14 March 2021

Urban Expansion and Agricultural Land. Should we agree to sacrifice workers’ gardens in Aubervilliers on the altar of the 2024 Paris Olympics?

Paris has started to prepare itself for the 33rd modern Olympic Games in 2024.

At Aubervilliers: workers’ gardens are under threat

Preparatory works are already beginning to take shape in Seine-Saint-Denis, the poorest county (‘département’) in mainland France. Some of these raise difficult issues, such as the construction of a swimming pool for training of athletes which would involve the destruction of the “Vertu” workers’ gardens – the equivalent of ‘allotments’ in Britain – , beside the national highway.

The gardens which were established in 1935 are now being threatened by a possible sun parlour and an aquatic games complex, which would extend over 2.5 acres of land. The gardeners, who have formed an association, accept that, as there is no swimming pool in Aubervilliers, this could be justified. However they feel that the sun parlour could be built on the roof of the swimming pool so as to safeguard their gardens, that provide a valuable green space and a place for relaxation on the banks of the river and also serve them as a source of healthy food.

There is a rumour now doing the rounds that, even if they escape possible damage from the Games, they may face the threat posed by a plan for the development of Aubervilliers Fort after 2024.

France has set a goal for zero net growth in the area of farmland converted to non-agricultural use between now and 2050, but the chances of attaining this seem to be receding

All this is going on at a time when we never stop talking about the potential for urban agriculture and that we should make use of roofs, walls (used for vertical agriculture) and green spaces.

How can one call for the development of new forms of urban agriculture while happily closing down those that have already been running for decades when, just 2 years ago in 2018, the French government committed itself to aim for a zero increase in conversion of land out of farming?

In a report (in French) issued towards the end of 2020, the National Court of Auditors (Cours des comptes) deplored the fact that in just ten years over 2.3 million acres of farmland had been lost to other uses ‘mainly urban spread, linked to transport and infrastructure development’. According to this same report, “about 70% of the affected area consists of high quality agricultural lands”.

The area of land in France that is used for farming has been steadily falling in recent years. In 1950, it still accounted for 63% of the national land area. This has dropped to 54% in 2000 and 52% in 2018, indicating that the trend is slowing down. However, it continues to be far short of the ‘net zero’ target promised for 2050, the date at which every acre of lost farmland must be compensated for by an extra acre being farmed or upgraded for more productive use. This implies that the loss of an acre of highly productive land, rich in biological activity, must be replaced by the creation of an equivalent area.

Throughout the world, urban spread will have a negative impact on farm output

At the global level, there are no complete figures on urban encroachment that make it possible to judge the scale of the problem even if it is so evident at the local level.

The work undertaken by C. Bren d’Amour et al., in 2017 probably provides the best indication of the future consequences of the expansion of towns on agriculture. Christopher Bren d’Amour and the group of scientists around him claim that urban development is a particular cause for concern when the expansion of towns is at the expense of some of the best agricultural land in the world. This is especially worrying in Africa and Asia, regions in which we are seeing the emergence of megacities.

The authors envisage that there will be a global loss of between 1.8 and 2.4% of land used for agriculture between now and 2030. This would amount to around 75 million acres or around 3 times the total area of land used for agriculture in the UK. The bulk of this loss (some 80%) would be in Asia and Africa. Given that converted lands can be assumed to be 1.77% more productive than the world average, this could result, by 2030, in a reduction in world agricultural production of between 3 and 4% compared with 2000. It is worth noting also that some 60% of the global area under irrigation is located close to cities. In Asia the countries most affected by conversion of land out of agriculture will be China, Vietnam and Pakistan, with losses of between 5 and 10%. In Africa, the Nile Delta in Egypt will be most seriously affected. In the global context, China will account for about a quarter of the total loss.

One can well understand that the expansion of agriculture at the expense of forests is not without risk [read]. However, safeguarding the sustained use of existing agricultural land will become a critical issue and, in this context, the growth of urban zones poses an existential threat that needs to be taken very seriously. It requires the creation of a capacity for rethinking the directions of urban development and how this can be better integrated with rural landscapes.

The problem certainly needs to be addressed at global and national levels but, above all, we must begin to confront it locally in our immediate surroundings when it affects even as little as two and a half acres of workers’ gardens.

Original article in French, kindly adapted

by Andrew MacMillan


To know more :

Listen to :

  1. É. Chaudet, JO dans le 93 : des jeux et des jardins, Les pieds sur terre, France Culture, 2021 (in French).

Read :

  1. C. Michelin, Politique foncière - Atteindre « zéro » artificialisation nette en 2050,, 2020 (in French).

  2. Cour des Comptes, Les leviers de la politique foncière agricole, 2020 (in French).

  3. C. Bren d’Amour et al., Future urban land expansion and implications for global croplands, PNAS, 2017.


Selection of past articles on related to the topic:

  1. COVID-19: Is agriculture the main culprit? 2021.

  2. Urbanisation of hunger: the rural drift drives hunger to the cities, 2019.

  3. Implementing the ecological transition : the example of Totnes in the United Kingdom, 2019.

  4. Land: an unequally distributed, threatened but essential resource, 2013.


Last update:    March 2021

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