“… re-engage with the possibilities that have been opened up by the big port cities, a high degree of proximity, where the city and port form an indivisible whole port”
Interview : Jean-Marc Gaulier, architecte-paysagiste et urbaniste, Urbicus, France
Urbicus is member of AIVP since 2015.
Urbicus became a member of AIVP’s worldwide network in 2015, joining the likes of Haropa Ports de Paris, for which Urbicus provides urban planning consultancy and project management services. For Ports de Paris, itself a long-standing member of AIVP, the challenge of integrating port activities into the urban landscape is a strategically important one. How does Urbicus approach this issue? To find out, we spoke to Jean-Marc Gaulier, landscape architect and urban planning consultant, who created Urbicus in 1996.
AIVP – Your work concerns a number of different locations, including ports, where functional requirements are particularly strong. Your philosophy is that ports can and must be treated as landscapes. How can that approach be made to serve those functional requirements, while at the same time supporting and improving the efficiency of port activity?
Jean-Marc Gaulier – We develop the “Landscape ports” concept, where the landscape is treated as an indicator the quality of sustainable development, ensuring that visually and in terms of the other senses, there is a balance between certain factors: economy and employment; environment and living space; smoother social relations and consultation. A quality landscape is the visible, tangible result of a proper balance between those three factors. This approach is built on the assumption that ports are not merely mono-functional, mono-specific enclaves, but rather forums for virtuous economic development which, depending on their location, agree to co-exist with the city or natural environments as part of a mutually beneficial approach.
It is not a matter of opening or closing everything up. Instead, it involves putting together scenarios and, for each site and each industrial port programme, testing to what extent particular elements can be made transparent and visible to the public, nature allowed in, and certain aspects of urban life integrated. Better integrating ports into modern life does not mean opening them up to anything and everything. Rather, it means – wherever technical requirements and security constraints permit – creating conditions conducive to the kind of reasoned and reasonable social and environmental exchanges that make ports more efficient, certainly, but more importantly in our highly demanding societies, ensure they enjoy that vital acceptability.
For the Paris ports, a Unesco world heritage site, to allow river traffic in the construction industry in particular, you need mixed-use docks shared between urban and port uses, with beautiful Parisian paved areas open on the promenade but closed when the docks are in use, and with secure, covered concrete plants designed by architects. This means adopting a project-based approach, based on a preliminary programme that helps the designers clearly identify the constraints and possibilities, with the project managers then having to incorporate those considerations into the design and supervision of the project.
AIVP – The issue of the city / port mix is one of the key challenges for the sustainable development of port cities. What do you see as the main options for resolving incompatibilities in order to ensure that port and urban uses are combined and organised as effectively as possible? What are the successful strategies for both sides?
Jean-Marc Gaulier – In every current port project, the question is one of degrees: to what degree it is possible to have a mix of activities and functions? To what degree can urban uses and biodiversity be integrated? And what degree of transparency is possible in the acceptable management of the project? There is no recipe, no template. Rejecting them is a strategic decision. When it comes to integrating ports, the method is to shape the project from the specific features of the location, because ports always develop from a favourable initial geographic situation.
Each port is a programme, a context and a specific site requiring a global project (economic, urban and environmental), bringing together the right skills and capabilities, to generate the balances sought. The successful strategy for economic port projects, necessarily in sensitive urban or natural environments, is to agree to earmark a portion of the investment specifically for research and works designed to ensure high quality social and spatial integration.
In every project, you have to find issues where the port’s economic world is able to show its virtue by helping to build a high quality landscape. Besides providing employment and a low-impact mode of transport, port business communities need to contribute to biodiversity, air quality, access to water, noise abatement, not because they are forced to by regulations, but because as socially responsible businesses, they want to make a contribution to quality shared with local populations. Faced with the risk of rejection or refusal, the port’s economic community needs to create the conditions for its acceptability. Paradoxically, it isn’t enough just to generate jobs. A part of the wealth created must be devoted to environmental quality and social well-being, by transforming that investment in quality into a carefully thought-out marketing strategy…
AIVP – To return to the previous question from another angle, perhaps we could talk about the way a project evolves through dialogue between you and your client. Let’s take, for example, the PSMO development project (Port Seine Métropole Ouest, in Achères and Andrésy, on the edge of Conflans-St-Honorine and St-Germain-en-Laye). Which solutions did you rule out, and why?
Jean-Marc Gaulier – Our client establishes dialogue on several levels for conducting a port project, and uses various different project tools for creating or running ports. Dialogue is instituted with elected representatives, non-profit organisations and local residents, and is designed to ensure that requests to do with urban planning, landscape development and the environment are taken into account at an early stage, while answering the concerns of individuals or communities. During that process, within the public port space and whatever the project, we rule out strictly technical solutions and take on board social and environmental solutions, by systematically looking for a mix between the port activity and urban uses, biodiversity or sociability.
Wherever possible, we develop natural banks and use large amounts of vegetation as a factor for biodiversity, prioritise alternative rainwater or energy management solutions. We also aim for the most coherent architecture and landscape, look for different means of access to the water and the port, and port spaces that are open, subject to certain conditions, to urban activities, fishing, promenades, festivities, leisure activities (some of which generate an economic impact). In the enterprise zone, businesses will develop their processes within a defined framework of environmental and landscape recommendations and specifications. The challenge for the Port is to define the limits of that framework, so as to ensure that it is acceptable to the local population and economically manageable for businesses…
AIVP – You define the sustainability of a project by a three-way dialogue between decision-makers, residents and project managers. Ports de Paris also treats consultation as a strategic tool in the implementation of its development projects. What part do you play in that process? And can you give us an example of the way that consultation has influenced a project?
Jean-Marc Gaulier – Where consultation influences projects, as you say, it’s part of a pre-established project that has been laid open to criticism, which is the result of a consultation process that is too binary and frontal. That method is risky, and with Ports de Paris we prefer consultation to be integrated into the project production process.
With the Port, we are proposing a participatory approach that makes the construction of projects a joint effort. As urban planners, our part in the process is to produce scenarios which are then put up for public debate. Based on the programme approved by the client and the users (the local population and its representatives) through a shared diagnostic approach, our role as project manager is to come up with several development solutions which all satisfy the stated requirements, but incorporating different combinations of variables and making use of the various possibilities. The client then accepts and approves the scenarios, which are presented at workshops, with their pros and cons being debated constructively. After the discussions, we propose spatial compromises with the aim of reaching a social consensus.
AIVP – Finally, how can development projects be made flexible in order to anticipate sometimes unforeseen or unknown uses which can emerge later on, once the project is operational?
Jean-Marc Gaulier – In addition to the “balance” aspects already mentioned, the other key quality for any urban project is its adaptability or capacity to evolve in time and space. Cities must be eminently flexible, their survival depends on it. So we have to draw inspiration from urban solutions that have been shown to be durable. The challenge is to ensure flexibility in the provision of essential services and the way land is divided up. Interconnected port networks (water, rail or road) need to generate a controlled organisation of land, connected to or directed along roads, and which can be sliced up. The urban port environment must be consistent with the timescale, by designing for the short term while thinking ahead to the long term through a series of possible scenarios open to “controlled opportunism”, where anything is possible provided it respects a few guiding urban principles, namely roads and thoroughfares, plots of land and the management of those limits.
In conclusion, the needs of a well-designed port are the same as those of a city, and I’m keen to re-engage with the possibilities that have been opened up by the big port cities, a high degree of proximity, where the city and port form an indivisible whole.