Magda Maaoui : the prospects for sustainable neighbourhoods

From the Parisian to the Californian suburbs, let’s have an overview of the prospects for sustainable neighbourhoods with Magda Maaoui, Ph.D. in urban planning.

Magda Maaoui

Magda Maaoui is a Doctor in Urban Planning at Columbia University in New York, and is an alumnus of the École Normale Supérieure in Lyon, France; she holds an agrégation in geography. Using a comparative approach (North America/Europe) and mixed methodological tools (quantitative/qualitative), her research focuses on how urban planning models are adapted according to location.

Sensitive to the impact of housing policies on inequalities, the researcher also studies the role of urban planning agents, both in the public and the private sectors, in the production of large-scale real estate projects in large metropolises working-class neighbourhoods (Paris/New York).

How has the concept of eco-district developed over time?

To speak of an eco-district is to refer to a way of building, densifying and producing housing at a lower environmental cost. It is a neologism, since the term did not exist at the beginning of urban planning. From the 1980s onwards, a certain environmental awareness began to take off at international level. We began to talk about 'sustainable development', particularly in urban planning. In order to be in tune with the times, certain economic and societal initiatives were presented as 'ecological', without necessarily being very effective. Some of these initiatives did not prevent the over-exploitation of resources and were more akin to greenwashing.

Nevertheless, this was the impetus for a necessary movement that was to grow over the following decades, particularly with the proliferation of eco-districts, which were first tried out in Northern Europe. Now there is still to find a solution to build them on a large scale, in a systematic way. As they currently cannot be suggested everywhere, this selection leads to territorial inequalities which could be reduced by multiplying more ambitious retrofit campaigns. From the European Union to the cities and the States, the whole chain of responsibilities is involved.


How can we ensure that an eco-district delivers on its promises?

There are two different timeframes. During the construction phase, commitments must be made to reduce the environmental cost, for example with responsible water consumption, the use of reusable materials or the recycling of waste. But it is obviously in the long term that we must also be vigilant.

In France, an official 'Ecoquartier' label was created in 2012, with a series of steps to be respected. Among them, the signing of a charter at the start of the development project, which entails some twenty commitments to be respected. These include 'working primarily on the existing city and proposing a density that is adapted to fight against soil degradation' and 'aiming for energy sobriety, lower CO emissions and diversification of sources in favour of renewable and recovered energy'. 

Three years after construction, an evaluation is mandatory to confirm the label. The resistance of the materials is checked, as it is necessary to offer infrastructures that last without requiring constant renovation. Thermal insulation performance is inspected, as is the condition of the photovoltaic panels. For example, it is necessary to ensure that the residents of the eco-district consume less energy than their neighbours in a non-labelled district, to guarantee the project's leverage effect.


Building in a sustainable way is essential but not sufficient: how can we ensure that our habits as citizens get a chance to adapt?

Public policies can change people's mindsets and behaviours. This requires a mixture of incentives and constraints. What is certain is that the answer does not lie in criminalising owners of detached houses, whether they are in the French or in the American suburbs. We are not going to evict them and force them to live in the city centre! On the other hand, tomorrow's decision-makers and planners can densify and build more, starting today, while fighting against urban sprawl.

This is what we are seeing in the Greater Paris metropolis with the densification of housing and services around the major transport hubs that are under construction. Public agents, in partnership with the private sector, are designing the city of tomorrow by opening up poorly served areas thanks to future tramway and metro stations. The ambition of this project is to ensure that residents find it easier to use public transport than their private cars. The aim is to provide homeowners with alternative options.

Rebuild By Design

The increase in climate disasters is also accelerating the need for strong decisions, isn't it?

Absolutely, and the example of New York after Hurricane Sandy illustrates this well. In the autumn of 2012, the disaster highlighted the inequalities of the city, which was highly vulnerable to major storms, particularly in the most disadvantaged areas. Decision-makers responded to this crisis by launching the Rebuild by Design initiative, a billion-dollar competition between experts to reinvent the local habitat and adapt the metropolis around one watchword: resilience. On the scale of New York State, recovery plans to combat rising water levels and protect the most exposed areas have thus been supported as a priority. At the end of 2021, following a local referendum, the State of New York included in its Constitution 'the right to a healthy environment' for its residents. The ambition for a future law to counter the effects of global warming has then been revised upwards by local authorities: its budget now amounts to 4.2 billion dollars! Voters will be asked to vote on the Clean Water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act in the fall of 2022.


Are we seeing the same kind of impetus in other American metropolises, especially on the West Coast?

In the United States, there is a great deal of disparity between jurisdictions in terms of sustainable construction. Since the 1980s, the federal government has delegated many responsibilities to municipalities with much more limited budgets. On the other hand, there are many local pioneers of sustainable planning, for example in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The cities of the West Coast are relatively young, with high levels of urban sprawl and resource consumption, and many initiatives have been launched to combat these problems.

In Los Angeles, a coalition of elected officials, researchers and associations has been working for the past ten years to make better residential densification of cities mandatory. This is known as the BIMBY approach, for 'Build In My Backyard', as opposed to the famous slogan NIMBY ('Not In My Backyard'). The idea is not to wipe out suburban houses, but to correct urban sprawl by allowing and encouraging owners to make their houses denser, for example by converting a garage into an additional housing unit.


Despite the recent increase in crises (health, geopolitical, economic), are there any encouraging signs to be optimistic?

The conflict in Ukraine has highlighted Europe's dependence on hydrocarbons and the need to accelerate the ecological transition. Players who are committed to preserving the environment will undoubtedly be better listened to, and hopefully better supported, for example via public subsidies that are easier to obtain. We are no longer at the stage of awareness; this is time for action!


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