Paris residency

EcoDA Report, R-Urban Paris case study, June 2016

Currently attending Sheffield School of Architecture I am a member of Irena Bauman’s thesis studio. As part of the ‘building local resilience’ focused studio my dissertation research explores how local-scale Commons initiatives can be up-scaled. I became aware of R-Urban and the work of the architecture practice AAA earlier this year, being able to visit the project in February.

R-Urban is an urban commons initiative started by AAA in 2011, in the northern Paris suburb of Colombes. The project tackles issues of sustainable community development through ecological resilience. It acts through resident-run ‘hubs’ to enable socio-economic opportunities for local residents and communities.

Community agriculture projects provide centres for ‘sociality, production, and cultural and intergenerational exchange’ (S. Federici, 2010, pg. 4) and are fundamentally based on the importance of social capital. The R-Urban agriculture hub, Agrocité, is a facility combining community allotments, kitchen, and teaching facilities. Enabling connections between individual R-Urban hubs and a wider network of commoning projects is crucial in order to create power through many bottom-up initiatives, which often find themselves struggling to up-scale.

In June I was given the opportunity to work as an assistant to Corelia Baibarac and Doina Petrescu on the EcoDA research project, as part of a research residence in Paris with AAA. EcoDA investigates how digital tools might enable urban commoning projects such as R-Urban to both self-manage locally and connect as part of trans-local networks, providing a platform to up-scale urban commoning processes. Using the internet as a ‘digital commons’, it aims to facilitate a social platform to collate and share knowledge across networks, encouraging a co-operative society that originates and is maintained from within community networks.

To address the need for both local and trans-local tools, the research was carried out in two parts. The first focused on the specific needs to facilitate the day-to-day self-management of Agrocité; and the second looked at identifying tools that could enable connections between similar local hubs in Paris, and potentially also with other urban commons projects in other cities (specifically, London and Bucharest, which are the other two EcoDA case studies).

Conducting participatory research at R-Urban has greatly informed my MArch dissertation which analyses and compares approaches to up-scaling taken by successful commons initiatives, with a view to identify and share cross-overs aiding the development of digital tools that enable the up-scaling of the Commons.

In the role of research assistant for EcoDA, I prepared for and participated in workshops with the local residents running Agrocité, at R-Urban Colombes. Collaboratively we analysed the information gathered, developing it into prototype tools, which were tested during workshops with potential users.

The tools were developed in a collaborative, co-designed methodological framework, which involved a series of participatory workshops held over the course of six weeks with a core group of local residents from the Agrocité hub. The workshops were used to inform and direct each stage of the project through open round-table discussion and activities.

The first workshop identified the areas that were problematic – the initial ideas stage. Directed by the previous workshops findings, we loosely devised five categories in preparation for the second workshop. We used printed prompts to encourage discussion about how the tools could address the problems and the types of interface these could have. Notes were written on large sheets under each category along with the most popular print-outs.

We then visualised this information into a mock-website format, thinking technically about how each tool would link to another and how the data could be logged, shared and navigated. The mock-ups were used to ‘translate’ information from these two workshops stages to Phillip Langley, EcoDA’s technical collaborator. From here we produced working digital prototypes that were tested in a third workshop.

Holding participatory workshops and designing the internet-based tools collaboratively was highly important for three main reasons.

Firstly, it tailored the tools to the exact needs of the participants, as they have experienced the site running ‘on-the-ground’ for three years.

Secondly, it gave an understanding of the process in identifying problems and using the specific tool to address them. Seeing the digital tools as having a positive effect in addressing ‘real’ problems added to a sense of usefulness and it is hoped that will encourage their continued use. This understanding of design process was especially important as the group of residents running Agrocité have little experience in using the internet and computer technology. Two of the challenges of the workshops were the digital and verbal language barriers (the main workshop language was French); however, with the use of printed visual prompts that explained each tool in a tangible form, we were able to record how the participants responded to certain interfaces. From this we could ascertain what style of data communication would be most effective also for communication across hubs located in different countries. Furthermore, it clarified that the majority of information should be visual based or translatable.

Thirdly, through participatory design we became aware of the level of complexity and purpose each tool should have. Ensuring that the tools were easy to use was paramount. Through simplifying the tools, we thought critically about what could be omitted and what could be combined. This left us with five main distinctive tools that worked in isolation at local level but could link up to a database of information which informs a wider network.

The creation of analogue mock-ups was instrumental to translate the information gathered at the workshops to the technical collaborator who used them as a starting point to further refine the digital tools. The resulting Agrocité hub toolkit is comprised of: an embedded twitter feed ‘recipe book’; events calendar; resource/resilience network location map; interactive garden planting map; and links to join the R-Urban community and petition.

The toolkit used existing social networking software such as an embedded twitter feed which can be used as a way of collaboratively creating a public archive (in the case of Agrocité, an archive of recopies or a ‘Recipe book’). The localised map is based on Ushahidi interactive mapping platform and can be used as a networking resource (eg, for excess ‘waste’ food deliveries or educational opportunities at schools). The calendar tool, which uses a free TeamUp calendar, and garden planting tool can be used to organise events and schedule garden works, thus aiding the organisation of the hub.

The practicalities of keeping digital day-to-day records in an agriculture/allotment environment are challenging. We considered producing analogue tools or print-outs which would keep weekly or monthly records to then be digitally logged, although with these tasks it is essential to ask who will take on this role.

The lack of internet competency in the group highlights a need for simplicity, accessibility, and a peer to peer learning framework. The Colombes model is interesting in that it needs to merge physical and virtual organisational methods to share knowledge online. If a digital framework is to be used properly it needs to be introduced at the start of a project and be maintained through usage. Additional workshops are being held for each of the tools, during which the residents learn how to use the tools and write their own ‘user guides’ so they can teach others.

Political and social frameworks that could help up-scaling commons projects are being tested through the creation of the latest implementation of R-Urban in Bagneux (a suburb in the south of Paris), which learns from and aims to improve upon the Colombes model. In Bagneux, the project is led by a network of well-established community groups at the forefront of the political and social issues in their local area. In this way, if the local political landscape changes there is a large and influential portion of voting residents to appease which may ensure the longevity of the project. This wasn’t the case in Colombes where the newly elected municipality are actively trying to demolish and sabotage the project, preventing it from functioning to its full potential.

The tools developed by EcoDA will be available as a hub management ‘starter kit’ that will provide framework and guidance; allowing them to further test, adapt and improve the R-Urban model. The tools designed by EcoDA are to be replicable, and although prototyped and tested in the context of R-Urban, are to be used and adapted by other initiatives connecting them as part of a wider and more diverse commoning network. The transfer of information between initiatives will test how the Commons can function as an up-scaled trans-local model.

My experience in Paris was highly informative; it has shown me the importance of working collaboratively, to be adaptable, and open to improvement through failing; skills which are highly significant especially in the face of increasing global tensions and environmental degradation.

In terms of my own dissertation research, participating in the EcoDA research project has allowed me to form a deeper understanding of R-Urban’s context, both cultural and political, which has informed and guided their approach to up-scaling. It also gave me the opportunity to work in an environment based on the Commons values that I am analysing, experiencing how an alternative society structure could work.

Harriet Francis

Federici, S. (2010) Uses of a WorldWind, Movement, Movements, and Contemporary Radical Currents in the United States, edited by Craig Hughes, Stevie Peace and Kevin Van Meter for the Team Colors Collective, Oaskland: AK Press.