PARCKFARM AS CONCRETE UTOPIA

woensdag 11 februari 2015 01:11

For
Petra, Thierry, Louisa, Andrea, Ruth, Abdel, Mo-Mo, Supermarcel, Tessa,
Driss, Aline and all the others. (As
well an open letter to Hart Boven Hard and even Bart De Wever)

This
summer, a tiny public park, situated on a railroad bed behind the mighty Thurn
& Taxis-site,
was one of the most beautiful places of Brussels: Parckfarm. The artificial
railroad valley, situated in a bend on the border between Laeken and Molenbeek
and crossed by three old bridges, monuments with all of the charm of industrial
archeology, makes for a beautiful post-industrial landscape. A piece of
neo-nature.

From
underneath the foremost bridge, the Jubileumbridge (on the equally named lane),
you get an enchanting view of the skyline of the Nord Quarter… The creation of
the park has embellished the site and opened it up: a long winding acces path
from the side (near the second bridge), near a well
used playground just outside of the park, slowly leads the visitor down to the
flat portion under the bridges… Important to know is that the site is part of a
planned linear park that will stretch from the canal to the city hall of
Laeken. It is this, that gives Parckfarm its key position.

Architects
would call it a ‘residual space’ or rather an ‘interstitial space’, an in-between
space, like a dead end or a impasse in the urban fabric, a crack or gap in the
territory, a terrain vague, an undefined terrain, and thus, a place of
endless possibilities. At places like this, much more happens than you might
think. There was, for example, well hidden on the top of the slope past the
first bridge, since several years a self organising allotment garden. Some
homeless people found their shelter, yes, their home, in Parckfarm; one near
the first bridge, another underneath the third bridge. And for children and
youngsters from the neighbourhood, the area was a natural playground.
Especially the little signal tower of the old customs Thurn & Taxis has had
a lot to endure, but even after a fire, three homeless people live here… (Sex,
drugs and other rock’n roll that shouldn’t see the light of day will probably
been here at home like in any other wasteland).

Allotment gardens 2.0

Parckdesign
2014, the second edition of a city festival about public green space initiated by
the Brussels Institute for Environmental Management (BIM, also know as Bruxelles
Environnement
or IBGE: Institut Bruxellois pour la gestion de
l’environnement
), was curated by the architect bureaus Taktyk &
Alivearchitecture and a couple of artists. Under their direction, the local
residents and activists, combined with landscaping architects, artists and all
kinds of collectives and many, many volunteers, transformed the residual space
into a real public park, no, sorry: an urban farm garden, a park for
urban gardening
. In short: Parckfarm. Later on, an acces was added: a
walkway the level of the first bridge. This summer, this almost idyllic
post-industrial landscape was the set of an unique initiative in which
government, professionals (artists, architects), volunteers and local residents
have found each other.

To
give an idea of what was going on, let me give you an – incomplete – overview.
Ruth and Tessa, two local residents, together with an architect and many
helpful hands, have built Kotkot, a henhouse of clay with an organic form,
prehistoric and modern at the same time. Abdel built an oven, in which everyone
could bake bread or pizza; an oven which, with its spherical shape (with a ball
on top) echoes the onion-shaped ends of the pillars crowning the big bridge. He
also let a sheep or two grazing near the Kotkot. Next to the first bridge, a
new ensemble of allotments was made, situated next to the oven of Abdel. There
was a dry toilet, not unimportant in a public space, but especially crucial
here: an ecological toilet (with slides as exits) that transforms human waste
into useable compost, truly a vital invention for the survival of an over
populated, rapidly urbanising human species. Short, closed ecological circuits
is what we need to make.

The collective that built the impressive toilet with
the catchy name Collective Disaster, first wanted to call their first
edifice ‘The Temple of Holy Shit’, but non of the three key words were
acceptable to the neighbourhood, so it became ‘L’usine du Tresor Noir’ (The
Factory of the Black Treasure). On the 20th of September, the end festival, the
collective stirred the composting manure for hours upon hours. It reminds me of
Walter Benjamin’s saying that it is the ‘new barbarians’ who face the future of
humanity, how perilous it may be, laughingly. Ecology, but with a serious dose esprit
dada
. In the late hours after the festival, I immediately offered myself as
corresponding member.

But
not everything can happen simultaneously. The tea house of Mo-Mo, which, at the
back, gives out onto the park, was in the preparation of the project a
conference room, and on my first visit, the (rear) terrace was one of the most
beautiful places of the whole park as you had a nice overview in the shade
between Moroccan men who smoked and drank mint tea and were happy to see a
Caucasian visiting. So I was a strong supporter of the further construction of
the terrace, but that was not allowed, with the result that the patio was
completely closed (it was on the site of the henhouse and the sheep, which did
not make it easier).

Parckfarm
is not only an ecological laboratory but also a social laboratory, a place to
mix cultures. Because mixing is something we humans are not good at. It is in a
park, in a ‘heterotopia’ as Foucault would say, in a place that is extra-ordinary,
outside the everyday, in that ‘other space’ (hetero-topos), things are
possible. Things such as smoking and drinking tea together with unknown
Moroccans. (There several Moroccan terrace around the corner, but I do not go
there, no time, I don’t make it, these are no magical places…)

A
greenhouse, a reconstituted readymade, became the center of the entire park, The
Farmhouse
, a cafeteria with local produce. Next to that, a huge table with
edible bushes in the middle, built by members of the curatorial collective, for
the encounters of the visitors… There also was a beekeeper collective and even
our students built something there, in the evening the Electric Rainbow
Farmfair lights up (a beautiful lighting under the Jubilee Bridge) and so on.
Anyone who wants to know more should visit and can also browse the site of
Parckfarm (for all projects and names). Just do it. The Farmhouse stays open on
weekends if enough people keep coming. This way you might do something good in
your weekends!

Ecologic urban commons as a concrete utopia

Now,
at this moment in history, eco-social heterotopian practices are really vital.
Creating a melting pot of different cultures is not easy, there must be a
special place, and Parkfarm did the trick. This really was an exercise in
globalization, superdiversity and ecological transition, which deserves our attention
and our respect (because, obviously, it was and is very intensive for those
involved). Beware, there was ambition. A van introduced the products cultivated
in Parckfarm or ready-made products into markets and elsewhere. The Farmtruck
was a mobile kitchen and a place for events… What in turn shows that such a
project is an economic utopia of workable co-operative production. DIY farming,
DIY processing, DIY selling, all locally and all in co-operation.

Small
wonders is what we need. Most touching was that one of the homeless people, who
at first was not happy seeing all these people in his backyard (even the
homeless are potential nimby’s, and who will blame them), now is a
day-and-night guard and handyman for the whole terrain, which earned him the nickname
Super Marcel. Now this I call integration!

The
good news came late September during the final colloquium: Parckfarm would not
end with the end of the summer festival, but got another year and minimal
supervision. Hurray! We can only hope that Parckfarm survives. In one way or
another. It can be an important link, even the node, but also a model for the
linear park that will stretch from the Canal all the way up to the Bockstael
square.

Places
like Parckfarm where the ecological, urban agriculture, the social,
multicultural, superdiverse, the global and the local come together in a unique
way in a commons which really   deserves that name, a true urban commons
– places like this we should cherish. Cherishing it as those small, fragile
laboratories of the future – micro-politics for a sustainable policy. That is
why we need to give such initiatives every possible opportunity to continue. If
only, as I have done here, by looking to them in an optimistic frame.  Even if I am often branded as a doom thinker, an
alarmist, this makes my my heart melt (in other words, I would stir in the shit
to save this place. Be warned!). Because without this kind of laboratories, the
future looks like hell (but I promised not to play the alarmist). Ecological
crucibles of cultures are – at this time in the history of mankind –
‘enterprises’ (not business, but adventures) that could be vital to neighborhoods,
suburbs and cities in general.

Whoever
(in the context of Hart Boven Hard or whatever) is looking for practical
alternatives to the repressive neoliberal urge for continuous austerity
policies (to make the profit of the few grow), should come here. It exists.
Here and now. And it is for everyone, everyone involved, the neighborhood, it
involves ecology, food sovereignty, environmental justice, transition, the
whole planet, a better model than the dangerous madness of the growth-economy
at this moment in history. Progress (Mister De Wever) can only be called
transition these days. Parckfarm is a little (not so little), concrete (very
concrete) utopia. Without much ideology or big words. I believe this is what
anthropologist Rik Pinxten calls ‘small revolutions’. Let’s just do it an keep
on doing it. Today Parckfarm, tomorrow the world*.

— 

*The
last slide of a beautiful lecture by world-renowned Doina Petrescu from AAA, Atelier
d’Architecture Autogérée
, in which she discussed three analogous projects
(urban farming, community building, local ecological circuits and social self-organisation)
was significant: from the first small network of 1 eco-hab (housing
unit), 1 ecocité, an allotment and 1 ecolab, a kind of cultural
center, there were thick arrows pointing towards the rest of Paris. The
message: these experiments can reproduce, can and should be echoed. Connecting
Parckfarm with the AAA and many other initiatives prove that this is a real
paradigm: models for transition on the level of the neighborhood. Creating
transition parks and transition neighborhoods is what we should do. “Today
Parckfarm, tomorrow the world.”

Lieven De Cauter  (Translated by Geoffrey Roose, pictures are mine, except overview from the bridge and crowd at night under the bridge)

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