Time, a tool for urban and metropolitan construction

january 16th 2013

Extracts from Dominique Alba's writings, which appear in the book “Paris, métropoles en miroir. Stratégies urbaines en Ile-de-France”, by Christiane Mazzoni and Yannis Tsiomis (dir.), published  by La Découverte, 2012.

In his novel  "Les passagers du Roissy-Express", François Maspero, the tireless traveller, writes:
“Suburban town centres are but a pale survivor of almost prehistoric times and a fragile shop window displaying modern times. We have delved into the unknown, the unknown where we all live... it was simple, we just had to think of it …and do it, everyone can, it doesn't take long... but it  would seem that  the people there don't have the time”.
Faced with hybrid urban situations, public expectations and sustainable policies, 20th century “urban planning”  has seized up, all is not well with towns and cities, urban living conditions in our big metropolises are often difficult with spatial divisions increasing so much. Could time be the new key to understanding the questions that the city poses at the beginning of the 21st century? [...]
Yet do we, the professionals of the city and its new forms, know how people perceive the places where they live their everyday lives, and what they expect? This “immense, other, new, hybrid” metropolis  is as yet little documented, it doesn't have the same amount of knowledge at its disposal as the older city, as if in addition to its physical segregation is added the segregation of knowledge. How can one ac-knowledge what one knows so little about and in such little depth?  […]
Apur's work involves both Paris, a hyper “documented” city, and the heart of the conurbation where the diversity of situations is the rule and the “city” often “unknown”.
Being aware of the urban changes in these widely different contexts is our daily task. However, over the last three years we have had to work simultaneously on new areas as diverse as managing non-drinking water and its networks and factories, the transformation of the embankment roads and reflection on vast territories like Epa Orsa and the community of the Est Ensemble and finally, on a scale of the metropolis as a whole, within the framework of Paris Métropole. We have had to document our work, find new ways of drawing maps and imagine different processes for setting up projects.
One of our priorities in these processes has been to consider the question of time, the time it takes for the city to transform, the time needed to define and draw up a project which pushes into the future the time when a development plan, at last decided upon, then moves slowly towards an interactive and shared procedure.
We have devoted “working time”  thinking out  “time as a tool” : a tool for knowing territories, knowledge which alone can enable sharing and doing;  a tool for evolution which has meant bringing to the fore the flexibility which time brings, enabling projects to be modified, and a tool for more rapid action, considering the demand for short term actions, a strategic tool for closing the gap between the rapid rhythms of the city and the often slow rhythm of an urban project.
The time knowledge takes
Detailed knowledge of territories via reference databases, draws up  uncountable portraits of the city, “visible cities”, urban fabrics, infrastructures,, “hidden cities”, networks, travel, logistics, biodiversity, “sensitive cities”, lived in, resided in, travelled through, not forgetting the insecure city, the one of those who don't speak. This knowledge is gained by expanding data through field surveys, in the context of observatories which bring together different actors and workshops forming groups of researchers and technicians. All the recent work done by Apur has contributed to the development of new databases which enable awareness of phenomena such as the receptivity of urban fabrics, the power of geography and the landscape, how citizens take possession of territories and different forms of urban life and practices.  
It is time for forward-looking map making
Forward-looking cartography facilitates the use of knowledge by projects. Apur produces “maps” which offer all those involved the possibility of being aware of the overall relevance of their actions. Such as, for example, a forward-looking mapping system of the inner circle of suburbs and the Paris/Plaine commune interface is being made;  a series of maps dealing with 1500 hectares  which  integrate the  short, medium and long-term  transformational actions underway in an already thoroughly documented, existing context. Reading these maps, which integrate the timescale of actions, allows one to check if the conjunction of operations in process is adequate for the urban policy objectives as defined more globally... or not! ..and to readjust where necessary. The same approach has been applied to Seine Amont where, in the context of the EPA ORSA, Apur is developing a forward-looking collection of maps dealing with actions already launched, as well as those to come, along the Seine from Paris to Choisy le Roi. 
The urban project often decides on paper,  a future we say we believe to be what we have drawn up and programmed, and that we then have to invent the tools to enable us, at all costs, to achieve. On the contrary, we should learn to seize the diverse opportunities which are leverage points for action, for advancing faster and better, and this is good because “times” change, modify our projects, free themselves from our plans, sometimes brutally,  during natural disasters or war, but more often simply as a result of time passing and ways of seeing and priorities changing. The urban project needs long term planning but also flexibility and to find the ability to reconsider the long term  by integrating what is happening in the short term.
The time of life's rhythm
The 3rd time is the rhythm of life. It encourages “rapid action” which will make the commitments of the long term project immediately visible.  
The process of drawing up an urban project is slow, it needs to mature, has legal bindings, involves political decisions. All this means that sometimes nothing tangible happens until three or four years after the decision to launch the project has been made.
During this period the city moves on, builds,  consolidates for better or for worse. How can the urban project accompany a city which moves forward faster that it does itself?
For a number of years there has been surge of  “urban events, the Fête de la Musique, demonstrations,  the Nuit Balnche, parties among neighbours...but also, and which is more invasive because it lasts longer, “Paris-Plages”, “Paris respire” which introduce new uses, a new way of considering, a new timescale in the way we live in the city.
In Paris, closing the embankment roads on the Left Bank has been an opportunity taken by the public authorities to renew its project method and to experiment by complying to the present day trend towards events. In April 2010 Bertrand Delanoë, Mayor of Paris instigated the transformation of the Seine embankments by the summer of 2012 (Paris Project, Paris metropolis on the Seine). To achieve this transformation a light-weight, rapid and reversible method was chosen, mainly due to wide spread consultation, workshops and pilot schemes carried out by a multidisciplinary team.
In the same spirit of  “acting quickly”, Paris Métropole sent out a call for initiatives within a framework where each commune so wishing (today 110 ) undertook to act in a sustainable way  and to produce visible results by the summer of 2012. Apur and IAU-IDF have been accompanying this project. The project takes form via the method chosen and carried out:  the way in which it occupies the given site,  is set up and dismounted, how it creates the conditions for other such event to take place and to take place on the site agreeably.....
Three ways of “taking time”,  to consider it as a leverage point for our projects
Proposed to those who pilot actions:
Be able to reconsider, as necessary and in depth, in a world where operators see no farther than 3 or 4 years ahead. The time factor can be used to facilitate the necessary changes during the life of any project.
Strategies which are founded on a more detailed knowledge of territories and which allow for, as Sébastien Marot wrote in his book  L’art de la mémoire, le territoire et l’architecture “a project approach which finds its programme on the site, where the  programme is invented in relation to the exploration of the site. Overurbanisation -sur-urbanisme- can be defined as the exact opposite approach, a process where a project finds its site in the programme”.
The project is the relationship between that which “is” and that which “happens”. That which is comes from times past and that which happens from times to come and the relationship is difficult to grasp and full of rich promise for the metropolitan city. It is the reality of a territory, this  “common heritage” which we study, which we live in, in which we walk, in which we work.
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