Urban design magazine


Dialogue can’t be improvised: urban planning by Jean-Pierre Charbonneau

Image of dialogue in urban planning

With the experience of an urban planner and the sharpened vision of a consultant, Jean-Pierre Charbonneau analyses changes in how we use public spaces.

Are some user expectations surprising? Which, on the other hand, remain unchanging? Searching to escape clichés, Jean-Pierre Charbonneau reveals his vision of a complex profession that lies at a crossroads between disciplines and at the heart of what it means to be a citizen.

What do you think about incorporating a more user-centred approach into urban projects, particularly in relation to ergonomics, sociology or architecture?  

Taking users into account is an important part of urban planning. The nature of our work means that complex urban issues are treated in a multi-faceted way to include technology, economics, politics and sociology.

But, it isn’t an abstract job. All approaches are concentred on user needs. We use our own knowledge combined with sociology and dialogue to get as close as possible to reality. I’m not talking about consultation as an ideology, but rather as one element of our job. We need to draw on the ideas of local inhabitants.

Benefiting from the experience of architects, sociologists and landscape designers is only natural given that urban planners can’t omnipotent. We need this specialised knowledge to harness the dynamism of the area and transform it. We don’t always call on these professionals, but it is important to ask the right people for help at the right time depending on the importance or nature of the project.

The boom of social media and flash mobs seems to reveal people’s need to communicate, come together and collaborate. Do you think that this represents a real change in user expectations regarding public spaces?

Today, there is a dimension to public spaces that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Since the renovation of Barcelona, Lyon, Nantes and other cities, people have started to expect and demand quality. This applies to life in general and particularly to our cities. This may also involve the way in which we shop, how school entrances are designed and public spaces more generally. This demand for quality has become an important political issue.

Flash mobs and other gatherings are simply expression of life in public spaces. I think these are minor phenomena in relation to a more general movement giving greater importance to the role of public spaces in the quality of urban life, which has spread across Europe from Barcelona to Lyon through German, Italian and Spanish cities to London.

Domesticating public spaces

Quay in Lyon © Didier Boy de la Tour

Does street furniture, that conditions our urban activities, provide sufficient solutions to user expectations (in terms of conviviality, security etc.)?

For a long time, I was in charge of the street furniture for Lyon and Greater Lyon. This is how I met Marc Aurel. Together, we developed two ranges – one that dreamy and the other more classic, which Marc designed while working for Wilmotte. Paradoxically, I strongly believe in emptying spaces of anything that clutters them up, including street furniture. I avoid filling them with thousands of objects that can be difficult to use, deteriorate rapidly and are expensive for local authorities.

However, there are essential functions that need to be fulfilled, such as the need to sit down. We have to make benches that meet user expectations, but this can introduce problems that go beyond their primary function or form. In many places it is impossible to add benches for fear that homeless people occupy them. There adds an often a political dimension. In Saint-Etienne, we overcame this issue by creating single seats. I still recommend their use in areas where we know it’d be impossible to put benches.

Abribus bus shelters are another kind of street furniture that fulfils an essential role. We need to recognise their importance and incorporate necessary services. With the RATP, Marc Aurel rose to the challenge of making the Abribus shelter into multi-functional urban spaces.

I disagree with (and distrust) the idea that we need to increase the amount of street furniture. This is expensive for local authorities to maintain and makes it difficult to clear spaces so they used freely.

In your opinion, what impact can quality street furniture have the relationship between users and their city?

In Greater Lyon, it was decided, from the beginning, to use the same street furniture in the city centre and suburbs. This revealed a political desire to unify the quality of public spaces and the way people were treated. Several decades later, I think we can free ourselves from this rule – we no longer need to have anything to prove as we all agree on the principle.

Street furniture needs to be maintained. It can be subject to extreme conditions including violence in both the centre and suburbs. Maintenance is therefore a key obligation for local authorities, if not, damage can stigmatise an area and the people who live there.

Image of dialogue with local inhabitants

Dialogue – also about providing information

Do you think in the future users will be involved in managing projects?

Users are certainly seem to be more demanding than before – I’ve noticed this on all my projects. It is, of course, important to take their views into account. But, I’ve been practising, like many others, consultation for over 25 years. It’s not a new idea nor does it represent the spark that will suddenly make an urban project perfect. It is professional tool that can’t be improvised. You need to connect with groups that are underrepresented at meetings, reach out to different social classes, manage schedules, provide documents that are easy to understand etc.

It is not an end in itself. When I started working on large projects, it was often believed that this was the case. But, asking questions isn’t enough. It needs to provide solutions to real problems and set in motion necessary changes, projects and public policies. We sometimes end up discussing issues for a year without anything getting done. This often leads to the public to feel disappointed and disillusioned.

We frequently hear about a “new approach to the city”. Whereas, in reality, taking users into account and encouraging their involvement have been one of our obligations for a long time. Yes, we need to conduct projects in a professional manner – create a programme, set out the project, meet different users, listen, rework and so on. However, these so-called new concepts may simply be the sign of the amnesia that prevails in our cities and urban projects.

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