#57 - 4 December 2020

Major Projects and Democracy: A Guide for Action

Opposition to major projects takes many shapes: calls for economic degrowth or for a decrease in individual mobility, NIMBY reactions to urbanism projects… Yet one thing is clear: urban planning and infrastructure projects have never been so criticized, to the extent that one may now wonder whether they can still be conducted.

How did we get here? Before all else, this heightened conflict is evidence of an ongoing crisis of the democratic model. Weakened by growing mistrust towards politicians, institutions, and expertise, our democracy is also suffering from the effects of increased polarization and radicalization of the public debate, fostered by the Internet and its information bubbles.

Yet current conflicts around major projects should not make us forget that these projects have always been and will certainly remain a major instrument of progress. For how can we respond to demographic changes and urbanization, how can we meet the challenges of the tech revolution and the fight against climate change without designing and building new infrastructure and development projects for future generations?

Thus, the conclusion is clear: major projects are – still – the future. However, until we successfully reconsider our approach to these projects, and more specifically their economic and social usefulness, tensions will remain high. So how should we proceed? How can we restore a collective sense of purpose to our projects?

To answer these questions, La Fabrique de la Cité brought together a working group of thirty-some city-makers, from philosophers and elected officials to professionals with hands-on experience of major projects and environmental advocates. After almost two years of expert hearings and lively debates, the work of this group comes to a conclusion with the publication of our new study, “Major projects and democracy: a guide to action”. This report (in French) contains no miracle solutions; yet it offers promising avenues, as well as rich, complex, and sometimes contradictory points of view that reflect the strong convictions of our experts and working group and their dedication to democracy, our most precious asset. – Marie Baléo, Head of Studies and Publications

→ Read our report “Major projects and democracy: a guide for action” (in French), with a preface by philosopher Olivier Mongin.


No time to read? La Fabrique de la Cité has got you covered.

BACK TO THE OFFICE? Only a quarter of U.S. employees are back at their desks, a percentage that weighs heavily on the economic life of major U.S. cities. However, not all cities have been impacted in the same way: 40.3% of those employed in the Dallas-Fort Worth region have returned to their workplace, but only 13.4% have done so in the San Francisco region, where the tech ecosystem favors telecommuting. – Sarah Cosatto, Research Officer

ACCESSIBILITY – When assessing a transportation project, time savings is systematically regarded as the key indicator of success. Yet this approach does not take into account the potential negative effects of such a project. In practice, an accessibility approach focused on the needs of all of entire society rather than only on users of the transportation system might be preferable. – Camille Combe, Project Manager

ENVIRONMENTAL INEQUALITIES Environmental Research Letters has recently published an interactive map assessing the areas that will be submerged by sea level rise. The number of affordable housing units vulnerable to this risk in the US could triple by 2050. The authors chose to focus on this type of housing because residents typically have less financial resources and clout and live in buildings that are often older and less resistant to extreme weather events. – Sarah Cosatto

→ Related: our study project on urban resilience.

VISITING WITHOUT MOVING – Since 2017, Éric Tabuchi and Nelly Monier have gathered in an Atlas of Natural Regions 25,000 pictures of ordinary, everyday France, far from the monumentality of postcards. Do they show us an “archetype of ugliness”? In their work, Tabuchi and Monier opt for a geographical perspective based on natural regions and show that landscape is shaped by society and culture, thus mirroring us. – Chloë Voisin-Bormuth, Director of Studies and Research

→ Related: our study project about medium-sized cities and their trajectories, in France and Europe.

In Lisbon, municipal authorities have launched a program to convert 20,000 tourist apartments into affordable housing, in light of the effects of the health crisis on global tourist flows. Owners can rent their properties to the city for a minimum of five years. Other cities such as Vancouver and Venice (Italy) are also designing and implementing programs to address the pressing issue of affordable housing. – Sarah Cosatto

→ Related: our report “In search of affordable housing: a European challenge, based on interviews conducted with 30+ experts in Paris, Bordeaux, London, Stockholm, Berlin, Munich, and Warsaw.

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