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Architect[e], writer, editor & podcaster

THE PARIS “BANLIEUE” ARCHIPELAGO / 2014

The Banlieue Archipelago (Léopold Lambert for The Funambulist 2014)“The Banlieue Archipelago: Cartographic Inventory of the Cités around Paris,” on The Funambulist (July 7, 2014)

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As I recently wrote in an article about Mathieu Kassowitz’s La Haine, I will probably write a lot about Paris’s banlieues in the coming year(s), as I will be soon returning to live on that side of the Atlantic ocean. I spent the last weeks elaborating documents to illustrate what these “banlieues” really are. This is as useful to people who are not so familiar with Paris’s geography as for people who live in the center of the city, since most of the latter rarely venture in the suburbs. The maps presented above, associated with the list of illustrations below, therefore attempt to present a geographic inventory of the “Cités” and “Zones Urbaines Sensibles” (Sensitive Urban Zones) that exist in the first four zones of Paris’s region’s public transportation system. The term banlieue is abusive in the sense that it means suburb, but it is understood internationally — and to some extents in France too — as low-income neighborhoods whose architecture is characterized by “barres” (long and massive housing buildings) and “tours” (towers) that host, among others, an important population of foreign and first/second generation French (often young) North and West Africans.

The 95 cités presented both on the maps and in the inventory below, host together about 805,000 inhabitants (figures from 2006 calculated from this data bank), which makes it approximately 12% of the total population of the considered area (the first four zones of Paris’s public transportation system). The urbanism used to design these neighborhoods is strongly inspired from the modernist theories of urbanism that aimed at “liberating the ground” and creating more or less self-sufficient pieces of city. On the following illustrations one can easily realize the poor quality of the public space that has been “liberated” on the ground (parking, leftover lawns or dirt areas, etc.). Many of the commerces that were operating within the neighborhoods closed down and little activity was left available for the inhabitants, many of which are unemployed. As for the self-sufficient characteristics of these neighborhoods, they clearly created a distinction between the inside and outside of the cités, creating potentially what I have been calling “proletarian fortresses” in the past (see past articles) but, more importantly, it formed urban zones of exclusions that soon translated into social exclusion for the bodies who inhabit them. This manifests in the rest of French society by a national fear for these neighborhoods fed by daily TV news narratives that marginalize simultaneously the cités in their urbanity and the population that live in them in the otherness (racially, culturally, socially, and sometimes religiously) that they embody for the White French population — that includes the biggest part of the past and current governing elite.

The urban exclusion embodied by the cités operates at the scale of their town or city (noted for each of the following 95 illustrations), but also at the regional scale. Paris is a centralized city and a look at the public transportation network (the maps above show the main one, Metro and RER) allows one to realize, not only how crucial it is to reside within a reasonable distance from this network, but also how this network is fundamentally oriented toward the center of the city with little connection between cities of the banlieues themselves. The “Banlieue Archipelago” that gives its title to this article and these maps therefore consists in the representation of a de-centralized network generated by the cités themselves. It is a sort of cartographic manifesto that does not pre-envision what the links it introduces (in the second map) really stand for: a call for action(s) to revolutionize these pieces of urbanity from inside — the governmental policies to revolutionize them having stagnated (deliberately or not) to the statuses of discourses so far. Architecture as a discipline certainly has a role to play in it; yet, on the contrary of many attempts made from the outside these last forty years, it principally consists in a process of ‘desarchitecture,’ i.e. a deactivation of the physical/spatial mechanisms of geographical and social exclusion that characterize the banlieues’ situation as it currently is.