Farms of the future: A Paris rooftop at the heart of an urban revolution
Sharon Aronowicz 12.10.20
After taking two elevators and climbing three different staircases, Marie Carcenac pushes a door and walks through it with confidence. Standing in the middle, arms on her hips, she smiles in front of the splendid 360° view of her hometown.
“I told you, she says, this is the most beautiful spot in the city.”
Based on the roof of the opera of Bastille, on the edge of the 11th arrondissement of Paris, a thriving city farm is overlooking the entire city.
Created by Topager in 2017, the plantations occupy 2 500m2 of the rooftop of the opera and 200m2 of its walls, and produces about 100 different varieties of vegetables, herbs, berries and edible flowers.
This Topager urban farm takes part in a series of City Hall-led projects, called Parisculteurs. In the 11th arrondissement of the French capital, the issue of the environment was put on the front line this year. After being elected in June for a second term, the mayor, François Vauglin, declared he will go further in supporting urban farming, and promised that “within 6 years, all the school restaurants of the 11th district will offer exclusively organic and sustainable food”. Vauglin claims that regardless of people’s income, living in this area will soon mean access to local, organic and healthy products, that are often considered as the food of the privileged.
Short straight brown hair, Carcenac is wearing a black coat to protect her from the wind, which is much stronger when standing on a rooftop. She’s wearing glasses, blue jeans and big boots you won’t expect anyone to wear in the capital. But if Carcenac works in the center of Paris, she spends her day in contact with nature.
The 31-year-old Parisian used to be a chef before joining the agriculture group Topager. “I always worked in relation to food. My former chef colleagues all had a very close relationship to their ingredients, picking them from their own gardens.”
Tempted by the idea of working outside instead of in a kitchen, she joined the company 4 years ago to work on the urban farm of the Bastille Opéra. The company started 7 years ago, and counts today 23 employees and started over 20 different plantations in the city.
“Topager differentiates itself from other urban farming companies in the sense that we focus much more on research projects,” Carcenac explains.
“We have to analyse the structure of the building, and the capacity of the rooftop before installing any plantation. This requires developing the perfect type of earth in order not to put too much weight on the building.”
For Carcenac, protecting the environment is a priority, it’s also part of the reasons why she took this job. The urban farmer says we need to restore biodiversity on our planet, “the very thing we’ve removed”, in order to restore stability. She decided to do so through urban farming. “Urbanisation is one of the biggest threats to biodiversity,” she explains.
“The life on our planet is at risk, and more and more people are looking for a job that matters. This is my way of contributing.”
According to a research done by the World Economic Forum, “growing food in towns and cities has shown to boost the abundance and diversity of wildlife, as well as protect their habitats”. For these reasons, Carcenac explains that they follow very strict rules.
“We use no pesticides, no copper or sulphur, we work only with natural products. We decided to take the risk of a slightly reduced harvest, if that meant promoting biodiversity and letting everything grow the natural way.”
You can tell how much she loves her work by the way she describes her plantations and the tone in her voice. “Look!” she says amazed. “Here I threw coriander seeds that were left over from my last harvest, just to see if they would grow on their own. And look at all this.”
In a corner of the roof where she stores all her compost, young sprouts of coriander have taken over the pile of fertiliser. Plant by plant, she describes the work and effort she puts into each and everyone of them. Agriculture requires a deep understanding of nature, and Marie is very specific when talking about her plants. Now that summer has come to an end, she focuses on different vegetables. “It’s time to take care of the spinach, carrot and beetroot,” she says.
All these vegetables are also sold to the restaurants such as the Capitaine and the Confiture Parisienne, both right by the Opera, and two places that value local production. “The advantage of buying our products is of course the ecological footprint. We use less water, fewer pesticides, less fertiliser and we emit less carbon.”
But this was not enough profit, so Carcenac holds a list of 20 members. They pay to receive a basket of vegetables every week.
“The basket is around 20 euros a week in summer, since we produce so much more. In winter it goes down to 8 euros,” she explains.
Sin Dara has been one of Topager’s clients since March 2020. During the first lockdown in France, she saw her neighbour receiving one of the Urban farm’s baskets and decided to call the company and sign up as well.
“What I like the most about the baskets is that every week it’s a surprise,” she says enthusiastically. “You never know what you’re gonna receive. At first I wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but I’ve never been disappointed by any baskets.”
The weekly distribution contains a selection of seasonal products. “It’s also a reminder to be modest and appreciative of nature. People got used to eating avocados and strawberries in the winter, when seasonal products have so much to offer,” explains Carcenac.
Delivering a basket every week encourages the consumer to bring diversity in his cooking depending on what he receives.
“I discovered so many products, vegetables I didn’t know how to cook, so I had to do a little research and use my imagination to cook new meals, although it doesn’t always work,” admits Dara with a laugh.
For Dara, the best thing about her weekly baskets is the quality of the products they contain. “The difference is impressive, even though I used to buy my vegetables at the market, I have never eaten such fresh and tasty vegetables.”
In the summer, members receive an average of 12 different products, whereas in the winter it usually goes down to six or seven products. The number of vegetables also varies a lot. In the summer they will be likely to receive baskets full of strawberries and multiple tomatoes and cucumbers. In the winter, you will receive 2 red kuri squash that will last you for much longer than a basket of strawberries.
The six or seven products that make the eight euros winter basket delivered by the urban farm cost all together 15 euros at the supermarket.
By ordering baskets from local productions, consumers also avoid buying products completely wrapped up in plastic to last longer. In order to sell avocados in December, France imports most of them from Latin America, creating increased carbon emission, deforestation and excessive use of water, according to the World Economic Forum. In Mexico, “around 9.5 billion litres of water are used daily to produce avocado — equivalent to 3,800 Olympic pools — requiring a massive extraction of water from aquifers.” Mexico is the largest exporter of avocados, exporting more than double the quantity than the two next biggest combined, according to World Mapper. France, on the other hand, is in the top importing countries of avocados in the world, importing 6.9 percent of the global production according to Tridge.
The carbon footprint and the cost of production is added to the price of the food upon delivery, which means eating local is also cost-efficient, along with the fact that seasonal vegetables are more abundant, thus less per euro in the store.
And finally, “I can assure you our products have much more flavour since we pick them when fully ripe. If you buy products coming from across the globe, it is always picked before it’s ripe,” Carcenac asserts.
Members also get to volunteer in the plantations if they want to see where their vegetables come from, a way to reconnect with nature when living in a busy place such as Paris, but also to access the view the rooftop has to offer.
Research from the Urban Revolution shows that gardening can improve mental health and physical fitness. Getting involved in urban food growing, or just being exposed to it on a daily routine, may also lead to healthier diets.
Through an efficient use of available space and the production of good quality food at reasonable prices, urban agriculture is a creative component in the fight against climate change.