At the same time that protests have erupted all over France regarding national cutbacks of the country’s historic social safety net, there is a local example of experimenting with policies to redress inequality.
I recently visited the French city of Lille where I was struck by the citywide initiatives to create a more socially and spatially just place for its residents.
(Wikimedia Commons-Author: Manchot Sanguinaire)
Situated in the North of France, practically on the Belgian border, Lille is at the heart of a region that boomed during the industrial revolution primarily through its word-renowned textile industry as well as important coal, mechanical and chemical production. The region essentially knew steadfast economic growth until the deindustrialization crisis hit in the 1960s-1970s, when jobs moved to Asia and left the northern textile region in ruin. It has been struggling ever since to recover its economy and its declining population as well as dealing with an important legacy of environmental degradation born out of its heavy industrial production.
Aerial view of Lille (Wikimedia Commons – Author: JÄNNICK Jérémy)
Lille has faired better than most other industrial cities in the region thanks primarily to a slow conversion to a service-based economy with the arrival of the Eurostar in 1993, but also, thanks to a string of ambitious socialist mayors who have governed the city since the late 19th century. (Note: “socialist” in the French context refers to the main leftist party of France, The Parti Socialiste, and not to what U.S. tea-party-people would call socialism…).
Despite huge efforts to rebuild the economy and reclaim an identity for itself however, Lille and its surrounding urban region continue to suffer from higher than average unemployment rates and lower per capita incomes than the national French average. There are still many poor ex-industrial areas which suffer from poor housing, poor services and infrastructure as well as the repercussions from is sometimes refered to in France as the “lost generation” – the generation of factory workers who lost their jobs during the post-war crisis and never got them back.
However Lille’s mayors, particularly the current one Martine Aubry, have made important efforts to ensure that the redevelopment of the city and its economy benefit all “lillois”, rather than accepting the first offer that comes in order to make a few quick bucks (see for example the way Detroit has been run since its automotive collapse)
In this way, important efforts have been made to create a more inclusive and more sustainable city for all.
Last July, my research took me to Lille where I interviewed several local actors, including Ari Brodach, the City’s Director of Sustainable Development. He told me an anecdote that beautifully encapsulates Lille’s efforts to create an “eco-social” city.
Over the past decade or so, Lille has adopted a sustainable development agenda, which asks two questions whenever new laws are being considered. The first asks how the law will help reduce inequality. The second asks what the environmental impact of the law will be.
One example of how the Sustainable Development Department walks its talk is its program that trains young people from the banlieues to become leaders in sustainable development in their communities. The goal here is to not only promote environmentally conscious citizenship, but to also empower often ignored youth in a process that also helps develop the community overall.
When Lille decided to bring some of these young leaders to last December’s Climate Summit in Copenhagen, they packed a bus the bus with kids and politicians together, breaking the typical protocol of separating the official leaders from the kids and creating a space that ensured that they would interact along the way. By the time they all arrived to Copenhagen, genuine bonds had been established across boundaries of age and class despite typical stereotypes of banlieues youth as violent, “immigrant,” petty criminals promoted by French politicians in general, and French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, in particular.
That bus is a small symbol of how Lille intends to create a practice of diversity and sustainability for its residents. In a similar way, urban renovation projects to restore degraded housing in the most deprived areas all include the development of new social centers, playgrounds, green spaces and schools. Old industrial warehouses are being cleaned up and converted into community centers that are open to the public and free.
One example is the Gare Saint-Sauveur, an former freight station that has been converted into a cultural centre that now hosts free exhibitions, open-air film screenings, and a playground with freely available sports gear for all children who wish to play there.
The Gare Saint-Sauveur – (Wikimedia Commons, author: Velvet, July 2009)
Lille is one example of local efforts to produce spatial justice at a citywide level.
As current mayor Martine Aubry will likely run for President in 2012, she is aggressively advancing programs to ensure that inclusive sustainable policies yield positive outcomes, despite uncertain economic times and a hostile national government.
In this way, Lille’s mayor, city-workers and residents alike are working to project the City an example for the rest of the country and beyond.
As the story of Lille unfolds, we’ll be looking forward to seeing what emerges and exploring what lessons we can glean from their experience.