Denise Pumain

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Urban Sprawl:

Is There a French Case?

Denise Pumain


Urban sprawl has become established in France with original characteristics that could be summed up as the result of the intermediate position of the country between Northern and Southern Europe. From this situation, several paradoxes emerge: although the most intense phase of the process of urban sprawl, from the 1970s to the beginning of the 1980s, was rather late in comparison with other countries of Northern Europe, the process has been strongly established in the country, more than in Spain and even in Italy, for example. The French situation is nonetheless quite representative of the collective European experience, favoring a combination of the advantages of compact cities and those of more widely dispersed settlements. Thus, in spite of its strength, urban sprawl in France does not emerge as the expression of an ‘anti-urban’ ideology. The benefits of an attachment to city centers and to the urbanity inherited from the Latin culture are real. Even if the rural heritage of France marked a whole generation of adults (half of the population was still rural in 1950), and can explain a deep attachment to the countryside, urban heritage continues to have strong symbolic and economic importance in France. The evolution of real estate and property values, as well as the very central location of work and of most service bears witness to this.

The search for a form of urban development that would be adapted to European social, political and cultural practices is expressed in the orientations defined by the European Union (European Spatial Planning Development Program, 1999). The recommendations in this document move in the direction of an urban development of a polycentric type, and involve partnerships between city and countryside at different levels of activity. It is evident that the efficacy of the planned policies depends on a good knowledge of contemporary trends in urbanization, given the diversity of the urban systems and the variety of forms of urban government from country to country (SPESP, 2001). We are reminded here of the specific nature of the political and institutional setting of urban development in France. Without being as interventionist in urban planning as Holland or Sweden, the French state has certainly played an important role in the extension of the cities, through its policies related to housing and transportation. The spatial fragmentation of the territory into very small communes is in part compensated for by the existence of general planning approaches, and by the emergence of cooperation between municipalities. The spatial extension of the cities has therefore become a political question, which belongs to the issue of the durability of development, at the same time that it has given rise to new definitions of urbanized space.

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