Numéro 90 Septembre 2001Les seuils du proche
Economic discipline has long demonstrated
the beneficial effects of spatial proximity
: a wealth of exchanges, economies
of scale, quality of human relationships,
etc. However, the global division of production
submits local territories to functional
co-ordination logics that escape its
bounds. The divorce between economy
and geography affects both public regulation
and local democracy.
Authoritative economic reasoning in
today’s liberal societies refuses to acknowledge
the value of symbolic and cultural
relationships. But emphasis on
proximity is tending to reduce the gap
between the market and social life, to
repair the damage caused by competition
and to integrate groups excluded
from growth. The resulting build-up of
institutional ties is guiding the behaviour
of public and private operators
towards an economy that may be more
political but is not certain to be sustainable.
When local bodies come to mean salvation
The pregnancy of the proximity theme
in current political thinking stems from
the crisis in republican institutions based
on reason, progress and universality. It
is the return of Nemesis in response to
the excessive optimism of Prometheus.
Under the aegis of this balance-preserving
divinity, the family archetype
assumes the value of a model for consensual,
pragmatic management of togetherness.
The humble good sense of
Nicodemus is the assurance of salvation
when the guiding lights of our common
world no longer shine true.
Proximity, urgency, exclusion, new
poverty, precarity - all familiar items on
the agenda, which reflect the need and
will to improve forms of social management.
But they succeed one another
so quickly that they are ill-defined and
polysemous. These vogue words, each of
which has mobilized social workers,
researchers and politicians, must not
blind us to the distances that separate
people, are integral features of the city
and organize themselves via accessibility.
Recomposed forms of commercial distribution
Spatial regrouping of goods and services
on the scale of minimal neighbourhood
units is an urban planning model that
has generally proved not to work in
practice. But city-dwellers’mobility and
remote relations, which are ever more
intense, are creating new forms of accessibility
for businesses. The business
apparatus is spreading its ranges of stores
and products throughout space in response
to these new accessibility patterns
where time and place count more than
metric distance alone.
In cities, where living space is becoming
increasingly fragmented, city-dwellers
are seeking to establish their roots more
firmly in familiar places. The inhabitants
of the outer suburbs of Nantes
have thus opted to patronize the shops
closest to home and support the same
neighbourhood effect in another survey
on business practices in Roche-sur-
Yon. However, these observations cannot
lead us to conclude that there exists
neighbourhood life involving strong feelings
of local belonging.
Temporal dimensions of communication
The growth of telecommunication
media is causing society’s relations with
its space to become increasingly opaque.
Far from introducing sociability into
remote contacts, the mobile phone is
restoring the value of meeting-places.
Space is offering its multifaceted forms
to relations based on affinities or chosen
from among peers on the basis of
gender, generation or ranking in the
The city-dweller’s representation of the
village as an ideal territory provides the
politician with a geographic and patri-
LES SEUILS DU PROCHE 219
monial metaphor that illustrates his
thinking on the need for proximity.
Going by what the inhabitants say, this
village concentrates in miniature form
the amenities and diversity of a big city.
It is a city in a village which emerges as
an ambivalent mirror of contradictory,
frustrated desires of the various middleincome
A changing neighbourhood not far from
Rennes city centre
The Saint-Thérese district, which was a
working class housing estate on the outskirts
of Rennes early in the century, has gradually
been invaded by the middle classes.
Two neighbourhood living patterns coexist
today : that of the first occupiers,
inward-looking and full of nostalgia for
working-class sociability that has slipped
away ; and that of the more city-oriented
newcomers, who use their place of residence
as a base for more outgoing relations.
This difference is tending to reduce
the need for neighbourhood spaces.
The vogue for a neighbourhood residential
environment able to recreate an
in-town village runs counter to the
modern city-dweller’s desire for anonymity.
Residents are more or less tolerant
of noise nuisance and often make a distinction
between anonymous noise and
more specifically human noise. People
who do not appreciate the former are
far from being annoyed by the latter
and vice-versa. Different local sociability
patterns are thus apparent.
The settlement in France of families of
immigrant workers from the Maghreb
countries has changed life in some districts.
The intensity of relations between
members of the enlarged Muslim family
and the neighbourhood solidarity of an
Arab city is only possible in France at the
cost of a number of adjustments. The
noise of small weekly gatherings - the
sign of life for households of Maghreb
origin - is thus a subject of conflict and
arrangements between neighbours.
Gated residential estates and districts
that group together upwardly mobile
categories are growing up in the fringe
areas of Buenos Aires. The nearby internal
facilities and services accessible to
these new residents are enabling them
to live at a distance from other people
who are nonetheless geographically close
to them. The lack of hostility to this
separate way of life is explained by the
dynamic image it also gives of being in
touch with the outside world.
In Mopti, local relationships between
many different ethnic groups are intensifying
through exchanges of words in
the common language. The heterogeneousness
of the cultures and trajectories
gathered by oral history forms the basis
of the city’s plural identity. « Joking relationships
», patronage-based relationships
or dependency relationships that build
up around inter-ethnical exchanges nonetheless
increase social distances.
Developing an urban approach to the city
The central working class residential area
of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) in India,
is dominated by old, overcrowded and
dilapidated buildings. But the difference
in this building cluster lies in its everyday
linkage with other urban spaces or the festive
or political events that highlight a
working class presence in the city. In the
name of civism and urban hygiene, local
ways of life are being called into question.
Today’s multi-polar city lengthens distances
between home and workplace and
between people in sheltered employment
and in precarious employment. Over and
above their ideological differences, France
and the United States are making proximity
a core theme of access-to-jobs policies.
More than neighbourhood dynamics
based on the build-up of ties between
inhabitants, the advent of a metropolitan
government able to control the
local impacts of global policies is a realistic
alternative to territorial dynamics
that generate remoteness.
In France, urban local policy dynamics
are State-driven. In the United States,
the community movement builds up its
own institutions to combat poverty. In
Brazil, the participatory budget of the
city of Porto Alegre is a school for democracy.
Despite the difference in contexts,
actors and processes, these participatory
democracy experiences are challenges to
the idea of neighbourhood democracy.
In France, the local community policing
project has to take cope with centralized,
standardized organization of
the national police force. The Administration’s
prevarications followed by
its great haste to implement this reform
illustrate its difficulty in calling the old
State model into question. The gap between top-level resolve and grassroots
realism is holding back a cultural revolution
that demands policing dedicated
closely to the local population.
As people on the streets are no longer
able to manager their intimate space,
they disturb the normal course of interactions
in public. When they beg, they
meet with polite inattention and avoidance
behaviour. The passer-by’s embarrassment
can be still greater where, to his
surprise, he is accosted by an individual
who carries no stigma of marginality.
Gangs gathering at entrances to buildings
have become a stereotype of young people’s
hard lot in suburban cities. But the reality
of practices observed with an unbiased eye
is quite different : these local congregations,
both habitual and temporary, form
the basis and starting point for movements
and meetings in cities. These places link up
with one another in a sort of « urban cabotage
» unbeknown to institutions.
Parishes are grouping together to cope
with the decreasing number of vocations,
transformations of religious practice
and, above all, the fragmentation of
the urbanity framework. Various grouping
arrangements have been adopted,
which base church renewal on the community
of services shared between priests
and laymen. In this revitalizing effect of
territorial and institutional recomposition,
the Church appears more pragmatic
than the Republic confronted with
Cross-border twinning of towns between
France and Germany is a forwardlooking
component of European
construction. In Moselle-Sarre, geographic
proximity and links between associations
are creating alliances that are
overcoming the heavy legacy of the past.
The cross-border, inter-municipal urban
area thus generated forms the territorial
basis for new elites with identities
that are being called into question.