The French econeighborhood policy: issues in national certification (part 1)

By Hugo Rochard

Introduction

A global race has taken off to redefine development paths for advanced postindustrial societies in time to address the ominous threats of environmental changes and unsustainable societal trends. One area of innovation is the model sustainable neighborhood. These developments take many names and are designed with a range of different frameworks and certification systems: ecodistricts, ÉcoQuartier, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), One Planet Communities, Living Communities, Well Communities, and net positive districts, among others. As these models of sustainable development take shape in cities around the world, they vary in aspirations and ambitions, from incremental variations on the traditional urban or suburban district, on the one hand, to radically different designs, tenure arrangements, orientations to public space and ecology, transportation options, and governance systems (Holman, 2009; Joss, 2015). As the number of certifications is increasing to enable sustainable development at the neighborhood scale, new types of political processes are emerging from this green urbanism (Holden et al., 2016).

In a favorable international regulatory context (Aalborg Charter in 1994, Bristol Agreement in 2005) and right after the signing of the Leipzig Charter on sustainable European cities for the first time in 2007, during the Grenelle de l’Environnement – a multi-actor national meeting – the French territorial authorities were invited to promote urban sustainability at the neighborhood scale. In 2008, the government announced a call for proposals in various environments (eco-neighborhoods in rural areas and villages as well as urban renewal, projects accessible to different socio-professional population categories, etc.). In 2009, for the second call, 169 applications were received nationwide. The new ÉcoQuartier[1] label campaign officially started in December 2012. Although the number of local governments applying for the label was the highest in 2013 and 2014, today, after 4 campaigns, 51 eco-neighborhoods have concluded the first three main steps of the label while 214 are in the process of certification[2].

The evolution of this original national label in the landscape of green certification of development demonstrates that local authorities are taking an increasing interest in sustainable planning and policy. However, the way the process operates leads to questions about how local authorities can employ sustainability-oriented governance in this way as well as the real effect of bottom-up procedures in bringing the common interest to the fore. A brief analysis of the last update to ÉcoQuartier label will suggest some of the implications of territorial complexity in building neighborhood-based sustainability for diverse communities at different scales.

Part 1: Territorial dynamics of a national strategy

An ÉcoQuartier is “an operation built in association with the different stakeholders and inhabitants which offers a living environment while limiting its ecological footprint. Making an ÉcoQuartier is finding the good solution through planning as well as through the urban form (from the house to the denser blocks). (…) Save resources, contain urban sprawl, promote new lifestyles, mobilize citizens and more generally, on a given territory, meet the challenge of the sustainable city.”[3]

The ÉcoQuartier label’s first distinctive component is its different layers of governance that engage a plurality of actors.

Figure 1 shows a pyramidal structure based on state stewardship, local governments acting in partnership with intermediary institutions like the regional government and with local communities (e.g. inhabitants, users, associations). The system results in a hybrid mix of vertical and horizontal processes operating with public participation. The labeling process relies on the cooperation of local authorities (municipalities or public inter-municipal cooperation establishments) with a network of territorial support groups like the DREAL (Direction Régionale de l’Environnement, de l’Aménagement et du Logement), Regional Natural Parks (PNR), Urban Planning Agencies, and the national operators and expert groups like the scientific committee or the CEREMA (Centre d’Études et d’expertise sur les Risques, l’Environnement, la Mobilité et l’Aménagement). The ÉcoQuartier National Club and the ÉcoQuartier Scientific Committee, created in 2010 and 2009 respectively, contribute to facilitate implementation, mobilizing action for sustainable development and the creation of a shared national database. Club membership, which is managed by the Ministry as a gateway to a network of territorial authority project teams (municipalities, Départements, Régions…), is supposed to bring clear advantages for local governments such as technical support (e.g. energy system management). The Club also is a forum in which to share experiences and to support innovation. Not a decision-making body in itself, the Club provides a common space to share practices and ideas that can in theory influence the evolution of the national label. This governance system may have the additional advantage of circumventing some conflicts with local actors, given the power of the national commission to have the final word on awarding the certification.

When forming the national Club, a dedicated website, newsletters and local meetings were provided in order to encourage the leverage of the label. In 2017, an interactive internet platform for ÉcoQuartier project stakeholders (municipalities, technical operators) has been launched to reinforce the network, solicit feedback and allow learning and modelling of best practices among connected actors. A planned addition to this webspace is a “citizen” space, which will be used to collect user and inhabitant feedback all along the certification process. Even if this follow-up could enable a kind of citizen empowerment, it increases the challenge for the national authority of managing this website, in order to bring potentially divergent points of view into alignment and to satisfy a shared interest. The creation of such a tool raises the question of the accessibility of the website platform for a great number of citizens. Some French researchers have shown the asymmetric and normalized governance process in which inhabitants (and more often users) are invited to participate (Gourgues, 2013; Tozzi, 2015).

Figure 1. The governance structure of the ÉcoQuartier certification process

The national labelling process consists of 4 steps (figure 2). The “ÉcoQuartier label – 1st step” is granted after the signature of the ÉcoQuartier Charter by the elected representatives and their project partners, such as planning firms or private operators. Once feasibility studies have been carried out and the construction started, an expert review of the project is provided to check the conformity of the project with the charter. The third step is awarded by the national commission when the neighborhood construction is achieved or almost completed. Finally, 3 years after the project has been built out, the territorial authorities are required to assess the project in the interest of continuous local improvement. The Municipality of Forcalquier (in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur Region), provides a good example of the adjustment of EcoQuartier criteria to a historical neighborhood. In this urban context, the EcoQuartier revitalization project adapted sustainable solutions to the medieval urban morphology. The last stage of the certification is based on a bottom-up self-evaluation by the local authority. This last step does not require the same expertise as the second and third steps since it is based on local stakeholders’ perceptions of the neighborhood. It has two sub-steps: a questionnaire intended for neighborhood residents and a report on the technical impacts of sustainable practices at the city scale. To date, no project has completed the fourth step. Ultimately, this post-occupancy evaluation phase will put the sustainable retrofitting on longer-term footing.

Figure 2. The 4 steps of the ÉcoQuartier label process

In order to capture the geographical impact of the national label, the Ministry established a classification of the different planning operations as well as data. Presently, 51 ÉcoQuartiers have received the third step award, 106 hold the label “Step 2” and in total 174 864 units of housing have been built or renovated to date. The label seems to tackle the challenge of social inclusion since 38 % of these built units are considered social housing. Moreover, among the ÉcoQuartiers that have received at least the first step, 45% are renewals of already existing neighborhoods, 43% are “controlled urban expansion” and the remainder are designated brownfield regeneration. Since the first call for proposals, the ÉcoQuartier label has principally been pursued by large and intermediary cities whereas towns and villages under 2,500 inhabitants represented less than a fifth of the projects as of 2011.

Figure 3. Maps screenshot of the ÉcoQuartier certified in May 2017 Source: http://www.ecoquartiers.logement.gouv.fr/

The map of the certified neighborhoods (figure 3) shows that the aim of the Ministry for fully national coverage is partially achieved. Yet, some regions are better represented than others: the ÉcoQuartiers are more numerous in the Île-de-France region than in former Bourgogne Region (before the territorial reform in 2015) for example and their density is higher in major metropolises like Greater Paris, Rennes, Montpellier, Lyon and Bordeaux.

The governance of the ÉcoQuartier labelizations constructed upon complex political bonds rather than one unique and stable vertical norm (Figure 4). The label acts as a guideline coordinating a national network that shares the effort to spur forward neighborhood sustainability planning initiatives governed locally; at least these are the ambitions of the French Ministry. The first in this pair of blog posts has aimed at introducing the French label based at the same time on a territorial cooperation and a progressive expertise. Nevertheless, the recent evolution of the label policy revives questions about stakeholder positioning in building up an econeighborhood as well as practical resources management, which we return to in part 2.

 

[1] I use the capitalized term ÉcoQuartier to refer to the label itself. The common term écoquartier refers to operations that haven’t gone through a national certification process and may use other assessment methods.

[2] Last update in September 2017 – http://www.ecoquartiers.logement.gouv.fr/chiffres-cles/

[3] Alain Jund’s Report, November 17, 2016 (page 12)


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