Conference Paper: Constructing an interdisciplinary concept of sustainable urban milieu

29 10 2009

Nicole Mathieu
(CNRS, University of Paris)

To read this article and its associated commentary for free just click on the PDF link below.

Mathieu PDF

Commentary PDF - J. Salomon Cavin (University of Lausanne)

In order to post your comment and response, please use the comments box at the bottom of this post. All comments are moderated and will appear shortly after they are submitted.



Taking Sartre’s philosophy as a starting point, our paper is both theoretical and action oriented. It aims to promote the development of adequate scientific practices required by the sustainable development utopia. To this end, it is written as a manifesto designed to stimulate debate and controversy. It attempts a review of all that is being said and done in the name of sustainable development in the political domain as well as that of the relation between social sciences and politics. This paper calls for a consideration of the difficulties, and even the impossibilities, of moving “from the utopia to the concepts”. Introducing and articulating the almost contradictory dimensions of sustainability in real urban territory demands the development of a relevant method in order to investigate this complex object. We propose the concept of a “socially sustainable milieu” in order to reach this objective which requires the interdisciplinary pairing of physical and social sciences. Modelling and GIS must be associated with anthropological methods. Above all, this paper underlines the need to set “inhabitants” at the heart of the scientific project. This reverses the usual focus by starting with an investigation of the way each individual reconciles the “three pillars” of sustainable development and builds their own relationship with sustainable urban milieus. This may help bypass the still top-down views of governance and enable scientists to contribute to developing the political sustainable utopia in real sites and situations.

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3 responses

30 10 2009

Utopia and realism are not contradictory
Answer to the commentary of J. Salomon Cavin by Nicole Mathieu

As J. Salomon Cavin invites me I would like to discuss two points that have to be distinguished in her comment and questioning. First it seems to me that there is not a contradiction between the fact that a utopia is based on the consciousness of a quasi unachievable aim and the fact that it moves thoughts and actions towards a new and better reality. Utopia and Real are not opposite concepts. For me Utopia is not defined as out a place (topos) and as Victor Considérant I criticize the definition of utopia as “something which is too beautiful to be real” and when pinpointing the unachievable character of sustainability I repeat its conclusion “We will not tell: This is impossible because it is too beautiful, we will tell on the contrary: this is too beautiful to be impossible” . Utopia is moving the real, giving reality to utopia. The more you are taking in account reality and its future the more you will overtake impossibilities.
The second point refers to J. Salomon interpretation and criticism of “the contemporary sustainable urban utopia” suspected to be “a direct descendent of nineteenth century antiurbanism”. My paper does not discuss the term of sustainable urban development but tends to construct the interdisciplinary concept of sustainable milieu. The distinction is important because: 1. trying to conciliate the social and the natural is not directly linked with the urban places: every place or “milieu”, countryside or city, can tend to be sustainable because in any place though with diverse proportion and properties natures and societies are coexisting (co-inhabiting); 2. Sustainable development political utopia is not a descendent of the preceding utopia. It must be considered as an ideological “turn” born in the context of globalization and environmental crisis (global change for example). Though it could be interesting to confront this new one with social representation the rural/urban it signifies a very big change of scale, time and space and also of the conceptualization of “nature”.
In conclusion because for me utopia is a horizon and not a model I believe in the heuristic value of knowledge to “prevent anti-empirical, unhistorical modes of utopian thought”. Because it obliges to take complexity in account and to respect different points of views – especially the inhabitants’- interdisciplinary practices are relevant safeguard against those “dangerous” deviations.

30 10 2009

1. Victor Considérant, Destinée sociale, Paris, Librairie du Palais Royal, 1837
2. Cité par S. Mercier-Josa, Mercier-Josa, S., « L’utopie comme mouvement du réel, de Considérant à Marx », in L’Utopie en questions, sous la direction de Michèle Riot-Sarcey, Saint-Denis, Presses universitaires de Vincennes (coll. La philosophie hors de soi), 2001, p. 125-149.

5 11 2009

« It is by listening to the words of the inhabitant that the researcher can give a political dimension to his work ». This attempt to avoid the well-travelled paths that associate scientists to politicians as the prince’s counsellors, in atop-down behaviour, is seducing. The “ordinary” thoughts and practices are thus taken as the basic material of the researcher, “ to test on inhabitants the possibilities to achieve an urban sustainability previously defined by experts”.
Nevertheless a problem may arise : these practices need a reproduction (with some more thought to it) by the researcher. He becomes the one who knows “what the inhabitant wants”, and hence he earns a specific status in the scientific field ( the “expert” with a better knowledge). Here lies a risk of populist deviation, for two reasons :
- to define individually the practices of the “inhabitants” (how are they selected ?) may shunt their democratic expression, replacing the democratic debate,
- the inhabitant does not know all the information (spatial and temporal) necessary to manage the evolution of his practices. His objectives are influenced by the NIMBY attitude.
The development of websites (on condition that the discussion be opened, which is unfortunately not the case for most of the administrative websites) could give the opportunity of a “spatial co-building”, a citizen involvement in the governance. The researcher’s role, in that case, is a bit more modest : he has to look after the scientific quality and the objectivity of the information. He expresses his personal options, but never intervenes on behalf of a proclaimed knowledge of the aspirations of the inhabitant. The problem is to open the inhabitant’s options to discussion and debate, and not to take them for granted.

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