In January 2016, when international juries sat down in front of seventy-four proposals to reinvent the city of Paris, they chose plans that looked like they were made in architects’ dreams. A facade of algae cascading down steel. A wooden Tower of Babel. A literal thousand trees floating on glass above the roadway encircling the city.

And a farm next to an abandoned railway. A railway farm. La Ferme du Rail.

Hidden behind an unused railroad in the middle of the 19th arrondissement, vegetables push out of the ground where cars dripped gas before becoming a vacant lot. Some grow in planters made from repurposed wooden window frames. They’re tended to by a small team of twenty, and make their way to the well-raved-about restaurant serving its plats du jour quite literally from the farm to the table. All this on a parcel of land no bigger than the footprint of three New York City brownstones on which the largest structure is no taller than a townhouse, insulated with straw.

The land was one of twenty-two lots awarded around Paris as part of an urban environmental campaign, Réinventer Paris. Launched in 2014 by champions of sustainable development, Parisian mayor Anne Hidalgo and her deputy mayor Jean-Louis Missika, the initiative called for bold, innovative projects for twenty-three sites around Paris that could redefine what urbanism and cities look like in the 21st century. But more importantly, projects must address the needs of the specific site.

“We leave a wide choice to applicants,” said Missika in a 2015 blog post, “because the idea, at the end of the day, is that collective intelligence is superior to that of an organization, even an organization as intelligent as the city of Paris.”

In a time when New Yorkers struggle to find adequate housing and Caraquenians grapple with triple-digit inflation, that approach feels more relevant than ever as cities appear less equipped to address critical issues, whether they stretch across the city or are confined only to a few blocks.

Architecture in the new century for Clara Simay, an architect of the Ferme du Rail, is not only about building sustainable structures, but also tackling these social challenges that the existing built environment contributes to, but can also remedy in partnership with individual locales. She and the team at Grand Huit, a cooperative of architects, planners, and urbanists based in the 19th arrondissement dedicated to sustainable urban development, felt they were well-positioned to propose a plan for a Réinventer Paris project site located just minutes from their studio.

“We’re local architects. I live here, my children grew up here,” Clara said on Wednesday at the Consortium of Sustainable Urbanization’s October 25th Green Cities event, which showcases notable sustainable architectural initiatives. “Because we live and work in [the local neighborhood], we can observe the neighborhood’s real needs.”

In the case of the 19th arrondissement, it has a particular set of challenges that have befuddled planners and politicians. The district struggles with the highest unemployment rate in the city while its inhabitants make the lowest average salary of all Parisians. The need for affordable housing is especially acute in the neighborhood as nearly forty percent of all homes in the 19th arrondissement are located in a public housing project, the highest rate of any quarter in the city.

“We are lucky to have enough to live our day-to-day lives, but we have to take care of the less affluent,” Clara said. “It was just something we had to do.”

Fifteen residents who are in some degree of a life transition, whether that be a career change or who found a home in the farm, away from the streets, and five students learn tangible agricultural skills under the purview of a gardener with which they can find jobs later on.

“For people who have gone through a difficult life path, it’s good to be able to find something simple that speaks to you. I feel like I’ve found my place here,” said a resident worker of the farm in a 2019 YouTube video.

Taking care of humans first begins with taking care of the environment as, “the domination of nature is inseparable from the domination of humans,” said Clara.

“The primary purpose of the Ferme du Rail is not to produce, but to eat the organic waste that we collect from the more than thirty restaurants in the neighborhood,” she explained.

Over the past four years that the farm has been open to the public, that restaurant waste has transformed the land, once polluted with hydrocarbons, into a healthy parcel that supports a central garden, mushroom cave, a greenhouse, and the farm’s own restaurant that connects it to the wider community.

Every aspect of the farm works in synergy to keep itself alive and injects life into the surrounding neighborhood. The ecology of the farm supports social bonds between the farm workers and the community members who visit and economically contribute to the restaurant on site. It’s a model that touches every pillar in the classic sustainability diagram: economic, environmental, and social, and was made possible by its small-scale.

“This project was based on real people in the local economy. It’s how projects survive and become secure,” said Clara.

Dreaming hyperlocal may be the way to attain the sustainable future envisioned by lofty initiatives like Réinventer Paris.

“Our project was one of the most modest ones of [Réinventer Paris], but we succeeded in building it in five years,” said Clara. “So we are very proud because we are a very small team with small resources.”




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