City dwellers are turning to the pleasures of the natural world as an antidote to urban stress. We uncover the green shoots of renewal in Paris, Munich and Beirut.
A good dose of greenery brings a city to life. Sometimes we have intelligent urban planning policies to thank for a verdant urban fabric; in other cases it’s green-thumbed guerrilla gardeners who are taking the improvement of their cities into their own hands. In the best cases it’s a team effort with mayors and citizens alike getting their gloves on, diving into some flowerbeds and getting dirty with the job of bringing some real greenery into the city.
And the result is abundant quality of life for residents and visitors alike, and a greater pride in the city experience enjoyed by all. Across these pages we meet the park-makers warding off the damage that the spread of concrete can create by weaving beautifully formed green spaces into the mix – from plant plot-laden Parisian promenades to Munich parks designed and built to long-outlive their makers.
Jean Paul Potonet plucks a sprig of mint that nestles against the foot of a chestnut tree in the 19th arrondissement of Paris and gives it a sniff. “Before, this was all covered in cigarette stubs and litter,” he says, gesturing towards the dozen circular gardens along the road that burst with flowers and herbs. “We’ve changed that. We created biodiversity but also something that the community can enjoy. It’s about appropriating the space.”
His neighbour Christine Codina and her partner Daniel Chauvancy are also here, watering cans poised. Under a dozen trees along their road there are similar gardens. “It’s about bringing the green from the parks and creating an ecological corridor,” says Codina, who runs the association Paris en Fleur, which has been co-ordinating these gardening efforts. “Only last week I saw a butterfly here; there are bees pollinating. We want to bring nature into the street. It’s for children, for families, it’s changing the urban mindset.”
Paris’s chestnut, ash and lyme trees have inspired authors such as Proust and Hemmingway but at ground level the circle of soil or grill that covers their roots is often strewn with detritus. That’s beginning to change since Paris’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, launched a scheme that allows the city’s residents to apply for a “permit to vegetalise” plots in the city. Citizens can personally take over the base of public trees and turn them into gardens. They can also install tubs and planters in public spaces. The mayor’s office will provide them with soil and seeds.
Many Parisians have leapt at the chance. Even along busy thoroughfares there are lovingly tended plots. On and around the Avenue Parmentier in the 11th arrondissement there are creeping clematis and elegant delphiniums and one verdant thicket designed to be self-sufficient. One man even installed a rabbit hutch but found opposition from locals who formed a group called “liberate Voltaire le lapin.” (They succeeded.)
The “licence to vegetate” initiative is part of Hidalgo’s campaign to green Paris by adding 100 hectares of vegetation on the city’s streets, walls and roofs. The plan strives to soften the image of the city and is also aimed at cooling Paris where pollution, urbanisation and global warming conspire to create unpleasantly high summer temperatures.
The greening programme involves the creation of 30 hectares of public gardens, the planting of 20,000 trees and 200 re-vegetation projects. In all this, the permit to vegetalise stands out. “It is a revolution,” says Cyril De Koning, who heads up a collective garden. “Paris has a very different mentality when it comes to gardening; it’s more rigid, ordered and pruned. But with this it’s changing.”
De Koning’s collective of 150 gardeners were granted permission to garden in a small park opposite the Eglise Saint-Ambroise previously considered an urban trouble spot. “This used to be the pits,” he says as he weeds a bed of climbing barley. “No one came here.”
Today the square is full of families and couples sitting on the grass. The homeless community that once made the square seem threatening is still here, though its members are gardening under the tutelage of Cyril and his colleague. The collective will soon be given a home across the street in a newly created park on the l’Impasse Truillot. “Our aim is to connect the parks,” says De Koning, “Ultimately it’s about creating urban biodiversity.”
Green fingers seem to be a little contagious in Paris. As micro-projects set an example, bigger gardens are springing up. Even the city’s big companies are getting involved. On the zinc roof of the Le Bon Marché department store on Rue de Sèvres, a large gardening project with troughs and tubs is reserved for staff who work below. At lunch, and before and after work, they can be found tending to tomatoes and herbs.
Laura Monerris, who runs the internal communications team, says the space has transformed her day. “Just coming up here to tend the plants is fresh air; it’s contact with nature. It changes your attitude.”
For many years, Parisians have been content with an ordered and elegant version of nature. Yet it seems there is a desire to dig, cultivate and wild the city.
All this could have a powerful social effect. Gardening is bringing together colleagues and neighbours who rarely spoke before they picked up a trowel. City Hall’s willingness to take the aesthetic risk of having a few eccentric or untended sites is also significant. (Public gardening plots can be vandalised or simply abandoned.)
The green commitment from residents, businesses and politicians gives a sense of civic purpose back to Parisians. These earthy interventions might be small but they may transform the look, feel and philosophy of the French capital.
Pavement planting in Paris: our handy guide to ‘vegetalising’ your favourite street corner
Find a public spot
It can be anything from a bare wall to an unloved corner or the foot of a tree.
Apply online to City Hall and wait a maximum of one month for a permit
Keep it green
Sign a ‘revegetation charter’ that commits you to use indigenous and bee-friendly plants that favour the biodiversity of Paris, not to resort to pesticides and promise to water and maintain your plants.
City hall will send you a starter kit (with top soil and seeds) but the rest is up to you.
Keep it up: this permit lasts for three years but can be revoked.
A pillowy quilt of cloud that had shadowed Munich in the morning has dispersed above the nearby Bavarian countryside. The mercury rests in the twenties and sunlight is glistening along the roofs of the Olympic Stadium. An elderly lady dismounts her bicycle and finds a patch of green on one of Olympiapark’s hills sloping down to the lake. Down on the lake, ducks avoid an oncoming pedalo captained by an eager six-year-old, while over the hill a trainer calls for “einer noch!” (another one) from his ruddy-faced trainee.
On a Friday afternoon, Munich’s Olympiapark is a hive of activity. The permanent crew of 11 gardeners have knocked off for the week, the clipped lawns a testament to their daily labour. Maintaining this behemoth plot in the city’s north involves a delicate dance between three parties. Two are from city hall, the official custodian, with responsibility split between an 85-person team at Stadtwerke München and 140 staffers at Olympiapark München. The former is dedicated to logistics while the latter focuses on the commercial side (to subsidise running costs). The third member in this arrangement is the original architects and their surviving firms. These disparate institutions are working towards one goal: to get the venue Unesco World Heritage status (they applied earlier this year). With the park’s popularity growing, there could hardly be a better time to see this piece of urban planning recognised globally.
When Munich was named as the 1972 Summer Games host, the government sought to show the world how far removed these Olympics would be from Hitler’s 1936 Games. It wanted to make the changes playful, practical and long-lasting and for the Games to reflect the country’s open-minded era.
A former military airfield was earmarked for the Olympic site and German firm Behnisch & Partner won the contract to remodel the plot. With input from well regarded names of the time – Frei Otto, Carlo Weber, Fritz Auer, Winfried Büxel and Erhard Tränkner – the architects led a project to transform this pile of rubble into a rolling green playground. Within this undulating landscape they nestled the sporting arenas and topped them with polycarbonate tensile cocoons. The dramatic peaks of the buildings and the artificial hills mimicked the topography of the nearby Alps.
“It’s a green island that welcomes the city in, rather than just a block of buildings,” says Philipp Auer, managing director of Munich-based architecture firm Auer Weber and son of Olympiapark architect Fritz Auer. “The concept was to open the edges of the park up to the city.”
After the 1972 Summer Games, Olympiapark was transitioned from sporting arena to public park. In 2017 the total number of annual visitors was estimated to be upwards of eight million people, half of whom used the sporting facilities or attended one of the 400 events in the venue’s calendar.
“Although the venues and the park are more than 45 years old, it is still a unique place,” says Marion Schöne, the director of Olympiapark München. “The figures show that we’re the most visited Olympic Park in the world. The different uses, the variety of the venues and the facilities make our park very special and still relevant,” adds Schöne.
This ability to stay relevant stems from the savvy vision implemented in the 1960s by Behnisch & Partner. But the journey hasn’t been without roadblocks. To adapt to a constant stream of events, the parkland has been inhabited by temporary fencing and structures. “It was always meant to be a park that was landscaped to be used,” Auer says, understanding the need to make it economically viable. “But it’s a struggle to keep it close to the original design when trying to fit in a sausage stand.”
In 2017 a public outdoor gym gifted by German health insurer AOK opened to the north of the lake. Even with costs covered it took two years to be approved. Similarly a conversation about updating graphic designer Otl Aicher’s signage began three years ago. So what does it take to find middle ground between the government-funded bodies and the architects? “Discussion, discussion, discussion,” says Tobias Kohler from Olympiapark München.
Still, the passion shown by all parties is admirable: in the past 15 years Olympiapark München and Auer Weber have partnered to add an aquarium, additional sports hall, restaurant and police office to the site. “The park has the possibility and opportunity to change; it wasn’t designed to be stuck in 1972,” says Auer.
All three bodies overseeing the park are excited at the prospect of Unesco World Heritage status. “On the one hand there are lots of regulations we have to follow and on the other hand we keep the original architecture and design alive and this is our unique selling proposition,” says Schöne. “We want to hand the park down to future generations.”
Look skyward in Beirut and you will likely see billowing greenery spilling from balconies of both villas and apartment blocks. White jasmine flowers creep from trellis on restored Ottoman-era mansions; ferns lean from the curved balconies of art deco-style buildings; grassy tufts sprout from brutalist towers, as if they have grown hair.
In a city suffering from a public-space crisis – there are next to no communal parks, let alone planted ones – balconies have become verdant refuges. They are not only practical in that they improve air quality and provide shade; they also reflect the Lebanese capital’s manifold personalities.
On Rue du Liban, in the district of Gemmayze, an elderly lady in red smokes a cigarette on her tiny square balcony. In this warm Mediterranean climate, artists’ studios are framed with palm trees while other balconies have become vegetable patches where owners lovingly tend to tomatoes, beans, parsley and coriander. Banana leaves sway in the slight breeze as spring segues to summer. As the months progress, the orange and lemon trees in oversized terracotta pots will turn balconies into small citrus groves.
Some planting efforts are organised to help residents create privacy. The city’s elite hire designers to form green cocoons for their wraparound balconies.
“In Arabic we have the word a’jja, which describes the crowded, polluted bad side that we all know of Beirut,” says Sarya Martin, who runs a garden design business with her mother Roalla El Hoss. “Greenery gives you a break from the horn-beeping and the shouting – the a’jja of the city.” One client’s balcony, spread over two floors near the Sursock Museum in the district of Ashrafieh, is lined with fat succulents, pomegranate trees and hibiscus flowers. Beyond these soft walls, Martin points out several other balconies overflowing with greenery. One apparently belongs to a wealthy Lebanese businessman: the explosion of foliage and flora guards the home more benevolently than Beirut’s security patrols.
Meanwhile, other balconies spill out over Beirut’s streets, softening the city’s less appealing landmarks: harsh concrete pavements, badly parked cars and tangled electricity wires. While Lebanese authorities have failed to create green space, residents’ balconies organically create a more pleasant place to live and work. Fuchsia and scarlet geraniums sit primly in window boxes over shopfronts, throwing spots of colour and joy into the quotidian life of both owner and passer-by. At night, jasmine flowers line humdrum alleys with their intoxicating perfume. Night strollers chase the scent down the streets and the city becomes more beautiful.