8. Ilot Stephenson neighbourhood
8.1. Short description
Union is the name of one of the biggest urban renewal projects in the Roubaix-Tourcoing-Wattrelot district (Lille Metropolis). In a post-industrial site spreading across 80 hectares, a large project has been planned combining an eco-neighbourhood, a business hub and new housing, including 30 per cent of social housing. In a district called Ilot Stephenson at the periphery of this area, a protest on the part of the inhabitants against the demolition of their popular housing led to an innovative housing co-production action between architects, local authorities and an inhabitants’ organisation. Access to 30 homes at reduced cost has been achieved thanks to an innovative mode of architectural intervention that encourages inhabitants’ participation in the self-rehabilitation of their neighbourhood. This emblematic initiative has inspired and been integrated into the broader participative governance process concerning one of the most ambitious urban renewal projects in northern France.
The background to this innovation is the period of urban policies characterised in the 2000s by a vast national programme of urban renewal targeting deprived districts. The Ilot Stephenson initiative could be considered as a pilot project contributing to testing out alternative ways of conceiving urban renewal operations. Construisons ensemble, le grand ensemble (Working together to build the whole urban area) is the concept launched by the architect Patrick Bouchain and his colleagues which has been tested out between 2009 and 2012.
The story of the Ilot Stephenson neighbourhood started with a conflict at the beginning of the 2000s when the inhabitants of this small working-class neighbourhood located at the periphery of the Union urban renewal project learnt that their houses would be purchased by the municipality and then demolished. They organised themselves into an organisation named Rase pas mon quartier (Don’t demolish my neighbourhood) and initiated actions protesting against the project with some support from various elected opposition members.
After several years, they succeeded in stopping the demolition project in 2004. In 2007, the Lille Metropolis authorities decided to transfer the management of the whole Union urban renewal development to the semi-public company, SEM Ville Renouvelée, with an obligation to properly integrate sustainable development and participatory approaches. After 3 years during which nothing happened, the Ilot Stephenson project was the first operation launched in an atmosphere of mutual mistrust between inhabitants and urban planners. The mayor of Tourcoing and SEM Ville Renouvelée decided to call on architect Patrick Bouchain and his team to rethink the urban project with the inhabitants of the neighbourhood.
8.2. Types of services and ways of addressing users
After a contentious phase, new ways of addressing inhabitants of the Stephenson neighbourhood emerged, comprising several innovative aspects. Conceptually, the building site was no longer considered as a no man’s land and a temporary phase in the life of the neighbourhood but as a living episode for the inhabitants. The architects immersed themselves in the neighbourhood by locating part of their office in an old electronics workshop. This daily presence changed relationships with inhabitants and other stakeholders. They knew whom to contact for any daily issues on the building site. Conversely, the immersion changed the architects’ perceptions of the initial architectural scheme by bringing it up against the habits and needs of everyday life. Moreover, the electronics workshop was also transformed into a public space where a large model of the urban project was reconstructed for the inhabitants. Several meetings with residents, elected representatives, technicians from local authorities and representatives of local organisations were organised for presenting and discussing adaptation of the initial plan. Finally, regular workshops and conferences were organised in the electronics workshop bringing together the current and future inhabitants and exploring topics such as making compost or recovering wastewater. Educational activities were also planned with children.
The new approach to the urban renewal project led to concrete and substantive results:
- the shift from a contentious atmosphere between inhabitants and local authorities to a collaborative period;
- the rehabilitation of 30 historical houses and the improvement of 24 inhabited houses;
- the public exhibition and discussion of the large-scale model led to a change in the initial architectural proposal;
- the construction of the first model of renewed housing that the residents agreed on was visited by present and future inhabitants. The idea was to meet and involve future residents in the district before they moved in.
Despite undeniable achievements, several factors limiting inhabitants’ participation and commitment can be underlined. The mix between former and new residents has not happened to the extent expected because of the difference between generations. Newcomers are often young families with small children whereas former residents are mainly elderly people. In addition, the positive participation in the renewal project seems not to have generated, for the moment, new inhabitants’ organisations and projects after the end of the building phase.
The Ilot Stephenson project has also inspired and strengthened the participatory approach adopted by semi-public company SEM Ville Renouvelée in implementing the eco-neighbourhood. Factors include the co-production of a sustainable development framework. Its formulation has not only involved the different local authorities and housing developers, but also groups of local non-profit organisations named “Union will not happen without us”. This group of local organisations demanded, from the beginning of the Union urban renewal plan, integration of employment, social and ecological aspects alongside the initial business and construction dimensions. The framework for the eco-neighbourhood adopted in 2007 is a progressive process, revised every 4 years in order to adjust to new needs expressed by local actors, local institutions’ strategies and national legislation. Moreover, a charter of participation was drawn up with the different Union stakeholders. The active involvement of the group of local organisations led to the creation of a specific fund for resident participation by the local authorities in order to support local initiatives connected to the renewal urban project.
8.3. Internal organisation and mode of working
As already underlined, the Ilot Stephenson project is a new architectural and urban planning experiment conceptualised by Patrick Bouchain and his architects’ firm, Construire. They are part of the architectural movement that believes that building cities should not only be a matter for specialists (architects, urban planners, property developers, social landlords, etc.) and that inhabitants should not be passive subjects who are generally excluded from most social housing, construction and urban renewal projects. “Building is living” means that the building phase is no longer considered a parenthesis in inhabitants’ lives, but an important opportunity for public expression and civic participation. Concretely, as the Stephenson project has demonstrated, opening a building site involves:
- the temporary establishment of at least one architect in the neighbourhood during the building phase;
- the permanent participation of present and future inhabitants and other stakeholders (elected representatives, social landlords, urban planners, local not-for-profit organisations, etc.) from initial design to completion of the building;
- the creation of a special meeting place at the building venue where inhabitants can talk with architects, where the different stakeholders can discuss the projects and follow the achievements, and where activities are organised with the local and future community;
- the programming of cultural events in partnership with local artists and cultural facilities;
- the contribution of students from Tourcoing Beaux Arts School who created a temporary art performance within the houses under renovation.
It is worth noting that the contract mechanism used for this experiment is also unusual for this kind of urban operation. Whereas local authorities usually turn to public procurement for urban planning projects, this was a partnership agreement (“convention de partenariat”) which provided the contractual frame between the architects’ firm and SEM Ville Renouvelée. How such a tailor-made project could fit in with the specifications of traditional public tendering remains an open question.
At the urban planners’ level, the main change in working methods has been the 2007 creation of a new statute of technician in charge of sustainable development and inhabitants’ participation, introduced when management of the urban renewal project was transferred to SEM Ville Renouvelée. It is presented as an innovation in a professional milieu dominated by architects and urban planners who are not used to and do not know how to work with groups of inhabitants, local organisations and neighbourhood councils. Urban planners have learnt to systematically present and discuss the urban project with residents within the different neighbourhood councils as well as on ad-hoc committees.
8.4. Embeddedness of the project in the local welfare system
The Ilot Stephenson story has profoundly influenced the Tourcoing mayor, urban planners from SEM Ville Renouvelée and Lille Metropolis and other stakeholders in the project. It has definitely led to the integration of a human and participatory dimension in urban planning and urban renewal projects. According to the architects, even partially questioning the plan for a large and emblematic urban renewal project already voted by the local authorities’ remains quite rare. They are planning to publish a book in 2013 that will conceptualise and illustrate a new urban approach to social housing construction and urban rehabilitation. In addition, Marie Blanckaert, the architect who worked in the Stephenson’ neighbourhood throughout the entire project, won a prize for young urban planners in 2012.
The Ilot Stephenson project has been subject to local publicity and media coverage with a special website and numerous articles in the regional press. The inhabitants’ organisation was often solicited by journalists. Stephenson has gradually become a kind of showcase project with all the risks of overexposure in terms of expectations created. Whereas the Ilot Stephenson was a local political problem at the beginning of the 2000s, 10 years on it has become an emblematic success promoted by the local authorities. Feedback on the project goes far beyond the local community. Many professors and students of architectural schools, delegations of technicians from other cities and even international visitors from Brazil; England and Brazil have been to visit the building site and met the architects and urban planning team.