One of the dimensions of rising inequality in developed countries is the growing divide between urban cores and peripheries, with the result that urban regeneration is back in fashion. In France, however, it never really went out of fashion. Starting with the first wave of riots in the banlieues in 1981, a little more than a decade after the death of the famous French-Swiss architect and urban planner Le Corbusier, the politique de la ville (French for urban policy) has been part of the social protection system policy toolkit.
French regeneration policies: the roots of the problem
Since the 1980s, one of the main goals of French urban policy has been the rehabilitation of many peripheral neighborhoods (banlieues) built during the post-World War II period and with a high concentration of social housing. While the investment made in social housing in that period made it possible to lift out of poverty a large share of the population, it featured some weaknesses. First, the scale. When it came out of the war, France was essentially a rural country, unlike for example the United Kingdom. There was therefore the need to plan and build from scratch entire neighborhoods stretching across large patches of big cities’ outskirts in order to accommodate rural-urban migration. Second, the chosen urban design. The construction of grands ensembles dominated that period of intense urban development. The grands ensembles were not just large-scale high-rise suburban social housing estates: being equipped with all sorts of public services and private amenities, they embodied the modernism-derived functionalist idea of self-sufficient neighborhood units. L’Unité d’habitation by Le Corbusier, the most famous being the one realized in 1952 in Marseille accommodating 1,600 residents distributed over 18 floors and offering more than 26 independent services, is an icon of French urban planning during those years and at the same time an emblem of the ensuing deepening of social segregation that urban policy would try to address in the coming years and up to the present day.
Map of the areas involved by the Programme National pour le Renouvellement Urbain. Source: Agence National pour la Rénovation Urbaine.
A few lessons to learn from French urban regeneration policies
The range of regeneration policies adopted in France is quite vast and provides a number of lessons to be learnt. The first one concerns the importance of effective multi-level governance. French urban policy currently enjoys a high degree of decentralization: the urban regeneration projects financed by national plans and coordinated by a national public agency, the Agence National pour la Rénovation Urbaine, are jointly drafted by the municipalities (communes) belonging to the same metropolitan area. What seems nowadays to be a rather successful example of decentralized policy implementation is the result of a prolonged effort and a long series of reforms that during the 1980s and 1990s implemented the devolution of powers and gradually perfected the institutional arrangements favoring collaboration across municipalities.
The second lesson is that, the neighborhood being the optimal scale of intervention for urban regeneration policies, not only the administration but also statistics must adapt. In 1996, 751 zones urbaines sensibles were designated (covering 8% of the French population) based on the presence of damaged social housing and a high unemployment rate. These neighborhoods, relabeled in 2014 as quartiers prioritaires de la politique de la ville and grown in number to a little short of 1500, have traditionally been the target of place-based policies and are the subject of closer monitoring and more granular data collection compared to other administrative boundaries.
The policies implemented since the 1990s range from tax incentives targeting employment growth in distressed neighborhoods (the so-called zones franches urbaines) to more traditional urban regeneration policies. The Loi Borloo of 2003 and the launch of the Programme National de Renouvellement Urbain (PNRU) in 2004 marked the start of a “physical” phase in French urban policy and the beginning of an effort to correct at its root the issue of social segregation via the demolition of damaged social housing and its reconstruction, regenerating therefore the existing capital stock instead of adding new one. Strong with a 12 billion euros budget, partly funded by the national government and partly by social housing agencies, the program has seen since its start the demolition of 160,000 social housing estates, the construction of 140,000 and the rehabilitation of 340,000 (including more than 500 schools), for a total of 600 neighborhoods and 4 million people involved. The main challenge in the requalification of these neighborhoods has been to reduce physical segregation by unpacking the large social housing estates – celebrated by modernists as efficient neighborhood-units, subsequently turned into poverty enclaves – into smaller and low-rise buildings, densifying the street-grid plan to facilitate a seamless connectedness between households and investing in the public transport network to improve connectivity with more central areas.
Modification to land-use and parcelization of residential space in Chaperon Vert, situated just outside the municipality of Paris in the municipality of Gentilly. Fonte: Intégration urbaine des quartiers en rénovation: enquête dans trois territoires franciliens (2011) by the Institut d’Aménagement et d’Urbanisme.
Chanteloup-les-Vignes (Yvelines) before (left) and after (right) renovation (May 2004/January 2011), the neighbourhood where the famous movie “La Haine” was shot. Source: Le Parisien.
The program is now close to an end and according to a study by the Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Evaluation of Public Policy it appears to have produced a reduction of one percentage point in the poverty rate of the targeted neighborhoods. However, the study also shows that poverty reduction seems to have been caused by the outflow of displaced poorer households rather than by the inflow of richer households, possibly because of the stigma that continued to affect these neighborhoods. Moreover, unlike the Moving to Opportunity program in the U.S., displaced households were not offered economic incentives to move to better neighborhoods so that it is possible that many of them relocated to other distressed neighborhoods. It is too early to assess the Nouveau Programme National de Renouvellement Urbain started in 2018, which maintains the key features of its predecessor while strengthening the axes of regeneration of commercial spaces (for instance through the demolition of shopping malls, and the creation of spaces apt to host “high street” types of solutions) and amenities.
The challenge of improving access to opportunities by acting to reduce spatial inequalities within cities is all but dead. The socioeconomic characteristics of the neighborhoods where children grow up strongly influence their future earnings, so that the neighborhood is a synonym for opportunities. Inequality in access to opportunities is, however, at risk of being exacerbated: in some cities, poorer households can no longer afford to live in semi-central and rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods and are pushed further out and farther away from jobs and services. Opportunities do not come just with a physical restyling of neighborhoods, and changing the residential mix of distressed neighborhoods is difficult. A parallel action could involve re-launching social housing investment through the rehabilitation of existing and unused buildings in central cities while offering poorer households incentives to move there. After all, the first opportunity that can be given is the one of moving to a different place and through this possibly starting a new life.