Repairing France's Suburbs

France 's housing projects weren't always as troublesome as they are now. Ambitious post-war urban planners were aiming for some sort of utopia in the country's suburbs. But the problems in the banlieues, today broadcast around the world whenever a fiery riot flares, owes something to mistakes made on the drawing board. Philippe Van de Maele is trying to undo those mistakes. He heads the National Agency for Urban Renewal, which leading a $62 billion, nine-year demolition, renovation and renewal project that is as ambitious as anything France's 'burbs have seen since its towers were built. NEWSWEEK's Tracy McNicoll caught up with him in Paris. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What was the thinking behind French housing projects, in the beginning?
Philippe Van de Maele:
Most of the projects were built in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. There were two major goals. We had to build after the war. There was a big housing shortage. There were still shantytowns near Paris, so we needed to build a lot fast. And the second step was industrial development. It was the post-war boom years, the "Trente Glorieuses" (Glorious Thirty), from the '50s to the '80s, and there was a big demand for immigrant labor. So we had to build to house them, often near the factory. A lot of projects were built near industrial sites. And these projects were built in line with a very particular vision of urban planning which was the idea of "reinventing the city."

It all sounds very ideological.
It was ideological in two ways. One, this urban planning vision was derived from [Le Corbusier's 1943] Athens Charter. And it was, I think, a little totalitarian in spirit. It said, "We going to put people here and put work elsewhere." And they are cities that were built brutally, whereas cities are generally constructed little by little. And the urban planning scheme, that was very new. The street was considered something that had to be separate, disconnected, from the housing. And this very collectivist thinking that everything had to be shared--big shared spaces--when, in France at least, spaces tend to be very delimited and private.

And things had to go quickly, too, because there was a lot of housing to build at that time. So that's how it happened. And things aged relatively badly and started to decline very rapidly in the late 1970s. We started to think, "Something isn't right in those neighborhoods. There are too many towers. They have to be opened up." So we started doing a few limited things to fix the mistakes the residents were starting to feel.

In the beginning, in these big neighborhoods, there was a big social mix. Executives lived there, laborers, a lot of people. But near the end of the 1970s and the 1980s, people who had the means, little by little, left. They wanted to buy their own places. So new people were needed. But since these neighborhoods weren't very attractive, well, we put the poorest in them.

Why were they no longer attractive?
People started leaving right around the beginning of the oil shock of 1979-80. So there were industries in trouble. People didn't want this sort of urban planning anymore. All that combined at the same time. So people with some means left and the apartments were vacant. Few people want to go to these neighborhoods because they weren't very attractive. Suddenly, more vacancies meant less money for maintenance. So they became even less attractive. And, little by little, we started moving in people who didn't have housing, the poorest. That led to big social problems because it's in those neighborhoods that unemployment is highest. And on top of that, there were the problems of the immigration populations, which were often put into these areas when they arrived in France. Social problems started to get worse.

The urban renewal we are doing is to reorganize these neighborhoods to better connect them with the rest of the city, put more quality back into the housing, the architecture, to reorganize the public space. We didn't dare do it at the time.

Why not?
Because we had just built them and there were still a lot of loans on them. The cities or the state or social housing agencies that built them borrowed money that had to be repaid…. And it was very, very difficult. These neighborhoods were built with a car-is-king logic, so they were in neighborhoods outside of town with the thinking that everyone would have a car. There was no public transit, which made the neighborhoods much less attractive…

You have to realize when they were built. It was a big jump in quality in terms of comfort. In 1950s and 1960s France, some people still had their toilet outside, no water at home, no individual heating, no electricity. So it was a big plus to come to these places.

It was luxury?
Not quite, but there are people who say, "I've been here since the beginning, but when we arrived, it was paradise." At the time, the housing was really considered high quality.

How today then do the buildings and the physical spaces accentuate people's misery in these neighborhoods?
It's a combination of everything. The ideological urban planning doesn't really meet people's needs. People don't necessarily like living in these neighborhoods, even leaving aside the social problems. It's hard to find your bearings. People say, "We don't have an address. We live in Building H in the Val-Fleuri project. We don't live at number 35, whatever street." It's details, but they make up daily life. Doctors who go into these neighborhoods tell me they get can't find their way. People say, "I can't invite people over because they can't find me." All the buildings look the same. They don't have addresses. They're details, but they accumulate to make daily life difficult.

When you hear the comment that nothing's been done since the 2005 riots, does it annoy you?
Oh, yes, yes, yes. The problem, which is really very difficult, is that an urban project takes lots and lots of time. We knew there would be delays because it's difficult—there are procedures, there is [the problem of] re-housing people, you have take a long time for discussions with residents, etc. The first effects are felt only two or three years later, even though you're halfway through a project. Where people start to feel it, the dynamic becomes positive, really positive. But the press only talks about things when they are going badly, never when they are going well.

Some French sociologists have argued that the destabilizing nature of this urban renewal project contributed to the riots of 2005, just like urban renewal in places like Chicago in the 1960s contributed to unrest there.
Oh, I don't think so. Frankly, I don't see a link. What is true is that urban renewal creates anxiety in the families, because we tell them they will be re-housed. There's mistrust. There's worry. But that's more in the opinion of the families, the parents, not in the young people. And it's why we ask that there be a lot of consultation to explain the project, how the re-housing will happen. After a year or two, when the housing is done and done well, people say, "OK, this time, we believe."

President Nicolas Sarkozy is set to lay out his social and economic plan for the suburbs. He's called it a "Marshall Plan." Will it help you, too?
Of course. Urban renewal is very, very expensive. But it only makes sense if there is work done in parallel on job training, access to employment, on schools, and on access to transit. There are a lot of elements, but there are three big ones that are needed at the same time. If that's reinforced [with the plan], it's even better. I'm completely convinced. It's not just the buildings that create the trouble. People need help. Our agency requires companies [we work with] to hire people from the neighborhoods, but we have to go way beyond what we're doing ourselves. We're revamping neighborhoods to be beautiful and attractive and new people might come live in them. But it's not going to fix the employment problems of neighborhood people.

You grew up in the projects yourself, didn't you?
Oh, yeah, but there's no need to take my case….

But that experience must help you conceptualize what you're doing now?
Yes, I imagine. I don't know. I did grow up in a tower block. But, you know, when we're little, wherever we grow up is always good. It's in adolescence that it becomes more difficult. The little ones, since they don't know the rest of the world, they're happy with what they have. I think it's more in adolescence that we become aware, in middle school, when we start to discover how things work elsewhere, that we start to say, "It's not normal that it's like this where I live."