This is the latest in a series of articles and illustrations from our new special edition publication New Cartography. The magazine offers readers a fresh and alternative take on mapping the urban environment through a collection of articles and illustrations from a wide array of contributors. The complete magazine can be viewed here.
This is also a part of a three-part mini series exploring the lost and forgotten residential areas of cities that when built were bold visions of a future. The series looks at their current state and maps out their future. See our feature on the Ferrier estate in London and our feature on Bijlmer in Amsterdam.
Zones Urbaines Sensibles (ZUS), Sensitive Urban Zones, mark the areas of France that are considered by the authorities to be regions of concern; sensitive because of crime rates, unemployment, state-dependency and religious groupings. These ‘no-go zones’ are not loosely drafted areas, hoops thrown over postal codes and arondissements, their ambits are cautiously drawn; they are demarcations that can foist special economic and enforcement measures on residents on one side of an avenue while sparing those living opposite.
In Paris, the zones delineate some inner city areas, but largely draw boundaries on the banlieues, the suburban extremities that are occupied by the HLMs, habitations à loyer modéré, or social housing; often large multi-storey tower blocks urgently built to house the immigrant communities and rural defectors entering Paris during Les Trente Glorieuses (the thirty years from the end of the second world war, during which France experienced a time of breakneck economic booms).
La Courneuve and Clichy-sous-Bois – positioned on the outskirts of Paris’s périphérique extérieur, the outermost orbital road that snakes through all that is too large or too unsightly to be contained within inner Paris: the industrial estates, freight terminals, national sport stadiums, oversized shopping malls and grand cemeteries – have a soured reputation owing to gang crime, the riots of 2005, a lack of social cohesion and a dearth of law enforcement.
The red lines of the Sensitive Urban Zones drawn on the Ministère de la Ville’s Atlas maps, sketch around and between neighbourhoods like the chalk lines of a homicide. In La Courneuve, other than a few digressions, the zone follows five major roads: Route de la Courneuve, Boulevard Pasteur, Avenue Henri Barbusse, Autoroute du Nord and the périphérique extérieur. This outline gives it the appearance of a Formula One track with long straights and the odd unexpected chicane.
Along the circuit starting from La Courneuve – Aubervilliers RER station the route is surrounded by other no-go zones and private land; industrial estates and office parks, a Mercedes Benz service centre, and Fort de l’est – a former garrison constructed to protect Paris from external invasions. ‘Attention Travaux’, barbed wire and high fences are scattered widely inside and outside the zone.
Disclosures charting the progress of the demolition of the Balzac tower – one of the towers of ‘les 4000’, so nicknamed to reflect the number of units that were built there at the end of the 1950s – are posted onto temporary fences: one warns of the length of the demolition, another details the proposed redevelopments. The changes to the area are in keeping with other recent attempts to destroy the HLM stigma by having less of them.
New plans to rehabilitate problem areas like La Courneuve prefer multiple smaller units, less social housing and more opportunity for private ownership. This is displacement, like the original centrifugal movement of impoverished communities in the fifties, but more incremental and inconspicuous. Do it quietly and no one notices.
Towards the north of the zone and edging closer to Paris’s outer periphery the area becomes visibly more neglected; debris and clutter lean against tree trunks and lampposts, overturned shopping trollies are abandoned miles from supermarkets and old, broken tube television screens stare up at the sky. A car with its windows shattered and its tyres removed remains in its parking space held aloft by paint pots, whilst blackened and discoloured walls behind the spaces tell of a recent history of regular incineration.
A more sanguine message is spread through the estate’s graffiti. One claims that ‘le parc est à nous’, the park is ours. This suggestion isn’t territorial it simply alludes to the neighbourhood’s appeal for more responsibility. Another finely illustrates an open hand with doves being released from it. The drawing uses only English words, all evoking ideas of freedom and salvation – written in another language it calls to outsiders for help. Like Verlan, the inverted slang spoken widely in the banlieues the words imply a separate identity to the rest of urban Paris, and a community that hasn’t integrated or struck up a discourse with other city dwellers.
Several kilometres east of La Courneuve, Clichy-sous-Bois lies isolated from the rest of the city, fifteen kilometres away from the centre and 3.2 kilometres from the nearest train station. Approaching the northern end of the vast ZUS that accounts for most of the habitable area of the region, equal in size to the large forest that borders much of the east side of the zone, the avenues are named after recognisable and inspiring names from history, each inappropriate and condescending: Avenue President J.F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile Zola.
And then the descent into the colossal maze of hodge-podge social housing designs. The uniformity of the Les Bosquets towers, after some successful demolitions, has since given the area a chaotic quality; more and more ripostes to earlier design failures are dotted around, turning the mega-ghetto into a collection of further more modest failures. Littered in the streets are, again, broken televisions and burned-out cars, all ignored by the locals due to their ubiquity. Those of the monolith tower blocks that still remain, rise into the distance- all unoccupied, they continue to cast enormous shadows over the area.
These Sensitive Urban Zones are full of inconsistencies. As the red boundary line traces the edge of the tower blocks in Clichy-sous-Bois it meanders through smaller roads into Montfermeil and onto Rue Henri Barbusse where the landscape transforms again into a charming but simple high street with bakeries, restaurants, and an artisan charcuterie. All this is no more than a 5-minute walk from the emaciated form of a Les Bosquets tower that withers waiting idly to be dismantled.
The article was commissioned by The New Wolf for New Cartography – an IdeasTap-sponsored magazine.