In Paris, the battle of ecology versus social issues

The advent of ecological urban policy


 “Building a city” and “building ecology”, two contradictory movements with inverted trajectories, abandoned by politicians on one hand and co-opted on the other? In Paris, based on the results of the last European elections, the stage is set for the upcoming municipal elections. Convenient alliances are shaping up, based on a simplistic and polarized vision of society, between progressivism and sovereigntism. Facing this regenerated, unapologetic yet conservative political scene, a new lever emerges and nuances this bipartisanship: political ecology.

Although emerging from a positive collective awakening about global environmental issues, political ecology seems to fail at fully accounting for everything that constitutes a “political action” in a societal sense. Sustainable urban policy is political ecology’s manifesto, aiming to resist the progressive model based on neoliberalism and consumerism. In sharp contrast to sovereignty, it indeed seems to overlook all identity issues in the name of the climate emergencies that concerns us all. However, behind this ambition of universalism, sustainable urban policies ultimately raise very few questions about whose needs it really fulfils, and can thus marginalize essential planning processes of redistribution and socio-spatial equality. What political commitment can advocate for an improvement of human condition without also tackling social progress issues?

Paris, as a dense city and metropolis, is now the stage of this drift. Behind self-professed ecological policies lies a lingering economic issue waiting to be addressed, that is still very far from the once-invoked social ideals and general interest. What does one hide behind the desire to implement nature, biodiversity, pollution reduction in the city? It seems that nowadays in Paris these issues are only levers for safeguarding very localized, privileged and reduced populations’ living environment. Would that mean that only a limited number of inhabitants can have the privilege to enjoy the amenities of a global city? This phenomenon has been a lingering melody throughout Paris’ history, and today we can once more hear its music. Each development or construction operation launching in the capital now sees the rise of opposing associations of residents, often property-owning and bourgeois, equipped with all legal and political tools that suit their needs. Instrumentalized by idealistic ecology activists for which only emptiness and “letting live” constitute ecology, these associations attack both private and public projects regardless. Always crucial to political and electoral agendas however, the public projects are behind-the-scenes negotiations and majority-building issues, often at the expense of the collective good that urban policies are supposed to reach for.

Urban ecology is thus misguided when used to lead battles against projects aiming to, on the contrary, fight urban sprawl, develop transportation and public facilities, etc. Density is and has been a rational and necessary way to deal with the attractivity of high-urbanization basins; it cannot give way to emptiness as a sole public policy, especially not in an urban fabric constituted for the only comfort of a restricted circle and for the already outdated electoral time’s political apparatus.

Ecological actions without any political follow-up?

Politics are relevant when tackling all of society’s issues. It should be global, common and public. The latest ecological actions taken in Paris have shown great contempt for any social dimension, in relation to the common interest of accessing social housing opportunities, while some large-scale private projects have, on the contrary, been willing to meet these issues. Three Parisian projects concentrate nowadays most of the ecologists’ ire.

The projects of the Tour Triangle and the development of the Bercy-Charenton area, carried out by private operators, are at the center of major financial stakes. They are located on formerly activity or industrial sites bound for transformation but bordered by major infrastructures, which delayed their urbanization in the first place. Criticized for their great heights, their vastness and their over-density, those two projects have finally been adopted by Paris’ Council despite some appeals from residents’ associations and ecologists. The Ménilmontant project on the other hand, public-operated and tiny in scale compared to the first two, is located on one of the last large Parisian plots available in the heart of the residential 11th arrondissement. Due to its public founding, this project is most fragile, and yet was targeted by repeated attacks that eventually successfully buried it. The birth of this mixed program (including 85 social housing units, a municipal sports center, a waste relay center and a garden) had nevertheless been the result of the City of Paris’ strong policy to provide decent housing at controlled prices for families with modest incomes. Yet the uprising of around thirty concerned, property-owning neighbors over alleged noise and visual nuisances as well as the possible loss of their tranquility led the project to be blocked for two years before ecological activists eventually joined in and instrumentalized this battle to their own political agenda. When the Paris administrative court first ruled the project as of common interest, opposition methods started to harden. Disinformation campaigns, site intrusion and occupation, degradation of padlocks, etc. Chained to the gates at dawn, do those ecological activists realize that they are, in fact, carrying the voice of unhappy property-owners when social housing is so desperately lacking? Still, drawing a real policy, let alone a universal consciousness from these events is tricky. What kind of society do we hope to build by pushing unloved populations out of gentrified cities?

It seems that it is first and foremost the City of Paris’ policy that is there being attacked and put under pressure as the battle for municipal elections begins. Its current occupants let political maneuvering give way to a localized ecological action holding neither promise nor real ambition regarding social diversity issues. With cities facing major challenges and changes ahead, it is of course crucial not to think of the city without ecology. But throughout these battles, ecology should also remember not to lose sight of its social dimension.

PS: this one should keep it for the cinema notebooks!

Only now can we measure the damage caused to Paris by the infamous Amélie Poulain, with its sanitized theater of good feelings mummifying this obsolete image of Paris on the fringes of social history… It sure feels like its film’s yellowish filter is less the sign of a romantic era’s nostalgic sepia than the true color of a stagnant formalin.