How are we going to live in the "urban furnaces"?


How are we going to live in the cities of the South of France if new climatic furnaces develop, as in 2019, endangering life? The year 2019 was the year of climate awakening. Montpellier, Marseille, Toulouse, Narbonne, Nîmes... So many southern cities in which the inhabitants are active, meet, feel and act to build a society in which real action is taken to protect the environment as the municipal elections approach. And, at a time when 6 out of 10 French people are already directly concerned by climate risks, they no longer have time to wait. French citizens no longer have confidence in their leaders' ability to take action, or even have few illusions about such wishes. What do the inhabitants of its territories want? How do they imagine the essential changes that need to be made to adapt to their living environment? After resilience, rebellion? 

The summer of 2019 was an exceptional heat wave where city dwellers scrambled for fans, temporary fountains, shady corners or hid behind closed shutters and in front of their air conditioners. 
During that summer, geographer Guillaume Faburel from the University of Lyon 2, accompanied by doctoral students, post-doctoral students and students, used all their expertise to study the crucial question of the climatic experiences and ecological commitments of a panel of inhabitants of five metropolises and medium-sized towns in the south of France, leading to a survey entitled "Living with urban furnaces", with the association Our Business to All. In order to support the numerous mobilizations that have developed for social and ecological justice, and thus protect living things, the association wanted to create a consortium between the academic and associative spheres.
The association Our Business to All has thus joined forces with the academic world to highlight the urgency to act locally in the face of climate change. The objective? To design new, more ecological environments and living areas. This survey underlines the willingness of inhabitants to mobilize today to demand justice and for everyone to pay their fair share in the face of the unequal causes and effects of climate change.

Daily lifestyles impacted

Strong figures underline this demand for justice: 70% of respondents explain that they observe climate change on a daily basis in the cities concerned and 56% of respondents affirm that climate change has concrete effects on daily lifestyles because the feeling of living in an urban furnace is omnipresent and gives rise to various feelings: suffocation, asphyxiation, powerlessness, in the face of growing cities in which hyper-concentration of buildings, soil waterproofing, over-consumption practices, acceleration of tourist flows and affluence are all present.

Seasonal shifts and abrupt temperature oscillations are considered to be the first locally observed phenomena of climate change. The rhythm and composition of the seasons are described as altered, which most respondents evoke through more personal stories rooted in lifestyle habits. Childhood memories are here summoned to bear witness to these noticed changes.
This change in the rhythm of the seasons would result in surprisingly sudden variations. Powerful thunderstorms and heavy precipitation, often in the form of hail, are among the weather phenomena most associated with sudden and extreme changes in temperature.

Sudden weather breaks contrast with long periods of drought coupled with intense heat waves. This phenomenon and its consequences on crops and landscapes have been more frequently mentioned by people from the Narbonnais. Recurrently, the nearby rural and maritime environments and hinterlands constitute the main spatial frames of reference for evoking the described climate changes, especially in the less populated cities of Narbonne and Nîmes, where the distinction between the "city" and its surroundings seems less marked in the discourse of the inhabitants.

Consequently, although climate change may occur on national or supranational scales, for the inhabitants climate change appears less as an abstraction relative to other planetary spaces than as phenomena directly experienced in daily life in the cities surveyed: "...the climate change is not so much an abstraction relative to other planetary spaces as it is to phenomena directly experienced in daily life in the cities surveyed: "... the climate change is not so much an abstraction relative to other planetary spaces as it is to phenomena directly experienced in daily life in the cities surveyed. We're sure there's a change. We see things that are not normal. When in April it is 30 degrees and in June it is 12 degrees, and afterwards, 40 degrees. And I'm telling you, we're running out of rain, even though we're almost coastal, so we should get the rains. But we haven't had anything for two months. It's very dry, you can see the change. "(Narbonne, Cité, Male, 45-59 years old, merchant)

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In this register, the increasingly extended episodes of extreme heat are a feature of a number of discourses, calling on a register of statements specific to sensitive operations: the discourses testify to feelings directly linked to the situations of living in the urban environment today.

In recent decades, numerous studies have taken up the challenge of climate change to study its effects in urban areas. (1) and its amplification mechanisms (2). In particular, they have shown that large urban areas actively participate in environmental degradation, notably through greenhouse gas emissions. (3). They also alter the climate by modifying the circulation and the evacuation of air and water. (4). For example, widespread sealing of soils would prevent evaporation and natural cooling cycles. This transformation of the climate would be particularly felt in large cities where temperature, cloud cover, wind and precipitation are modified. (5). The rise in temperature, for example, is very often higher there than in the hinterland and surrounding countryside: these spatial temperature differences, on average of 1 to 2 degrees (s), can be as much as 10 degrees in summer. (6).
These city-specific microclimates constitute what have come to be known as "urban heat islands" (UHIs), directly the product of choice of development and modern urbanism.

Call for innovative engineering

Aware of their implications, major cities around the world are multiplying so-called resilience strategies, favouring engineering and equipment solutions. To offset their climate impacts, they are now turning to the search for innovative management processes, focusing on optimizing the consumption of resources (soil, fossil fuels, materials, water consumption, etc.), while at the same time demanding performance and attractiveness.

The commonly presented virtues of the new smart city would be to better quantify and measure the operating flows of a city to enable it to adapt its "metabolism" in real time (cf. the case described by the literature as exemplary : Greater Copenhagen Smart Solutions and its Street Lab).
More broadly, encouraged by the multiplication of labels, urban projects are now promoting the energy efficiency of new buildings or the systematic recycling of waste. This technicalization of cities to meet climate and ecological challenges is shaking up urban governance by opening up the "urban factory" to major private operators and industrial equipment manufacturers. (7).

In addition, efforts are being made to green up cities (through roof terraces, green and blue frames, etc.), the rediscovery of bioclimatic construction techniques and the active development of biomimicry, with measures also being taken in response to the effects of thresholds (reducing speed on expressways, encouraging non-fossil-based mobility, etc.).

However, despite efforts to take into account the lives and experiences of local residents (8)In the writing of climate plans in particular, such actions do not fundamentally disrupt urbanisation policies that increasingly aspire to territorial attractiveness. (9) and therefore to the densification of the territories.

Climate injustice

In addition to powerlessness, there is a sense of injustice. Because the first victims are those who already have little voice in public decision making: it is the most precarious, the most fragile, who suffer first from the impacts of climate change, often without making the headlines.
And the observation is flagrant: for 88% of the inhabitants questioned, climatic and environmental inequalities are real: it is the elderly, the working class, the young and future generations who will see or are already seeing their environment and quality of life deteriorate (energy precariousness, health of vulnerable people, etc.).

For Clothilde Baudouin from Our Business to All : “In 2019, we witnessed an unprecedented mobilization for the protection of life. We wanted to show that the fight against climate change is also and above all a fight for social justice: 88% of the inhabitants are aware that inaction is unjust and that climate inequalities are real. We are convinced that the reality of these inequalities has a strong potential for mobilization: the survey highlights the climate emergency, which is already undermining living conditions".

These inequalities also concern access to information and the possibilities of questioning elected officials. These feelings of powerlessness and injustice give rise to anger and new forms of commitment, more personal and ordinary, often in constellations.

Need for profound transformations and new political commitments

In the face of urban densification, of projects that take into account neither the expectations nor the needs of citizens, the lack of trust, fears and even mistrust of national and local institutions is growing. In addition to the ecological "small gestures" increasingly enjoined by the authorities (waste sorting, reasoned water consumption, etc.), some of the inhabitants questioned are in fact gradually building a social and existential critique and redefining their political commitment on this basis.

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These new, less affiliated commitments repoliticize people through relative autonomy: that is, self-limitation of needs and deconsumerism of practices in order to rethink polluting lifestyles. The commitment as conceived by a third of the respondents shows the "desire for a deep and radical transformation of today's societies" and their productivist development.

We're less than a month away from municipal elections. At a time when 6 out of 10 French people are already directly concerned by climate risks, we no longer have time to wait. French citizens no longer have confidence in their leaders' ability to act, or even have few illusions about such wishes.
This is due to the failure of public policies to address climate change, its unequal impacts and, more broadly, ecological crises. The demands of the citizens and inhabitants of these five cities in the south of France must be taken into account.

For Guillaume Faburel, coordinator of the survey: "This work confirms several major trends: the growing role of climate feelings in ecological awareness, the negative impact of urban policies of densification of large cities and the need for radical transformation of today's societies, the no less growing mistrust of economic (and political) actors and therefore, individual wishes and commitments, through self-limitation or even deconsumption. Wouldn't we have here a germ of degrowth, motivated by issues of social and ecological justice?"

This vital investigation helps to highlight the need to protect fundamental rights, the right to live worthy of the earth, and the right of humans and non-humans to a sustainable future on planet Earth.

For doctoral students Loriane Ferreira (University of Lyon 2, UMR Triangle), Karl Berthelot (EHESS) and Fabian Lévêque (University of Lyon 2, UMR Triangle), authors of the report: "The report is based on a study by the University of Lyon 2, UMR Triangle.What struck us most in this survey is that most inhabitants are not fooled by the prevailing discourse that widespread adaptation to individual everyday ecological actions, such as sorting one's waste or changing one's way of getting around, will have any significant impact in the fight against climate change. Many of them have called for an urgent change in the civilizational trajectory that is necessary to rethink the social, political and economic organization of our societies.

For Mathilde Girault (Post-doctoral fellow, UMR Triangle): "I was surprised by the results of this survey because they show the coupling that the inhabitants make between an ecological reflexivity on their daily practices and a structural reading of the responsibilities of climate change - which would come under the submission of political orientations to an economic model (capitalism, touristification...). Far from dissociating themselves from ecological issues or favouring a strategy of "small gestures", the inhabitants are building an existential social critique."

For a social counter-culture to political ecology

The impression of "urban furnaces" is widely shared. However, far from drawing on media opinions, many of the people we met relayed their sensations and feelings, born of direct and sensitive experiences of climate change. 56 % of those interviewed even claim that climate change is already having concrete effects on their daily lifestyles. Thus, despite certain differences between the cities surveyed, particularly in relation to their size, the causes are mainly to be found in urban densities, the hyper-concentration of buildings and populations, but also the asphalt environment, the influx of tourists and over-consumption practices.

While cities retain some popular attractions here as places of cultural and social effervescence and emulation, a minimum of 30 % of respondents would already consider leaving the major urban centres if conditions of ecological habitability continued to deteriorate.

The emotional slope seems to be engaged with the climate change experienced in dense urban areas would now be directly confronted with the political context of action. This is undoubtedly another major result produced by this report. The action of institutions, whether national or municipal, is seen by the inhabitants as a framework that diverts or even limits the real possibilities of effective action for the climate and, more broadly, for ecology. In this respect, it should also be noted that the metropolis is very little considered as a viable level of ecological struggle and commitment, even if the effects of climate change are continuously observed and suffered.

Consequently, faced with the observation of urban sprawl and accelerated climate change, with feelings of injustice and growing powerlessness, institutional disaffiliation and growing anger, several people criticise the socio-technical normation of so-called virtuous behaviour and behaviour (subjection that would be too detached from the realities of everyday life), and therefore support the idea of a social counter-culture to political ecology, a counter-culture in which everyone could contribute to his or her own extent and get involved in his or her own way, regardless of his or her level of skills and economic situation.

The shared desire to move from an institutional ecology to an existential ecology is undoubtedly the great lesson of this study.

All in all, the sensitive and emotional experiences, both direct and concrete, have so far proved themselves, at least in the five cities surveyed, to be the main melting pots of reflexivity and ecological, social and political concern.

Climate change is on the way to becoming the operator of an "ordinary implicative affectivity"... (10)by doubt and anxiety, injustice, powerlessness and even anger, at the basis of a political subjectivation as a new relationship with oneself, by the beginning of self-reflexive recomposition and a new political identity for more habitable living spaces. (11). And it is precisely because it is part of the "lived world" that this subjectivation conceals a power of political subversion in the face of the ecological destruction of the world. (12)The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), fully aware of the inequalities in capabilities and relationships of domination (13)but also desires for recognition and dignity in the face of economic responsibilities and institutional causes.

It is in this conflict of lived worlds, which intimately questions their life courses, that individuals rediscover "a power of decision and action". (14), and can thus give voice to certain sometimes critical reactions, even to forms of resistance that have not yet become non-political. (15). If the sensations and feelings of everyday life do not lead to traditional or simply collective militant commitments, which are ostensibly questioned, this affectivity may "let nothing show through on the surface" even if "it moves in silence". (16).

Read the full report

(1) Jean-Baptiste MARIE and Jean-Jacques TERRIN, Villes et changement climatique : îlots de chaleur (heat islands) urban, Marseille, France, Parentheses, 2015.
(2) Florence RUDOLF (dir.), Les villes à la croisée des stratégies globales et locales des enjeux climatiques, Paris, Canada, France, Hermann, 2016.
(3) Bertrand DESAILLY, Philippe BERINGUIER, Gérard BRIANE, Jean-François DEJOUX, Les impacts environmental impacts of urban sprawl. Perspectives Ville, 2009, 4 p. ; Daniel PINSON, " Environnement et urbanisation " in Hervé DOMENACH and Michel PICOUET (dir.), Environnement et populations : la durabilité en question, L'Harmattan, 2004, p. 32-51.
(4) Martine TABEAUD, "Climats urbains", Ethnologie française, 29 October 2010, Vol. 40, No. 4, pp. 685 - 694.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Dominique LORRAIN, Charlotte HALPERN and Catherine CHEVAUCHE, Villes sobres : Nouveaux modèles de gestion des ressources, Paris, Les Presses de Sciences Po, 2018
(8) Seminar organized in Grenoble in November 2019 "Living with disruptions climatiques : Situated knowledge, ordinary experiences and climate justice. "organized by the Lessem (IRSTEA Grenoble), the Parc National des Ecrins, and the Labex ITEM.
(9) EUROPEAN METROPOLIS OF LILLE, " Let's build the metropolis minus 2 degrés ! - À Vous La Parole ! ».
(10) Danilo MARTUCCELLI, La condition sociale moderne : l'avenir d'une inquiétude, Paris, France, Gallimard, 2017, p. 86.
(11) Federico TARRAGONI, "Du rapport de la subjectivation politique au monde social. ", Raisons politiques, 22 June 2016, No. 62, No. 2, pp. 115-130.
(12) Alice STERNBERG, 'De la subjectivité politique dans l'écologie d'André Gorz', EcoRev', 2015, No. 43, no. 2, pp. 10-20.
(13) Danilo MARTUCCELLI, Dominations ordinaires: explorations de la condition moderne, Paris, France, Balland Editions, 2000.
(14) Alice STERNBERG, "De la subjectivité politique dans l'écologie d'André Gorz", op. cit. p. 11.
(15) Federico TARRAGONI, Sociologies of the Individual, op. cit.
(16) Danilo MARTUCCELLI, La condition sociale moderne, op. cit. p. 97.

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