R-Urban Framework for Bottom-Up Urban Resilience

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= " ‘atelier d’architecture autogérée " ., on the R-Urban project in France


by Doina Petrescu and Constantin Petcou:

"Urban commons have to be understood, designed, supported and re-invented as part of a complex process of transition towards more resilient forms of governance of the cities. For this we need new institutions, new protocols, a whole new infrastructure and agents to manage this process. When we founded ‘atelier d’architecture autogérée’, a collective of architects, we asked ourselves what we as architects can contribute to this. We realised that designing and sustaining urban commons is a special challenge for architects: it obliges them to design collectively and accessibly. It requires them to take privilege and commodity out of design. In a long-term process of commoning, their design should assemble and mobilise, rather than segregate and exclude.

This was the motivation for atelier d’architecture autogérée when we engaged with urban commons. We started in 2001 with Ecobox, which was a community garden made out of recycled materials and a social-cultural center installed on a derelict site on Rue Pajol in Paris. We continued in 2006 with Passage 56 in the 20th arrondissement, which was a self-managed ‘ecological interstice’ instigating local ecological cycles in the neighborhood and enabling the production and recycling of most of its resources: electricity, water, compost and food. Although local, both of these self-managed projects generated local networks of urban commons, initiated by their stakeholders. In 2008, we imagined a strategy model called R-Urban as an open-source framework that enables residents to play an active role in changing the city while at the same time changing their way of living in it.

The ‘R’ in R-Urban stands for ‘resilience’, a term that we understood in relation with the capacity of communities not only to take risks, but also to transform themselves in the face of rapid global economic and environmental changes.

‘R’ also signifies ‘resourcefulnes’, situating resilience in a positive light and relating it to the agency of community empowerment. Within the R-Uban framework we wanted to create a network of bottomup resilience in order to give more agency to citizens and grassroots organizations around a series of self-managed collective hubs. These selfmanaged collective hubs host economic and cultural activities and everyday life practices that contribute to boosting the capacity of resilience within neighbourhoods. All of these hub also constitute a network of commons exploration, to develope and celebrate communities’ resources: space, skills, knowledge, labour and creativity.

R-Urban has been conceived and initiated by architectural designers, yet the framework itself is co-produced and open to a wide range of actors. The first step in the implementation of the R-Urban strategy is the installation of physical infrastructure that would create assets for these new self-managed collective hubs. This can be achieved by using available land as well as other existing assets that could be used temporarily. In these spaces, change can be initiated, tested, learned and practiced.

The second stage would involve stakeholders who could use the space provided to share resources and training materials. Other allied organizations and initiatives would also be able to be plugged into the proposed network of civic hubs. The strategy would enable locally closed ecological circuits at the level of the neighbourhoods, balancing the activities of production and consumption: CO2 emissions would be reduced, water and compost carefully managed and waste would be collected and transformed locally under the control of the people involved in the network.

In 2009, we succesfully pitched this model to the municipality of Colombes, a suburban city near Paris. We subsequently set up a partnership for a EU Life+ bid on environmental governance, with which we were successful. In 2011, we identified assets for three possible civic hubs: one for urban agriculture, one for recycling and eco-construction, and the third for cooperative housing. Agrocité was the first hub, which we set up on a social housing estate. The plot belonged to the city and would be available for about 10 years. Based on this projected timeline, we imagined a demountable building, alongside a 1700 square meter plot of land that would included an experimental farm, a community-garden and a pedagogical garden. Another building included a small market, a café, a greenhouse and educational facilities.

The building and the site would function themselves under principles of economic and ecological circuits. The architecture and spatial organisation were meant to reveal and showcase these circuits, which otherwise would have remained invisible. These circuits would be part of a network that performs at a local scale, with the idea that it could progressively scale up to city and regional level. We started with the community garden as a way of engaging with the local community and the first harvest took place before we began to build. For the construction of the building we used re-cycled materials to showcase the ecological principles on which the strategy was based. From the beginning, we had an economic concern about the function of the building. Our aim was to host explicit economic activities (such as a market or café) at the same time as collective activities that have to do with informal social economies, such as exchange of skills and knowledge and bartering.

We also prototyped a number of ecological devices. For example, we constructed a water-filtration device that was self-built with specialist help. It was the first of its kind in an urban setting. We also tested compostheating, green walls, drip irrigation and a rainwater container to collect and use rainwater. We compiled quite sophisticated studies on watering and cultivation techniques for the poor urban soil we inherited. Urban agriculture in densely built suburban estates is a completely new field of practice, which explains why many of these techniques and devices needed to be invented. Recyclab was the second hub we implemented, this time as a social enterprise. It is a recycling and eco-construction unit comprised of several facilities for storing and reusing locally salvaged materials, by transforming them into eco-construction elements. We set up a ‘fablab’ for residents to use. Both hubs were built with ‘reversable design’ on temporarily available public land. They could easily be relocated and rebuilt at any time. The reversibility is an ecological principle implying that the site can be repurposed by other urban programmes, according to evolving needs and conditions. The building itself can be dismantled and repurposed in a different context for different users.

The third hub, Ecohab, was planned to be a cooperative housing hub. Unfortunately, the project was blocked by municipal politicians."


* Chapter 8: Designing, Sustaining and Defending Resilient Urban Commons - by Doina Petrescu and Constantin Petcou

From the book: Our Commons: Political Ideas for a New Europe. Ed. by Sophie Bloemen and Thomas de Groot. Commons Network, 2019 [1]

See: Commons-Based Political Ideas for a New Europe