on the other hand one will rather have a reticular vision of the public. On the UCA side, the public is what belongs to a certain space, on the collective side, the public is what fits into a certain network reflecting two geographical figures different from what is an audience and what is the spatiality of that audience. In the end, this raises normative questions about what a public space should be. For some, it is the space under the aegis of the public administration which is in particular the point of view of the UAC for whom the space must be public already because it is addressed to the people of the district and because it is animated by the public authority referring to a quasi-legal question to say that it is a regulatory question with the regulation that defines that it is the public administration that has authority over this space while on the other side of the collective, space becomes public because it is the inhabitants who produce it and in this case it is the definition of public space as a public sphere, that is, this space becomes public because people produce a collective project and a common project where they realize a kind of vision of society. There are two types of normativity among these actors with a regulatory normativity and a normativity related to the public sphere. What is interesting is that the UAC finds itself part of the Beaulieu collective space and ultimately part of the Beaulieu collective.

Annexes[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]