town planning - architecture

Urban Trends: The soft city, the other side of the sustainable city

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Half of all humans live in cities, but are they livable? Can we hope to dream of a gentler city? A city that would take better account of the human dimension? Is a natural city, a sensitive city possible?

 
The building of the modern city since the industrial revolution has been a struggle between the proponents of the progressive (in the manner of Le Corbusier) and culturalists (in the manner of Ebenezer Howard and garden cities), the approaches being complementary and balancing for urban forms, for the good life in the city (modernity/development; biodiversity/resourcing).
The current profile of the sustainable city obviously combines these two dimensions, but in the following proportions different. The equipment efforts devoted to the intelligent city are out of all proportion to the measures taken to integrate nature in the city and man's physical relationship with his urban environment.
The purpose of this article is to show that a rebalancing is crucial to make cities, especially large towns and metropolises, liveable in the long term, at a time when half the population is concentrated there. At the risk of undermining an urbanity that can then give way to incivilities and conflicts through the loss of urban harmony. It is intended to highlight the other aspects of the sustainable city that require an acceleration in the implementation of large-scale public policies, by making the State, local authorities and civil society as a whole accountable.
Photo: ©Lights of the city - When street art marries nature
 
Ahe current profile of the sustainable city obviously combines these two dimensions, but in different proportions. Efforts to equip the intelligent city are out of all proportion to the integration of nature in the city and the very physical relationship between man and his urban environment.

The Soft City

The term used since 1974 by Jonathan Raban in his book of the same name "Soft City" refers in urban literature to the astonishing exploration of the relationship between the imagined and personal "soft city" and the physical space of the built environment, which the author describes as "the hard city".
Previously, the sociologist Georg Simmel (1) produced a reflection on the body in the city that introduced the idea that urban dwellers shape a "shell" to avoid disturbing physical contact in environments where there is a high concentration of people (transport networks in particular). Apart from these thinkers, the subject of the physical relationship between the human being and the city in urban scientific literature is the subject of current work that is rather scattered and takes different forms.
Is this a new current of thought for the city that accompanies the transformations of our society towards a better consideration of human aspects (behaviour, psychology, well-being, etc.)?

The soft trends that are being expressed: nature city, sensitive city

The first of them is the best known and most explored. It relates to the nature-city, of course, with the associated public policies that we already know as the "Nature in the City" scheme of the Ministry of Ecological and Solidarity Transition, but also local projects of regreening, depollution, renaturation, as carried out in Paris ("..."). Reinventing Paris« (see also "Green roofs"). The initial concern was that of maintaining biodiversity, its preservation, particularly in urban areas. The "effects of climate change" approach reinforced the idea that nature in the city provides cooling to heat islands, allows water retention and less irrigation of green spaces in an urban ecosystem, thereby saving resources and protecting the planet. The social aspect, although pointed out, has not been the subject of in-depth reflection, particularly on the well-being and health of the inhabitants brought by plants (in any case, not enough).

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However, the reference work by Thierry Paquot and Chris Younès " Philosophy of the environment and urban environments The "urban geography" project "brings new avenues for an urban geography made of greater interweaving between nature and mankind; the work of Sandrine Manusset on "the benefits of plants in cities" explore the environmental, economic and social aspects of nature in cities; finally, more concretely, the dynamics initiated by networks of medium-sized cities in France, such as the network of "...". Plants and cities led by the mayor of Angers, reveal an important awareness of the need not only to preserve nature in the city, but to develop it. And the idea of de-artificialization announced by the Ministry, at the close of the 2015 Environmental Conference on the fight against soil artificialisation, testifies to this major change of direction for cities, large cities in particular: how can nature be massified in cities, in large metropolises, in order to repair territories and desaturate them for a better living together (health, environment, amenities, economy, ...)?
 
View of Angers (49), city classified as "the greenest in France".
 
The social aspect, although mentioned, has not been the subject of in-depth reflection, particularly on the well-being and health of the inhabitants brought by the plant (in any case, not enough).
 
The second is more imperceptible because it is more moving and heterogeneous. To simplify, it concerns the notion of urban comfort, which is expressed through visual, sound and olfactory ambiences and the relationship to the body in the city. This is another aspect of the city that is too often forgotten, the physical aspect, the presence of man in the city: this refers to the sociable, sensitive city, to humanities and sensory practices (sight, touch, smell, etc.). To cite just one quick illustration, urban planning makes little room for public benches (under the pretext that they are squatted by the poor, there is a tendency to remove them, whereas 30% of the French population in 2050 will be over 60 years old and will require them). We can thus see an initial discrepancy between the needs of the population and the public policies implemented, which may be covered by this lack of reflection on the presence of the body in the city.
 
It should be noted, however, that several research projects over the last two decades have focused on this sensitive city.
It is a current that is asserting itself for a living, viable and humane city, with trends towards the development of urban research around major concepts: ethics, aesthetics, empathy, common goods, social responsibility, sensory. We are gradually witnessing a coexistence of urban ecology (optimal and responsible functioning of the city) and human ecology (benevolence towards people).
The researchers involved are forming multidisciplinary networks such as the "ambiantalists" - creators of soothed atmospheres in the city based on plants, the luminosity found in built spaces - under the leadership of Jean-Paul Thibaud in France, with Canadian collaborations; or in a more scattered manner, such as Thea Manola and multi-sensory landscapes then Lucie Grésillon and olfactory cities (2) without forgetting the great philosophers of the urban world such as Thierry Paquot who claims the "humanist movement" of urban planning in his numerous writings on the sensitive city or Nathalie Blanca French specialist in environmental aesthetics.
 
Journal sonore Élise Geisler and Théa Manola for the project ofe qSustainable development " Kronsberg in Hannover (Germany)
 

So, how can these urban trends - which are certainly particular but essential to the well-being of urban life - be taken up by the public authorities, so that the city can once again be seen as a calmer place for exchanges in terms of noise, smells and energy stress (transport stress), at a time when the "concentration of populations" is predicted to be galloping, particularly in the metropolises?
Which figures of the urban built environment will be anticipated and projected in order to reconcile nature-man-urban environment?
 
Nathalie Cecutti, State architect and urban planner and head of the Prospective Mission at the Ministry of Ecological and Solidarity Transition.
This article commits only its author and not the institution to which it belongs.
 
(1)    Les grandes villes et la vie de l'esprit, Georg Simmel, Follow-up to "Sociologie des sens", Paris, Payot, coll "Petite Bibliothèque Payot", 2013 (1st edition 1907)
(2)    Lucie Grésillon, "Sentir Paris. Bien-être et matérialité des lieux", Ed Quae, 2010.
 
To go further:
 
- Book" Sharing urban atmospheres - Pour une approche sensible et pour une écologie politique des espaces " by Jean-Paul Thibaud, April 2013
- Article" Feeling seeks its way into design". with Théa Manola (Le Moniteur, January 2017)
 
 

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