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.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.


Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.

So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.