Concrete Honey in the city of love – can bees provide the answer to urban sustainability?

*Romantic Edith Piaf feeling intensifies* Image: Moyan Brenn

One of Paris's sweetest and most enduring love stories is between the city and its bees. When you think of Paris you usually picture wine, cheese or the equally pungent Metro, but rarely do we associate la Tour Eiffel with those buzzy little honey makers we call bees. All this will soon change, because the French capital is home to a growing number of beehives and is fast becoming the capital of urban beekeeping.

There is a growing trend for cities across Europe and America to put hives on their rooftops. As people wander around the stunning Parisian streets they are usually unaware of the buzz that is going on above them; the iconic zinc-coated rooftops are increasingly “apiculture-friendly”, with hives on the top of Opera Garnier, Notre Dame, Le Bon Marche and La Grande Epicerie, Grand Palais, and the Assemblée Nationale.

There are even hives on the top of a sky-scraper in Paris’s hectic business district, and the French Communist Party set up a handful of hives on the roof of its imposing 1970s-era headquarters in Colonel Fabien. This sparked a debate around the exploitation of bees.

Just the bee-siness 

At the Tour d’Argent, a Left Bank restaurant, diners could enjoy “roast duckling with spices and honey from our roof” as they gazed across at Cathedral of Notre Dame. It has also become du jour for high-class hotels to make their own honey. The Mandarin-Oriental and Eiffel Park Hotels boast their own sweet supplies, selling their honey at a steep price of around €15 for 150g. Which is quite amusing when you bear in mind that honey is basically bee vomit.

The French national rail operator SNCF installed eight hives on the rooftop of Austerlitz station two years ago. Situated on the Left Bank of the Seine, the station bees get propolis from the Jardin des Plantes (France's main botanical garden) next door and in return provide enough honey for 2,000 pots a year, given out to passengers passing through the station. 

Bet the bees love it here. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Urban beekeeping may be a growing trend but it is definitely not a new thing in Paris, a city famed for being at the forefront of fashions. Many cities, including New York, banned urban beekeeping until recently but Paris has long had a passion for bees, which were cultivated in the city as far back as 1856 in the Luxembourg Garden, where there is still a beekeeping school.

A century ago, there were more than 1,000 hives in the city, but they almost totally disappeared in the decades after the Second World War. Among the first of the new generation was the hives installed 15 years ago on the roof of the Paris Opera, producing little jars of honey sold at about €14.50 – a high price to, ahem, hit the high notes.

Literally the only close-up of a bee in the Luxembourg Garden. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The renewed interest in apiaries has been ignited in part by an increase in public awareness of threats to the bee population. Like other countries in Europe and the Americas, France – Europe's biggest agriculture producer – has seen a worrying decline in bee numbers in recent years. Around 100,000 French hives have been lost since 1995, and the amount of honey produced has fallen from 32,000 tonnes to 20,000. The real sting is that bee mortality rates are three times what is considered normal.

From Paris To Bee-lin

Paris now boasts more than 400 hives, and the number is growing steadily: it seems the bees have become enamoured with the city of love. This is because the city offers an abundance of greenery and bee-friendly environments. Paris is a city obsessed with beauty and many of its residents fill their balconies with a varied array of flowers all year round. Parisian streets are also famously lined with non-native Sophora trees, which start to blossom later than August, when most rural pollination has ended. The success of the city bees provokes sorely needed hope for their rural cousins – agriculture, an industry valued globally at €153bn, relies on pollination by bees.

Man relaxes in Luxembourg Gardens contemplating global agriculture. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

It is a strange paradox that bees are often faring better in cities such as Paris than in rural areas. For the past 10 years the French capital has been officially a pesticide-free zone, and the warmth of the city environment also promotes early breeding. And things are looking up for the Parisian bees. The city government wants to have  one square kilometre of green roofs, pavements and walls, with a third of that space dedicated to the production of fruits and vegetables.


In 2005 the Paris-based National Apiculture Association ran a huge campaign to encourage beekeeping in cities – the largest such project in the world – and amateur hives have popped up around the city ever since. For Parisians interested in setting up hives the rules are relatively simple – a novel notion in a city where red tape can be as long as a piece of string. The guidelines simply state that hives must be registered with the veterinary authority and be more than 25 metres from a school or hospital – a common-sense approach to promote sensible bee-haviour (sorry not sorry).

Concrete flowerbeds

Beekeeping is certainly capturing imaginations. Olivier Darné is a designer and beekeeper who reintroduces bees to cities through urban hives, producing what the media have dubbed as Miel de Béton (Concrete Honey). He is a known as a graphiculteur, a very cool job title that is a contraction of the French words graphiste (graphic designer) and apiculteur (beekeeper). For more than ten years, he has been leading a project to “pollenate the city” with a collective of mixed-media artists. With names like Concrete Honey and the Japanese market exploding, don't be surprised to see the likes of Kanye rapping about honey extraction.

Not the moment to realise you forgot to zip up your fly. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Bees and other pollinating insects play an essential role in our lives – one third of all our food depends on their pollination.

As more and more people take to the iconic zinc-covered rooftops of Paris to keep bees amidst the cityscape, it seems Parisians’ sweet tooth will stand out as an example – a small but positive step toward a more sustainable coexistence in urban environments.

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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.