Numéro 98 octobre 2005Les visages de la ville nouvelle
With a wealth of testimony from major actors, the French experience of New Towns is now entering the field of historiography. This is when social history puts the break with the past and the exceptional nature represented by this marking moment in national urban development policy back into perspective. A new dialog can grow up between the disengaged witnesses of past action and researchers who seek to illuminate the multiple facets of this experiment.
The urban development laboratory of the years of postwar growth, the bodies set up to develop the New Towns sought to end the uneasiness felt in major urban projects and the isolation of single family homes. Over time, the urban development projects carried forward by multidisciplinary teams were overtaken by the constraints of getting the work done on the ground and the unpredictable aspects of transfer of oversight to local authorities. The collective reference framework then fragmented into so many professional and individual destinies.
In France, shortly after the Second World War, the historic town centers were emptied out by mass development and its large scale shopping areas. Urban developers did however think that they could invent centralizing locations in suburban areas, like the New Towns for example. Today the result can be seen as a city with multiple centralizing and split up attributes spread over a mobile territory that stretches beyond the areas normally occupied by space defined urban development.
The birth of the New Towns mirrored the reforms affecting municipal power in France. Progressively, and as the political majorities swayed back and forth, local elected representatives regained control of towns and cities. The major projects undertaken by the city consortiums make the New Towns a model for well understood cooperation.
For the residents of the Isle d’Abeau New Town, the emptiness of the areas not built up is an essential quality of the location. Physical contact with nature justifies choosing to live in the countryside. Originally new it its close relationship with nature, Isle d’Abeau is a kind of emerging city outside of city walls.
The New Towns in the Paris Region have attracted a major part of the business activities serving companies. Some command activities have even moved out of the center to occupy certain well serviced sites like those to the South West of Paris. These centrifugal movements of businesses and jobs come along with residential moves towards the outer suburbs, in daily living areas that are outside of the reach of the New Towns.
As areas of service sector office space in the 1970s to 90s, the Paris Region New Towns today form office markets that are on the edge of the major metropolitan traffic flows. There are major differences between the situations of the five poles that exist in the region. In an era when the office property market is opening up to a world wide clientele, the New Towns must now find their own resources to ensure their attractiveness.
A major aspect in the development of the New Towns, their universities have been able to force local centers that meet the demand for training from students residing in the outer suburbs. They have also found themselves a place in the inter-university mobility system by capturing a non negligible share of Paris students who migrate during their studies. The traditional separation between the prestigious but general universities located in the center and the laborious professionally oriented universities located in the suburbs seems to be on the way out.
Collective equipment that integrates multiple functions was a major part of post war urbanism. Carried forward by the movement that saw institutions open up to the outside world, especially schools, integrated equipment served as the spearhead for affirming new urban centers. In an era of flow structuring through shopping centers, public equipment articulate space more as networks than through any polarization.
Encouraging the coexistence of different social categories was one of the strong principles driving the designers of the French New Towns in the 1970s. Changes in population differentiate patterns depending on location. The masses fit an ever more segmented pattern of public housing while more affluent categories occupy the higher value sectors.
The French New Towns were designed at a time when religious institutions were no longer particularly motivated in seeking to mark out territory by a monumental form of presence. The arrival of migrant populations from North Africa, Africa, Asia and the Antilles is changing the situation by giving rise to a demand for religious space for various religions. Local authorities are therefore being pressed more and more to meet these demands and to prevent and regulate the resulting tensions between communities.
A major urban development project, of the same proportions as the pyramids, if you believe the critics, the creation of New Towns around Cairo, Egypt, during the 1980s is now starting to take shape. Satellite towns built up against the desert, at one time criticized for their soullessness, are becoming attractive and livable. New private neighborhoods are joining this development of public real estate.
Newly built on the shores of Lake Tunis, a separate town is emerging with all of the quality and security attributes born of modern urban development. From the upscale comfort of single family dwellings to the refined urbanity of public usage areas, the project projects the image of a harmonious social order reserved for the elite. This new private city right in the geographical heart of the old one nevertheless offers meeting places sought out by residents of the entire city.
On the outskirts of Oran, the "native village" which was a parking area for the native population created by the colonial power, has today turned into a sort of New Town, one of the city’s living neighborhoods. A market place too ! One where formal and informal activities meet, with a trading radius that extends beyond the city limits. A neighborhood that is also a work in progress, in the midst of a renewal of buildings and inhabitants.
Algeria is now discovering New Towns in order to meet the demand for housing and resolve the saturation of the historic city centers. The "New Town" of Ali Mendjeli on the outskirts of Constantine has just been hastily built by the Government with limited financial resources. The new residents, who for the most part came from the poor central parts of town are attempting to turn an area lacking in quality into a livable neighborhood.
In the former Eastern Block nations, New Towns were designed as practical laboratories in the day to day building of the socialist nation. Their history remains that of large complexes of standardized buildings that momentarily satisfied the strong demand for housing and comfort close to major industries. In the German Democratic Republic, the popular enthusiasm for this model of a fully equipped city coexisted with criticism of its uniformity.
In Czechoslovakia between the wars, Thomas Bata, a major shoe manufacturer, built a network of New Towns combining the garden city model with the functional principles of the Athens charter in a kind of Ford-like social project. From autonomous architectural modules, construction evolved under post-war socialism into a linear city with a planned out relationship with surrounding areas.
The Albertslund New Town was born in the 1960s of the development plan for Greater Copenhagen which placed public control over urban development and a balance between city and nature at the heart of its goals. Public housing, local participation and respect for the environment all joined together for the future. Recent evolutions relate to the integration of new populations, the upkeep of now damaged areas and the desire to bring ecology into the daily mix.
Sweden is the country where urban development has elected residence, for the country embarked on its own highly interventionist construction program for a few New Towns after the Second World War. Vällingby, outside of Stockholm, is a typical example of a city planned by the welfare state. Today, the urban core has aged and lost a part of its residents, but an ambitious renovation project is banking on making something out of the promising remains.
A concentration of universities and research labs outside of Tokyo, Tsukuba became a kind of New Town with a population of close to 200,000. Its development saw the technological overheating phase of the 1980s, then its melt down during the economic crisis that followed. The fusion between fundamental and applied research in separate, small, entities now brings the entire image and future of Tsukuba into question.
A New Town under construction outside Nankin, Riverside sees itself an a model of harmonious coexistence between industry, residential living and nature. Unequal compliance with the environmental standards set out and the partial expropriation of local agricultural activities along with the limited commitment by private investors all slow the transformation of the ideal into tangible reality. The sustainable development phraseology borrowed from international bodies masks a market based and segregationist urban development model that is less harmonious.
During the twentieth century, the garden city model imported from Europe a century before spread across the United States without every satisfactorily achieving its goals of harmonious social and spatial coexistence. The New Town model took over after World War Two to restructure monotonous suburbs forming the urban sprawl. What was achieved never lived up to the hopes of urban developers continually confronted with a general demand for a separation between skyscraper and garden, rich and poor, White and Black.