Marseille, France (NWN) — Seven years ago when Yazid moved into the Bendaff City SNCF public housing project, he received permission to turn a patch of grass outside his home into a garden. Today, the small communal plot between a block of concrete apartments and a high-speed railway in Marseille, France, is filled with rows of zucchini, radishes and cabbage.
Bendif, 62, is one of a growing number of residents re-imagining life in the French city’s troubled northern areas through urban agriculture.
From publicly funded campaigns to self-initiated residents, urban farming is transforming the landscape and creating space for community in an area long ravaged by social neglect and drug-related violence.
“I want people to be able to provide for themselves, not rely on the state or external structures,” Bendaff said. “Cultivating our own food is exactly that. When we bring it back, we also bring back all kinds of social bonds that are rapidly disappearing.”
Mahdi, an Egyptian immigrant working as a painter in a Marseille cinema, serves tea to his garden neighbors after a morning dig.
His neighbor Mustafa only has time for his garden on weekends. He dresses for gardening in an oiled tracksuit from his car repair job. And while he likes to grow vegetables, he grumbles about the rats.
“There are rats everywhere. They will always be a problem,” admitted Bendaff. “You just have to keep working.”
He and his wife Samiya say they have become self-sufficient with their produce. There are baskets of tomatoes and cabbage in the couple’s house. A guest room has a table covered with dried chilies.
At the nearby Frais Vallon housing project, Houaria Belmaaziz gently planted pea seeds in a small garden shaded from the sun by four huge residential towers. She repeats this process until her seed cup is empty.
Since the creation of the shared vegetable garden for the Frais Vallon residents, Houaria has been a regular, growing ingredient to cook for his family. She brought her gardening skills from growing up in the Algerian countryside.
“People come together here…to grow vegetables, to care for plants, and that starts the discussion, the relationship between people,” says Jean du Cos de Saint Barthélemy, co-founder of Des Terres Interiors There is an association that made it go hand-in-hand with the residents of the Fras Vallon Gardens.
Amid a growing nationwide awareness of environmental issues and interest in healthy eating, more than 25 urban agriculture projects have started around Marseille in recent years. Green spaces are particularly welcome in Marseille’s concrete-dominated northern neighbourhood, where the poverty rate is around 50%.
The Workers’ Garden is located on top of a hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Railway lines and highways intersect the tower blocks. Above all, the 56-year-old French military veteran Jol Chaegis, in what he calls his “little paradise”, the nearly 50-square-metre (540 sq ft) hillside he made his garden.
Gardens alone won’t solve the neighborhood’s ills – Shagis says he plans to abandon the projects when he retires because they have become too rough. But they do offer hope, and relief.
“Hiking through the garden entrance at sunset is like being teleported to another world,” he says.