City without a car? Another urbanism (medieval?) is possible

@Marie-Caroline Lucat (2017)

The city without a car? You have to decide: it took a hundred years for the WHOLE WORLD to adapt to the car, it will take just as many years for the planet to detoxify the car. Until then, however, it is possible to consider a different urbanism than the ZACs with their buildings in plots and their 15 m wide streets.

The problem with autumn is that it easily makes you forget the heat waves of summer. Humanity is so created that it moves on without thinking about it anymore. But it is precisely when it is cool that we must anticipate heatstrokes not only for next summer, but for all future summers, as we know they are inevitable. It is not enough to buy more parasols.

During these four heat waves in 2022 – we start counting the heat waves as the Covid waves, and they will soon have a name, as tropical storms – in short, this summer it will not have escaped anyone that the weather was better in the old medieval quarters of villages or towns than in the soulless ZACs that abound in the country. In other words, the weather in Paris was much better in the Marais than on the 40 m wide Avenue de France, and this applies almost everywhere.

To be sure, these medieval neighborhoods, which were almost always central, were built in such a way for a variety of reasons that no longer apply today, but which at the time of brutal global warming are proving to be of great ecological efficiency. What is the carbon footprint of the medieval center of Angers, the summit of Montpellier or the village of Hautpoul in the Tarn? They have in common a complicated access to the car.

The qualities of this urban planning are known: Venice to simplify. In addition, many city centers have long had thriving pedestrian and shopping districts. For the most part, these are neighborhoods that are not conducive to car traffic, or even car-free, but since they are in the city, they are usually well served by public transportation. Question: can these qualities of comfort be found in similar but modern neighborhoods outside the city center? Indeed, it seems that despite the essential car, another urbanism is possible

Ile-Saint-Denis Middle Ages
@Philippon-Kalt (2020)

Three references (non-exhaustive list of course, but I visited these three projects). The first is the eco-district designed by the Philippon-Kalt agency on L’Ile-Saint-Denis (Seine-Saint-Denis)*, where alleys and alleys lead to an intertwining of housing types in small units that together form a kind of ‘village’ , which you expect to find on the islands where urban planning was built according to the natural elements: water, wind, coast, nature. These lanes and alleys make each of these villages or neighborhoods familiar as soon as you set foot there.

An important element is the district’s axis and the visual breakthroughs, which will enable cross ventilation “, emphasizes Brigitte Philippon. Ile-Saint-Denis adopts these principles. The fact of relegating cars to mobility centers (CDM) – open to everyone, they are located every 300 m, people never have more than 150 m maximum to reach their homes – has made it possible to create narrow lanes and different public spaces . A narrower scale, and therefore more shade, and vegetation in abundance, it was good there this summer.

The car makes it necessary to think broadly, to differentiate the areas accessible to vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists. In the eco-quarters, the original ratio of 1.2 has been reduced to 0.7 places per housing in PLUI to take into account the amalgamation linked to the mixed programming of the district. Eliminating the car is also a real win for the environment, as it has enabled us to have almost 45% of the district’s area in green open spaces. The main street is 10 m wide, i.e. a narrow street for a new neighborhood with a high density nonetheless. The only limitation is the privacy of the homes, but nothing prevents you from adapting smartly, and in a 6m alley these details are thought through upstream says Brigitte Philippon. The model is therefore not linked to island communities alone, it can be duplicated elsewhere.

The principles drawn up by Philippon-Kalt on Ile-Saint-Denis are not radical. The possibility of going even further back in time with the Joseph Suey district signed by A+Architecture in Baillargues (Hérault).** Or how to insert a new district of 2.4 hectares, as large as the historic heart of the city. Initially a cooperative basement, a football field, a street that separates them, today a connected district consisting of 213 homes: villas, terraced houses and small collectives.

Middle Ages Joseph Suay, Baillargues
@Marie-Caroline Lucat (2015)

The project was delivered in 2015 and was designed well before current ecological concerns. ” For us it was an opportunity to confront an old center “, explains Philippe Bonon, partner at A+Architecture. “The competitors who presented a modernist ZAC project, offset from the village, were not selected and it was our radically different project that won. he says.

The idea was already a district where the cars were in the basement or were moved to the open to preserve a perfectly planted heart of the block and on the pedestrian scale, which is exactly the opposite of what was expected. On arrival, a modest architecture with private gardens, 3 m wide pedestrian streets that, equipped with a conveyor belt, look like grassy local roads. ” We had a program with lots of small houses, like in his village. It was a rather utopian project at the time, but the mayor did not change anything says Philippe Bonon. Nevertheless, when the vegetation had grown, it was good there this summer.

In fact, as on Ile-Saint-Denis, cars are not prohibited, they are managed in the same way as gondolas in Venice, not parked right in front of your home. Finally, a more recent project (2017) from the same agency in Castelnau (Hérault) testifies to this.

It is initially a classic competition (public housing, home ownership and housing for the elderly), but on a plot of 4.7 ha, a former quarry, a rare plot. At the last minute, after the tenders had been submitted, the mayor decided to include 50 first-time buyers in the program to respond to an outcry from the owners who live nearby, who did not want a ruinous building. As a result, at the bottom of the career, it is impossible to get above R+2 or R+3. ” We changed the design, we moved up in the first part of the program, articulated around a single road and without dead ends, and behind it, on a very small area, we built the 50 villas for a small pedestrian and car-free part of the city says the architect.

Castenau A+Architecture
@Marie-Caroline Lucat (2017)

To discover, during the visit in March 2022, a perfectly wooded mini-district, along the alleys and views, consisted of houses encased in lush vegetation with the walls of the quarry as a backdrop on three sides. A sort of holiday town, but for real people in real life. So much so that the visitors – the architect, the journalist and the photographer – had to show their credentials to a couple of mothers sunbathing with one eye on the children playing outside in the public square that opened onto the district. ” It is forbidden to take pictures of children they warned us like tigers suddenly on alert. ” Yes ladies and we’ll take the skates “.

In neighborhoods of this type, a sense of belonging and ownership is inevitable. The architects behind these projects also argue that the inhabitants, brought to know each other, then exercise a form of social self-control. As one of them put it: When people know you, be careful before you throw your papers on the floor “. This different scale – superimposed individuals, small collectives, townhouses, intersections – contributes to a peaceful atmosphere. Yes, but the cars?

There was a need for at least one per apartment. “The underground car park is designed like a comb with three teeth; with three carefully placed exits, residents are never more than 30 meters from their parking space! This allowed us to keep the open space for the garden says Philippe Bonon. Actually drowned in the vegetation, the parking lot exits are almost invisible, and to see the trees in bloom, it seems hard to imagine how a smart parking lot is hidden underneath. This summer it was good there.

In short, three urban contexts, three virtuous outcomes (in our eyes anyway) in terms of effectiveness against future climate change.

This is not about providing ready-made solutions, because many agencies think about this problem. However, what is clear from these three projects is that it is the PLU that has adapted to the project, not the other way around. It is not a detail. Moreover, for this, I had to convince “, or even ” to fight “. In fact, the PLUs outside the big cities are generally inter-municipal and impose the same rule on everyone, which leads to more generalities. So the architectural haute couture… Not to mention the struggle with the technical services. A car-free neighborhood is still a big debate, but the inflexibility of the PLUs is not the least of the difficulties.

Not to mention the labels. ” The mark is calculated on the building, we calculated it on the scale of the district. But this global calculation also questions habits: the goal is to be more efficient and more relevant, not to meet standards. You need a strong political will that does not only respond to economic or financial reasons, and you need to argue for the speech says Brigitte Philippon.

Another common element in medieval projects is joint ownership. After all, two facades instead of four saves time and materials, not to mention energy savings when heating. And the architect who in 2022 doesn’t know how to make a continuous home can change jobs!

These examples are as many elements of reflection that, in addition to the PLU of each individual in his stronghold, should inspire clear instructions from the government on the measures to be taken to favor the future neighborhoods on a human scale with coherent management of the car according to the context. See, for example, what Chambéry could become, since the multi-storey car parks already exist. ***

Car, no car? The answer to this question is political. If this five-year period will be green or not, according to Vulcan ex-Jupiter, which city tomorrow? What neighborhoods will come out of the ground in five or six years with the decisions made today? Still, since the apocalypse will not occur if the politicians get their act together, a rapid development of urban planning is possible. Who would have thought just a few years ago that bike lanes would suddenly change our perception of the city? It is therefore sufficient to simply redistribute the space. If it is also on a human scale and welcoming, Byzantium!

Christophe Leray

*Read our article An island’s possibilities in Seine-Saint-Denis
** Read In Baillargues, Hérault, A+Architecture confirms modern urban continuity
*** Read our article Hérault-Arnod designs the Ravet car park in Chambéry

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