Paola Mugnier, a Women4Climate from Paris, is an expert in the field of urban farming. She is the Director of Urbalia, a business dedicated to greening cities and making them a better place to live and work. Bringing nature to cities also positively impacts the environment; it can reduce the urban heat island effect, help manage rainwater and provide food security, among others. Paola, and her fellow alumni from the AgroParisTech Institute, Fanny Provent, have recently released a practical guidebook on how to implement urban agriculture on rooftops and terraces in French cities.
We asked Paola about her work on urban agriculture and how the idea for the book was born.
W4C - What's the story behind Urbalia and what inspired you to join this organisation?
Urbalia was born out of the need to bring back nature to cities. Greening cities can boost well-being of city dwellers; it helps to mitigate the urban heat island effect, captures rainwater, improves air quality, amongst others. Urbalia was initiated by VINCI Group and AgroParisTech Institute who co-created a unique evaluation tool, Biodi(V)strict®, which assesses the impact of biodiversity on urban projects.
What inspired me to join this adventure was really the fact that bringing nature to cities is an essential part of adapting to and mitigating the impacts of climate change. This idea was quite new when Urbalia first started, but I feel that the idea of nature and urban farms has taken up recently, in the midst of the pandemic. People started to realise first-hand the importance of growing food. As city dwellers experienced being stuck in their tiny apartments, they realised lacking access to green spaces. On top of that, we are having this conversation during a heatwave in September – this shows that we need green areas that provide us with respite and freshness - all provided by nature.
Nowadays, green political programmes with a strong focus on urban farming, nature in cities and biodiversity are becoming mainstream in France – we have seen this in the last municipal elections.
W4C - What prompted you and Fanny to write the practical guidebook for installing urban farms on rooftops and terraces in cities?
The book was started for several reasons. Firstly, it was born out of our interest in urban farming. 3 years ago, when we started writing this book, France was at the very early stage of urban rooftop farming development and implementing projects of this nature was a complex and challenging task. There are a number of technical considerations that need to be accounted for before such projects are put in motion. For instance, one needs to consider the building structure and ensure that a roof is suitable to support a farm. It is much more complex than simply greening a roof. Creating an urban farm requires having a steady access to water, making it accessible to people several times a day. The book delves into this subject and aims to fill the gap in technical knowledge that previously did not exist in France.
Secondly, urban rooftop framing projects require a constant interaction between professionals responsible for installing roof farms and urban farmers themselves. It is a novelty in the sector, and we believed that creating a common language was necessary. To achieve this, we conducted a comprehensive research on urban rooftop farms in France, their uses, objectives and types of production systems. This was followed by a creation of a worldwide benchmark of ca. 200 urban rooftop farms to better understand the system. We consulted around 50 experts from the construction field, urban farming, developers, scientists, city officials. By deep diving into technical aspects and involving stakeholders, we wanted to ensure that a comprehensive checklist is created for anyone who would like to take this task upon themselves.
The book aims to be a practical guide, with useful tools. For instance, we included 12 case studies of urban rooftop farms to illustrate how they can be created and what they should or should not include. The publication targets developers, municipalities, landscape architects and construction professionals but can be a useful guidebook for individuals who are interested in the idea.
It is worth mentioning that urban rooftop farming can be developed on older buildings, depending on their structure. For instance, roofs in New York City are very sturdy since rainwater was harvested on them in the past. The example of Paris shows that it is also possible there. For instance, in a city-led project, “Parisculteurs” urban farms were successfully installed on older municipal buildings. One thing that needs to be considered is an easy access – you don’t want to climb up and down a tiny ladder several times a day to tend to your tomatoes.
W4C - Where do you see our cities in 10 years' time?
Paola - I would love to see cities as little villages where you could do everything in your own neighbourhood; where you know your baker, grocery shop owner etc. It would be a city where people talk to each other and exchange ideas, since connecting and communicating is key to city resilience. Urban farming can facilitate that, while bringing back culture and physical activity to cities can help as well. In an ideal world, cities would also be closely linked to their surrounding areas for local farming, energy and tourism.
W4C - What message do you have from your own journey of being a Women4Climate, for aspiring women leaders working towards a sustainable, greener and an ever-unpredictable future?
Being a Women4Climate has been an honour for me. It has been a powerful experience and has given me a chance to connect with other women who were working on developing their climate projects to ensure cities are more resilient and sustainable. My mentor, Dominique Alba, really helped me in a wonderful way in the process of writing the book and it would not be as it is without her.
The message I'd like to share with other mentees is to believe in yourself and your project. As women, we all experience lack of confidence. Believing in yourself and your project is key because we are the most powerful messengers who can spread the importance of our projects. Finally, for me, Women4Climate is also a community that offers peer support and motivates the participants to pursue their climate work. Climate work often poses unexpected challenges but knowing that there is a community always willing to offer help has been essential to my project development and keeping me motivated.