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Caring for Urban Nature

Prendre soin de la nature urbaine

Cuidar la naturaleza urbana

Revue « Espaces et Sociétés »

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Published on Monday, May 23, 2022


This issue of the journal Espaces et Sociétés is focued on the contributions of city-dwellers to the care of greenery in the city, with particular emphasis on two key perspectives. In the first, we look solely at practices that emerge in the public space, whether spontaneous and developed outside organised structures, or encouraged by institutional entities established by the public authorities. In the second perspective, the aim is to look critically at the urban nature activities undertaken by individuals, i.e. outside the collective practices traditionally pursued in shared gardens or big urban projects by public authorities, cooperatives or civil society organisations. International comparisons or case studies from outside France are welcome.



This issue of the takes a new line of approach to a series of questions that Espaces et Sociétés has been raising for a long time on the relationship between the practices of city-dwellers and urban nature.  The expression “urban nature”—with respect to plant life alone—has long been an oxymoron (de Biase and Ricci, 2018), though the contradiction between the terms has faded over the years (Lévy and Hajek, 2016). Urban imaginaries have taken on the hue of a “green wave” (Gandy, 2006), which assigns different, sometimes complementary, roles to nature: sometimes it is an aesthetic strategy to offer a better quality of life (Hartig and Kahn, 2016), sometimes a technical solution to tackle the effects of “heat islands” (Kuttler, 2008) or soil sealing (Blanchart, Sere and Cherel, 2017), and sometimes simply a cover for the neoliberal city, cloaking it in the garb of “green gentrification” (Checker, 2011; Gould and Lewis, 2016).  In these imaginaries, nature always plays a role that is extra partes: an external entity to be manipulated and consumed, idealised, calming and consensual, whereas in reality the city is overflowing with natures that are disputed (Balmori and Morton, 1993; Macnaghten and Urry, 1998) and in quest of recognition (Honneth, 2000), calling for public participation and engagement. Urban nature and its care thus lead in to questions of urban democracy and governance (Angelo and Wachsmuth, 2015), in response to growing demand amongst city-dwellers for a role in the greening of the city (Bailly and Bourdeau-Lepage, 2011; Arnould and Bourdeau-Lepage, 2018) and in the care of green public spaces (Ernwein and Tollis, 2017).

The motivations for the greening practices that are the subject of this issue of the journal operate at the scale of the individual:  the “micro-projects” discussed here are fragments of urban nature (a strip of sidewalk, a flowerpot, a tree, the base of a tree…). In France and elsewhere, city-dwellers are spontaneously and informally taking over “fragments” of public space: micro-gardens flower on street corners, flowerpots appear in quiet streets and cul-de-sacs, residents tend the bases of trees on boulevards… With “guerrilla gardening”, planting has changed from a private activity to a practice that takes place in the public urban arena (Ramos, 2018) and, at the same time, is gradually undergoing a process of institutionalisation. Since the 2000s, in France and more broadly in Europe, we have seen the emergence of processes that encourage participatory urban planting initiated by local actors and aiming to involve city-dwellers in the care of urban nature by agreements that directly link them to the urban authorities (Bartoletti and Faccioli, 2016). Urban nature is thus driven simultaneously from two directions: there is top-down pressure, with the European Commission and the member states encouraging the presence of more greenery in cities in order to combat climate heating, and bottom-up pressure, where urban residents themselves take the initiative to cultivate and sustain urban nature, seeing this activity as a way to be involved in local life.

A number of scientific contributions have been dedicated to the role and gradual implication of city-dwellers in urban greening. The literature on community gardens (Consalès, 2018) and on eco-neighbourhoods (Collectif, 2015) is the most substantial, but urban studies have also looked more broadly at urban nature (Bonnin et Clavel, 2010), linking the ecological and sociological dimensions. Journals have, for example, dedicated recent numbers to the rediscovery and restoration of city soil as a medium for ecological systems and urban stories (Carcaud, Henry et Toublanc, 2022) or to gardens as foundations of socio-ecological relations in the Anthropocene (Hinnewinkel, Mestdagh, Poulot et Robert-Bœuf, 2023). The recent emergence of multiple institutional systems for participatory greening has also prompted the scientific community to take a close interest this phenomenon in Lyon (Deschamps, 2019), in Paris (de Biase, Marelli and Zaza, 2021), and in Marseille (Consalès, 2018). Other contributions have sought more specifically to analyse the political significance of urban nature, through the prism of landscape (Grout, Toublanc, 2021), of environmental democracy (Collectif, 2011), or else of urban farming as a form of dissent (Paddeu, 2021). In the context of this politicisation of greening processes, some authors have focused more specifically on the political and ethical engagement of city-dwellers: affected by rising urbanisation, it is argued that they are developing greater ecological awareness and looking for better quality of life through the well-being that urban nature can bring (Bourdeau-Lepage, 2019). The care ethic, instigated by the feminist movement in the US in the 1980s and 1990s (Gilligan, 1982; Tronto, 1993), is thus deeply implicated in the principle of citizen empowerment, which on this view is manifested in the involvement of city-dwellers in greening activities (and more broadly in environmental issues). This position goes so far as to consider urban nature as generating values and social ties—private and community, ethical and aesthetic—which influence an “ordinary” politics of the city (Laugier, 2009) and bring the human and natural worlds closer and closer together (Blanc, 2013).

This feature will therefore focus on the contributions of city-dwellers to the care of greenery in the city, with particular emphasis on two key perspectives. In the first, we look solely at practices that emerge in the public space, whether spontaneous and developed outside organised structures, or encouraged by institutional entities established by the public authorities. These practices have migrated from the gardens allocated to official organisations, the shared sections of private residences or pieces of waste ground, into pavements, street corners and small squares, even in some cases entailing a privatisation of public space. In the second perspective, the aim is to look critically at the urban nature activities undertaken by individuals, i.e. outside the collective practices traditionally pursued in shared gardens or big urban projects by public authorities, cooperatives or civil society organisations. This mobilisation of individual urbanites can be measured either by personal commitment, which prompts residents to get involved by drawing on their own resources, or by the more recent institutional urban greening initiatives, sometimes organised through digital platforms (de Biase, Marelli and Zaza, 2018), which are for the first time linking the lone city-dweller to the community via specific agreements.

As urban greening action in public space becomes at one and the same time both individualised and publicly structured, the different characteristics and impact of urban nature practices will be analysed: the profiles, motivations and activities of the city-dwellers involved in urban greening; the multiple interactions (of dependency, delegation, conflict…) which emerge between spontaneous citizen action and the progressive institutionalisation of greening practices; the transformative dynamics triggered in urban space by these initiatives, whether institutional or not.

Three lines of thought will be emphasised in this feature.

a) The profiles, practices and relations of city-dwellers involved in urban greening

City-dwellers have “armed” themselves with spades, land and seeds and begun to green the urban space. Many have followed online courses or sought help from institutions and organisations with expertise in urban gardening. In so doing, they have invested time and sometimes also money in these micro-projects for nature in the city. Above all, they have gradually come to exploit their personal know-how or relations with neighbours to achieve success in their projects.

Who are the city-dwellers engaged in urban greening activities (age, gender, occupation type, etc.)? What is their socio-economic status? How much time do they dedicate to these practices and how long have they been involved in them? What are the motives that prompted them to participate in care of urban nature? Are they motivated by the public good, the idea that greening the city is beneficial to urban life and to the environment, or are their motives more personal? Is there opposition between these personal motives and the lifestyles and interests of other actors? What conflicts and/or alliances between different actors do these urban nature practices embody? What inclusions and/or exclusions do they generate?

b) Transformative dynamics in urban space

Although micro-greening projects are a very widespread phenomenon, they are not uniformly distributed across cities. There are neighbourhoods where these practices are very common, and others where they are non-existent. Investigating the location of these micro-projects and the links between these practices and the socio-economic characteristics of the different contexts in which they take place is therefore essential to understanding their role in a wider process of transformation in the urban fabric and its lifestyles.

Which neighbourhoods are these experiments most present in? What urban forms are they linked with? Is there a link between the socio-economic features of these neighbourhoods and greening initiatives? What are the social effects of these practices? What are their consequences for the lives of urbanites? Are urban nature micro-projects more developed near home, and therefore experienced as an extension of private space, like an individual garden, or are they more a community effort for the care of public space (like an aggregate of individualities or projects)? What form and what uses does the street adopt in the presence of these practices? And what becomes of it when they are no longer cared for? What remains of all these changes (small and large)?

c) Connection between action and institutionalisation

Micro-greening projects undertaken by urban residents often involve very small spaces (a pot, a wall, the base of a tree, a strip of pavement, a piece of street furniture): their presence, and the changes they trigger, are not immediately obvious. However, municipal governments are interested in these micro-projects: public authorities have set up systems or agreements to institutionalise these practices so that they can gain political recognition. Moreover, non-institutional dynamics are emerging in which other means and strategies are employed to gain recognition for citizen action on greening: some city-dwellers seek to have their efforts publicly acknowledged, for example by publicising their greening activities on social media through stories or pictures, or sometimes “dominating” public space to the detriment of other users (homeless, undocumented immigrants, young people who use these spaces for other purposes, etc.).

Do these micro-projects correspond to modes of institutional action that are already well entrenched, or are they generating new forms of public action? How do local authorities capitalise on these actions and how do they measure their success or failure?  What role do agreements play compared with earlier spontaneous initiatives, whether non-institutional or encouraged from the start? What do the citizens who undertake these micro-projects feel about the institutionalisation processes? And finally, how do they publicise these actions when they remain informal? What are the ambiguities revealed by the relationship between practice and institutionalisation?

The aim of this issue of the journal is to ent the sociopolitical issues associated with caring for urban nature in contemporary cities with different geographical conditions. Case studies or comparisons in France or abroad will be welcome, as will analyses that employ different methods or interdisciplinary approaches.

Feature coordonators

Alessia de Biase, Carolina Mudan Marelli, Ornella Zaza

Submission guidelines

Articles to be submitted no later than 26 September 2022.

Exclusively by email to the following three addresses:

  • alessia.debiase@paris-lavillette.archi.fr
  • carolina.marelli@unibo.it
  • ornellazaza@gmail.com

Authors who are unsure of the relevance of their proposals can contact the feature coordinators.

NB: The journal does not accept proposals for articles, but only completed articles.

Articles should not exceed 45,000 characters, including spaces, body text, notes, bibliographical references, appendices, but excluding abstracts and keywords.

The presentation requirements and advice to the authors can be found on the journal website.


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  • Monday, September 26, 2022


  • végétalisation, participation, prendre soin, urbain


  • Alessia de Biase
    courriel : alessia [dot] debiase [at] paris-lavillette [dot] archi [dot] fr
  • Ornella Zaza
    courriel : ornellazaza [at] gmail [dot] com
  • Carolina Mudan Marelli
    courriel : marelli [at] unibo [dot] it

Information source

  • Ornella Zaza
    courriel : ornellazaza [at] gmail [dot] com


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Caring for Urban Nature », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Monday, May 23, 2022, https://calenda.org/996973

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