Part 3 Two case studies: bottom-up and top-down environmental forms

We now wish to present two case studies intended to illustrate this question of forms. The first is located in Montreuil, one of Paris' inner suburbs, and the environmental forms resulting from popular mobilisation, a bottom-up movement. The second focuses on greenways and wetlands, an environmental form that emerged at the heart of a top-down public policy. The following case studies have tested these theoretical statements. Our work to evaluate the environmental forms of the city of Montreuil places the latter within a co-production dynamic from which emerge environmental forms of all kinds – spatialized, but also narrative and cultural – from which know-how and visions of the world emanate. The latter, greenways and blueways, are the result of public policies and are part of an expanded register of connectivity.

Photograph 1. All photographs should be credited to Frédéric Barbe.

Photograph 2.


3.1 Montreuil, a suburbian city

Montreuil is currently the second-largest city in Seine-Saint-Denis département with over 100,000 people living in nearly 900 hectares. It is an inner suburb with a strong horticultural and industrial past that has densified and been radically transformed since the deindustrialisation of the 1970s (Photographs 1 & 2). The different names for Montreuil are a testimony to this multi-faceted construction of an extensive and complex social and urban fabric in Eastern Paris straddling major motorways and lying at the end of Line 9 of the Paris metro. Montreuil-sous-Bois, Montreuil-aux-Pêches, a traditional "red" communist bastion, the 21st arrondissement of Paris (there are only actually 20!), the second capital of Mali, as well as Bas-Montreuil and Haut-Montreuil, just Montreuil or, at various other scales a slew of local neighbourhood names (Morillons, Croix-de-Chavaux, Lanoue-Clos Français, Bel-Air, Murs à pêches, La Boissière) and street names (rue de Paris, rue de la Montagne Pierreuse, rue Saint-Antoine, etc). So it is definitely a very distinct city-suburb in terms of certain socio-economic features:  working class, creeping gentrification, multi-cultural, young, precarious and strongly linked to artistic and cultural professions.

This city has developed a strong environmental policy that has enabled recent landscaping developments of its urban space in its horticultural history. Apart from language (a vocabulary and its own expressions) and street names or neighborhoods (inspired by the names of gardeners or sites), the landscape of the city is strongly marked by this past, notably by its fragmentation of plot length, as well as by its multiple paths and walls. Under strong land pressure because of its proximity to Paris, the city nevertheless managed to obtain an urban landscape charter during public workshops held from 2011 onwards, and has put in place various tools for protecting ordinary biodiversity, in particular through citizen consultation and participation. Thus, the city of Montreuil has set up a photographic observatory with the help of the Ministry of the Environment which aims to create a landscape photographic database for analysing the mechanisms by which spaces have been transformed since 1997. This “photographic game” that invites you to take a step back from everyday life has enjoyed great public success and was published by the Musée d'Histoire Vivante in Montreuil under the title "Landscape Consciousness". Landscape immersion through sometimes naturalist photographic walks or school trips has made it possible to highlight the sensitive dimension of the urban space. Views were marked as were green public spaces. The greening program has been broken down into two types of proposals: the creation of shared gardens (collective gardens supported by an association and a charter signed with the town, which commits to gardening practices that respect the environment and accessibility criteria) for fallow land and open spaces of more than 150 m2, or allowing inhabitants to maintain so-called "residual" spaces (small spaces awaiting development, wastelands, areas under trees) by planting seeds and flowers, etc. The city can, depending on the case, dig trenches in the pavement macadam.

These approaches and this municipal voluntarism partly explain the idea of analysing the environmental forms of this territory to understand the mechanisms used to showcase environments. Contemporary ecological urbanism policies give more and more place to the idea of inhabitant participation, consultation and co-production. The aim of the study was to devise a more comprehensive approach to cultural ecosystem services based around environmental forms and their contribution to territorial “habitability” – i.e., removed from a purely pecuniary approach – in all the geo-historical richness of a diverse, changing Parisian suburb. The questions initially put in the field and to stakeholders (inhabitants, elected representatives and professionals, but also to non-humans) can be written as: how does nature make culture in Montreuil? How does nature make Montreuil habitable? We have considered the environmental forms observed on the ground, which have evolved in recent years under the pressure of ecology, as constituting moments and landmarks in the fabric of an ecological urbanism. We will successively examine the wastelands transformed into communal gardens, the pots of plants deposited here and there in the public space, the fruit and vegetable stalls often ignored as forms of nature in the city, and the forms of intermediation that are the living animal species in the urban area of Montreuillois.

Photograph 3.

Photograph 4.


These comprise primarily wasteland transformed into communal gardens. A significant quantity of "pending" wasteland (awaiting designation) is dotted around the landscape of Bas-Montreuil. Many built plots have been demolished because they were insalubrious or dangerous or to prevent squatting pending a development project – Montreuil is and was prime squatting territory. These surplus spaces worry residents and are a blot on the overall appearance of well-planned neighbourhoods. The city "unravels" in such places. Certain derelict plots look like islands inserted into an expanding urban fabric (Photographs 3 & 4). Plots with no design whatsoever emerge in the heart of built developments. Hybrid fringes – somewhere between nature and a built environment – create rural spaces that straddle land that has been colonised by major urban projects. Wastelands with their novel species, old stonework and waste are sometimes forgotten objects in the middle of patrimonial or renovated developments. Abandoned wasteland scattered throughout the national territory is often legally invisible. Consequently, tens of thousands of hectares disappear from the maps and coffers of institutions as a result of the powerlessness of a system that is a prisoner of its own abstraction (Degeorge, Nochy, 2009). 

Some of this wasteland is used for communal gardens at the initiative of the City or inhabitants themselves but many plots lie idle to be recolonized by uncontrolled vegetation. The temporary communal garden solution appears to have been considered as a means of participative management as well as a social demand for nature in the locality and outdoor sociability in a place that is neither public (fenced off and usually locked) nor really private (access may be obtained and is usually organised by the City), but which is "outside" (Photographs 5 & 6). We may imagine that one or the other of these actors (i.e., the City and its inhabitants) leads the other in a joint initiative that is at least temporarily in the interests of both.

Photograph 5.


This dynamic interacts with other lesser forms of greenery present in Bas-Montreuil, mainly comprising: potted plants on footpaths and the terraces of cafés and restaurants, flower beds and vegetable plots ("amazing edible" type [13]), creation of collective composting initiatives by associations, planting flowerbeds along sidewalks by taking out 20 cms along garden walls (with the City's permission), performative / educational use of wooden fences to regenerate a large number of small natural spaces, sometimes created by road improvement schemes ("PEPA", a French acronym standing for alternative small public spaces), road closure and green pedestrianisation. These environmental forms of social mix in Bas-Montreuil have been driven by the sociological transformation of the neighbourhood (Photographs 7, 8 & 9).

Referring to street hawkers' fruit and vegetable stands both restores the place of a certain form of little-observed "nature in the city", albeit a moribund nature on the verge of being devoured or decaying (or of a new life) (Photographs 10, 11 & 12). It also refers to nature dealt in by small business (or even very small informal vegetable selling businesses that are far less popular with the authorities). In order to treat our small businesses seriously, we asked them the appropriate series of questions. Do these tradespeople make Montreuil a more liveable place by giving such prominence to fruit and vegetables in public spaces? Is this nature turned into culture by virtue of a professional activity? When asked (very brief) questions about their stalls, street-sellers talk about tradition and something obvious that does not have to be justified. It's their job: "this is what we have always done". Does public health awareness threaten these ways of presenting natural produce?

Photograph 10.


We must also take into account the numerous living species present in the urban spaces which constitute intermediary environmental forms from a relational standpoint, somewhere between "wild" and "domestic" (parks, squares and gardens, pets and farm animals) (Photographs 13 & 14). These are common species in their commensal and well-accepted form: cats and pigeons as well as "wild grass" in its maximum extension, i.e., the tiers-paysage (third-landscape) seen as a combination of spaces comprising free nature and its movements bounded by anthropocenic constraints. The "free" animal is a "mongrel" category, meaning the accepted and frequently tamed (or tameable) animal, , but neither completely domesticated nor returned to a "wild" state. In other words "free" but possibly "alienated" from man (commensal, vaccinated, tattooed, sterilised, ringed, fed, housed, arrested, released and sometimes violently eradicated, etc.). Wild animals in the city, wild grasses, so-called "invasive species", an autonomous biodiversity, etc., conflict with modern standards of management, particularly all forms of public health awareness, cleanliness and order together with mineralization and waterproofing of contemporary urbanism (Photographs 13 & 14). Indeed, these products of modernity are always visible. For example, in contrast to trends observed elsewhere with regard to Montreuil's urban policy, renovation of the town centre has resulted in a new Place Aimé-Césaire that is highly mineralized and "nature-poor", surrounded by store franchises that contain much more artificial plants (in the pizzeria for example) than natural ones (Photograph 15). Rue Lumières, the nearby pedestrianised shopping street, has been developed in a similar manner.

Photograph 13.


The work carried out by associations focusing on "stray cats" which have now become "free cats" under the law (Article L211-27 of the French Rural Code rural, 1999) and due to changes in representation and practices, as well as on pigeons is more diverse and creates less of a fuss. But it is still just as important, given the role of pigeons and cats within the city. Part of this experience with associations is based on a long-standing professional investment in animal shelters backed by the strong grass-roots practice (measured pleasure during a long trajectory) of people and of animals. Native involvement appears strong in terms of spatial grounding, Bas-Montreuil, a Montreuil childhood, a neighbourhood; and social in terms of commitment to voluntary activities, political outlook and enthusiasm for equal dignity for all stakeholders. The two associations are renowned throughout part of the Paris suburbs (a population centre of around 500,000 people) for providing local authorities with a range of services for "well accepted" and "well organised" animal populations to facilitate emotional ties instead of gung-ho hygienist initiatives (eradication, "cat disinfestation"). For example, for cats, they offer actions to regulate populations (sterilisations) and track spatial redistribution (tattoos, animals released near the place of capture, network of feeders, cat shelters, welfare surveillance, awareness initiatives).

For pigeons, the task involves first becoming more familiar with and promoting awareness of populations and their living conditions, before coming up with solutions adapted to each territory along with local stakeholders (building nesting boxes and dovecotes, sterilisation, pigeon spikes, organisation of feeding). The terms "ecology reconciliation" and "urban ecology" are used in flyers. In Montreuil, we took a trip around the cat shelters: first an "invisible" and no doubt illegal shelter and then another that has been negotiated with great difficulty with the local council. Conventional relations with Montreuil Council fell victim to the arrival of the administration of Mayoress Dominique Voynet which has resumed traditional eradication practices according to the association. From the outside, these two associations along with la bergerie de Bagnolet would appear to point up conflicts between the quality of certain local initiatives and the difficulty in gaining recognition in situ from the institutional stakeholders of the commune in question, which for us is a contributing factor in the whole question of "lack of social trust". The question posed could be, in our opinion, “are cats and pigeons too popular for biodiversity?” The latter sheds interesting light on the positions of the two associations – "elitist biodiversity vs. popular biodiversity" – and the necessary blurring of the hygienist/harmful versus useful dichotomy. The association notes that it works much more with the hygiene service than with the environment department of the various communes. The experience also shows that these animals are helped especially by people from modest social backgrounds, particularly elderly working class and immigrant people. This example appears to highlight a cultural ecosystem service that has been rendered invisible by the socio-spatial conditions of its reproduction. The bonds with animals go back to duration (time) and to journey (space and distance), harking back to categories of ethno-psychiatry.

On the side of species reintroduced into urban space under environmental pressure in particular, there are sheepfolds and herds of domestic animals intended either for consumption or for new forms of maintenance of urban spaces. The urban sheepfold of bergerie urbaine des Malassis de Bagnolet and the two associations, Chats des Rues (street cats) and Association Espaces de Rencontres entre les Hommes et les Oiseaux (association that provides a forum where people and birds can meet) based in Montreuil, sponsor local, immediate initiatives in each commune, but they also intervene elsewhere in accordance with joint ventures and conventions signed with private or public partners. It appeared that these associations worked mostly in working class neighbourhoods and advocated a coherent approach to popular ecology through the importance they attach to inhabitants, while standing up for values that are not always dominant in these places. They offer a very useful and involved mediation service in order to create change and convergence.

Bergerie urbaine de Bagnolet is firstly urban entertainment in terms of the effect of surprise on the person discovering the spaces and relations for the first time. Located in the heart of the "physical" city where it was built without a permit during a period in which the municipal authorities were not really on top of things (the end of the previous political-legal administration), it is adjacent to a nursery school which gives it a lawn and access to water. A little further away, the grass lawns of the low-cost housing office (HLM) have been fenced off with its permission and a number of paths lead to and from the sheepfold. This “phantom space” in the shadow of a demolished tower block was in full use when we paid our second visit. The sheepfold is open during the day and lots of people come by, particularly after school.

All parts of Bergerie de Bagnolet appear to be places of great sociability, respected by people living around (no reported incidents of injuries to the animals) and, according to the shepherd, people see him working every day which helps forge respect (Photographs 16 to 20). The shepherd also explains that certain inhabitants come from places with a much greater animal presence in the street or in the family than in French suburbs. Therefore, there is both a mental and a technical closeness that mean for example that, rather than making cheese, he is more interested in selling goats milk to women who want to transform it in their own homes.

Photograph 16.

Photograph 18.


Faced with all these processes, we could tend to believe that "appropriating" nature (or "serving" or defending or even "messing it up" because this is our place) is an ordinary act of indigenisation that has put down strong roots in everyday Montreuil life. The head of one environmental association declares in an interview, in relation to the annual festive closure of the A83 Motorway, that "each ethnic group in Montreuil could have its own garden" as part of a big communal garden. Students are often presented with the example of the garden run by Malian women in Bas-Montreuil. Another association uses the vegetable garden (a "farm") in Murs-à-pêches to support the installation of a halting site for Rom immigrants (Écodrome).

Occupying a garden and having the keys based on permission accorded by the Council is possibly the same thing as squatting and working plots, acts that consume a huge amount of time and energy, (e.g., discarding and piling up waste), a singular means of appropriating nature indeed, much like smashing up a footpath in front of your house or feeding colonies of pigeons. In the working class areas visited, a municipal cleaning agent (off duty and looking just then like one of those "inner city youths”) told us they had been working that same morning in a particularly clean street in a smart terraced neighboured and that he had felt uneasy. He had felt as if he was suddenly in Paris. Everything was too clean, it wasn't right, it wasn't like here, it wasn't like Montreuil. Several times, better off respondents, expressing a mixture of doubt and pride, told us to go and take a look at the state of the streets at the juncture of Vincennes/Montreuil. This relatively less well-kept appearance and abundant vegetation running free could also be part of Montreuil's identity. Is it possible to lay claim to this while giving out about the municipality's failure to "look after" things?

The attention paid to these different forms of nature in the city highlights the division between learned and acceptable environmental forms in terms of public policies and other more informal ones referring to a qualified population of marginalized people. Therefore one cannot analyze the status of these environmental forms without wondering about the city as a human space and as a crucible of one's own species and spaces desired, or even controlled, at the expense of other forms described as unwanted.

After these few examples of environmental forms arising from popular ecology and a territory undergoing transformation under the influence of environmental policies, we now wish to briefly examine a public policy that involves creating environmental forms in order to effect socio-cultural urban transformations.

3.2 Greenways, a public policy

Green and blueways are examples of new spatial planning policies devised under pressure from environmentalists. Although they have been part of the urban planning tradition for more than a century for a variety of reasons (Arrif et al., 2011) such as their aesthetics or public health qualities (Ahern, 1995) they are still to become an integral part of urban policy in many countries. Environmental forms aim to organise the reproduction of genetic, specific and ecosystemic diversity, i.e., biodiversity, by means of a territorial grid (Forman, Godron, 1986). Aside from their professed contribution to citizen welfare in numerous different ways, they can also help to balance temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions and/or pollutants by cooling the atmosphere and trapping polluted particles. This is why EU countries have published rules and directives to encourage public policy to integrate Greenways at European level (Strategy for a European-wide Green Infrastructure in the context of post-2010 biodiversity European Commission Policy). French deployment of Green Infrastructure is reflected in the policy of creating greenways and it is one of the key points of the French Government's Grenelle round table on the environment: a national debate that took place in late 2007, culminating in the Grenelle I and Grenelle 2 laws (Law 2009-967 of 08-03-2009, and Law 2010-788 of 07-12-2010). These laws oblige each local government – from administrative region to urban municipality – to reflect on ways of integrating greenways into their local urban (PLU [14]) and metropolitan (SCoT [15]) planning in order to respect/create corridors that preserve links between natural spaces and help put a stop to biodiversity erosion.

Do blue and greenways comprise the "meta-form" of a social shift towards a generalised connectivity? We need to break out the components of greenways and wetlands that tend to support an ecological connectivity in a broad sense. First, developing blue and greenways relays a landscape ecology that nurtures a "landscape-type vision" of biodiversity. Second, blue and greenways benefit from a natural link forged between human communities in space and time by protecting nature. Third, from a visual perspective, mapping blue and greenways imposes a policy of relations between natural beings over and above administrative and national boundaries. Maps, drawings and diagrams that visually define greenways contain colour schemes linked by coloured lines. Indeed, deploying networks of natural spaces in the name of biodiversity preservation requires preliminary formalisation by means of an image. Generalised connectivity is contingent on drafting the form of a specifically defined network that transforms the concrete landscape and sets out the ordinary natural and built environment.

Consequently, the blue and greenway landscape, which appears diagrammatic at first, plays on abstraction in order to participate in a policy of forms. The call for papers for the March 2013 multi-disciplinary conference, "Greenways: The interconnected Pathways of Communication and the Environment" [16] at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, that brought together planners, writers and ecologists, highlighted the metamorphic aspect of this new policy:

Following the natural contours of the landscape, greenways are man-made paths that work to link human communities to the surrounding environment. In the same way, this conference seeks to promote connectivity between various disciplines and their approaches to the environment.

But what is the relationship between a politically orchestrated planning policy and the reality of this form on the ground?

The French research programme "Urban Greenways" (50 researchers, 11 social science and ecology research teams) conducted an evaluation of green urban infrastructures and proposed the development of a policy framework to guide the deployment of green infrastructure policy at local level. As well as other case studies, three French cities with very different urban cultures and environmental contexts were studied: Paris (Northern France), Marseille (Southern France) and Strasbourg (Eastern  France). We examined three categories of stakeholders involved in green infrastructure building: planners/inhabitants/scientists. We sought to ascertain which greenways citizens really dreamed of. Citizen discussion groups were organized [17]. The debates between participants showed us what they see as being part of an environmental aesthetic and point up a relationship to nature that is different from one city to another. Moreover, the opinions of inhabitants show that the green infrastructure they project (as natural networks within the urban fabric) are part of a particular ethic and hark back to the specific values of situations and urban forms, stories and cultures. 

Parisians are preoccupied with fauna and refer primarily to undesirable animals with strong links to humans (doves, rats). They demand that building managers limit their spatial development because they consider fauna as a potential parasite. Next, they speak of desirable animals such as squirrels, fish and rabbits. Even though Parisians would like more greenways, they cannot see how there could be place for these corridors or developments in a compact city. One Parisian remarked, "I guess that urban greenways are supposed to form grids and something that links the country to the city, but I cannot visualise that. I don't know what form that could take in a city like Paris.”

In Marseille, the issues are different and revolve primarily around public health problems. Green spaces mainly evoke questions relating to the treatment of waste (removal of waste and animal excrement) and keeping dogs on a lead. Environmental projects are not yet a priority for the inhabitants of Marseille who first need to deal with anti-social behaviour. Urban greenways are mainly bound up with the tramway built recently. Next, they are a potential link between the neighbouring hills and the town centre.

In Strasbourg, people are familiar with the concepts related to urban greenways (i.e., corridor, biodiversity). Strasbourg environmental groups explicitly refer to the expression 'greenway' (sometimes spontaneously, at the beginning of discussions). For non-ecologists, although the term itself is not specifically cited, the description of natural spaces clearly demonstrates this strong idea of continuity for the movement of plants and animals. However, it is when city dwellers use greenways in their day-to-day lives that they are best known, usually for "human" uses. Moreover, nature is a necessity and fulfills a key objective of urban living as revealed in the following comment: "I see nature in two ways: first in terms of observation – look at that space! Second in terms of "health". Observing and contemplating nature and making everyone part of this observation creates an urban fabric. The return of city to life."  As regards Strasbourg, urbanisation is not incompatible with the preservation of nature. Inhabitants are willing to change their transport mode and rethink the design of their city.

In these three cases, the environmental forms comprising greenways and wetlands show that they are more or less capable of transforming human lives.

Photograph 6.

Photograph 11.

Photograph 14.

Photograph 17.

Photograph 19.

Photograph 7.

Photograph 12.

Photograph 15.

Photograph 20.

[13] Nine plots of the 15 installed in 2013 are currently managed by the inhabitants and aid from the City is limited to providing mulch/mash.

[14] PLU (plan local d'urbanisme, in French) = urban planning map

[15] SCot: (schéma de cohérence territorial, in French) = metropolitan plan


[16] 2 Greenways: The interconnected Pathways of Communication and the Environment. A nexus interdisciplinary Conference http :// php. Consulted online on 22 May 2014

[17] In the three cities, 24 "discussion groups" comprising between 6 and 9 people each were set up. The discussion method group did not highlight the diversity of representations but the significant number of citizen participants (total of 160), the sampling technique and a certain redundancy in the comments encourage us to think that, despite the lack of representativeness, our findings may still be significant.

Photograph 8.

Photograph 9.