Beginnings, with R-Urban

Arriving in Paris mid-July; it is hot, and though the city is winding down for holidays the streets are still busy. On the heels of a trip by train, ferry and bus, the first place I go is R-Urban, an experiment in ‘civic urban resilience’ on the outskirts of Paris in the banlieue of Colombes, long past the melee of the centre and even the auto barrage of the Peripherique motorway that circumnavigates the city. R-Urban is the work of atelier d’architecture autogérée (aaa), who I’ve been following since our meeting in Sydney for the exhibition & symposium The Right to the City. That was some years ago, and in the meantime Doina & Constantin have directed their energies towards this expanding social architecture and the theoretical framework which sits around it.

aaaThe project presents as an interconnected network of resident-run facilities, prototypes that test out new ways of living based around a set of complementary urban functions: housing, economy, urban agriculture and culture. Alongside this the in-progress R-Urban Charter works up from literature on the Commons and collective social practice. Grouped within a bike-able radius, the first pilot production units in Colombes are in varying stages of development – and though what’s emerging is clearly valued by its participants and many distributed supporters, and built on considerable EU funding, the whole enterprise now faces strange and sudden dismantling by a newly-elected hostile local government, proposing instead to build temporary parking, no less.*

The most advanced unit is AgroCité, an experimental farm and community garden stretching out over an open corner block beneath sleepy tenements. There are sunflowers, a chicken coop, pictogram signage, dry toilets and a longish greenhouse, as well as rainwater harvesting and energy production. On the Rue Jules Michelet side is a raised structure with a little shop for self-made local products, a kitchen, and meeting and workshop space, all very open and light. Anyone walking in off the street could stop in to have a look, or if it’s a Thursday, to have a cheap homemade lunch in the Cantine. There’s beekeeping lessons every Wednesday; the place has also seen flea markets, repair cafés, regular non-monetary trading sessions, and various talks – most recently a lecture by Massimo de Angelis. The first time I come it’s for a public discussion with a couple of amiable young artists from Brussels about their plans for Commons Josaphat, a kind of pilot collective micro-city. They showed slides as they talked and afterwards answered some quizzical questions from Agrocité regulars, a mixed group of different ages and socio-cultural backgrounds.

At RecycLab, a short walk away on the other side of the train tracks, Marine and Sean, who’s come over from Canada, work with a bike mechanic on another sweltering afternoon to help a gang of kids from the local social centre fix up six tiny bikes, which they happily rattle away on. Last week they fixed three. The space here is of a different make-up, another stylish timber construction, built in this case off a row of containers lining a mostly unused road between an open field and a high-security fence, though unlike Agrocité it’s still managed by people outside the neighbourhood. There are a couple of offices, a residency space and a kitchen upstairs, downstairs are workshops and equipment for all sorts of re-use and repair activities.

My next visit to Agrocité is for a Recyclab (‘hors de murs’) workshop, building some basic pallet furniture for the terrace. The making was in full-swing when I got in, three or four ladies from the kitchen and garden teams taking turns wielding the power saw to cut parts matching a rough template prepared by Sean. This being their first time doing such a thing, it was a source of great excitement and satisfaction. Later, one gave me a bundle of sweet-smelling mint from the flowering plot that she’s tended over four years. As they worked, fat tomatoes and eggs were sold from a table behind the building, gardeners planted and watered their plots and the collective farm, and Compost School held its regular class near the compost bins. In the evening there was a General Meeting; up for discussion were the impending eviction and possible responses to it, alongside more prosaic dilemmas such as whether or not to take in some additional chickens…

About to enter this mix was ECoHab, the self-build residential arm of the project, slated for a disused site beside the railway line. The land on all three locations is owned by the municipality, and the previous supportive Socialist government had not relinquished a longer lease which would have provided the project with more (legal) resilience. Despite whatever internal contradictions and tensions may conceivably lie behind such a complex collective undertaking, in just a few years a significant social infrastructure has been generated. The community members who inhabit the space have taken ownership and formed a cohesive structure which can accommodate diverse contributors, participants and strangers. To an outsider, R-Urban appears to be a deeply rooted enterprise with huge potential, not least in terms of the wider social imaginary, given aaa’s ability to mobilise their projects within international artist networks.

*You can sign the petition here

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