Taking URBACT networks’ experiences to China

François Jegou

By François Jegou, on February 17th, 2020

> Read François Jegou's articles

This is the story of a tentative transfer from urban farming and community gardens experiences in Europe to Chinese megacities. Having previously supported URBACT “Sustainable food in Urban Communities” and “Biocanteens” networks I share here the experience of a community workshop I led at the Tsinghua University Academy of Art and Design over a weekend in late November 2019.


Starting with community engagement

Wei Xie, Yankee Liu, Ling Li and Shunqui Hi are part of a group of 25 community collaborators and design students who are participating in a 2-day workshop that I’m leading. The theme is “collective vegetable gardens as a tool for activating social links between the inhabitants of large cities”. Professor Zhong Fang, who invited me to design and lead this workshop, has been working for nearly 10 years to introduce the topic of food in the design department of Tsinghua University in Beijing.

If Fang and I are convinced of urban agriculture in all its forms and of its potential as a vector of social cohesion in neighbourhoods – because we have seen it all over the world – the challenge here is significant: the ten areas mentioned by community collaborators as the starting point for the workshop are emblematic of the highest urban densities in the cities of Beijing and Tianjin. There are an average of ten to fifteen residents for each square metre of potentially available land at the bottom of their buildings. In terms of vegetable gardens, this offers rather limited prospects.

If the Chinese refer to the inhabitants of a building complex as a ‘community of inhabitants’, life in these skyscrapers does not seem to be a matter of community. “We don’t share much, we just have the memory that some decades ago the neighbours formed an urban community,” confirms Yi Liu, co-organiser of the workshop, who came a year ago from ZhenZhou in central China and kept critical eyes on Beijing realities.


The problem of ‘non-spaces’ between buildings

“In the community where my family lives, 4500 people live in 1796 apartments divided into 19 six-storey blocks and three high-rises,” says Long Li. “Between the buildings there are green spaces, but nobody does anything about them!”

The community collaborators participating at the workshop list the many problems around these ‘green’ spaces at the bottom of buildings: parking on the flower beds; garbage in plant areas; animal waste; abusive private use of shared green space by families living on the ground floor; general lack of maintenance of green areas; plots of land left abandoned; etc.

If the very high population density in these large areas does not facilitate living together, it is above all the meaning of green spaces as ‘decorative’ that is called into question here. The greening of the bottom of buildings is part of the established practice of architects and developers and seems to be expected by inhabitants, at least implicitly. However, in real life, these shared green spaces are unsuitable for the daily use that the inhabitants could make of them.

“Children can’t play on it, the elderly can’t sit in the shade and chat or play chess,” confirms Shunqui Hi, a community collaborator from Xicheng District, Beijing. These green spaces are ‘non-places’ in Marc Augé’s sense, interchangeable spaces that look the same all around the world and that human beings consume because they do not manage to appropriate them[1].


Finding ways around problems

It is not easy to build from so many problems and so few opportunities. In organising the workshop with Fang and Yi, it seems important to me to change the perspective. We want to engage all participants to look for the assets and not only the problems that these communities of inhabitants could have around urban gardening and, in general, growing fruit and vegetable in the city.

In the same way as approaches based on the search for positive points such as the ABCD (Asset Based Community Development) method, the idea is to make a localised inventory of the civic skills of a neighbourhood or social group and all the other assets present in the surrounding system. Here, taken as a state of mind for the workshop, it makes it possible to have a more constructive approach, avoiding the risk of being trapped in the treatment of ‘problems’ and focusing on assets that can support community motivation and deliver positive impact.

For example, the presence of young children is a motivation for families to provide healthy food education, practical nature teaching, reconnecting with plants, generating a sense of community, etc. “My children were born in Beijing,” says Wei Xie. “They have no idea what it’s like to live in a neighbourhood, to enjoy the common spaces, to share with neighbours!”

The group identifies multiple indirect assets on which to rebuild the collective through urban gardening: elderly people who have time to care for plants; indigenous gardening knowledge; vegetable and culinary talents from different parts of China, etc. Beyond people, there are also material goods to value: seeds to exchange; gardening tools to share; flowerpots to fill; and even vegetable peels and dog droppings to compost.

Finally, participants list potential cultural assets, such as a calendar of seasons well anchored in everyday life and punctuated by annual festivals, customs related to planting, harvests, etc. with their corollary of culinary specialities.


Taking inspiration from European cities and URBACT networks?

Can we inspire the protagonists gathered here with the dynamics of urban agriculture and collective gardening in European neighbourhoods? The title bears a question mark: the cases of good practice that I have brought have been collected by working with city exchange networks within the URBACT programmes[2] and it is not a given that they can be activated on the scale of the large Chinese megacities.

Yet the following practices seem particularly aligned with the concerns of the communities of inhabitants of the major cities of Beijing and Tianjin:

  • Pré Senty, a collective vegetable garden at the bottom of social housing in the 8th arrondissement in Lyon, France, shows that social inclusion can be generated with very small plots of land: around twenty gardeners grow pumpkins and four times a year a collective soup is organised for all the inhabitants of the surrounding apartment towers.
  • The “Self-maintenance contracts” for public green spaces of the inhabitants of Amersfoort in the Netherlands resonate with the abusive appropriation of the green space by ground floor tenants: attribution of public space to the residents under certain conditions can become a proven strategy for the maintenance of green spaces.
  • Last but not least, the greening of the bottom of trees by children such as in the Molenbeek district of Brussels along with all symbolic or educational micro-gardening initiatives involving children from families living in surrounding vertical dwellings.

Back in the workshop, after the presentation of 20 such examples collected from URBACT network cities, the transfer process can begin. The participants smile and start talking to each other as they work on building their mock-ups. No more English translation for me: they ’think with their hands’ and on the tables the projects start to develop…


A palette of 25 urban gardening solutions

By Sunday evening, it’s the end of the workshop. The sunlight is declining at Tsinghua University and the participants are tired, but happy with the outcomes. Yi Liu, as co-organiser of the workshop paints a dramatic picture: “Before I hated workshops of this kind. I worked for an agency that sold design thinking: workshops were organised to give the impression to clients that they were participating, but everything was already defined in advance and everything that had been done during the workshop was thrown away as soon as the client left!”

Wei Xie presents the results in front of a camera, concluding that: “We community collaborators have many ideas, but they are like a cloud. During these two days of work with the design students, the cloud turns into rain, the drops gather, flow and become reality.” On the table in front of him, a colourful conceptual model integrates the 25 project sketches – put forward five each by five working groups – to start vegetable gardens in the Chinese megacities. “This is a good result achieved in such a short time,” enthuses Professor Xin Liu, who came to attend the final presentation of the workshop.

Among the strategies proposed, many revolve around children and the design of garden games: mini farms, small greenhouse villages, irrigation systems with bamboo gutters, educational compost, seasonal calendar wheels, fruit trees labelled with children’s poems, cooking workshops for children and a miniature canteen for parents. The educational focus makes it possible to engage families more easily, encourages everyone’s kindness, but can also satisfy more households with very small vegetable gardens.


Delivering ‘Utopang’ – a ‘garden of utopias’

The participants named the entire outcomes model ‘Utopang’ which can be translated as ‘a garden of utopias’. It is presented as a palette of possibilities sufficiently defined to be considered credible and inspire communities of inhabitants, but also sufficiently open to engage in a real co-design process, experiment in the field and precisely define vegetable garden or gardening solutions resulting from the specificities of each context.

Many obstacles still remain to be overcome, such as the large amounts of shade caused by the skyscrapers, which leave little sunlight for growing vegetables, or the challenge of engaging families in gardening at the bottom of their buildings in the face of competing attractions, which can include the presence of a park or public garden in the neighbourhood.

But the collective model is designed as a tool for community collaborators and, in their final words on what they bring home, there is clearly enthusiasm to continue the work: “the result feeds our needs as community”; “I retain the constructive method based on assets”; “we can work with children in the same way and design projects that will be more likely to last”. Jianghong Liu sums up the mood that this is only the beginning of a longer process: “Are there any other workshops planned, how are we progressing with all this?” he asks.

Let’s hope with Wei Xie and his poetic way to say it, that the results of this workshop can act like a drop of water that will flow to meet others and fertilise a little garden of utopias in China’s megacities!

This workshop followed a conference organised by Tsinghua University entitled ‘Food systems and city making’, about how the construction of cities through the involvement of citizens and the synergies between neighbourhood initiatives – such as the constitution of collective vegetable gardens – can contribute to the transition towards a more sustainable and equitable organisation of food production, distribution and consumption in the territory.

These events organised in November 2019 in Beijing are part of a series of events on ‘Design for the Collaborative City’ organised by DESIS, the international network of schools and universities on Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability, starting in Shanghai at the end of 2018, then in Barcelona, Bogota, Beijing, Bangkok, Rome and finally in Lille in the autumn of 2020 on the occasion of Lille 2020 World Capital of Design.


[1] Marc AUGE, Non-lieux. Introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité. Paris, Le Seuil, 1992

[2] See for instance URBACT II, Sustainable Food in Urban Communities : Jégou, F., Carey, J. 2015. Handbook, Creating Space for Sustainable Food System in Urban Communities, Practical approaches and examples for cities, Strategic Design Scenarios Publishing, Brussels http://www.strategicdesignscenarios.net/creating-space-for-sustainable-foodsystems- in-urban-communities/


Leave a Reply