Attractiveness, the new enemy?

Thoughts by Tristan RIOM, Vice-President of Nantes Métropole, about the ecological limits of our cities



Tristan RIOM

Publication date

February 3, 2023

This edito has been written by Tristan Riom, Vice-President of Nantes Métropole in charge of climate, energy, economic changes, agriculture and food. He invites us to reconsider the model of the Metropolis that puts pressure on our resources and to imagine together a new model, more sober and fair. Enjoy reading!

Tristan Riom

“Infinite growth in a finite world is an impossibility.”

This phrase, well-known in environmentalist circles, acknowledges planetary boundaries and harshly criticises the concept of infinite growth so dear to those who deny the problem. It can be seen as a mantra but one attested to and validated by the facts, largely inspired by the famous report entitled “The Limits to Growth (in a Finite World)”, commissioned by the Club of Rome and published in 1972.1

The so-called Meadows Report describes the limit of any system in the face of infinite growth and in the case at hand, i.e. the “Earth system”. Exactly 50 years later, its conclusions are even clearer: our boundaries are better known and the moment they will be crossed is precisely identified. Yet, we stubbornly continue to pretend that they can be pushed back. But crossing these boundaries means weakening our social model and creating competition for resources that will only be regulated by excluding the poorest.

These boundaries also apply locally. At the metropolitan level, we must strike a balance between the consumption of resources, the capacity of our ecosystems to regenerate and fair distribution among all. All this leads us to a question that is just as dizzying as that raised by the Club of Rome in 1972: “What are the limits of a metropolis?”

Towards a reconsideration of the “habitability” of our territory?

This question seems revolutionary because our relationship with our territory is based on the domination of nature: we develop land for building, we dyke up rivers instead of letting them follow their natural course, we import food on a massive scale with scant regard for local resilience. The law on “Zero Net Land Take”, which aims to protect arable land and natural areas, is a major step forward but a number of strategies have already been deployed and voices raised locally to oppose it. The idea the local ecosystem could impose a “limit” on our “development” is intolerable to some. Yet this is precisely the crux of the matter: more and more researchers are looking into the “habitability” of our planet, i.e. where human pressure on the environment is so strong that our planet, and some areas in particular, will no longer be sustainably habitable.

What about the habitability of our territory, our department, our city? There are warning signals all around the place. When drinking water almost runs out, as it did last September, are we not approaching the limit of habitability? When the pressure to build housing is so great that building on arable land is considered inevitable, is this not a limit? When a couple earning 1.5 times the minimum wage cannot buy a decent home in our cities, have we not reached an absurd situation in the property market?

Land, tourism: competition for the use of our limited resources

These are questions on how we use our resources. Habitability can be seen as a purely technical issue (a quantity of water per inhabitant, the number of days of extreme heat or cool areas, etc.), purely ecological habitability. But it is also a social and political issue: how can we organise resources to make people happy and meet the basic needs of all? Can we guarantee everyone a safe environment, needed for his/her development?

This is the case for a large number of resources, but the question remains the same: in an end-of-abundance global context, how do we want to share out our resources? Which uses are essential and, therefore, a priority? If we take the example of land, ecologists insist on the need to stop urban sprawl (i.e. building on arable land) and promote urban renewal (i.e. changing the use of already built-up areas). For example: building housing and public amenities instead of car parks and shopping centres. Thus, for a given resource (here surface area), it is about improving the way we meet the needs.

This competition for local resources has become even more problematic in touristic areas and has been denounced by various associations, like “Les enfants de tempête” on the Ile d’Yeu, “Brittany is not a second home” in Brittany and the much-publicised “Tourists go home” in Barcelona. Local people are worried as mass tourism means that they can no longer afford to live decently in their home cities, towns and villages.

Again, it is a question of political choices: mass tourism requires standardised infrastructure and uniform public policies across all territories 2. Some regions of the world, entirely dependent on this development model, are calling it into question in the light of climate change. In some Maghreb countries where the summer population increase has reached unsustainable levels in a context of climate change, researchers are investigating access to water as a potential limiting factor to tourism. Closer to home, the subject has already been raised by local politicians in the Guérande peninsula.

If resources are limited, should the population be limited too?

On all these subjects, thinking about the ecological limits of our territory leads us to a recurrent yet highly thorny question in ecology: is there a population limit for a territory? This brings us back to one of the earliest concerns of the environmental movement.

As far back as the 1970s, writers were already raising this issue, asking whether we would be able to meet the vital needs of 4 billion human beings. Today, we are more than 8 billion on Earth. This puts enormous pressure on the environment. But we know that an ecological balance can be restored while meeting everyone’s needs, and that the root problem is the unequal distribution of resources.

The population question is not only a global issue. It also addresses questions about the distribution of populations across territories, the capacity of these territories to accommodate these populations and to meet their needs. This raises new concerns: instead of “Should we implement a one-child policy?”, the question is rather  “How can we make medium-sized towns more attractive?” or “What is the maximum population that a territory can accommodate, while preserving a social and ecological balance?”

Attractiveness, the new enemy

It is this thinking that has led municipal ecology3 to consider as the new enemy those policies that aim to increase the attractiveness of metropolitan areas.

The phenomenon of metropolisation, i.e. concentration of the population and above all of key (cultural, academic, entrepreneurial, etc.) activities in few urban centres, indeed creates an imbalance between and within territories. This imbalance results from a number of public policies, particularly those designed to increase attractiveness, which may have fulfilled their role in the 1980s-2000s but which should now be abandoned. Because the ecological transition requires, inter alia, a new balance between territories4.

So what lies behind this concentration of population, and more particularly its most affluent strata in city centres, are public policies and measures that are meant to attract businesses, residents, a good reputation and tourists. This attractiveness strategy is multi-faceted:

  • Demands from local politicians to have a high-speed train connection to Paris, while local train services and rural areas are dying.
  • Cultural installations (have you heard of the Heron Tree in Nantes?) aimed at putting the metropolis on the world map, so it is identified and recognised
  • Paying people to bring companies, always more companies, to the area, to create jobs for a population that they are seeking to attract,
  • National and international rankings of the best places to live and buy,
  • Efforts to concentrate universities and higher education establishments in urban centres,

… in short, a combination of human resources and messages with the following consequences5: while most French departments’ populations are falling, mainly in the 18-35 age bracket, the Loire-Atlantique department is strongly attracting 18 year olds (as students) as well as 25-35 year olds, the age at which people settle down to work and start a family (because yes, population growth is directly correlated to how attractive a territory is to young people… since they will start their families there).

All large French cities are still pursuing objectives (consciously or “imposed”) aimed at increasing the population and creating new jobs, because new residents need jobs, and aimed at increasing the population, because the companies need workers, and creating jobs because … In short, we are caught in the proverbial hamster wheel.

We must therefore acknowledge the end of the attractiveness model and understand that it does not automatically bring dynamism or prosperity. This questioning is making headway in civil society and institutions and can be seen as a victory for the ecologists. For example, the Nantes Saint-Nazaire Economic Development Agency has officially changed tack and is now targeting specific companies while directing others towards neighbouring territories in order to spread economic development. We are therefore in a moment of tension: messages are changing, some institutions are altering their stated goals or purposes (in words at least, we will be attentive to their actions) but the operational objectives remain at odds. With a conviction shared by many local politicians: “we cannot control population movements”.

A de-metropolisation without decline? Explanation

This conviction stems from a form of certainty about a specific freedom: the right to free settlement. “People have the right to live where they want. They come to Nantes, that’s the way it is, we can’t influence the course of things, we can only adapt the city to it”. In fact, this is quite paradoxical: politicians think they can avoid the decline of their territory, but they cannot limit excessive interest in it? In reality, if population growth reflects a long-term movement, so hard to change overnight, it is not unrelated to the choices we make.

We have already mentioned a number of them, like the economic, tourist, urban and cultural development policies (which is why you see many ecologist politicians taking up the cause on these subjects), but there is also the type of city and local development model we want. Because the model focused on attractiveness does not come from nowhere. It comes from a fear that strangely is still present among some local politicians of urban centres: that of demotion and decline.

The fear of decline is the fear of a city that no longer attracts young people, whose population is beginning to age, whose city-centre shops are closing and which ultimately is entering into a form of lethargy. Residents would be ashamed to live in this place of decay that people leave eagerly in search of a job and a better life elsewhere. This fear is linked to an era: that of mass relocations, when towns and cities were “losers” in the race to globalisation.

It is hard to apply this argument to Nantes without objecting: “but our situation’s completely different!”. Indeed, it is. So why is this fear so deeply rooted in some people’s minds? You may remember hearing in the 1990s that Nantes was a “sleeping beauty”, shaken out of its torpor by Jean-Marc Ayrault, with his extensive cultural and “large projects”6 policy. The myth of the “builder mayor” still lingers today. Calling it into question (as we should) involves looking into what the true role of the municipality should be.

Some academics, like Guillaume Faburel, propose a counter-narrative: that of de-metropolisation. What if our collective political objective was to stop this territorial concentration system? By denouncing the metropolis used as a planning tool?7 For Faburel, the megapolis is a product of capitalism and liberalism8. This concentration system must be combatted because it creates imbalances within territories. We should seek to do the opposite and make small and medium-sized towns attractive. This vision of harmful metropolisation is also developed by Alain Damasio in his novel “Furtifs”: a few metropolises are bought up by private groups which segregate the different social classes of the population. The citizen-customer of the city must either accept this world or leave to go and live in completely neglected inter-metropolitan areas.

What about the social aspects?

What Alain Damasio highlights is that behind all this thinking is the pivotal importance of social issues. A resource that is not regulated as a common good will be regulated by price. And that is what we see today: uncontrolled population growth, soaring land prices and so the poorer populations pushed out of the city or into undignified living conditions9.

As is often the case, when a resource becomes scarce (in this case land), the law of supply and demand means that only the most affluent have access to it, thus reducing the freedom of the least affluent. It is illusory to think that we all have the freedom to live wherever we want: the relationship to space and time is much more restricted and imposed on the poorest people10.

Tackling head-on these issues of territorial distribution and organisation involves meeting a growing concern for social and environmental justice. The question of the development model needed for our cities is a major social and ecological challenge.

Conclusion: One model is replacing another

We have to admit that every territory has its ecological limits: i.e. a limited quantity of resources that have to be distributed fairly to meet the needs of everyone. While keeping in mind that human beings will always have an impact on their environment, the challenge of the ecological transition is to restore a balance, as local as possible, between pollution and the capacity of our ecosystems to regenerate. This balance is not possible with our current development model.

If increasing the attractiveness of urban centres to make local areas more dynamic was an interesting idea in the last century, ecologists are now calling it into question. It is in fact a great opportunity to give coherence to the ecological argument: seeking a balance between territories and revitalising medium-sized towns are subjects of concern to us. We reject competition between territories and need to make local economic dynamics a major political issue.

To achieve this, we must reject a form of standardisation of development models. A metropolis like Nantes should not consider itself to be in permanent competition with Lyon, Lille, Turin (…) for the title of the ‘Most Trendy City’. We must accept our ecological limits, find political objectives that contribute to the happiness of all, and turn to the surrounding and rural areas to invent alternative economic and urban development models.

The future will therefore be a plurality of development models11, a search for balance and humility, a totally new and innovative model that still has to be invented to replace the myths of the last century.

These struggles are thus part of ecological history and ideas: the search for a balance, a just relationship with what surrounds us and a form of local resilience. We view the world as an ecosystem and as such have no problem in promoting our neighbours if this is in the general interest. Every day, local politicians have to approve directions and projects whose principles are based on an outdated conception of development and planning. Our role is to remind them that climate justice is shaking up our world with such force that even yesterday’s good ideas are out of step with today. What lies ahead of us is: what alternative development model do we propose? Some pointers already exist, convictions too, but the conversation has only just begun.

This article was first published on 4th January 2023 in French by its author on the website