PARCKFARM AS CONCRETE UTOPIA
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)