France’s city centers are about to get one of the biggest makeovers in their history. Following an announcement last month, the country is launching a vast €5 billion ($6.1 billion) plan called Action Coeur de Ville (Action: Heart of the City) intended to revamp 222 city cores over the next five years with new stores, offices, co-working spaces, and renovated housing.
The amount of money and the sheer number of cities involved in the plan are impressive, and they reveal something little discussed outside France. Despite the country’s justified reputation for urban charm, many French city cores are in a bad state. They got that way through a string of mistakes that will seem eerily familiar to North Americans.
The idea that many French cities are struggling might seem jarring to many people. Walk around the heart of Paris—or major cities such as Nantes or Strasbourg—and you’ll be struck by their apparent success. The streets bustle and are well peppered with small businesses and markets, while housing stock is attractive and in largely good condition.
Go further down the population scale to what the French call Villes Moyennes—“average cities” with populations between 15,000 and 100,000—and that’s where you’ll find failure in the French urban core. These cities are demographically significant and economically vital. They contain 23 percent of France’s population and 26 percent of its jobs. Right now, however, they’re not doing well. Taken together, they report poverty and vacancy rates higher than the national average, lower rates of young graduates, and an unemployment rate that’s a worrying 82 percent higher than France’s as a whole.
Map of the cities participating in Action Coeur de Villes, viewable in larger format here. (Ministère de la Cohésion des territoires)
Some of these problems can be explained by deindustrialization. Many of these medium-sized cities are in France’s now-beleaguered former industrial heartland in the Northeast. Much blame must still be laid at the door of France’s longstanding attitudes to planning. Smaller cities have been laid low partly by an extremely relaxed attitude to urban sprawl, one that has sucked life out of city cores and left many key activities out on the periphery, only really accessible by car. This might not seem a classically French phenomenon, but France isn’t just reflecting a trend to sprawl that’s common across the West. In smaller cities, it has arguably exceeded its neighbors.
That’s because when France moved toward classic 20th century car-friendly infrastructure planning, it moved early and it moved hard. With a large domestic car industry, post-war France was a European trailblazer in creating a nationwide network of out of town malls and retail parks, all well connected to what was then considered an exemplary new highway network.
The country (along with Belgium) was a pioneer of the big-box store, rolling out huge shopping complexes called Hypermarchés that sold everything from clothes to croissants since the 1960s—a phenomenon that didn’t emerge in Britain or Germany until the 1980s or later. It wasn’t just retail that left town centers. Amenities like sports centers and employment agencies—and in cases such as Besançon, even railway stations—also moved out by municipal decree toward the new beltways, creating a situation where the first announcement of arrival in any French city today is not a city wall or fringe of villas but a rampart of parking lots and home improvement stores.
The southwestern city of Bayonne, pictured here, will receive funds from Action Coeur de Ville. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)
So why did France’s smaller cities develop such an appetite for sprawl? According to Oliver Razemon, author of Comment La France a Tué Ses Villes (“How France Killed Its Towns”), the driving forces are a combination of France’s late urbanization and cultural assumptions pushed through the education system.
“100 years ago, most French people were still living in the countryside,” Razemon told CityLab. “This creates a very different attitude in France to, say, Germany or Italy, where the cities are often far older than the recently founded nation state. In France, by contrast, there is not much attachment to towns as elsewhere.” France’s political system may also have contributed to this attitude. When the country was divided into new units called départements after the revolution, it was partly a process of rationalization and partly an attempt to break down historic regional ties between districts and replace them with a structure governed by appointees from central government. This wasn’t a process designed to create closer affiliation to smaller cities.
“The last government thought it was just about shops. This current government at least realizes it is about amenities and housing, too.”
The French, Razemon says, have also been taught that their country has an overflowing bounty of spare room. “French people have long had the feeling that theirs is a big country, and that therefore there is a lot of space to do whatever you want. Certainly that’s what was being taught 40 years ago, that France was a very big, extremely geographically diverse place.”
There’s some justification to this attitude. Compared to the non-coastal U.S., France may seem heavily populated, but by Western European standards it has a remarkable spaciousness. The comparison of Metropolitan France (that is, subtracting the country’s overseas territories) with the U.K. is instructive. Both countries have a similar population—65.6 million in the U.K. versus 65 million in Metro France—but France’s land area is more than two-and-a-half times greater. As France’s direct self-comparisons are mainly with the neighboring, densely populated Low Countries, Southern England, and Western Germany, it’s understandable that the French have felt that they had a bit of developmental wriggle room. France’s now egregious-seeming tendency to sprawl also had an optimistic bent to it 50 years ago. The country was moving away from a rather grim, poverty-stricken early 20th century and wanted to acquire the best trappings of modernity, which in the 1960s and ‘70s was commonly felt to mean more cars and more car-tailored conveniences.
The effects of unchecked development have still been clearly detrimental in smaller cities. The smaller businesses that France is famous for—and often still thrive in major cities—have closed wholesale, as jobs move to the urban periphery away from the restaurants and cafés they would have sustained if they worked in city centers. As a result, Razemon notes, butchers and bakers have been shuttered in many city centers, replaced by tattoo parlors or pawn shops, or simply left empty. In places such as the far-northern city of Arras (included in the new action plan) vacancy rates have hit 20 percent of all real estate. And while historic buildings are still kept in largely good condition, public squares have been taken over by parking lots. Meanwhile 19th and early 20th century structures are often rundown, leaving parts of even rather beautiful old quarters (such as Perpignan’s) with a reputation as undesirable, low-quality places to live.
The city of Auxerre, about 100 miles southeast of Paris, also stands to receive money from the scheme. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)
What makes this process more striking is that France has made a sow’s ear out of a silk purse—its urban treasure chest is still rich in beauty. Away from the world war battlefields, traveling from one town to another feels like running down a thread of jewels in which each stone is distinctive and delightful. When it comes to sheer consistency of charm, only Portugal’s smaller cities can really match France’s trove within Europe, and only Italy’s can surpass it.
A look at the cities included in the action plan bears this out. Look at this improbably grand square plonked in the middle of humdrum Angoulême (population 42,000), the Germanic half-timbered houses along the riverside in the Alsatian city of Colmar (68,000), the dramatic hillside setting of Laon (25,000) or the grid-planned orderliness of late-medieval Villefranche de Rouergue (12,000). Even cities in regions less commonly thought to be picturesque, such as far northern Bethune (26,000) turn out to be rich in character and variety.
Not all of these cities are struggling, of course. Towns that have a large flow of tourists do well, as do very remote cities (where people have stayed downtown) and places where mountains or lakes hem in the potential for sprawl. But many still need a reboot.