Housing equity, development and sustainability: US ghettos and French banlieues

After Ralph’s intensive one-week sustainability crash course our class took a different yet related turn when Professor Hyra (Derek) arrived.  Derek’s module focused on sustainable and equitable neighborhood development, and we looked at the 2005 riots in France and why Marseille didn’t “burn” like other big cities with a comparable amount of public housing, the redevelopment of the old Port in Marseille, mixed-income housing in both France and the US and both nations’ policies: The Borloo law and HOPE VI, gentrification, and the US ghetto in comparison to the the French banlieue.  We took an in-depth look at public housing and housing policy in both the US and France, and discovered that many differences in the social, cultural, and governing systems in both countries correspond to varying mindsets of the underprivileged classes in the two countries.

While equitable housing wasn’t something that was included in my previous conception of ‘sustainable development’ (as I was more exposed to the environmental aspect), it now certainly is.  The first article we read for Derek’s module was Scott Campbell’s “Green Cities, Growing Cities, Just Cities?: Urban Planning and the Contradictions of Sustainable Development” which linked the environment, the economy, and equity in a triangle around sustainable development that he calls the “triangle of conflicting goals for planning”.  Campbell laid out what he calls the “development conflict” as the ray between the environment and “social justice, economic opportunity, and income equality”, the “property conflict” between social justice and overall economic growth and efficiency, and the “resource conflict” between environmental protection and overall economic growth and sustainability.  This linked equity and moreover housing equity to the information and broad themes we’d covered in Ralph’s module.

At the end of Derek’s module we were given two days (the 9th and 10th) to write an 8 page paper on one of the topics we’d studied (this is phrased a little bit more loosely than the prompt we were given).  While a number of people looked at the Marseille riots and redevelopment of the Port, which was quite relevant due to our impending trip to Marseille that Thursday, and while the majority of the class chose to write and then present about mixed-income neighborhoods, I chose to compare the US ghetto to the French banlieues.  I used Wacquandt’s 2008 publication in which he argues against the notion that French banlieues are becoming more like US ghettos.

For those who didn’t know the specifics, like myself before I took this course: Ghetto is the term used in the United States to designate those ‘stigmatized neighborhoods situated at the very bottom of the hierarchical system of places that compose the metropolis” (Wacquandt, pg 1).  In France, such neighborhoods are today known as banlieues.  The slang term for “housing projects”, groups of low-rise and/or high-rise apartment buildings subsidized by a government agency to provide assistance for households in these low-income and impoverished neighborhoods is “the projects” in the US, whereas these groupings are called cités in France.  While American ghettos are located in the inner city, and while inner city is often the ‘geographical euphemism used by normal US social science to designate the black ghetto, precisely to avoid naming it’ (Wacquandt, pg 10), the banlieues are located on the outskirts of French cities.  Despite these geographical differences, throughout Europe (especially in France) “the US ghetto has been taken as embodying the urban pattern with which the poor neighborhoods of the postindustrial city everywhere are aligning” (Wacquandt, pg 4).  Loîc Wacquandt refers to this notion of the emergence of ‘ghettos’ along the outer ring of European cities as the “furiously fashionable thesis of a transatlantic convergence” (Wacquandt, pg 5-6).  In other words, it has become popular to believe that the French banlieues are being “Americanized” – that they are becoming more like the US ghetto.  Against this grain, some scholars such as Wacquandt, argue that “urban marginality is not everywhere woven of the same cloth” (Wacquandt, pg 1), and have labeled this notion of convergence as no more than media conflation, calling for policy remedies distinctive from those targeted at the US ghetto.

In my paper I discussed and compared the French banlieues to the US ghetto, detailing the factors related to their creation and then the conditions in them, followed by explaining the current policy interventions to improve these disadvantaged neighborhoods in both countries (as previously mentioned: HOPE VI and the Borloo Law).  I ended up arguing that despite their location in different political, economic, and cultural systems, and despite their disparate formation, the US ghetto and French banlieues are more alike than they are distinct, especially considering these formative differences.

Doing research for my paper, the lectures Derek gave, and the presentations that other students gave on their paper topics fascinated me, and served as a great academic backdrop for our visit to Marseille, which I will post about later tonight!

– Maddie

Op, almost forgot:

Italian Phrase of the day:

Maybe = forse


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