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The Bois Dormoy is a unique green oasis in the heart of metropolitan Paris and its multicultural community. It should be treasured, not destroyed! Photo; via Bois Dormoy on Facebook.
The Bois Dormoy is a unique green oasis in the heart of metropolitan Paris and its multicultural community. It should be treasured, not destroyed! Photo; via Bois Dormoy on Facebook.
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Paris must remember: climate solutions are small, local, green, and begin at home

Marc Brightman

17th June 2015

As Paris prepares for COP21 in Paris, Marc Brightman finds that the city is in the grip of a benign but ignorant authoritarianism that is ready to trample on much-loved green spaces like the Bois Dormoy, reclaimed from dereliction by the multicultural local community, which represent real solutions to the global problems of food, climate, the future of our cities, and our place in nature.

The community gardens, with vegetables growing under a tiny forest canopy, are a tiny vision of the future of the planet if it is to be bearable for ordinary people to live in.

It was evening and I had just arrived in Paris to give a paper at a workshop on the anthropology of life processes the following day.

I stopped at the apartment of some old friends, in the rather shabby neighbourhood a few minutes walk behind the Gare du Nord. They asked me jokingly if I had been waylaid by the CRS - France's feared anti-riot police, on my way.

There was a purge underway, it seemed, of a group of refugees who had been living rough in the area, preferring to stay close to the NGOs and voluntary organisations who provide them with help, rather than going to the miserable accomodation provided by the authorities deep in the banlieues, and far from any services.

We looked out of the window at the lush green of the treetops in the little park. They had grown much bigger since my last visit, indeed I could remember when they were just saplings.

In my hotel room the following morning, I looked at the facebook page of the Association du Bois Dormoy - and I saw that my friend Thomas - the association's president - had opened the gates to the refugees that night, following a call for help.

Members of the association, and volunteers from humanitarian organisations, had come to offer blankets, mattresses, food and drink. A few days later, in an article in Le Monde, I learned that the municipal authorities remained absent from the scene. They no doubt have bigger fish to fry - after all, this is an important year for Paris.

Take a left turn from the Gare du Nord, and find a very a very different Paris

As the city prepares to host this year's climate negotiations, public reflection on the environment has taken a new momentum. The ambitious preparations have gone well over budget, leading Laurent Fabius to invite corporate sponsors to make up the difference.

The governing socialist party's approach to the negotiations raises questions about the agenda and about how it will be managed. Indeed the government is wisely conducting a set of discreet pre-negotiations to try to obtain as much consensus as possible, in order to minimise the likelihood of another failed climate change summit.

Few high level negotiators will come by train, and even those who do arrive at the Gare du Nord on the Eurostar from London will quickly be whisked to the smarter parts of town by taxi or metro, and emerge in a Paris airbrushed clean by decades as the global capital of tourism.

But if you turn left out of the station and walk north up the Faubourg Saint Denis, you enter a city which still teems with street life. Here Bangladeshi shopkeepers gossip loudly in front of cartons of sugar cane, okra, and piles of fresh mangoes, and international chains of vegetarian Asian restaurants flourish alongside traditional Indian barber shops.

This is the global city, where the informal economy hums, giving Paris its true vitality. The street is dirty and the traffic is heavy. There are no trees to help absorb the noise and fumes. Further on you pass over a wide boulevard, along the very middle of which a hard steel bridge dominates the space overhead. Metro trains clatter across it. A tangle of transport arteries, this is one of the most polluted parts of Paris.

A 'vacant lot' in which the trees have grown tall - the Bois Dormoy

Past the boulevard, you come onto the Rue Marx Dormoy, where the traffic remains heavy and there are still more small restaurants selling street food from the subcontinent. A little further on, a small side street lets you briefly escape the traffic noise and diesel fumes.

You become aware of a cool and peaceful presence to your right, something alien to the commotion behind you and the stark forms of buildings and vehicles that dominate the landscape. They are trees - and as you approach you can see what you might even call a miniature forest. Protected by a green plastified metal wire fence, between two tall buildings, a large plot lies vacant - or not.

Can you call this little pocket of life, where almost a hundred trees strain upwards towards the sky, defying the blank walls that surround them, ‘vacant'? On the contrary, this place is filled with life, and if one of the volunteers who look after it opens the gate and lets you in, you find allotments overflowing with lettuces, tomatoes, herbs and fruits, neatly cultivated in rows.

They flourish even in the shade of the tall trees, plane trees, maple and poplar - not yet fully mature, they are like willowy teenagers just entering the physical prime of their lives.

Below the trees well trodden paths weave in a vegetable maze, a paradise for children who run in and out of the slender trunks, finding their favourite story worlds around them, build dens, play at pirates looking for buried treasure, make swords from sticks found on the beaten earth.

But this rare green space may not last much longer

The 18ème arrondissement has few parks and playgrounds - this is an oasis of life and childish dreams. Young and old learn to grow food in the allotments, they make their own compost. On the walls local artists have painted murals - the place has become a centre for the cultural life of the quartier.

Now the Bois Dormoy has only a few weeks to live. At the beginning of June the Socialist representatives of the city of Paris won a vote by a narrow majority to continue with plans to tear out the trees and construct a retirement home, to minimal building standards, to cater for the elderly victims of an unforgiving urban environment which tests the limits of family ties and physical health. It will have no garden, nor even any balconies.

The Socialist mayor of the 18ème, Eric Lejoindre, is a young and ambitious politician, he hopes to rise through the ranks, and he has followed in the footsteps of his mentor, Daniel Vaillant, for whom the building plans were a pet project. Determined to please his master, he is proving a paragon of the lack of vision that plagues the centre left not only in France but across Europe.

The mayor subscribes to a dated ideology that claims to solve social problems without considering the part that nature should play. This is how he can promote the destruction of a community woodland in the most polluted area of Paris where there is scarcely any green space at all (0.6 square metres per inhabitant - a far cry from the 10 square metres recommended by the World Health organisation).

Nature is simply not on the agenda. Here success is measured by the number of rooms the state can provide for the elderly, the number of places in schools. No thought appears to be given to the quality of these services. The Socialist representatives seem ignorant of the overwhelming scientific evidence for the benefits of green spaces, especially community run ones, for the health of individuals and the wellbeing of communities.

Propelled by a benign but ignorant logic

The crude logic of the greatest good for the greatest number that has long informed centre left policy has some merits. But over the longue duree the historic improvements in urban conditions of life have come from the opening up of space, the improvements in sanitations, the reduction of overcrowding: Haussmann's monumental transformation of Paris in the 19th century is the most famous example of this.

Such initiatives do not need to be so grand in scale, and today's more open, network society makes the organic spread of local initiatives a more appropriate mode of transition. It does remain the case however that it is by opening up and greening urban spaces they are made more tolerable, and even pleasant to dwell in.

Cramming a new residence into the last available patch of resurgent nature is not a way to improve the conditions of life for local inhabitants. Indeed, the inhabitants of the 18ème know this well, and most of them are in favour of protecting the Bois Dormoy.

The mayor is in a strong Socialist seat and his position is secure because of local traditional allegiances, but he is acting in direct opposition to the wishes of his constituents. Does he do this because of a flimsy, outdated and poorly thought through vision of social justice, or simply in order to please his master and further his career in a morally corrupt party?

Will the same top-down vision be in force in December?

The headline topics of negotiation in December this year will be measures to address carbon emissions - no doubt further national targets will be discussed, and the extent towards which these may be legally binding; the subject of a carbon tax, which even oil companies claim to be in favour of, though one must remain sceptical about their support for this and what may lie behind it.

Ordinary people are left feeling alienated by the arcane discussions of the consequences of the now inevitable two degrees rise in global temperatures.

The sustainable development goals will also be discussed, refined and agreed upon in December. These may be closer to the interests of ordinary people, and goal 11 is to 'make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable'.

The roots of the socialist party, and of socialism itself, are in the idea of social justice. During high level environmental negotiations, much effort is devoted to negotiating the details of shared but differentiated responsibility on the part of 'developed' vis-à-vis 'developing' nations.

It is indeed a matter of social justice that developed nations, having benefited from the use of fossil fuels to grow their economies over more than two centuries, should bear more of the responsibility for reducing carbon emissions than developing nations, whose accumulated contribution to climate change is smaller.

Much is also rightly made of the fact that the effects of climate change will be more damaging for the global South, than for the rich North, and that therefore aid money should contribute towards adaptation to changing weather patterns and sea level rises, and preparation for natural disasters.

A sustainable future will be based on local, decentralised solutions

And yet the ecological transition that the world requires demands changes at every level. Decision makers are indeed becoming more aware that the way we organise our lives and design and remodel our living spaces must become more sustainable.

In all sectors, the brightest designers and planners are providing the ideas and prototypes for ways of life that favour lower energy consumption, greater local autonomy, and more mutually supportive interactions between humans and nonhuman life.

The persistent social unrest of the poor Parisian banlieues that periodically finds its way into international news headlines is the result of an outdated, waning but persistent way of thinking that supposes that the wellbeing of humans can be measured in square metres of concrete.

The 18ème teems with life, but it is not just the cornucopia of global cultures, with their scents of spicy foods and colours of exotic fruits. Vegetable life struggles even harder to maintain its existence here, and the local mayor seems unaware that green space is a fundamental necessity for human wellbeing.

The community gardens, with vegetables growing under a tiny forest canopy, are a tiny vision of the future of the planet if it is to be bearable for ordinary people to live in.

A new urban vision for a climate friendly future

The ancient cities of the Amazon, whose scale and originality are still becoming clearer to archaeologists, succeeded better than any others in the world in maintaining biodiversity alongside a dense population because they were garden cities, on a scale unknown anywhere else.

They relied on ancient forms of agroforestry, precursors of the agroecological methods of food production which are now likely to be the best hope of achieving intensive agriculture without maintaining our current levels of energy input (which far exceed energy output).

Our own great cities which grew densely out of huddled medieval fortresses and trading posts, can never be transformed into gardens like this, but there is all the more reason for them to value like gems the little pockets of nature that they inadvertantly harbour.

Whatever emerges from the COP21 negotiations will inevitably attempt to fix the world's problems from the top down. But it will fail in its ambitions unless it also provides ways of supporting communities that are leading the way to sustainable futures from the bottom upwards.

There is no single solution that will resolve climate change. But if a portion of the money from a carbon tax, for instance, could be used to support the infinite variety of community initiatives for socially and environmentally sustainable futures such as the Bois Dormoy, there may be some hope.

Now that the wood has been condemned, its destruction can only be prevented by unilateral action from the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo. The Bois Dormoy deserves to be saved as a symbol of the kind of future that should be supported by a future global environmental agreement.

 


 

Marc Brightman is Lecturer in Social and Environmental Sustainability in the Department of Anthropology at University College London. Together with Jerome Lewis, he is co-founder and co-director of the Centre for the Anthropology of Sustainability.

To help with the campaign for the Bois Dormoy, write to Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, or tweet @Anne_Hidalgo

Campaign: Bois Dormoy on Facebook.

 

 

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