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Top Down Nature

A huge urban master plan in southen France gets serious about nature as a project. In Bordeaux 55,000 (above) the city of Bordeaux (CUB) has invited five multidisciplinary teams to develop projects, during a a six month “competitive dialogue”, that will explore ‘how best to transform 55,000 hectares (136,000 acres) into natural areas’.

Bordeaux has big plans to become a major European city.  Huge investments in high-speed rail infrastructure are designed to make Bordeaux the ‘crossroads of South West Europe’. Within that global-mobility framework, nature is “one of the major projects of the decade ahead”.

Several areas of intervention have been identified: the heart of the city; major adjacent agricultural and forest areas; enhancement of wetlands or flood plains; and various wastelands. Each team is required to develop its project collaboratively with municipalities and other local actors.

Filling up cities decoratively with plants and trees is not  a bad thing in itself.  Cities, and not just rain forests and rivers, can provide ecosystem services.Indeed biodiversity can be higher in cities than surrounding rural areas when the latter are dominated by industrial agriculture. But is nature in the city best thought of as a new kind of park?

A gigantic exhibition in Paris last year called The Fertile City: Towards An Urban Nature pointed in this direction. It presented ambitious nature-in-the-city projects from all over the world –  New York, Paris, Munich, Beirut, Detroit, and Buenos Aires. It was a engaging spectacle – but the show’s surrealistic poster (below) said it all: “Look At Me!”

The effect of the Paris exhibition was rather like a still-life painting of a fruit bowl: decorative, but you can’t eat it. Nor did the show explore the social and economic processes needed if our cities are to become fertile in real life.

Bordeaux 55,000 at least promises more than a pleasant view for arriving TGV passengers. This is surely the first time that urban agriculture has been embraced by a northern city on such a large scale; and the teams are required to use the concept of resilience, and the design principles of permaculture, in developing their  proposals.

The composition of the five teams promises a multi-faceted approach. They include  specialists in architecture, geography, economics, agronomy, ecology, planning, development, landscape, sociology, tourism, hydrology, philosophy, history and – an especially wise and enlightened touch – writing. (The writer is not involved in any of the Bordeaux teams but is open to offers from other cities).

A group called BeCitizen, for example, describing itself as a specialist in ‘disruptive strategy’, promotes a model of growth that ‘restores natural and human capital’. The group has previously created the ‘future vision of a post-carbon territory’ for the Ministry of Ecology; it is also helping to establish an investment fund for the rehabilitation of polluted soils. The landscape designer Michel Corajoud, who already involved in development of quays on Bordeaux’s left bank, is more pictorial in approach – but he is also muti-sensory: I’m not sure that it counts as ‘nature’, but this writer is especially fond of his ‘garden of the 40 plant essences‘.

A team led by Coloco is known to readers of this blog for a project called Monumento, in Brazil, that set out to re-purpose an abandoned 24 story skyscraper in Sao Paulo. Until history so brutally intervened, Coloco were also involved in the development of a masterplan for a green belt in Tripoli. Their design involved  a linked system of parks; a water saving strategy; and an ecological corridor as interfaces with the outside of the city.

One hopes that Bordeaux 55,000 makes it past the drawing board – but the precedents are not encouraging. The project comes three years  after proposals to make Paris “the world’s most sustainable post-Kyoto metropolis” were made by 12 famous architects in a big competition commissioned by (then) President Sarkozy.  What actually got approved, to date at least, is a $30 billion public transport network called Le Grand Huit.

The purpose of this fast, 130 km long public transport service is to  links big development clusters in the city’s rapidly growing periphery.  The word nature does not appear in its prospectus.

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  1. Posted August 22, 2012 at 05:26 | Permalink

    What a horrible architecture! No doubt that Le Corbusier was a French architect. Please, let’s replace that jerk with Christopher Alexander:

    Here is the Amazon.com description of The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle between Two World-Systems, the new book to be published in October by Christopher Alexander:

    “The purpose of all architecture, writes Christopher Alexander, is to encourage and support life-giving activity, dreams, and playfulness. But in recent decades, while our buildings are technically better–more sturdy, more waterproof, more energy efficient– they have also became progressively more sterile, rarely providing the kind of environment in which people are emotionally nourished, genuinely happy, and deeply contented.

    Using the example of his building of the Eishin Campus in Japan, Christopher Alexander and his collaborators reveal an ongoing dispute between two fundamentally different ways of shaping our world. One system places emphasis on subtleties, on finesse, on the structure of adaptation that makes each tiny part fit into the larger context. The other system is concerned with efficiency, with money, power and control, stressing the more gross aspects of size, speed, and profit. This second, “business-as-usual” system, Alexander argues, is incapable of creating the kind of environment that is able to genuinely support the emotional, whole-making side of human life. To confront this sterile system, the book presents a new architecture that we–both as a world-wide civilization, and as individual people and cultures–can create, using new processes that allow us to build places of human energy and beauty. The book outlines nine ways of working, each one fully dedicated to wholeness, and able to support day-to-day activities that will make planning, design and construction possible in an entirely new way, and in more humane ways.”

  2. Posted September 20, 2012 at 14:26 | Permalink

    20 000 people work for the aeronautic industry in Bordeaux. The city has some of the biggest companies including Dassault , EADS Sogerma , Snecma , Thales , SNPE, and others. The Dassault Falcon private jets are built there as well as the military aircraft Rafale and Mirage 2000 , the A380 cockpit, the boosters of Ariane 5 , and the M51 SLBM missile.

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