By Marcelle Balt
As farmers know, straw provides excellent insulation. Now urban developers are starting to use it as a “natural” humidifier for buildings, including in a new eco-school being built in the heart of Montreuil. Another innovative design feature at the school will be the use of rainwater to flush toilets. Together, these uses of green technology will increase energy efficiency of the finished school building. Using rainwater will cut the use of drinking water by as much as 50 percent.
With a Green mayor in city hall since 2008, Montreuil is at the forefront of employing ecological techniques in urban development. The eco-school, L’école Résistance, is one of the city’s flagship projects, but it’s by no means the only one. Montreuil has the ambition to be one of the largest eco-neighbourhoods in Europe, an example of ecological and social policies coming together in the transformation of urban space.
Locally, not everyone thinks that’s a great idea. The Communists who long controlled the city council are deeply critical of Mayor Dominique Voynet and her plans. Since they lost out to her in 2008, the constant power struggles within Montreuil’s government have slowed the implementation of these eco-projects.
But Voynet’s supporters say the former Minister of the Environment will prevail. Montreuil, says Christian Hackel, the school’s architect, “is at a tipping point.”
Voynet maintains that environmental sustainability must be factored into all urban development planning. Montreuil is her backyard, and this is where the battle for the ecological urban dream is being fought. Perhaps Voynet is also trying to make up for lost ground: compared with other European countries, France lags behind in implementing eco-urban development. Or perhaps her dream for Montreuil is premature. Despite the city’s hope to remain unified in all these changes, the proposed developments and upgrades have pushed property prices higher—and have pushed socio-economic groups even further apart.
Swimming, Growing, Moving
The school project is one of several within Montreuil’s extensive eco-urban development. There is also a plan to build a new swimming pool (La Piscine écologique des Hauts de Montreuil). The pool won’t need chlorine, but will instead make use of plants as a natural system of filtration. Montreuil’s overall plan is called PLU (Le Plan local d’urbanisme), and the Quartier de la Mairie will also be renovated. Montreuil’s well-known Murs á Pêches (Walls of Peaches) landmark, an agricultural area that still exists and grew peaches for the courts of Versailles will also be part of theses developments. In total, Montreuil plans to develop 500 acres of land within its borders.
Transportation improvements form an important part of the plan. Le Grand Paris is the extensive system of planned transport improvements for the greater Paris region. Montreuil will get two new metro stations (on line 11) and an extended tramline (line T1) that will reach into the city. As a result, seven new public transport stations will open up in the city between 2015 and 2018.
These new transport points will link to the dense network of Paris’s metro and regional RER lines. The extension of the transport system will also directly influence urban development in Montreuil. Within a 700-meter radius of these new transport stations, governmental regulations stipulate that the city can build higher and for more people, thereby increasing urban density.
Playing catch up
As progressive as this all might seem, France is still slower than other countries in implementing eco-friendly designs and technology in urban development. Christian Hackel is the architect on the new eco-school project. His company has been around for 15 years, and only during the past five years have they been able to do more mainstream work. He says France has been slow to accept these types of urban development projects, in comparison with Austria and Switzerland. “For many years we were ‘preaching in the void’. People were saying: ‘What are they talking about?’ But this is now a global movement.”
The drastic change in the urban fabric of Montreuil is also reflected in property prices. In the last two decades, rising house prices in Paris have pushed many Parisians out to the nearest banlieue. Families are moving from Paris, looking for bigger apartments at more affordable prices. Montreuil is a popular choice, partly due to its reputation for safety: during the 2005 riots, which caused nationwide civil unrest, Montreuil remained calm. “Montreuil is easily accessible from Paris by metro on the line 9. In Lower-Montreuil, Parisians can live in detached houses or create lofts in old warehouses,” says Henri Rey, a banlieue specialist at Sciences Po in Paris. It also makes sense for many Parisians looking for a certain quality of life that is still relatively affordable.
Estate agents in the city agree. “When you see the square meter price in Paris and the square meter price in Montreuil, Montreuil is quite cheaper compared to prices in Paris, while the quality of life in certain arrondisements is almost identical,” says Nadia Belfaked of Solvimo.
As a result, the city attracts “bobos,” the name coined for the bourgeois bohemians who populate the lower part of Montreuil. Their arrival has, in turn, pushed up prices. House prices have increased by 16 percent in the last five years. “The house next to mine was sold for more than a million euros recently to a famous Parisian architect, » confirms Natacha Lillo, a teacher who lives in Lower-Montreuil.
“Montreuil is more sexy and alive than Aubervilliers for example, » says Fabienne Vansteenkiste, deputy mayor for public space and transport.
A green city for All
While these pockets of “bobo” residences are growing, the contrast with lower income housing in Montreuil is further entrenched. Anthony Meslé-Carole heads the Department of Environment and Urban Ecology at the Montreuil City Council. He is painfully aware of the diversity and the socio-economic tensions within the Montreuil population.
“It is important to understand that Montreuil is not a rich city that can implement ecological systems and ecological developments with a lot of money. We don’t have a lot of money,” Meslé-Carol says.
One example of a development plan that affects a large number of people in an egalitarian fashion is a public housing project where the city provided insulation to 3,000 homes. “It was done to demonstrate that ecology is not only for rich people, but for everybody,” Meslé-Carole says.
Yet one of the main criticisms of the eco-school project, with a budget of 13 million euros, is that it is too expensive for Montreuil. Eco-technology is still costly, although prices of materials like solar panels have come down as they become more popular, Hackel says.
Rémy Albaric is an active member of Montreuil’s civil society. He says that the main problem in the city is that people are reluctant to accept change. He was part of a delegation from the city that represented the eco-school as an example of an environmentally sustainable project in a European town. When he explained to the rest of the group that the school project was facing political opposition within Montreuil’s city council, the other delegates could hardly believe it. “All you have to say to them is: that’s France.”
Meslé-Carole says that even though differences exist and are fiercely contested within the council, they still agree on enough things to move the vision forward. “Everybody within the council is fine with our bigger goals, for instance that we have to be more social and we have to be more ecological. Disagreements are only at play when we speak about the methods of implementation.”
It’s not easy being Green
Voynet’s involvement is key in all of this, says Meslé-Carole. “Obviously having a mayor who is a French leader in political ecology, and who has been one of the French Ministers of the Environment, is a very big plus. She has a comprehensive vision, she has political leverage and, this is my personal viewpoint, I think she also has the political skill.“
Whether it is resistance to change, disproportionate economic fortunes or political differences that hinder Montreuil’s vision of urban development, the success or failure of L’école Résistance might well symbolize the city’s readiness for ecological innovation. As environmental concerns continue to take centre stage, perhaps it also marks Montreuil as a precursor to what will happen in other French cities.
Photo caption: An eco-school in the heart of Montreuil wants to show how urban development and ecological design can work together (credit: Marcelle Balt)