From Acceptability to Equity: Tensions in the Social Reception of Densificatio

Anastasia Touati, octobre 2015

This sheet addresses the issue of difficult public acceptance of densification in low-density residential areas.

The question of costs is generally one of the first data mentioned by builders concerning the feasibility conditions of a given densification project. But in the case of low-density residential areas, these same actors insist on the fact that densification projects are generally not appreciated by the resident populations, which makes the social acceptability of the operations another important difficulty.

The unassailable argument of social acceptability

At the local level, urban densification faces a major obstacle: its acceptance by residents and local political authorities of residential areas, particularly in suburban areas. Indeed, residential densification projects may be perceived negatively by residents who own a pavilion and who fear the depreciation of their property, particularly because of a possible deterioration of the environment and quality of life in the neighborhood (changes in urban form, increase in traffic and other types of nuisance, parking problems, arrival of new populations, etc.). In suburban residential neighbourhoods, residential densification operations can be particularly sensitive, with elected officials strongly fearing NIMBY1 (Not in My Backyard) type opposition, which could cost them their elective mandate.And the more one looks at suburban communes in the large suburbs, the more this concerns small communes with very local logics. In these communes, elected officials are all the more sensitive to the pressures of their constituents and to their aspirations, particularly with regard to their «  living environment  » (Damon 2012).

High residential densities are said to be the antithesis of the peri-urban lifestyle, which may have been the subject of strong criticism. The idea that the inhabitants of suburban areas are dependent on the automobile, withdrawn into the private space of the home, bearers of defensive and security ideologies and certainly polluters is defended by many analysts. Jacques Levy, for example, sees residential location (central or peri-urban) as an expression of the inhabitants’ value system (Levy 2003). The links between peri-urban lifestyle and sprawl are thus studied by various researchers discussing the model of the sprawled city (Jaillet 1999; Levy 2003; Ravenel, Buleon and Fourquet 2004). Conversely, Martine Berger shows how, in the Ile-de-France region, the peri-urban area is increasingly resembling a socio-spatial mosaic, which nuances the vision of a uniform peri-urban way of life (Berger 2004). For her, the deconcentration of jobs and communal fragmentation maintain the continuation of sprawl, particularly for the less fortunate, and for Eric Charmes, the Malthusianism of peri-urban communes causes prices to rise, accentuating the inequalities existing in the housing market (Charmes 2007a). In the same way, other authors qualify this specificity of a dominant mode of living in the suburbs by showing that peri-urban society presents a significant fragmentation of its modes of living (Cailly 2008) and that, in so doing, it is too radical to associate peri-urban life with anti-urban values (Charmes 2007b).

Authors such as Olivier Piron thus defend the choice of a suburban and residential lifestyle. The latter advocates taking into account « the preference of individuals, » such as families raising young children, whose need for spacious and secure domestic spaces, including outdoor spaces, is significant (Piron 2006). In this respect, Olivier Piron reminds us that densification is not positive for everyone and can be experienced as an alteration of the living environment, particularly in residential neighborhoods with predominantly suburban housing, where low densities are particularly sought after by households in search of « nature » and « quietness » (Pinson, Thomann and Luxembourg, 2006). (Pinson, Thomann and Luxembourg 2006).

In the case of North America, Robert Bruegmann indicates that single-family housing is the wish of the majority of the population. According to the author, this is an aspiration that is part of popular culture, as opposed to the desiderata of the advocates of urban development regulation, who would express the point of view of an elite. Imposing densification processes would thus amount to dictating an elitist way of life to a popular majority (Bruegmann 2005). In the same perspective, Michael Breheny questions the validity of compact city policies from the sole point of view of their acceptability (Breheny 1997a). He highlights the result of numerous British studies according to which populations living in rural or peri-urban areas are much more satisfied with their surrounding living conditions and generally happier than populations living in urban centers. According to this researcher, these studies underline the extent to which residential locations in dense urban spaces, promoted by the advocates of the compact city, are the least popular among residents (Breheny 1997b). Beyond urban form alone, in the United States, it is also the suburban environment that is sought by a large majority of the population, who can frequently associate low-density residential housing with a range of desirable characteristics such as good schools, low crime rates, and moderate taxes (Farris 2001). And when a densification project is planned in such a residential area, its announcement may provoke strong opposition from the local population, as residents are generally reluctant to see higher density residential projects located near their homes.

However, this debate can be qualified by recalling that high urban densities are not systematically rejected, as evidenced by the high property prices in the center of Paris. These prices reflect the intensity of demand in dense urban centers, which in return offer the attributes of centrality (accessibility, functional mix, presence of structuring facilities, services and shops).

The social equity of densification in question

Beyond the question of social acceptability, opponents of the compact city also point out what densification policies imply in terms of urban equity. Supposedly taken into account in the same way as the environmental and economic dimensions, the social dimension is often not the priority of urban policies conducted in the name of sustainable development (Béal, Gauthier and Pinson 2011). Indeed, these policies can have very unequal effects depending on the social groups, often harmful to the most vulnerable. For various authors, densification policies are no exception to this rule (Dubois and Van Criekingen 2006; Béal 2011) and therefore raise questions about social justice.

Various researchers have examined the ideology underlying sustainable urban development (Béal, Gauthier and Pinson 2011): for example, by studying the extent to which the objectives and solutions advocated by the policies implemented in its name may contribute to an accentuation of existing processes of social segregation, spatial relegation or gentrification (Cary and Fol 2012). In this respect, they agree with analysts who argue that urban policies carried out in the name of urban sustainability are not socially neutral policies: they marginalize or ignore certain actors or certain interests, such as those of vulnerable populations (Dubois and Van Criekingen 2006), which calls for a greater emphasis on the political and social dimensions in analyses of sustainable urban development. What about densification policies?

One of the presuppositions of the compact city is that it contributes to greater urban cohesion and helps reduce the risks of fragmentation encountered in peri-urban areas (Nelson et al. 2004). From this point of view, it is the opposite of the diffuse city. One of the arguments of the proponents of the compact city is that compactness helps to reduce the processes of socio-spatial segregation specific to the peri-urban area and would be more favourable to the poorest populations in many respects, such as better use of public transport or easier access to facilities (Burton 2000), in particular by helping to reduce the distances between the place of work, facilities, urban amenities and the place of residence of households. Indeed, since low-income households are the most sensitive to the increase in car travel costs (Fol, Dupuy, and Coutard 2007), one might think that greater accessibility to jobs and facilities would be beneficial to socially fragile populations.

But there are also many contradictory arguments on this point. Indeed, the socio-spatial divisions linked to land and real estate dynamics, in connection with changes in the housing stock, depend heavily on the strategies of collective actors, whether public or private (Cary and Fol 2012 : 120). Residential densification processes, which depend on densification policies, then participate in this dynamic. Moreover, it can be assumed that densification actions can produce multiple and sometimes diametrically opposed effects depending on whether or not they are thought of with a set of measures that allow for the «  correlations  » of density (Charmes 2010). For Eric Charmes, the densification of buildings alone does not have the same effects for the population as a whole, depending on whether or not it is implemented with a set of complementary measures, such as the development of the space concerned in terms of transportation and public facilities or the public supervision of residential projects. Densification can thus have unequal effects depending on the social groups, beneficial for some, harmful for others, depending on the project in which it is inserted. Concerning the negative aspects of the compact city in terms of social justice, some observers argue that compactness policies, through the land restriction and concentration in urban centers that they entail, most often lead to a surge in real estate prices (Gordon and Richardson 1997). This raises the problem of the lack of available housing at affordable prices for low-income households in urban centers (Cheshire and Sheppard 2002) and suggests that densification processes may reinforce or cause the eviction of the poorest populations (Dubois and Van Criekingen 2006).

Finally, densification policies often go hand in hand with measures to increase the functional and social mix of certain neighborhoods, in the spirit of the attributes of the compact city that we have mentioned. Such injunctions sometimes result in the implementation of urban requalification projects that lead to the demolition of certain buildings and the rehousing of residents, the most disadvantaged of whom may lose their resources based on neighborhood social networks (Fol 2009; Touati 2008). All of this may call into question the supposed benefits of the compact city in terms of its impacts on social justice (Thomann & Bonard 2009).

1 The concept described under the term « NIMBY syndrome » is simple: the installation of any public facility creates nuisances for the residents near the facility, even though they do not benefit directly from it. Their « natural » and selfish reaction is to refuse the project and demand that it be built elsewhere ("Not In My Backyard"). (…). This « theory »/acronym comes from the United States, where planners have been multiplying this type of shortcut to describe the opposition they face since the end of the 1970s » (Jobert 1998). (Jobert 1998).


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