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From Coimbra to Lisbon, Maputo, Rome, Hanoi, Dondo, & Rio

July 23, 2012
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Every so often I get up the guts to attend, and even present at, an academic conference. I say this takes guts because to put yourself through multiple days of people reading papers and showing power points can be a unique form of contemporary masochism. Still, it is one of the few places where you can quickly hear a bunch of people from a bunch of places, quickly summarize their work and research. In the case of urban planning conferences, you can literally take a trip around the world in an hour and a half. 

Last week I attended Cities Are Us: Rethinking Urban Inclusion organized by the CES in Coimbra, Portugal. There I attended a panel discussion about “Greening the City” with a collection of academics from all over the place. The presentations dealt a lot with dichotomies present in urban food production – such as informal vs formal. The talks pointed out how many diverse practices can fall under something we are now calling “urban farming” and they have as much in common as they do not – ranging from activist projects of young people and the unemployed, to elderly people to immigrants bringing their diasporic traditions to new home countries, and post-colonial urbanization of formerly rural people. 

Portugal was a great place to have this discussion, because it is an agriculturally rich country where people have maintained a strong connection to the land. Additionally, the immigrant population from former colonies have really maintained their agricultural traditions. For your view reading pleasure and for me to remember what I heard, here is a summary of some of the folks and places I was introduced to in this panel:

Lisbon – Juliana Torquato Luiz, from the CES in Coimbra, uses a social-science lens to research gardens in Lisbon. In looking at the international discourse around farming, she has observed that there is a generalized rhetoric and lens that focuses only on “best practices” but leaves out critique and narratives about conflict. thus has decided to have a very local focus. Lisbon has innovated a great deal around “green public policy” through their “Piano Verde” plan. This plan, like most plans, involved creating a framework for what is and is not included in the city’s official garden map. Her research includes groups that have tried to respond to some of these challenges of what is/isn’t on the green map: the RAU (Portugese Network for Urban Agriculture),  AVAAL Allotment Garden Project and the Assemblia Movel em Hortas Urbanas (Mobile Assembly in Urban Gardens) who have tried to use the platform of urban ag to organize neighborhood groups focused on larger urban issues.

Maputo – Leonardo Veronez de Sousa, from Coimbra, focuses his research on the Portugese “Colonial City” of Maputo. Following the civil war, which was stronger in the countryside, people’s relationship to land was changed. He believes that the peri-urban agriculture here can be a model for land occupation in other Western countries. The agriculture is organized through associations, 6 of which he has visited for his research. This has emerged as a real economic development tool, with lots of food being consumed domestically as well as exported to South Africa.

RomeGiovanni Attili (shared examples of activist-initiated urban gardens that exist in parallel to the RomaAgra zone that lies outside of the city limits. Some of the examples included: In 1992 the Gartabella garden was instigated when the “Piano Gerace”, a formerly private plot of land, was pushed into public access by a longterm political campaign by the neighborhood that was completed in 1999. Eutorto is an urban garden oriented around supporting a collective of “former workers” supporting themselves in the face of long-term unemployment. Finally, we heard about Sculo Vive, an organization of people with disabilities, that instigated their own garden. His warning with researching informal gardens and activism is that the informal can sometimes lead to a celebration of informal in-and-of-itself through romantic description and urban populist ideology (they do not question the status quo). He claims that “city from below” type frameworks sometimes obscure the differences between various practices.

Hanoi – Le To Luong, a student in Germany, presented on park planning in Hanoi, Vietnam. Vietnam has, like most countries, rapidly urbanized, with a huge spike from 1996 onward from 20% of the population to 50% of the total population in 2010. This has resulted in the loss of Urban Green Areas (UGA). Her research focuses on the “lifestyle” changes that have accompanied this shift. She looks back to 1848 when there was an emperor, and there were no “public parks” (they were gated), then after French colonization they introduced some French-style parks that were not immediately warmed to, though now they are so overused those same parks have become in short supply. With the rise in elderly population, she expects these future retirees will only increase that demand.

Dondo – Mozambique is a former Portuguese colony and thus appropriate as a focal point for Céline Veríssimo, a researcher from Portugal working in the UK.  As the country has shifted towards a neoliberal (deregulation and privatization), the informal settlements have grown immensely. She uses a “political ecology” lens to look at the residents approach to food production, increasing in response to growing food insecurity. In order to survive, formerly rural peasants/residents with an “innate connection to nature” have attempted to recreate the countryside food production, shade trees and fruit trees in the city – on the edges of the traditional core “concrete city” (most of the informal settlements are not built from cement, so it has a quite different form of organization and aesthetics. She estimates that 89% of food production in the city is informal, and most of that is happening in people’s commonly held yard space. The so-called “slums” have an incredibly pleasant appearance that is very green, shaded, and encourages an active social life much more intensely than in the core city. Her research has concludes that these “new modes of production are combined with ancient knowledge based on a socially and ecologically regenerative model of society.” She thinks these practices can “increase urban resilience” in the face of austerity and ecological crisis but in order to expand it will require “institutional, scientific and professional support for a democratic and ecological urban paradigm shift.”

Rio de Janerio and Lisbon – Marianna Monte does a comparative analysis of public gardens and markets in these two historically linked cities. She argues for social criteria to be used in who gets permits to do urban gardening in a case study in Lisbon – but now that is not the case, it is essentially first come and first serve. The same applies to legal street vendors in Rio, which have experienced since the 1990s a formalization of the popular market area. This is particularly interesting at this time because Rio is hosting the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics just two years after that. So their land-use policies  need to be watched carefully.

It is hard to go in very deep to any of the places in a 15minute presentation, and much harder in my attempt at summary. Still, I hope you enjoy the whirlwind tour and follow-up with some of these promising young researchers.  As they say, Obrigado! – Daniel Tucker

[Acknowledgements: Thanks to the conference organizers, the chair of this panel Stefania Barca, and University of Illinois at Chicago for supporting my travel.]

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