• From development, to fixing up, to driving forwards
    by Jean-Pierre Charbonneau

    Jean-Pierre Charbonneau, urban planner, consultant in urban and cultural policies, presents here a broad look at the evolution of our cities and the place of the human in urban policies.

    If economics can have alternative policies, why not urbanism?

    We have spent the last few decades fixing up parts of our towns – never actually finishing them of course, for a city can never be completed – and sometimes without much success, as our large housing projects demonstrate. Faced with deindustrialisation, out-dated housing, the pre-eminence of the car and ecological disaster, we have patched up, undoubtedly causing new problems in doing so.

    However, a growing movement is mobilising brainpower to generate new ideas and practices: change of use without redevelopment; consideration of the complex needs of a community rather than applying a set of pre-fabricated, technocratic solutions; preservation wherever possible, rather than starting from scratch … Moving away from traditional considerations, this new movement deals with a new set of criteria, which includes reduced budgets, community needs, the possibility of future evolution. Rather than being a handicap, economic constraints have helped by forcing us to get straight to the basic essentials. Today’s situation promotes innovation, supports creativity and enriches projects, calling on our intelligence. We are forced to take a new look at practices and uses, to consider different ways of doing things, to think about the humanity of a place; and all this when we still find it so hard to understand community needs, and even more so to keep up with changing society.

    And so following this period of ‘patching up’, will we now come to a period of harnessing our experiences to active service?

    The proposed changes in practice have the benefit of mobilising local communities and projects, often bringing a real dynamic to an area. Instead of technique, materials and money, they put individuals and urban communities at the heart of the thought process. They open up possibilities through innovation, with imaginative consideration of the relationship between the project and its users, bringing about an urban environment that is more alive, more active, on the move and more reactive, a reflection of urban society.

    And this is the position taken by AZC architects. Faced with a changing world, they propose solutions that are novel in their shape, use, cost and temporality. Take for example their idea for a bridge over the Seine in Paris, the Bouncing Bridge. Inflatable, easily moved, it provides not only a means of crossing the river, but also an extraordinary urban experience. It shows Paris in a whole new light, creating this most unexpected trampoline in the heart of the capital. This project, ostensibly utopian, is in fact both realistic and realisable. The architects put their intelligence and skill not into regurgitating conventional solutions, which are often unsuitable and unsatisfactory, but into inventing new ones. They have left behind the stagnant reproduction of the city and shapes of the 19th century, repetition of a past time, and moved on to building in response to our times. Is this modernity? Does this project mark a new era, as did Paris Plage in 2002, or the subsequent shifting developments along the Left Bank of the Seine?

    Urban planning is founded on a range of well-established ideas and creative thinking that have functioned for decades. But these notions remain anchored in the past and do not look towards the future. We continue to revere the ‘grand projet’, an ideology that brought about a conventional wisdom that the powers of the day took on as their own. The problem with these large-scale public projects, which might take up to 20 years from idea to completion, was that budgets inevitably needed topping up from the local pocket, while the economic, social and urban context of the original idea had changed utterly.

    Large-scale projects suck up finance, human resources and attention; it is common for excessive attention to be given to the public spaces and overall comfort in the immediate vicinity of a major project, whereas just a few steps away out-dated street lighting flickers over pavements riddled with pot holes. This kind of compartmentalised approach siphons off local authority funding and is more about development for development’s sake than any consideration for urban well-being.

    Alternative urban policies can exist. They should be based on experience, on what we already know, but freshly interpreted and not bogged down by the weight of convention that over time has paralysed evolution in line with our changing world. We need to open our minds and methods, freeing the way for new ways to emerge. A few examples follow.

    With regards to housing, the benefits of some of the ad hoc housing on the peripheries of South American cities are known. These dwellings meet the requirements of their creators, in terms of use and cost, and readily cater for changing family configurations. It is true that the streets thus made are initially unpleasant, but they can easily be upgraded. The local authority’s only tasks are linking in transport systems and services, intervening on education, social security, safety … In France, we have spent the last 50 years trying to rectify the mistakes made in the housing schemes of the 1960s. And yet we continue to build housing that is too costly, too dispersed, that kills the individual character of different places and fails to meet the needs of the inhabitants. And even then we aren’t building enough to cater for today’s growing population.

    Public space was long dismissed by town councils and government offices, left to abandon, unused and unloved. Today public space attracts a huge amount of attention, but often without much consideration of its role within its particular context – how it will be used and what functions it should cater for. And so, in a one-size-fits-all approach, luxurious new spaces are made, with a rich abundance of materials, furniture and planting. Sophistication and profusion plunder budgets, leaving nothing for essential sites or subjects. We are creating a surplus of over-designed spaces, which are often left empty.

    Some towns have experimented and created simpler, less costly projects that align with the needs and the desires of the inhabitants. They have redeveloped only where necessary, using development as a tool that is adapted for each project. The objective is to bring life to the site. This approach calls for intelligence, sensitivity and creativity in considering the life of a specific place, rather than applying a blanket solution with no thought to context and local considerations.

    Transport today is all about tramways! We have created whole new landscaped areas around them: would these sites otherwise have been left barren? But budgets are tight, so instead why not use wheel-based transport, improved bus services with dedicated lanes. Arguably they would be less efficient in a city of 7 million, the likes of Bogota, but surely they would suffice for our mid-sized towns? And why not invest in bicycles? In Copenhagen one in three journeys is by bicycle. And walking is free and efficient, then there is car-sharing … The different options are numerous, but fresh reflection is required to devise and implement an overall strategy for change, and change must come.

    Different lines of thought are already being explored. Some are clumsy and naïve, often based on the idea of ‘working with the community’ (allotments in the city, art in the street); good intentions that do not meet the demands of the reality and scale of a city in motion. Others genuinely reflect on a multitude of different approaches in an attempt to define appropriate, evolutionary solutions that work. These can be found in some student projects at architecture and urbanism schools, in schemes submitted for ideas competitions, or sometimes in change-of-use applications. They often demonstrate a real understanding of the way we live, sensitively recognising different situations, both economic and ecological.

    And yet the reality of urban action bears no relation to this, ideas get lost along the way, the way in which we develop cities has not evolved. The equation is simple, it is just maths: either we put money and energy into pursuing conventional processes, or we invest in reflecting on the future. Following this logic, instead of financing tangible development, shouldn’t we activate the vitality of local society and promote its creativity, openness and dynamic expression?