The French econeighborhood policy: issues in national certification (part 2)

By Hugo Rochard

Part 2: Evolutions and challenges for the French label

Since the two first national competitions in 2009 and 2011, the ÉcoQuartier label has undergone minor modifications (figure 4). With a view to improving the ÉcoQuartier Charter, Alain Jund, Vice-President of the Eurométropole of Strasbourg, was tasked by the Ministry in November 2016 with conducting an overall assessment of the label. After identifying strengths, the report raises its weaknesses. One of these was the lack of local evaluation of the project’s impacts beyond its borders. To fix this problem, the 4th step was added in 2016, for local governments to explain the influences of the econeighborhood beyond their operational perimeter. This new step would provide new reinforcement to the importance of bottom-up processes, where self-evaluation may encourage local occupants to work to continuously enhance urban spaces. The monitoring of the ÉcoQuartier process is accompanied by the intention to open the certification to an increasing number of local governments.

Figure 4. Timeline of the ÉcoQuartier national policy

Yet, the certification does not rely on technical indicators and is not destined to certify the quality of a single process, but rather identifies whether an urban development project responds to the holistic challenge according to the 20 identified sustainability commitments. The ÉcoQuartier grid proposed by the French Ministry in charge of Urban Planning is introduced as a synthesis of national voluntary and legislative regulatory commitments. As an illustration, the presence of social housing suggested in a commitment dealing with social diversity is also enshrined in the law[1] at the municipal scale and since 2012: every city with more than 3 500 inhabitants must include 25% of social housing everywhere in France by 2025 under pain of government taxes.

We observe a real diversity of situations, ambitions and levels of involvement from the local authorities within a unique ÉcoQuartier framework that can seem overly cumbersome (duration of the ÉcoQuartier procedure) or misunderstood (project based on too reductive criteria with respect to the overall logic of the label).

Alain Jund’s Report, November 17th 2016 (page 15)

Still in the latest 5th campaign of labeling in 2017, the Charter consists of 20 “commitments” subdivided in 4 “dimensions” both chronological and thematic: “approach and process”, “living environment and uses”, “territorial development”, “environment and climate”. This grid is treated as a flexible guide by ÉcoQuartier Club members, numbering more than 1,200 local governments. The experts (groups of researchers, urban planners and specialists of urban sustainable development) assess each commitment: to be approved in the regional and then the national commissions, each dimension should get a median score of 3 out of 5. Consequently this assessment method does not assure a real balance between the different commitments. Instead, it is a multi-criteria evaluation, using non-quantified and overlapping sustainability indicators (Figure 5). Finally, we can notice that the socio-economic aspect is highly present in the evaluation method of the ÉcoQuartier, mostly in the three first “dimensions” whereas the last one is dedicated to environmental and resources management.

Figure 5. The ÉcoQuartier Charters 20 commitments – Source : About-de Chastenet et al., 2016

Jund’s report insists on the key effect of local authority feedback to improve upon a typical vertical planning process which does not cope well with the variety of territorial and urban contexts. This, Jund expects, is the reason for the low appeal of the program for small and rural local authorities, which may not consider the label flexible enough to fit the small scale of their planning projects. Besides, the label does not seem to meet most of the local expectations about historically-significant architecture, natural landscape and urban fabric integration[2]. In urban renewal projects, certification can create a “frontier effect” in which predominantly middle class residents access the new neighborhood (with its above market prices, lack of parking spots, real estate obsolescence…). More generally, as reported by Alain Jund, the certification does not provide sufficient incentive and concrete public recognition especially at the beginning of the process when the project is still under construction and local officials are not ready to complicate procedures, which are already long. Regardless of the general emphasis on bottom-up collaboration as a prerequisite, the label does not ensure a long term engagement after step 4 and does not provide any evaluation of living environment quality, well-being or community involvement. Despite the public funding accessible to new ÉcoQuartiers (Ademe (Agence de l’environnement et de la maîtrise de l’énergie) subsidy, European Regional Development Founds, Regional grants…), local authorities frequently conclude that human and financial supports are more symbolic than effectively  constructive. The limits of the label are also brought into question by the numerous self-proclaimed econeighborhoods[3] supported by their municipality but not taking part in the official state-sanctioned label. This may speak to stakeholder uncertainty about the value of label recognition itself.

The Jund report also tackles several queries about some typical management practices of econeighborhoods:

  • the reduction of energy consumption and production questions conventional resource sharing (relative to existing networks using non-renewable fuels like traditional gas or electricity systems),
  • the waste recycling management questions the individualization of collection and processing costs,
  • the preservation of water resources creates new green infrastructures; this represents a new approach to landscape management (vegetated depressions, bioswales, ponds…) that demands not only technical engineering expertise but also ecological expertise. The valuation of ecosystem processes presents on the one hand a technical challenge for developers and on the other a new communication challenge for the local authorities towards residents and users.

Jund’s report emphasizes the gap between high standards for neighborhood design (technical, building and resources management, ecological sensitivity and expected eco-friendly behaviors) and the reality of inhabitants’ and local authorities’ expectations and cultural references. It appears that the assessment process does not provide much in the way of educational programming or awareness-raising measures in the local context. Even if the label framework tends to avoid the rigidity of technical indicators, it still runs the risk of raising barriers to resident appropriation of their space if it seems too unfamiliar and foreign from their base of experience.

The standardization of architectural answers (an aesthetic of environmental transition) and the reproduction of certain design forms (bioswales for example) lead to technical productions that may not correspond to all inhabitants’ representations, aspirations or lifestyles.

Alain Jund’s Report, November 17th 2016 (page 21)

The Ministry updated its objectives in December 2016: by 2018, 30% of ÉcoQuartiers will be situated in rural areas and 100% of new urban renewal program (NPNRU) neighbourhoods will be produced via the EcoQuartier label. The number of labelled ÉcoQuartiers is also intended to be doubled by 2018 (in reality this means 32 econeighborhoods have to be certified in two years). Besides the addition of a 4th step to enable the post-occupancy evaluation three years following completion, and to improve continuity through progressive certification and increase promotion of local authorities’ commitment, a new partnership is being built with l’ADEME. This partnership engages questions of social and solidarity economies especially around urban agriculture (shared gardens and local food systems). The Ministry intends to steer the use of the label towards more adaptation to the diverse territorial contexts of econeighborhoods. This move is seen to hold the potential to strengthens  intercommunal, multilevel governance, and to reinforce innovative cooperation between municipalities.

Yet, there are other ways to promote neighborhood sustainability at other territorial scales which can be complementary to the ÉcoQuartier label. Then ANRU (Agence Nationale de Renouvellement Urbain) have to hold for sustainable renovations in the new conventions (2014-2024) and some projects (of national or regional interests) receive grants for the Plan d’Investissement d’AvenirVille et Territoires Durables”. Some Regions still sustain calls for proposals, like the Ile-de-France allocating 235 million euros to subsidies to the project “100 Quartiers Innovants et Ecologiques”, 16 neighborhoods have been awarded in 2016. Nevertheless, the label can be seen as added to an intricacy of hierarchical regulatory layers that lead operational planning practices, from the national (or European) level to the municipal level.

Finally, the ÉcoQuartier label is now expanding its application internationally, as  the Morino City neighborhood in Funabashi, Japan, received 3rd step certification in 2016.

Conclusion

The institutionalization of sustainable neighborhoods in France has occurred via the ÉcoQuartier label, a process-oriented planning tool rather than a technically-oriented set of standards and targets for green development. Since the launch of the Ecoquartier label program in 2011, eco-neighborhoods are regarded in the public discourse as a process of co-construction to accomplish ecological transition in urban renewal, to foster territorial equality and to tackle the issue of housing shortage. The French model based on the municipal purchase of a national policy may foster the creation of a broader culture of sustainability within governments and their partners, across scales. However, important questions remain in the unfolding of ÉcoQuartier in France: can the label adopt a flexibility sufficient to draw interest from both rural and urban, historical and new types of neighborhoods, and across different socioeconomic strata? Can a top-down design extend an invitation to local actors that is authentic and inviting of genuine local ownership and adaptation, and citizen participation? Are the incentives for the program right, particularly in urban spaces where land tenure and profit stakes can be so strong and complex?

[1] Loi SRU (Solidarité et Renouvellement Urbains) from December 2000 and completed by the Loi “relative à la mobilisation du foncier public en faveur du logement et au renforcement des obligations de production de logement social” from January 2013.

[2] There is no architectural fit standard in the grid (which favours density criteria). The example of Forcalquier seems an exception in integrating the label principles into inherited urban forms.

[3] The same phenomenon can be observed in North America with the “LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) equivalent” labelled projects.

 

Bibliography

About-de-Chastenet C, Belziti D, Bessis B, Faucheux F, Le Sceller T, Monaco FX, Pech P. 2016. The French econeighbourhood evaluation model: Contributions to sustainable city making and to the evolution of urban practices. Journal of Environmental Management 176: 69-78.

Cerema, Ministère du Logement et de l’Habitat durable, 2016. “Référentiel national pour l’évaluation des ÉcoQuartiers”

Cerema Normandie-Centre, Ministère du Logement et de l’Habitat Durable, 2017. “ Vers des quartiers durables, pistes pour agir… ”, Mis à jour en mars 2017

Jund A., coord., 2016. “ Label ÉcoQuartier : Une nouvelle étape pour l’avenir durable de nos territoires”, Ministère du Logement et de l’Habitat Durable

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Tozzi, P., 2015 « Enjeux participatifs dans l’adaptation urbaine durable », Sud-Ouest européen [On line], 37 | 2014. URL : http://soe.revues.org/1128 ; DOI : 10.4000/soe.1128

 


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