MARSEILLE, France (AP) — When Yaizid Bendaif moved to the Cité SNCF public housing project seven years ago, he got 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 full of zucchinis, radishes and cabbage rows.
Bendaif, 62, is among a growing number of residents reimagining life in the French city’s troubled northern neighborhoods through urban agriculture.
From publicly funded drives to residents taking the initiative themselves, urban farming is changing the landscape and creating a space for community in an area long marred by social neglect and drug-related violence.
“I want people to be able to provide for themselves, to not have to depend on the state or on an outside structure,” Bendaif said. “Farming our own food is exactly that. When we bring this back, we also bring back all kinds of social bonds that have been quickly disappearing.”
Mahdi, an Egyptian immigrant who works as a painter at a Marseille cinema, serves tea to his garden neighbors after spending the morning digging.
His neighbor Mustafa only has time for his garden on weekends. He dresses for gardening in a tracksuit stained with oil from his car repair work. And while he loves growing vegetables, he grumbles about the rats.
“There are rats everywhere. They will always be a problem,” Bendaif conceded. “You just have to keep working.”
He and his wife, Samia, say they have become self-sufficient from their produce. The couple have crates of tomatoes and cabbages in their home. A table covered with drying peppers sits in a guest room.
At the nearby Frais Vallon housing project, Houaria Belmaaziz gently plants a pea seed in a small garden shaded from the sun by four enormous residential towers. She repeats the process until her cup of seeds is empty.
Since the creation of the shared vegetable garden for Frais Vallon residents, Houaria has been a regular, growing ingredients to cook for her family. She brought her gardening skills from growing up in the Algerian countryside.
“People come together here… to grow vegetables, take care of the plants, and that starts discussions, connections between people,,” says Jeanne du Cos de St Barthelemy, co-founder of Des Terres Intérieures, an association that created the Frais Vallon garden hand in hand with residents.
Over 25 urban farming projects have sprouted around Marseille in recent years, amid growing nationwide awareness of environmental issues and interest in healthier food. The green spaces are especially welcome in Marseille’s concrete-dominated northern neighborhoods, where the poverty rate’s near 50%.
The Workers Gardens stand on a hilltop overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Railway lines and highways intersect the tower blocks. Above it all, French military veteran Joel Schaegis, 56, tends to what he calls his “little paradise,” roughly 50 square meters (540 square feet) of hillside that he has made his garden.
The gardens alone won’t solve the neighborhoods’ ills — Schaegis says he plans to leave the projects when he retires because they’ve gotten too rough. But they provide hope, and respite.
“Hiking up through the garden entrance at sunset is like being teleported to another world,” he says.