MARSEILLE, France (AP) – When Yaizid Bendaif moved into the Cité SNCF public housing project seven years ago, he was given permission to turn a patch of grass near his home into a garden. Today, a small communal lot between an apartment building and a high-speed rail in Marseille, France, is full of zucchini, radishes, and rows of cabbage.
Bendaife, 62, is among a growing number of residents reimagining life in the troubled northern districts of a French city through urban agriculture.
Urban agriculture is reshaping the landscape and creating space for society in an area that has long been subject to social neglect and drug-related violence.
“I want people to be able to support themselves, so that they do not have to depend on the state or an external structure,” Bendaif said. “Growing your own food is exactly what you need. When we bring this back, we are also bringing back all kinds of social connections that quickly disappeared. “
Mahdi, an Egyptian immigrant who works as an artist in a Marseille cinema, serves tea to his garden neighbors after morning digging.
His neighbor Mustafa takes care of his garden only on weekends. He dresses for gardening in an oil-stained tracksuit from a car repair. And although he loves growing vegetables, he grumbles at rats.
“Rats are everywhere. They will always be a problem, ”admitted Bendaif. “You just have to keep working.”
He and his wife Samia say they have become self-sufficient through their products. The couple have boxes of tomatoes and cabbage at home. The guest room has a table covered with dried peppers.
In the neighboring residential complex Frais Vallon Houaria, Belmaaziz is neatly planting pea seeds in a small garden shaded from the sun by four huge residential towers. She repeats the process until her seed cup is empty.
Since establishing a common vegetable garden for the residents of Frais Vallon, Huaria has regularly grown ingredients for cooking for her family. She brought her gardening skills from the Algerian countryside.
“People come here … to grow vegetables, tend to plants, and this triggers discussions, connections between people,” says Jeanne du Cos de Saint Barthélemy, co-founder of Des Terres Intérieures, the association that created the Frais Vallon garden hand in hand with residents.
More than 25 urban agriculture projects have emerged in Marseille in recent years, amid growing national awareness of environmental issues and interest in healthier food. Green spaces are especially welcome in the concrete-dominated northern areas of Marseille, where the poverty rate is around 50%.
The working gardens are located on a hilltop overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Railroad lines and highways cross high-rise buildings. Among other things, 56-year-old French army veteran Joel Shegis aspires to what he calls his “little paradise” – roughly 50 square meters (540 square feet) of hillside, which he made his garden.
Gardens alone won’t solve the district’s problems – Shegis says she plans to leave the projects when she retires because they’ve gotten too rough. But they provide hope and respite.
“Walking up through the garden entrance at sunset is like teleporting to another world,” he says.