“The notion of bug is perhaps as virtuous as the notion of rationality”
Landscape architect and urban planner, Clément Willemin has completed more than 500 public spaces projects around the world. As a committed landscaper, this year he won the Urbanism Medal from the Academy of Architecture. A perfect patron to talk about participatory urban planning at Bug Me Tender.
Does a landscape architect, like any other entrepreneur, obliged to bug permanently to succeed?
I think so. I consider that my life and my activity are a long series of accidents. My job as a landscape architect is to put nature in the city which is already a paradox and it is based on a number of misconceptions. Nature itself is a succession of accidents, struggles and competitions.
In order to build an intelligent, connected or participatory city of tomorrow, must we automatically debug the software that has previously built our cities?
Knowing how to build the city is a bit of my job since landscape is integrated in a discipline called urbanism which has committed major damage, especially in the ’50s and ’60s. The most beloved cities were built globally without any design. Paris for example with its snail form, could not have come out of the head of its planner. An old village deep in the Corrèze is just a series of accidents and adaptations. When man started making drawings and plans, he did it a little bit violently. Then, modern urbanism with large cities for example, has done damage.
Today we live with the illusion that sustainable, contemporary and enlightened urbanism would do good, knowing full well that before, it has always generated more destructions than good. The urban planners and architects of today are not better armed than the old ones, who made the metropolises in which we suffer today.
All that we do today is by and large programmed obsolescence, absurd. We draw a street knowing that in 20 years, cars will not be the same at all. In addition, it takes 5 years to release a project: we are lagging behind uses, behaviours and urban practices. However, if we are smart, we can work with the concept of accident. It can be as virtuous as the notion of rationality. Moreover, artists only work with accidents. The skill of the urban planner, as with the artist, is to know how to work by incorporating accidents.
So according to you, urban beauty is accidental!
This is the paradox. We do everything to obtain a certain harmony knowing that if we really did what we imagine, it would be a nightmare. Nobody wants to live in a architecture model or in a dream of an urban planner.
Is not it a little bugging to set as many laudable goals for the city - to be a nurturing city, because it will host about 70% of the planet by 2030 and it must be perfect?
A farmer in France owns about 80 hectares of cultivated land, his average annual income is 800 € per month. Ideally, this agricultural activity should be transposed to a city where land is 25 times more expensive than rural and with additional needs, so it would not work. Urban agriculture does not work as it does not have an economic model.Often, when it is done in the city, it is but for the purposes of animation, education.
It's entertainment rather than utility?
Yes, unless we manage to pair it with a restaurant for example, but this is extremely rare. In the United States there are examples of city factories producing salads, cherry tomatoes, aromatic herbs. They sell them in luxury restaurants in Manhattan. This is the economic model of urban agriculture, so far from the one we imagine. When urban agriculture works by meeting the needs of autonomy, it’s a bug!
Speaking of garden, is the space available to create all this, not the main bug of the implementation the design, beautiful?
What is interesting with the management of space is that we are too numerous to share it. In very dense cities like Paris it is the public space that is in common. The nature that occupies it is ultimately the only thing that is shared. In this sense it is the only universal religion. The good news is that this public space is expanding, at least in Western Europe, with, for example, more and more pedestrian areas. We are witnessing the reconquest of industrial zones, railway and commercial wastelands. Retail loses 10% each year in favour of e-commerce, so yes, there will be more and more public spaces. How do we share it? In Paris, how can one extend his possibilities without stepping on oneself? Knowing that the public space is changing at a phenomenal speed. In the ’60s, cities were made for traffic and work, today we celebrate, we cook, and we flirt. It’s a theatre of experience. And in our society of leisure, this phenomenon will only flourish.
Accordingly, does the counter-bug already exist?
We will have to make sacrifices. This is my interpretation; it will not please everyone. I’m not saying it’s the truth, it’s just my point of view. We all know that in the face of global warming and the loss of biodiversity, meat consumption should be completely ceased altogether at the same time; secondly we have to give up airplanes which means staying and having fun at home instead of holidays in the Seychelles; third no more children because we will soon be 9 billion on Earth. But who is willing to give up all this? Surely not rich countries, but neither are poor countries. Young people? No.So it’s going to cause a huge bug.
We thought that talking about architecture and landscaping, we would find ourselves in a Black Mirror-esque dystopia...
Yet, we stay with urban architecture. If you stop eating meat, you will have to grow potatoes in your own garden which means stop being in an office, making a few phone calls and getting your pay at the end of the month.
I believe that the garden is the solution for man. That’s what can save us. The garden is the future, but it is also our past. We all come from the Garden of Eden in which there were trees of life and knowledge.
For the cities, the two major subjects in my opinion, and that I try to treat at all levels, that I make a small garden in a building courtyard or a 20-ha housing quarter, are first of all, the public spaces for people. There, it exists a big bug. And secondly, the question of biodiversity and climate: how can a city help save insects, birds and flowers? For example, as insects do not perceive red light, if we use this colour in urban space at night their cycle is not disturbed, and bats can continue to hunt. That’s what we test in certain neighbourhoods. On the question of gender proportion, studies show that women occupy 50% of public spaces and less. Why? Because when you are a woman there are neighbourhoods, places where during the day you do not go out. Recently, an elected representative from an average-sized town contacted me because in the city centre, women do not dare to go to places where men whistle and even insult them. Knowing that the vast majority of city budgets are devoted to investments that primarily serve young men, how to solve this problem of “gender budgeting”? I do not have any solution, I must admit.
Another important question is how can cities facilitate exchanges between citizens and promote self-organisation through spaces and habitats?
Today there is a movement that I call participatory urban planning. Urbanism is the power field of politics; we should put everyone round a table for everyone to express themselves. In my participative urban planning workshops, we avoid talking too much, we draw, we make models and it goes much better. Everyone draws with 4-color pens on cadastral maps. In Belgium with lots of people who do not speak the same language, it worked.
The paradox of participatory urban planning is that it is not by asking the opinion of the people verbatim that we obtain good results. Everyone wants the same thing concerning green spaces, birds and lawns. It is rather by being sensitive to accidents, by observing everyday practices.
One would still tend to think that on certain scales, this participative urban planning may seem utopian, just as for example, that the collective intelligence applied to a whole country or a metropolis ...
It may be a story of scale, indeed. That 65 million people opt for the decline, stop flying planes, eating meat and having children seems difficult to imagine. On the other hand, maybe communities, in the same fashion as May ’68, would be able to reinvent their ways of life, as for example the ZAD.
Listening to you there would be a bug in the appellation of cities since "the city for all" is not for all and that "the green city" for now is not very green ...
There is a general problem of wording, but it does not matter. These are just formulas, tools that help people to get into them. It’s very complicated to build a city, really complex … In the Paris area there are 10 to 12 million people who pack together tighter than two coats of paint, it is the highest density in Europe. People are all different with opposing religions, political opinions, ages and value systems, and yet it works. This is proof that we have an instinctive intelligence, that of the body. It is more powerful than words.
When I hear about resilience or nature in the city, it sounds hollow at home. I am wary of speeches about nature, I always find them a bit suspicious. Opposing nature and culture is a binary way of seeing life. I think that the city is as much nature as a field of potatoes stuffed with pesticides. Bees survive better in the city than in the countryside.
Clément, let's end this interview with the traditional epilogue of Bug Me Tender: what is your own definition of a bug and in your field what do you think is the biggest bug?
A bug is an accident, and it has a desirable part for me. The biggest bug imaginable, I read in Mad magazine is the story of an architect who presents the plans of a building to the workers, sees a fly on the drawing. He kills it and the crushed fly is spread out on the facade of the built tower. I find it funny. If this bug had existed for real, it would have produced a very amazing building.