With Cyril Trétout, architect and urban planner, president of ANMA,
Sonia Lavadinho, anthropologist, founder of Bfluid,
Pierre Audiffren, ecologist, geographer, founding president of Chic-Planète Consultants.
Pierre Audiffren, is the protection – and restoration – of biodiversity a given for those involved in urban planning?
P.A.: No, because most of those involved do not yet understand what the word biodiversity means. On the one hand because of a common confusion between nature and biodiversity. Fostering biodiversity, for the most part, means reintroducing nature to the city. But that doesn’t really make sense, because the living world is already there, ready to flourish if given the opportunity, in particular by reconnecting disjointed spaces. People said that the lockdown brought animals back into town. They were already there, but they stopped hiding when the urban movement subsided. The problem is the loss of biodiversity – the decline or extinction of certain species and the disruption of exchange between species. And city planners still don’t know how to counter the phenomenon. That’s why we ecologists are indispensable – we used to be called “frog counters” – for our knowledge of ecosystem services; tenders are starting to require the presence of an ecologist. The environmental code encourages them to do so.
Cyril Trétout, how does the environmental approach condition your job as an architect-urban planner?
C.T.: The environmental approach forces us to consider all aspects because, when I am about to draw something, I have to look at the ecological impact it will have. So it’s the site that makes the project and not the other way around. The sun, the wind, the people who live there or have lived there, the memory, all this makes up the urban or architectural project. The project is built from the bottom up. It’s anchored in a reality.
These are the principles that enable you to identify and draw the local urban corridors?
C.T.: When we draw an urban plan based on the principle of nature, a principle from which we cannot deviate, we must understand the already existing “genius of the place” (what we discover that is injured or hard, a lost pathway, a historic passage, a wetland, etc.) to connect it on a larger scale, that of biodiversity corridors [green and blue corridors]. If we don’t follow this principle of panning out, first understanding what exists – at the local scale – to connect it to a biological corridor and to the rest of the territory, it does not work.
We must therefore rethink the way in which building permits are granted. The constraints of financial optimisation should not be a priority. On the other hand, those imposed by the nature of the site must be a top priority. We need to take the time to carry out preliminary, indispensable and exciting studies, such as the one we are currently conducting on the Brière marsh in Saint-Nazaire.
What is positive is that it invites us to work with the intelligence of others, from other fields (ecology, home automation).
When you respond to a call for tenders for a building – for so many apartments, so many car parks, cellars, etc. – how, with all these constraints, can you make respect for biodiversity a priority constraint?
C.T.: Biodiversity as a priority is no longer an option but a prerequisite. Not only is it possible, it is urgent. It’s a matter of life and death for our cities. No more digging, disturbing the water tables, demolishing. We can improve the ability to bring nature into the city, to encourage it to be integrated into the built environment, to give equal importance to the full and the empty. Breathable nature can be generated in public space as well as in buildings in a more cost-effective way, if we make buildings with openings on different sides, if we use the resources of the wind to cool them, and those of the sun, by systematically capturing its energy.
When we talk about “construction”, we are talking about 1% of the housing stock in France. Under these conditions what should be built should be exemplary, because it only represents 1%. Half of this percentage, however, is made up of single-family homes. The idea was promoted, with unbeatable costs and deadlines, that Monopoly houses were a response to a legitimate desire for comfort and greenery. The average city is getting denser and construction actions are not up to the level of comfort desired.
How can we reintroduce this comfort desired by everyone – of which biodiversity is a part – into condominiums? I believe that the industrial heritage should be refurbished to meet these aspirations. But who pays for the asbestos removal? The clean-up? How do we finance the refurbishment of abandoned heritage?
Furthermore, I believe that more attention should be paid to our streets as a matter of urgency.
Sonia Lavadinho, is the desire to live in the street reflected in the emerging uses of the city?
S.L.: We’re between two trends. A trend towards immobility, a way of living in apartments, offices or cars: the city from within. The problems with this are how to gain square footage to enlarge living space – usually by making an open kitchen -, how to go directly to the car park to get into your car, to park it in a new car park, to sit in a new interior space. In this inner city we are sitting down a lot. Yet “public enemy number one is the chair,” according to a doctor friend.
But there is another trend, a strong return to the outside city, which is a way of first inhabiting your body, of making it move outwards. The house is a hybrid of indoor and outdoor spaces such as the “outdoor kitchen” and “rooftops”. Lockdown in the city has increased a strong desire to get out, to live in the street, the city from the outside.
Studies show that as soon as you put more nature in the city, people get out and interact more. Yet in most of our French cities, no sooner have you set foot outside than you feel like evaporating. It is the responsibility of everyone (including politicians and town planners) to build a city from the outside, that we can also live inside.
S.L.: First of all, the second skin of the buildings, from the first metre to the first kilometre, must be addressed. Starting with the building itself: look at the two towers of Stefano Boeri’s Milan Bosco [Vertical Forests]. They are whole ecosystems, which introduce insects and small fauna vertically. You can hear the birds singing. They invite you to leave your shell, and not to rush into another shell, mobile this time (the car).
The first hundred metres, if they respond to the desire for nature and poetry of the person passing through the door, encourage the person to continue in the movement of the body, to walk, to take his or her bicycle.
In the next 400 and 500 m, you should find the answer to your daily needs, in a setting that also allows you to pause, take a breather, make a phone call, wait for the end of your child’s piano lesson, for example.
We have invested massively in places that we only visit once or twice a year, far from home, but we do not know how to make pleasant places to spend 5 to 15 minutes, places that we visit every day. This is the challenge of the coming decade: to offer people, within 500 metres of their homes, spaces where they can enjoy nature when they have a moment. In this respect, Denmark and the Netherlands have much better control of their land than France to create an everyday city, which encourages interaction and human biodiversity, a sensory and experiential city, for all ages, in all interactive relationships (in the family, at work).
Adults know the living area better than the working area, it’s a pity.
For Rolex, I organised an edible city experience in Geneva: a lunchtime hunt in the city. People had also brought a picnic so they wouldn’t starve to death! We were surprised to see everything that was edible and not edible.
Pierre Audiffren, how can we encourage this trend towards living in a city that respects biodiversity?
P.A.: First by changing lifestyles. I’ll give you an example of the inconsistency that prevails. In my region, a mayor wanted to set up shared gardens but nobody was looking after them. So he thought people didn’t know how to garden. He planted the gardens shared by gardeners. But no one harvested the fruits and vegetables. Why? Because the people in the neighbourhoods where he had set up the gardens did not know how to cook or did not have the time to do so, because of the frantic pace to which they were subjected. And yet they liked the idea! We have to change our relationship to time, change pace, slow down, walk, take our bike, inhabit the space, appropriate it, share it.
Then review our representation of nature. We are used to a “clean”, curated, exotic nature which is not the most favourable to biodiversity. Rather, we need to look at native species and ordinary nature. Scientists were the first to distinguish between useful and less useful species. As if there are some useful people and some not. All living beings are essential. They all depend on each other. Let’s have the humility to acknowledge that. For hundreds of years, we and our environment have evolved together, and this co-evolution must continue.
Hence the need to educate children and adults about the ecosystem services provided by nature, about which we do not yet know everything, and to realise our dependence on its services (such as food and pollution control).
Finally, understand that it is not difficult and that this paradigm must be systematically integrated into urban development. Nature invites itself easily into the city, if it is given the means; in the large families of plant and animal species, it is like in human families: one will be adventurous, the other will love the city, the other the countryside… There is no need for major adjustments to allow each animal or plant, if they invite themselves into the city, to live out their respective daily, seasonal, multi-year cycles. All it took was for a friend of mine to plant a few local species in his garden, including a hazelnut tree, to bring in a red squirrel. It is these unexpected gifts of nature that make you happy!