What scales of government for the regulation of densification ?

Anastasia Touati, October 2015

This fact sheet addresses the issue of fragmentation of urban policy spaces as an obstacle to the implementation of effective urban policies, particularly in the context of sustainable urban development and densification policies.

Analyses of sustainable urban development frequently refer to the fragmentation of urban political spaces as an obstacle to the implementation of effective urban policies. Indeed, according to many authors, sustainable development requires adaptations of existing institutional perimeters to make them compatible with the perimeters of the problems posed. For Jean-Philippe Leresche and Stéphane Nahrath, urban sprawl poses specifically political questions, such as the possibility of governing increasingly vast spaces, the right scale of action to address problems related to urban development, and the discrepancy between political and administrative divisions and the relevant territories for action (Leresche and Nahrath 2011). These questions refer to the problem of the fragmentation of governmental spaces in the context of the withdrawal of states and their reconfiguration in the current context of global economic restructuring. For densification policies, this raises, among other things, the question of how to manage these policies, particularly the relevant scales of intervention for their development and implementation.

Communal fragmentation called into question

Paméla Blais, who works on North America, highlights that the political fragmentation of urban spaces is one of the main drivers of urban sprawl:

«  Fragmented urban governance is often cited as a cause of sprawl. For example, development can leapfrog to less regulated or unincorporated jurisdictions beyond the urban fringe in order to evade stringent development restrictions (….). Less fragmentation does not guarantee more compact development, but highly fragmented, compact cities are rare. In other words, more integrated regional government may be a necessary but not a sufficient condition for curbing sprawl  » (Blais 2010 : 20).

In the opinion of many analysts, the same is true in France. The difficulty of densifying peri-urban spaces is particularly acute there, precisely because of communal fragmentation. For in France, since the decentralization laws of 1981-1987, power in matters of urban planning and land policy has been in the hands of the communes (Goze 1987). The communes thus have decisive power in the field of urban planning policies, land policies, and also in part housing policies. Decentralization has given municipalities responsibility for operational and regulatory urban planning and the power to decide not only on land use but also on the pace, nature and form of construction within their territory (Comby and Renard 1996; Ballain 2005). Thus the communes, and therefore the mayors, through their power to draw up and approve the urban planning document, have the authority to determine the use of each parcel of land: its constructability, the urban form attached to the construction, but also the obligations imposed on builders and users.

And the more one looks at suburban communes, the more this concerns small communes with very local logics. In these communes, elected officials are all the more sensitive to the pressures of their constituents and their aspirations, particularly with regard to their «  cadre de vie  » (Damon 2012). Thus, residential densification projects, which are perceived very negatively by residents who own a house and fear the depreciation of their property, may be more difficult to implement in such territories, as elected officials strongly fear NIMBY1 (Not in My Backyard) type opposition that could cost them their elective mandate. Although densification appears more constrained in this type of configuration, it is not impossible, as shown by analyses of the actual dynamics of densification in the peri-urban area (Darley and Touati 2011). Eric Charmes nonetheless speaks of a veritable land malthusianism with regard to the practices of land retention that he has observed in the small peri-urban communes of France’s inner suburbs (Charmes 2007a); and authors such as Marc Wiel consider that these practices of land retention constitute one of the most important factors in the housing crisis (Wiel 2006a).

Communal fragmentation is therefore considered to be one of the major obstacles to the implementation of policies to combat urban sprawl, such as densification policies.

The response of the new regionalism

The observation that metropolises have become reference territories for political and economic leaders involved in the dynamics of globalization is now widely shared (Lefèvre 1998; Salet, Thornley and Kreukels 2003; Boudreau et al. 2006; Lefèvre 2009). Thus, various researchers see metropolises as the spaces from which it is possible to set up mechanisms for adapting to globalization and advanced capitalism (Jouve and Booth 2004 : 5). It is at their level that the major urban challenges are posed today, and it is therefore at their level that it would be appropriate to respond to them.

More precisely, a whole stream of research on regionalism and urban governance is interested in metropolises as constituting economic, political, social and cultural units of major importance because they represent today the concrete and strategic places of capitalist accumulation and its political development. Neil Brenner, for example, analyzes the processes of metropolization in Western Europe as the concentration in large metropolitan regions of high value-added socio-economic activities, the most important transport infrastructures, labor flows and the bulk of industrial growth. He also observes that this movement is constitutive of an increase in the disparities between the core of the metropolis and the peripheral municipalities (Brenner 2004 : 180). Within this general framework, he identifies three major restructuring processes - restructuring of the urban form, global economic restructuring, and restructuring of the neoliberal state - which he sees as analyzers through which the current debate about political rescaling can be understood. Rescaling is defined by different researchers as a process that transforms the division of labor between the national and different local levels (Boudreau et al. 2006 : 8; Lefèvre 2009 : 10). It is a strategy used by states in the new post-Fordist accumulation regime that destroys the foundations of the welfare state and transforms city-regions into the carriers of contemporary capitalism (Harvey 1985; Jessop 2000). Thus, in the face of the various restructuring processes underway, metropolitan scales are increasingly considered to be a significant level of regulation of urban development. Thus, many political and economic actors are trying to adjust to the current economic restructuring processes, notably by relying on a change in the scalar organization of the state. State-level political actors are thus no longer the only ones acting at the metropolitan level, and different actors and institutions are struggling to define, according to their interests, the most relevant scale for managing contemporary social problems.

This tendency of states to develop policies that favor the economic growth of metropolitan areas is a direct consequence of the economic, political, and institutional transformations in which Western countries have engaged since the early 1980s. At the economic level, the surge in globalization and the liberalization of economic markets has led to a conversion of state policies to these logics. At the political and institutional levels, states are implementing processes of differentiation of intergovernmental relations through decentralization policies, which has resulted in the weakening of the central welfare state and the emergence of a multi-level and multi-actor political arena (Salet, Thornley and Kreukels 2003 : 3).

While the role of central government was evident in all European countries during the development of welfare states, the transfer of competences from central to lower levels of government from the 1980s onwards has had many repercussions. Decentralization has, for example, resulted in a greater sense of urban entrepreneurship (Harvey 1989), which has also fuelled competition among municipalities. At the same time, market-based approaches have been progressively favored in the economic organization of European states (Salet, Thornley, and Kreukels 2003 :6). The management and administration of public utilities (the provision of electricity, water, public housing, education, health, transportation) have evolved toward configurations that favor the private sector (Letourmy 2000; Hugounenq and Ventelou 2002; Coutard, Hanley, and Zimmerman 2005; Rutherford 2008; Coutard and Rutherford 2009).

All these changes have had consequences for metropolitan development. Indeed, global economic actors are not detached from regional contexts and institutions and seek well-equipped and attractive locations (Salet, Thornley, and Kreukels 2003 :11). The institutional framework and its ability to create these conditions for attracting new populations and firms are thus a crucial element of the comparative advantage of metropolises. It is in this context that we are witnessing a process of readjustment of institutions and practices on the part of elected officials at different levels of government, in order to be in a good position in the global inter-urban competition. The new regionalism is pushing for greater cooperation at the regional level to face this international competition (Boudreau et al. 2006 :13) and to respond to current urban challenges. This is particularly the case for sustainability issues, where debates are pushing in this direction.

Indeed, in addition to economic, political and institutional transformations, metropolitan regions have been physically profoundly transformed (urban sprawl, residential suburbanization, gentrification of old centers, development of financial districts). These transformations translate spatially into a wide variety of urban configurations that make up large metropolitan regions and that challenge the traditional categories of city and suburbs (Garreau 1992; Wood, Keil, Young 2010; Phelps 2011). Many analysts believe that it is at the metropolitan level that spatial policies must manage these changes. Sprawl, transportation planning, and social and racial segregation are seen by local officials in different urban contexts as problems that can only be addressed at this scale (Salet, Thornley, and Kreukels 2003 :14; Boudreau et al. 2006 :14).

The question is then how public actors can coordinate their action in a context of institutional fragmentation of metropolises. For there is a tension between the need for sub-regional cooperation in order to increase international inter-urban competitiveness and, on the other hand, the metropolitan fragmentation that has become more pronounced under the current institutional conditions. According to this perspective, thinking about urban spaces on a metropolitan scale is considered a necessity in the context of globalization, but at the same time, the rivalry with the state and municipal levels is such that the metropolitan level has difficulty in constituting itself as a political space. What is more, when initiatives do emerge, only the central cities of metropolitan areas have any real steering capacity (Lefèvre 2009 :101). What about suburban and peri-urban spaces, which today are often the most dynamic spaces in metropolises (Wood, Keil and Young 2010 : 15)? In line with researchers interested in these questions, we believe it is necessary to include these spaces in the reflection on the future of metropolises. Indeed, they have been relatively little studied even though they are precisely the place where most of the contemporary challenges are played out today (urban sprawl, renewal of employment areas, construction of transport infrastructures, social exclusion, etc.).

The question is therefore to know how these spaces are integrated into the reflection on the functioning and governance of metropolises and how this integration influences local urban processes.

1 The concept described under the term « NIMBY syndrome » is simple: the installation of any public facility creates nuisances for the residents near the facility, even though they do not benefit directly from it. Their « natural » and selfish reaction is to refuse the project and demand that it be built elsewhere ("Not In My Backyard"). (…). This « theory »/acronym comes from the United States, where planners have been multiplying this type of shortcut to describe the opposition they face since the end of the 1970s » (Jobert 1998).


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