Sustainability engages a complex and nuanced spectrum of issues when it shifts from the realm of architecture to that of urbanism. Individual building compliance is typically measured by objective physical design traits and performance criteria. By contrast, sustainable urban design must respond to historical, political and cultural contexts while simultaneously addressing overarching concerns such as land use and energy efficiency. The resulting urban mandate is neither formulaic nor nostalgic. Rather, it is grounded in the natural alignment of established urban design criteria—emphasizing concentrated, vital city centers as the physical, economic and social focus of urban life—with sustainable principles of compact development and controlled growth.
This paper explores the adaptability of these principles to a range of urban contexts, through case studies of several French cities that have experienced significant new development in the past several decades. Planning for recent growth in Lille, Montpellier and Lyon began before explicit sustainable design agendas were common. Nevertheless, these cities exemplify a number of planning and design strategies that advance sustainability on the urban scale. Chief among these are: 1) promoting density and diverse use in the city center, 2) developing urban infrastructure and transit systems that conserve energy and preserve the quality of the urban core, 3) counteracting sprawl through the establishment of concentrated patterns of growth in the urban periphery, and 4) “urban recycling:” the adaptive re-use of existing built fabric and the reclamation of urban post-industrial sites. Beatley, Gauzin-Miller, Jenks and others offer extensive discussion and healthy debate on these and related approaches to urban sustainability. 1
Each of the profiled cities faced a unique set of issues. Lille is a mid-sized city recovering from the loss of its industrial base. Montpellier, once a small university town, is now a burgeoning technology mecca. Lyon, an established regional center, is a prosperous counter-pole to Paris. Their recent planning strategies respond differently to these specific traits and issues, but share a common agenda of concentrated growth supported by investment in civic and transport infrastructure. Their planning and development mechanisms also differ widely, from broad-based regional agencies to unusual public-private partnerships. The results are quite varied, formally and aesthetically, and are products of the particular challenges and culture of each locale. Yet viewed as a whole these cities present a continuous spectrum of sustainable design strategies, tactics that can be adapted and effectively applied to a wide range of urban conditions.