“We are observing a kind of reconnection of cities to their river”

L‘summer “of all extremes” – according to Météo France’s expression in its climate report for the summer period 2022 – has been much commented on. Episodes of high heat combined with very low rainfall resulted in particularly low water levels in Europe. More dramatic were the torrential downpours in Pakistan following a drought that caused terrible floods rivers in a large part of the territory.

In Europe, the deadly overflow of the Meuse in July 2021 in Belgium and Germany, especially in the province of Liège, also cast a bright light on the resurgence of these extreme events and on the vulnerability of urban spaces. In the relationship between cities their river, it still seems limited to take these phenomena into account.

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However, this relationship has developed significantly in recent times. If most cities were born from their rivers, this original connection had been cut in a logic of separation of spaces urban areas and river banks, gradually intended for industrial functions, then for the of the road traffic that transforms these banks on motorways and parking lots. In the last thirty years, in most of these cities, a dual agenda of requalification of industrial wastelands on the one hand and road networks on the other has resulted in a kind of reconnection of cities to their river.

Political fragmentation

large projects developed on former industrial premises participate in the rebuilding of the city on himself. The requalification of the banks designed by urban planners and landscape architects provides public spaces and new continuities for the users. These developments are the subject of numerous debates, both in terms of the type of spaces produced and in the choice of a requalification that limits car mobility. Often lively debates, the fact is that this renewal of centers along the banks marks an important moment in urban planning of cities River.

Also read: Valérie Masson-Delmotte: “When it comes to climate change, cities must avoid ‘mold-fit'”

Commercial spaces, offices, beautification, public spaces, heritage…, many questions support this requalification. The question organic is not central in the consideration of this relation to the river in public policies. These are mainly developed at municipal and inter-municipal level and therefore treats this relationship with the stream in a fragmented way. Beyond the obvious quality of certain projects or new public spaces proposed, this fragmentation of urban policies partly prohibits a collective reading of the river as an essential element in the ecological transition.

Ecosystem to defend

This observation, made across the Paris region in a manifesto of the association La Seine n’est pas à vente, invites us to point out this ecological interest and to consider the river as an ecosystem to be defended, a reservoir of biodiversity, a framework of freshness, ventilation corridor and more generally beautiful landscape. It also calls for reflection on collaborative territorial approaches (elected officials, technicians, citizens, associations, economic actors, researchers) able to defend this interest at the scale of the river basin.

The access to Parliament of the Loire initiated by Polau-pôle arts & urbanism – cycle of public consultations between art, science and natural law with the aim of defining the forms of a parliament for a non-human entity in which the fauna, flora and the various material and immaterial components would be represented » – is a stimulating recent example. It may trace a new way of recognizing streams as a legal entity based on the construction of a community capable of implementing new ways of developing.

Also read: How Ljubljana went green

Ecological conversion is at the heart of foresight exercises. Goals for 2030 and 2050 are set (climate, energy, food, circular economy) in city plans. They are ambitious – in the same way as the European and national objectives – but currently out of reach because they involve a restructuring of the economic apparatus itself. The river can be an important element in this transition both in terms of mobility (river logistics) and in the development of the economic activities necessary for this transition (recycling, waste, renewable energy).

Recent political initiatives tend to emerge to discuss these issues, still weakly, no doubt, regarding the necessity of transition. This articulation of the different ecological, economic and recreational functions requires an evolution of the model of occupation of the banks towards more mixing of uses and therefore towards a new collective and inter-territorial reading of the river.

Also read: Jules Colé: “We must develop our imagination to build new viable and more harmonious societies”

This article is part of a dossier prepared in collaboration with the Resilience Forum, organized by the Métropole Rouen-Normandie

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