Numéro 104 juin 2008L’expertise au miroir de la recherche
Researchers invited to observe local urban production processes, here in Nantes, discovered to their amazement that projects that have already reached the implementation stage are incredibly labile. They readily take on a variety of roles in order to monitor the day-to-day progress of the objects of their research in situ. They keep a journal of developments, thus building up a record, which is available to other actors. Researchers and practitioners are cooperating on the development of new forms of public action.
In France, the urban eco-quarter projects being developed across Europe have been entrusted to urban planning architects who are expected to integrate environmentally-friendly technical know-how. The progress seen in certain European countries appears to be linked to the acknowledgement of new forms of professionalism. Expertise is being developed at local level under the leadership of local authorities ; training is improving thanks to informal international exchanges. The profession is still dominated to a large degree by career individualism. However, the assimilation of environmental sciences into urban planning studies and in tax assessment is likely to have a radical effect on the world of the urban planners.
The development of urban planning as a profession since 1960 and up to the present has been marked by competition between specialists and the fleeting hegemony of urban planning architects during periods of urban renewal and the construction of new towns. But the urban landscapes that have been developed, in response to public contracts primarily focused on quantity, have failed to meet the expectations of the people that live and work in urban areas. In becoming more professional, landscape designers are now becoming more capable of putting forward proposals at a variety of levels. Architects, urban planners and landscape designers now work together on new urban projects, on which local elected officials and users have the final decision.
Countries in North Africa and the Middle East have recently benefited from major Arab investments in real estate. New professional partnerships combining local and international expertise have emerged to define and promote such projects. Two cases are of particular interest : Solidere, the company put in charge of rebuilding the centre of Beirut and the new marina to be built along the edge of the Kasbah in Casablanca. French architects and urban planners are being called on for their expertise. As for research, it provides an extra dash of expertise !
Decentralisation has meant that the regional authorities in France are now responsible for organising research and economic development. In the Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur region (PACA) an advisory committee on research has been set up for the Regional Council, mainly made up of local experts. This committee has recommended developing stronger cooperation with the Midi-Pyrénées region and setting up a permanent and themed call for projects. Attempts to set up a regional system for technology transfer has not produced the expected results. The expertise mobilised for regional development is not the same as that brought together within the framework of national labelled competitive clusters.
What are the concrete forms developed insofar as concerns the links connecting research and urban studies with local public action? Bordeaux is an emblematic case of a city council which, following the watershed election of 1995, called on every available resource likely to help give shape to its determination to take action. Younger, more highly-specialised and more innovative teams began to emerge from university units that had been in place since the 1950s. A number of figures, mainly geographers, became experts on urban planning and development, advising local politicians on both the Right and the Left wing, as well as the general public. A shared understanding of the urban renewal project thus gradually took shape, thanks to the efforts of the A’URBA urban planning agency.
Expertise in urban planning was developed at a relatively early stage in Rennes and continues to be now : as demonstrated in the social projects of the architect, Emmanuel Le Ray, between the two World Wars, the regional and municipal militant activism of the geographer, Michel Phlipponeau from the 1960s, and the ongoing original action instigated by the city council in shaping the urban landscape as conceived by the urban planner, Jean-Yves Chapuis. Training at Rennes University and at the School of Architecture have followed suit, developing a form of urban planning that conforms to national standards without a major break from the rural environment.
During the 1960s, Dunkirk was the happy recipient of a great deal of attention from national industrial policy and urban planning researchers. Specialist study organisations were set up, providing an opening for local expertise and paving the way for future decentralisation and the transfer of responsibility for urban development and planning. The process of de-industrialisation has affected the job market, a market in which the University, founded in 1990, could increasingly come to play a central role.
Certain urban planning agencies have been in business for over forty years and have started to keep a record of urban planning studies. Initiatives have included conferences and study days. The Lyon urban planning agency has undertaken this with a view to future development. In the process, they have discovered the original character of urban planning studies, quite distinct from those undertaken by architects and more in common with scientific research studies.
The skills required by experts in urban planning and the social sciences have undergone many changes. Their task no longer involves providing information on which the authorities can base their decisions, since this is now provided by specialist agencies, but rather to provide overall support for all the local policy operations. As a result, the quality of local information has suffered. Preference is given to the urgency with which information can be communicated, to the detriment of consistency and constructing towns where sustainability is more than just an empty catchword.
National policy on revitalising rundown areas has encouraged the emergence of new forms of professional activity, in France and in Great Britain alike. University research has been called upon to study these new practices in similar ways in the two countries. Nonetheless, the institutional procedures implemented are quite different : contracting and a few cases of professional training for public servants in France, the development of public/private sector partnerships in Great Britain and the definition of professional standards for new jobs, dealt with as nothing out of the ordinary by the job market. On both sides of the Channel, the emphasis is on the multidisciplinary, seen as the ability to innovate in France, and as the ability to multitask in the United Kingdom.
Generative analysis of urban social housing applied to housing estates in need of rehabilitation or renovation can be used to highlight the importance of their use value and to give a sense to urban life that is shared with the residents. It relies on their ability to think about and discuss the issues, and on the sense of belonging to a shared local culture. Every housing estate should be treated as an individual case and there is no place for catch-all solutions. The article describes the major steps involved in this kind of research and analysis. In particular, the authors emphasize the key role of communal space management.
Individual or collective violence committed by young people often makes observers and politicians recommend that they should take up sports activities. Yet a survey carried out at a large number of sites and questioning young people who practise a sport in open public spaces has revealed that such activities, far from being an alternative to violence, share certain basic characteristics with it : they are more or less exclusively male activities, limited to youths in the 12-15 age range and involve closed groups, especially ethnic groups. Sport may well be more of an introduction to violence than a way of countering it. Unless, of course, alternative ways of practising it can be found.
Urban development nowadays involves a very large number of players whose expertise needs to be brought into synergy. Several major companies, in particular the RATP, have contrived to develop initiatives with this in mind, together with a variety of ways in which researchers can become involved. This is how the sociologist, Isaac Joseph, came to spend a long period of mentoring with the RATP and developed working relations at every level of the company. Catherine Espinasse, a psychosociologist whose speciality is the night, has been developing another style of relations. Thus, we are seeing the development of a new scientific approach, that studies the “prospects of the present”, notably in liaison with the Cerisy International Cultural Centre.
The early days of contracted research in the social sciences involved a study on a village in Brittany, Plozévet. The aim was to study a relatively closed community and its imminent disappearance in the face of modernity. Edgar Morin, together with the author, dispatched to the village for this second stage of the study, developed an original survey method based on co-habitation with all the different groups of local players and open discussion on the upcoming crisis that was already playing on everybody’s minds. This position, which caused quite a scandal at the time, made this kind of study the basis of an approach in the social sciences that is now widely recognised by local people.
With rocketing energy prices and the environmental damage caused by urban spread, the suburban house may soon be as undesirable as vast housing estates. To prevent such a risk, a study on urban design and revitalisation is needed. Analysing the history of how these spaces developed and studying their morphology may help us to define alternative redevelopment strategies suitable for the towns in questions. A foretaste of this study was given as an exercise to students at the Lyon School of Architecture.
Taking part in committees or proceedings in which researchers and professionals work together makes it possible to identify the similarities and differences in how they work and to hope for greater interaction between the various institutional positions in the future. It is uncommon for a researcher to be accepted as a mere observer ; unlike the organic intellectual who only takes an overall view and has no new ideas to contribution. There is room for much improvement aimed at getting people and ideas to circulate in the field of urban planning.
RAMAU, a research network, was commissioned by the French government to lead the debate on changes in professional skills. From this privileged position, it was possible to observe the trends in the profession undergoing breakdown and restructuring, and especially the introduction of hybrid initiatives that experiment with new forms of governance that are opening up to civil society.
While the ultimate goal of all such initiatives is to develop greater responsiveness, its actual implementation is not easy.
Does it make any sense to draw a distinction between research and expertise within the framework of urban planning studies? Research is held back by the way contracting authorities formulate policy - the only imperatives they understand are those of action ; the scientist is more concerned by a need for alternative processes at a certain remove from the action. On the technical level, knowledge and expertise can be developed, but the city as a social object is much too huge a subject to ever be studied seriously. So, more often than not, it is reduced to its spatiality, which can only lead to the failure of any action based on such incomplete knowledge