Although the evolution of mobility has been comparable to the development observed in other European countries, the French State has been particularly active in the construction of infrastructures favorable to the car. In the period from 1960 to 1970, the dominant policy was to adapt the city to the car. These years were therefore also marked by the significant size of investments in motorways and expressway intended to open up territories at different levels. The length of the network of motorways multiplied by 2.5 between 1975 and 1990 (from 2,700 km to 6,800 km), chiefly influenced by a policy aimed towards ‘catching up’. The great inter-city motorway networks followed a logic of settlement that favored inter-city automobile traffic, with roads often set up as close as possible to towns or villages, if not actually passing through them. Certain expressways therefore opened vast spaces to peri-urbanization, like Route Nationale 20 to the south of Paris, along which housing estates stretch to the south of Essonne, from Arpajon to Montléry.
Beginning in the 1970s, several cities came up with the idea of resisting the invasion of the automobile through a more widespread use of pedestrian zones, as well as the introduction of public transportation in bus lanes, and succeeded in slowing down the growth of intra-urban traffic. But in the same period, in early 1970, the appearance of ring roads (beltways) to ‘protect the city’, as well as parking facilities provided for employees of businesses, contributed to a considerable increase in urban sprawl.
Several Attempts at Regulation Considered overall, the authorities have not elaborated a general policy for or against the tendency towards urban sprawl. However, many institutional arrangements have converged towards, and even encouraged, urban sprawl, or at least a certain policy of laissez faire. The multiplicity of different works agencies (Commune, State, Public Establishments of Inter-community Cooperation), objectives, perimeters, time frames for planning and implementation, have led to an often fragmented approach to the spatial development of cities. For a long time, the absence of a single professional tax has led communes to practice escalation to attract businesses, and favored the nibbling away of the countryside by the city (Sueur, 1999). Unlike the practices in Germany, England and the Netherlands, the policies for urbanism and transportation are relatively independent in France; there are no constraints on transportation services for the locations of most activities.
Nevertheless, an intention to control urban sprawl has been expressed in two special areas: a program of urbanism on a grand scale, in the case of the new towns of the Paris region, and a series of ‘lois-cadres’, on the environment, on urban transportation and on regulations for commercial facilities.
Through the policy for the new towns, the State has encouraged the control of the spread of Paris and its suburbs. Included in the planning scheme for the development and urbanism of the Paris region of 1965 (and thus adopted later than in other European cities), this policy led to the creation of five new towns located near the Paris agglomération, at least 30 km from the center of the capital, without creating a green belt. By participating in this exceptional urbanism project, the State affirmed a strategic choice for implementing an urban polycentrism. This choice seemed motivated by “a restrictive discourse to counter the environment of the housing estate”, with the intention of “counteracting the radio-concentric tendencies of spontaneous urban development” (Pumain, 1997), reinforced by encouragements to produce high urban densities. From this perspective, the new towns contributed in part to organizing the expansion of the city and suburbs of Paris. Since 1975, they have absorbed more than half of the demographic growth in Paris, and have acquired commercial facilities which make of them, or at least make four of them, centers that polarize the surrounding suburbs. They have not however significantly limited the urbanization of Francilian green spaces. The Zones Naturelles d’Equilibre (Zones of Natural Stability) in Ile-de-France were intended to create buffer zones in the spaces between the five new towns, to protect agriculture and the forests, but in the absence of legal directives and specific regulations (in particular, the directive cannot be used as evidence against a third party), their impact has remained limited.
Different types of ‘lois-cadres’ have contributed directly or indirectly to controlling urban sprawl. In encouraging the protection of vulnerable spaces in relation to the extension of cities, several laws voted in 1985 provided specific procedures for protected environmental zones and for certain especially sensitive zones like coastal regions or mountains. In addition, the plans de déplacements urbains (PDU) were set up to implement urban transportation policies that were less favorable to the automobile and more respectful of the environment of the cities. Created in 1983 by the law covering the direction of domestic transportation, they served primarily to cover projects of public transportation in the city centers, without a close link to land-occupancy projects and planning schemes. Laws governing high-volume trade—which has often generated moves to the outskirts of cities—are another aspect of these ‘lois-cadres’: they were first designed to protect existing businesses (the Royer law), and then, in the beginning of the 1990s, directed also towards organizing the commercial framework of the urban periphery (the Raffarin law), by bringing in more and more services.
In spite of these arrangements, after the passage of the 1982-1983 decentralization laws1, the major task of controlling urbanization—through the provision of building permits—became the prerogative of the local communes. In the end it is the mayors that have the power of decision concerning whether or not extend building in their territory. The different instruments can be argued in theory, but do not all have an obligatory character.