illustration Christine Aubry, farming the city

Society and regional strategies 5 min

Christine Aubry, farming the city

Whether she is discussing peri-urban farms, microfarms, community gardens or greenhouses, Christine Aubry’s enthusiasm is boundless. Little surprise, then, that this top INRAE research engineer specialises in urban agriculture, or rather, agricultures, since there is no ‘one size fits all’ for these diverse and multifunctional farming activities. This rapidly-growing sector has brought with it a host of research questions for agronomy and sociology to address, questions that Christine Aubry has worked to elucidate throughout her exceptional career.

Published on 26 January 2021

An agronomist by training, Christine Aubry began her research career working on the technical management of arable farming, where she became interested in the relationships between agriculture and the spaces, physical and social, that it occupies. Her professional activities and research fed a growing interest in urban agricultures – forms of farming that happen in and around cities, whose products and services are primarily oriented towards the town and whose resources (land, labour, water…) have both agricultural and urban uses that may compete with each other but can also be symbiotic.

For Christine, the game-changer was the time she spent from 1999 to 2002 in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, while working on the deforestation of the south western part of the island. Her realisation that it is impossible to live in Antananarivo without having agriculture on your doorstep, even at the heart of the city, shaped her interest in urban agricultures. She went on, notably, to work on the Franco-Madagascan ADURAA project which examined the sustainability of agriculture in the Antananarivo conurbation (French Foreign Ministry, 2003-2006).

‘During that work, we realised how little research had been done on this almost invisible and little-developed form of agriculture. And, swimming against the tide of contemporary thinking, our vision involved a transfer of knowledge and techniques that would flow from the Global South to the North’.  

On her return to France she joined INRAE and AgroParisTech’s SAD-APT (Sciences for Action and Development - Activities, Products, Territories) joint research unit, working on urban agriculture in Northern Europe in particular and with a focus on France. She also became a member of collaborative research groups working on urban-rural dynamics and on the creation of short local supply chains, working in particular with the team set up to address these topics in Montpellier. With Andrew Torre, she co-founded the Proximity Team within SAD-APT and took on the leadership of the Proximity Agricultures research group.

From growth in research on urban agriculture …

A massive expansion of interest in urban agriculture took place around 2005 across the globe.

We went from a subject that was completely neglected to an exciting space where important questions were being asked, spurring us on in our own investigations

Christine Aubry was quick to respond to this explosion of interest in urban agriculture. She created opportunities for doctoral research on these citizen-led forms of agriculture, one example being Jeanne Pourias’s 2014 doctoral thesis on the food function in urban collective gardens, co-supervised by the University of Quebec (CAN). In 2012, she also put together the dedicated independent research team that would later become the Urban Agricultures team, working on the emergence of urban agricultures in Northern Europe.

Her goal was to quantify and assess the functions and services offered to towns and cities by these very diverse agricultural activities, and to explore what services could be provided by urban local authorities, for example the supply of organic waste for recycling and the reduction of fertiliser usage.

Meanwhile, Christine Aubry and a handful of fellow researchers were also creating an experimental urban farm system on the roof of AgroParisTech (the Paris Institute of Technology for Life, Food and Environmental Sciences). This rooftop experimental garden  has since become a reference point for projects of its type.

From 2013, the team turned their hands to degree-level teaching, creating a third-year special-subject pathway on urban green-space engineering for the AgroParisTech engineering syllabus, for which Christine was also the course leader.

… to a growing Urban Agricultures team

Since then, the Urban Agricultures team has grown considerably, now boasting no fewer than 17 permanent members. By recruiting engineers and skilled researchers in economics, agroecology, ‘territory agronomy’ and geography, Christine built up the team’s competences and knowledge, increasing their contribution to the work of the unit. A flourishing environment for doctoral research, a warm welcome for associate and invited researchers and scientists, such as Joe Nasr from Ryerson University in Toronto (CAN), and active participation in national, European and global projects, have enabled the unit to explore an impressive number of research questions. The team’s mission has been honed over the years, and its purpose is now to analyse urban agricultures (professional and non-professional), approaching them as diverse and multi-functional activities, and to investigate their functions along with the technical, social and territorial practices involved. A key goal is to understand the conditions for sustainability in urban agricultures, but the team also sets out to investigate potential threats to such sustainability.

Why hold back a winning team?

In June 2015, with requests for support flooding in from community landowners and businesses eager to develop their own forms of urban agriculture, Christine Aubry set up a dedicated resource and support hub, Exp'AU - Expertises en agricultures urbaines, supported by Adeprina, AgroParisTech’s association for the development and promotion of research (now AgroParisTech Innovation).
In March 2016, as part of the Exp’AU project, the team launched the REFUGE (risks in urban farms: management and assessment) research programme. The programme is aimed at local communities, managers, planners, public decision-makers and other stakeholders in urban agricultural projects. It fills a void that has been created by the growth of urban agriculture in the absence of a regulatory system tailored to its particular needs.

Working together to create the fertile and sustainable towns and cities of tomorrow

In April 2018, with their strong track record in teaching and training, Christine Aubry (who is also a consultant professor at AgroParisTech) and her team created the Chair of Urban Agricultures – urban ecosystem services and food, supported by the AgroParisTech Foundation. The purpose of this partnership Chair is to generate knowledge and teaching tools to support the development of urban agriculture as a building block for urban resilience.

What next?

Having led the Urban Agricultures team until now, Christine Aubry has ‘handed over’ her leadership role in a collaborative way; she now directs her energies towards the implementation of the team’s strategy, applying to the Institute’s management team for additional posts and overseeing the changes involved in the Unit’s (and the team’s) move to the Paris-Saclay research and business site. This provides an elegant way to support her colleagues while creating a little extra time for them to settle in … and start to prepare for the next team evaluation exercise in 2023.

Christine already has thoughts on what she likes to call her ‘post-salaried professional life’, even though it is still some way off. Ideally, she would be able to offer the fruits of her experience while keeping abreast of developments in this field, which, as she says, continues to change ‘so quickly and in such an interesting way’.

I am convinced that we must improve the support we provide to civil society, especially to local government and groups, in the area of urban resilience, whether we are talking about food supply, well-being, nature or farming.

Already directly involved with engaged communities in the creation of urban agricultures, Christine Aubry has little difficulty in seeing herself as a bridge-builder between her research knowledge and practice and societal issues. Her concern is to find a role that balances the provision of strategic advice based on her long experience with the need to keep an eye on interesting new developments.

Demonstrating an admirable detachment in taking stock of her achievements so far, this specialist in urban agriculture, who has been described as ‘one of the rare French scientists to have this level of expertise’, projects a clear vision of a bright future both for herself and for urban agriculture.

Catherine Foucaud-Scheunemanntranslated by Teresa Bridgeman


Christine Aubry Sciences for Action and Development - Activities, Products, Territories (INRAE, AgroParisTech)