THE GILETS JAUNES: A REACTION TO PROGRESSIVE URBAN DESIGN?

Nicholas Kevlahan

Gilets Jaunes meeting in Grenoble. (Credit: Coline Buch)

I spent the past year working in Grenoble, a city about the size of Hamilton (metro population: 452 000) in southeast France near the Alps.  As someone interested in urban design, I was particularly looking forward to seeing how Grenoble’s new Mayor, Éric Piolle, was implementing his bold plans to make Grenoble more environmentally sustainable, attractive and inclusive. 

These changes have included implementing a default speed limit of 30 km/h, shifting road space from cars to pedestrians, cyclists and public transit, and an effort to “green” the city by planting more trees and improving public parks.

He is also building a network of long-distance separated bike paths between downtown and the suburbs (“Chronovélo”: 44 km on four routes to be completed by 2020).  On the social inclusivity front, they will increase the proportion of geared-to-income social housing from 21% to 25% of all housing stock by 2025.

Park-like LRT lines in central Grenoble.

At the same time, however, France was being shaken by the weekly Saturday afternoon demonstrations and riots of the “Gilets Jaunes” (yellow vests). Although the Gilets Jaunes were protesting many different issues (including rising inequality and the reforms of the new centrist President Emmanuel Macron), at its heart the movement was a protest by those living in rural and exurban areas against those living in France’s cities. 

They were protesting not just against the relative success and wealth of the cities, but against their values.  And, in particular, the “green” environmentally sustainable values being promoted by people like Grenoble’s Green Party mayor. 

La Fête des Tuiles: a celebration of community and environmental groups on the Grenoble LRT lines last June.

It turned out that Grenoble was unaffected by the extreme violence and disruption that hit cities like Paris, Bordeaux and Toulouse.  The Gilet Jaune movement was relatively peaceful and rapidly decreased in size after the initial November and December “Actes”.

But the Grenoble Gilet Jaune protests did share one common feature with these others: they were almost exclusively driven by people who came in from the surrounding regions and neighbouring departments, not by the residents of the city itself.  They were coming to protest against their fellow urban-dwelling citizens, as much as against the government. 

Why did the protesters feel the need to drive for an hour or more to protest in Grenoble (or in Paris or Bordeaux or Toulouse) rather than protesting in their local towns?

One factor is that mid-size and larger French cities really are, in many ways, very successful attractive places to live.  And in many cases, they are becoming much wealthier than the surrounding rural areas.

Public transport is excellent, infrastructure is very well maintained and they are lively and liveable.  Outside of Paris, they are also relatively affordable: it is cheaper to live in Grenoble than in Hamilton, even though Grenoble is a very economically successful high tech hub that attracts a lot of international residents.  Even though Paris is becoming increasingly unaffordable for buyers, it maintains some socioeconomic diversity because it is required (like all French cities) to ensure that at least 20% of all accommodation is geared to income. 

The attractiveness and investment in cities has paid off, but it has also accentuated the contrast with rural and exurban areas which have seen steep declines in population and resulting cuts in services. 

For many rural residents, the cities are another country filled with residents they perceive as “elites” who look down on them and their values. Gilet Jaune protesters often spoke of city residents watching their protests with a look of disdainful amusement.  They felt that they were in foreign territory! 

This protest by rural residents (not all of them poor) against the cities is an entirely new phenomenon.  It is important to note that these protests were apolitical: spanning the spectrum from extreme left to extreme right with many politically unengaged citizens in the middle.  Although various parties on the left and right tried to capture them, the Gilets Jaunes remained outside traditional politics. 

They are protesting not so much inequality or elitism per se, as the urban/rural divide.  This divide in wealth and values has developed in many countries (especially the USA), but you don’t see rural Americans travelling en masse to protest in New York, Chicago or LA!

The aftermath of a Gilet Jaune riot Saturday 25 November 2018 on the Champs Élysées in Paris. (Credit: L. Nicollet)

One little noticed feature of the Gilet Jaune movement, especially outside France, is that it is in some ways a protest movement of motorists against policies that they feel disadvantage driving. 

The protests were triggered by two reforms: a small rise in the gas tax (to reduce carbon emissions) and a reduction in the speed limit on rural highways from 90 km/h to 80 km/h (to reduce injuries and fatalities). 

Neither of these changes would seem to be that significant (in fact the second should cancel the cost of the first), but they triggered a wave of outrage in the countryside.  They were seen as the unfeeling decisions of an urban elite who didn’t care that rural residents depend on their cars.

As we’ve seen in Hamilton’s two-way conversion debate, even in cities many motorists’ self-identity is closely tied to their cars.  An attack on easy and cheap driving is an attack on me! 

One of the unofficial leaders of the movement, Éric Drouet, is a long-distance truck driver and car tuning enthusiast who posts numerous videos and commentaries on Facebook while driving around the country.  Outside the big cities, the signature Gilet Jaune actions were to camp out on roundabouts, damage photo radars and block (or make “free”) autoroute toll booths.  (At one point about 75% of all photo radars were put out of action, which resulted in a big jump in motorist deaths that the Gilets Jaunes and motorist groups blamed on … the speed limit reductions.) 

The Bulgarian sociologist Ivaylo Ditchev has even claimed that the Gilet Jaune protests are essentially a protest by motorists against the efforts of urbanites to reduce the place of cars in cities (and in society as a whole). 

The “war on cars” does not just make their life more difficult and expensive, it strikes at the core of their identity.

He points out that driving is a largely solitary, private, activity and that a motorists’ movement will therefore necessarily be individualist and lack a clear focus or political structure.  It is a reactionary movement of individuals with a range of personal concerns and priorities, not a political movement in the traditional sense. Almost all the organizing was done at a grassroots level via social media postings (primarily Facebook), rather than actual meetings or through the formation of a political party.

This is clear from the central political demand of the Gilets Jaunes (decided via Facebook polls): the Référendum d’Initiative Citoyenne (RIC). This is essentially government by referendum, with the aim of bypassing political parties and members of parliament entirely and letting the people make all decisions directly and individually. 

For those interested in urban design, the most important lesson from the Gilet Jaune movement is perhaps that decisions about city structure and mobility are not just about engineering, protecting the environment or optimizing how we get around. Our feelings about where we live, how we live and how we get around are central to our sense of self and self-worth.  They define us.

When the Mayor of Paris or Grenoble states that their goal is to make their city more liveable by reclaiming space that has been given over to the automobile, many people (especially rural or exurban residents) see this as a personal attack on them and their way of life. 

When these urban design decisions are actually successful (despite over-wrought predictions of disaster every time a bike lane is installed), it actually increases tensions since cities become ever more attractive places to live and work.  Those who objected to the changes forget that the city has become wealthier and more attractive in large part because of the changes they opposed.

Here in Canada, the yellow vest movement is a very different beast.  But it does feed off some of the same anti-elite and anti-urban feelings of the Gilets Jaunes.  Somewhat shockingly, the yellow vest protesters at City Hall have even used vehicles as weapons, driving a school bus at counter-protesters.

This doesn’t mean that we should stop making our cities more liveable, economically successful places (and Canadian cities like Hamilton suffered decades of under-investment and decline before their recent tentative revival).  And it doesn’t mean that we should stop reclaiming urban space lost to motor vehicles for human beings.  But we should perhaps be more sensitive to the fact that many people see these changes as threatening attacks on their core values and sense of self. 

CIRCUS ACT

Photo from www.bexcarney.com, “Fire Jammers”

Bex Carney is a multitalented performer with experience in theatre, film, dance and circus arts. Bex spends much of her time with Circus Orange as the Artistic Director, actor, fire performer, dancer and choreographer.

dpai’s David Premi had the opportunity to chat with Bex to learn how she turns an idea into a circus performance, for the Strange Process podcast.

“With Circus Orange [it’s about] what kind of performance I can give the audience and where I can push boundaries.”

Strange Process is a series, by dpai architecture inc. and Mohawk College, where we explore and demystify the process of how multidisciplinary artists produce their work. Listen or watch below:

CREATOR OF SOUND

We had the opportunity to sit down with internationally acclaimed recording artist Jeremy Greenspan to talk about his process as a creator of sound.

Jeremy, best known as half of the electronic pop act Junior Boys, says he became obsessed with music as a kid. Today, his creative process is still something he considers to be play.

“I’m a very equipment-based, hardware-based musician. I have a recording studio where I have a lot of gear and so for me, it’s about tinkering with a bunch of equipment, some of which I’m very familiar with or some of which I’ve just got. It’s a lot about play. It’s a lot of complete randomness – it’s literally like playing with toys.”

Strange Process is a series by dpai architecture and Mohawk College where we explore and demystify the process of how multidisciplinary artists produce their work. You can watch the full interview on Youtube. Or listen here:

Check out his band at their website juniorboys.net or on Twitter @JuniorBoys.

DESIGN DISRUPTION

David Premi

Rendering of a proposed streetscape by dpai.

Historically, disruption has been associated with bad behaviour; we all remember those disruptive students at school. But today it has evolved to have a different meaning. From a business or organizational perspective, “disruption” is defined as changing the traditional way that an entity operates, especially in a new and effective way.

Disruption is now ubiquitous. Profound transformations in industries such as transportation, hospitality and music continue to occur through disruptions sparked by Uber, Airbnb and Spotify. The design industry is no exception. Tradition must be challenged if a design process is to be robust. 

Creating a virtual reality

Today, designers can create functional, virtual replicas of their projects, neighbourhoods and cities. These virtual models can be navigated in 2D or visitors can be immersed in virtual reality. Bus schedules, tree species, existing built fabric, complete with materials and textures, and an accurate daily cycle of the sun’s path can be embedded into these models. Cars and pedestrians roam the streets based on actual traffic data. Soon we will be able to include dynamic computer simulated wind, air quality, and temperature data to assess the environmental impacts of a change to the built fabric.

Unlike the cumbersome, expensive and time-consuming practice of wind tunnel testing, unlimited iterations of a proposed building or park can be studied “live” with this technology. Designers can see the impacts of their design as it is in its virtual context. Through web sharing of the model, the visual and environmental impacts can be experienced dynamically by many groups of people simultaneously. Public consensus at this scale could have a profound impact on any political issues surrounding a proposal.

Disrupting traditional processes

As a public engagement tool, this technology has the capacity to seriously disrupt both the traditional development and planning processes. Imagine a proposed building, twice the height permitted by zoning, is empirically and publicly demonstrated to have only positive impacts. Conversely, what if a permitted height is shown to have unacceptable impacts, pressuring developers to reduce the density on which the economics of a development were based? Land values could be affected on a hyper-local level.

Could virtual reality hold the answer to a truly democratic and participatory urban design process?

CITIES AS A CANVAS FOR EXPERIMENTATION

Petra Matar

As architects and urban planners, we need to let go of the idea that we have complete control. Instead of thinking of our work in terms of a final product, what if we approached it as an ever-changing canvas, that both shapes and is shaped by people and the environment?

Architecture isn’t a linear process with a single vision of what is right, but rather an infrastructure of human life, within which users and their activities move, adapt and change. We don’t see our work as absolute – it is an intuitive collaboration of many inspired individuals overlaying their visions in a shared community. We need to employ intuition and encourage participation in modifying and creating environments that perform and inspire.

A disconnected design process

The making of structures and cities has become a disconnected process. Codes, regulations, minimum requirements, deadlines and budgets tend to reign supreme over intuition and thoughtfulness. These are crucial factors, but too often ignore qualitative conversations and considerations.

A property built by a developer is typically built to maximize revenue – an understandable requirement – however, its contribution to society cannot be ignored. The process of city building can and should give designers the opportunity to practice good intuition, and end-users the freedom to participate and modify their environment.

Hands-on growth

The organic formation of dense human habitation in many parts of the world holds intrinsic beauty and order, as a manifestation of immediate human need with a close relationship to materials, highly conditioned by scale.

Photo by Agung Raharja

Densely inhabited areas can inspire cities to grow according to need, employing experimentation and improvisation. They represent spaces that have been designed with human scale fundamentally considered. Cities are an act of human creation – why not design them to celebrate human participation, ingenuity and creativity?

Opportunities

Imagine a design process that sees beauty and opportunity in experimentation; design born of imagination, fully driven and supported to apply and experiment with its vision. Imagine a city that is a canvas of experimentation.

Our wish is for cities to invest in realizing bold new ideas – not for the sake of self-image, but for the sake of society. Despite our best efforts at planning, cities grow and change over time without end results being fully known. As city dwellers, we must be encouraged and empowered to participate in the creative evolution of our urban environments