Much more than just green spaces, urban gardens play a crucial role in redefining time and space in the urban environment. They provide sanctuaries where city dwellers can escape the hustle and bustle of the city, encouraging moments of relaxation and conviviality. In practice, these urban oases not only transform residents' relationship with time and social interaction, but also contribute to the positive evolution of the built environment. Susanne Eliasson, associate architect/urban planner at GRAU and consultant architect to the city of Bordeaux, shares her expertise on the importance of gardens as a climatic and social challenge for cities.
Many French cities are becoming greener every year and are focusing on renaturation. For your part, you are promoting the concept of the "garden metropolis". What does that mean?
The garden metropolis is a vision of the transformation of residential urbanisation as it has developed over the last hundred and fifty years as an extension of old city centres. At GRAU, we study and work on this theme through concrete projects and research. The latter, which we have carried out in Bordeaux, Phoenix, Brussels and Chicago, focuses on the potential for transformation of these areas, often referred to as 'urban sprawl'. It's not a very appealing term, and it doesn't really do justice to what can be done with, for and in cities. That's why we prefer to talk about the 'garden metropolis'. These two words alone can describe the existing territory, but also its potential for transformation - largely linked to its landscape quality.
What can we learn from these zones of perpetual development, which leave an important place for landscapes and green spaces?
Neither a centre nor a periphery, the garden metropolises are areas where most of the land is privately owned. In other words, they are places where people live. Due to the lack of density, there is little or no access to public transport. Residents are therefore forced to travel by car. However, wherever they go in the area, they will find a green landscape that is much more present than in the dense city. Natural spaces that allow residents to experience the changing seasons, or to enjoy the proximity of wildlife - especially birds. These are fairly simple things, but they can give residents a different way of dealing with the passage of time than they would in a dense city.
How can landscaping and buildings work together in such an area for the benefit of residents?
Landscaping and buildings are two things that are often at odds with each other. As a consultant architect in Bordeaux, I can see this because I follow all the city's projects. Most of the developers I meet continue to follow a logic where you build buildings first and then embellish what's left around them with landscaping. This is a mindset that needs to be overcome, not only to meet environmental constraints, of course, but also to improve the wellbeing of the city's residents and enable them to give real meaning to their surroundings! Residents understand that having a natural landscape in their garden and being able to connect it to their neighbour's garden is not just a pleasure for the eye. It becomes vital, because by refreshing the environment, they gain in comfort and well-being. With climate change, the need for landscape to play a role is becoming more and more obvious! And we can see that we are moving towards a closer relationship and a greater consideration of the relationship between architecture and landscape. But also towards a much less frontal approach to architecture. Take Bordeaux, for example, a city where it's very hot in the summer and very rainy in general. We now have to work much more on transitional spaces between indoors and outdoors. Isolated spaces and others that are simply covered, so that we have cities where you can live half indoors and half outdoors. This inside/outside dynamic reflects the transition that's taking place and the new, much more intertwined relationship that's developing between architecture and landscape.
When was your first project to change the place of landscape in the city?
Ten years ago. We were working for Caudéran, a residential district of Bordeaux with a population of 45,000. At the time, the town asked us to draw up a long-term transformation plan. The result was the Caudéran ville-jardin concept. This work was carried out in collaboration with Michel Corajoud, a landscape and urban designer to whom Bordeaux had already entrusted the redevelopment of the quays. This approach involved amending the Local Urban Plan (PLU) and working closely with developers to propose housing* that is more in tune with the landscape. The principle of front gardens is one of the concrete examples. The minimum planting depth has been set at four metres. This figure was made compulsory in the PLU to ensure continuity of vegetation along the streets, to guarantee the quality of the city's external landscape and to help cool the interiors of the houses. Since that first "Garden City" project, we at GRAU have been committed to this culture, which we call the "Garden Metropolis". It's a name that has evolved, and with good reason: it's a way of looking at things, of working and of putting architecture into practice that now goes beyond the scale of the neighbourhood. It is now up to towns and cities to take inspiration from the residential urbanisations built as extensions of city centres by changing their urban planning culture. In other words, even in densely populated neighbourhoods, they need to give pride of place to landscapes and greenery, through collective and shared green spaces - both private and public.
How will these new open spaces add value to cities in the future?
Leaving more space for gardens isn't just going to be an added value, it's technically what's going to enable cities to survive. Because of climate change, cities really need to integrate nature. For example, simply planting a group of plants (not just a lawn) in front of a house can naturally cool the interior by several degrees. This climatic comfort provided by the landscape is essential today! What's more, and this is important, we are talking about a garden metropolis, not a nature metropolis. Why is that? When it comes to defining nature, everyone has their own definition. It's a complicated term that doesn't reflect the proximity and time that a human-sized green space in the city can offer. The garden is a much easier concept for everyone to grasp and imagine. What's more, the garden brings with it a dimension of care. A garden is something that is cared for and maintained. And this can be on the scale of one's own garden or collectively in the urban environment. This notion of care fits perfectly with built up areas and cities, as they are all in the business of transforming what already exists, and therefore maintaining/improving it. We need to get away from this very binary vision of PLUs, where on the one hand there is the built-up area, on the other hand there is the obligation to provide a minimum amount of open space, and finally there is the open space that can be used for concrete, a swimming pool, and so on. It is now possible to live in a garden or in an indoor-outdoor space. It is now possible to live in a garden or in an indoor-outdoor space... So we have to ask ourselves: should a greenhouse in a garden or a pergola extending a dwelling be considered as a built-up area? From now on, we are dealing with intermediate spaces that are destined to be used a lot in the context of global warming. And let's face it, they blur the boundaries between inside and outside and change the use of the garden itself. The garden is no longer just a place for pleasure, it is becoming a place where we can live fully and take time to anchor ourselves, individually or collectively. It's a return to our roots that should be accessible to everyone, everywhere in the city.