Paris, Cities & Environment

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French Government sponsors research on cities and environmentA two-day conference of about 40 mainly French-speaking researchers met in Paris on 13-14 December 2012 to discuss and debate the Villet et Environnement: De Nouveaux Defis? City and Environment: New Challenges. The event was organised by the Programme Interdisciplinaire de Recherche Ville et Environnement (that goes by the acronym PIRVE) with sponsorship from the CNRS (France’s premier research agency), the Ministere De L’Egalite Des Territoires Et Du Logement and the Ministere De L’Ecologie, Du Development Durable Et De L’Energie (in essence the Ministry for Local Government and the Ministry for Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy). So interesting to me that two Ministries are involved in sponsoring this kind of research. Officials who were there also understood the material and engaged.

Mark Swilling delivered a keynote address on Urban Metabolism, Infrastructure and Decoupling – a talk based on the City-Level Decoupling Report compiled for the International Resource Panel, but with elaborations influenced by the Urban Age conference that took place the previous week in London (especially giving a lot more emphasis to the role that large tech companies are planning on playing in reconfiguring city infrastructures around the world).

The PIRVE defines its aim as fostering “a better understanding of the co-evolution processes between urban societies and their natural and built environment. It seeks to highlight the processes that bring into play the complex interactions at different scales (spatial: local, regional, global and temporal: short, medium, long term), between the various dimensions (human, social, political and cultural, material, ecological…) of the functioning and evolution of urban systems.” Interestingly, the programme documentation states that to achieve this aim “[t]he programme encourages scientific risk-taking, supporting interdisciplinary projects positioned at the interface of human and social sciences and other major disciplinary fields… .” Interesting because this implies that “interdisciplinary projects” are risky, which of course they certainly can be.

The invitation to Mark Swilling came from Prof Sabine Barles from the University of Paris, one of the key PIRVE coordinators. Barles has produced the best empirical research on a city’s metabolism, using Paris as her case study. She and her team pioneered the methods that many others are starting to use as urban metabolism becomes an increasingly popular research methodology in different parts of the world.

The programme was divided fairly equally between four themes: Urban Ambiances (which was mainly about architectural, cultural and design themes); Vulnerability and resilience of urban systems; Natures and Cities (which was mainly about the ways of understanding the relationship between urban systems and eco-systems, and related collective actions in defense of nature within the city); and Territorial Metabolism.

One of the more impressive speakers was Paul Robbins, University of Wisconsin. He analysed the phenomenon of green lawns across American suburbia, paying special reference to how much toxic chemicals are used to maintain these false urban eco-systems, the role played by-laws to enforce green lawns, and the dominant role played by one major chemical company (Scotts). The other impressive presentation was by Luis Lassaletta who presented the work of Sabine Barles’ research group that was recently published in the journal Regional Environmental Change 12(2). This remarkable work documents the territorial impact of resource flows of the evolution of Paris’ urban metabolism over a period of 200 years (including 200 years of the history of Nitrogen use in Paris). Truly remarkable work.

Nice to interact across the language barrier – the evolution of separate French-speaking and English speaking thought patterns on key issues is clearly a problem, but refreshing when the interaction takes place.