Greetings from Bobigny: hybrid solutions for the dense city

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During our research project ANA goes Europe, we investigate the role of the architect in the future European housing assignment. The trip we made this autumn led to Paris and its suburbs. The French solutions for matters such as living quality, densification, transformation of the Grand Ensembles and gentrification are instructive for the Dutch practice.

The second postcard comes from Bobigny, a small town in the middle of the poor north-eastern part of the Métropole du Grand Paris. This is the area where in 2005 the famous Banlieu riots broke out. We cycle through Bobigny in search of a few Grand Ensembles, large concentrations of social housing, built in the 60s and 70s.

The first project we encounter is Cité les Courtillières-Le Serpentin designed by Émile Aillaud from 1954. Seen from above this is a fairly extensive neighbourhood, consisting of an endless winding building around a courtyard of 500m x 200m, and two clusters with residential towers.
We speak to one of the four complex managers of Le Serpentin. He is present on site daily from 9 to 5 and knows all the inhabitants of the 600 houses in the complex. He tells us that the renovation of Le Serpentine, funded by the ANRU, a national renovation program, is almost complete. The façades are insulated and lined with subtly coloured tiles, the elevators have been renewed, the houses have been renovated inside and PV panels (which, actually do not work yet) are placed on the roofs. The central park of 4.2 ha will also be completely renewed. A small piece of the long pendulum has been demolished to improve the connection of the complex with the surroundigs. The layout of the public space looks much better with more abundant planting. Previously there was only grass and trees. The new playing area for children is already being used.

However, according to the complex manager, the problems are not resolved. “La drogue, la drogue!” he calls several times during our conversation. He also refers to children who are playing in the park without parental supervision. He finds this a bad idea in this neighbourhood. He also tells us that recently new homes have been realized on the outskirts of the area, with the idea to bring more social diversity into the area. Whether the theory works out in practice, the he unfortunately could not tell.
Our biased view of the northeastern suburbs being one large concentration of social housing in large-scale buildings, turned out not to be true.

We continued cycling through endless low-rise neighbourhoods in search of Cité de l’Abreuvoir. This ensemble was also designed by Aillaud. In this district, with 1500 homes from the 1950s, the renovation, again financed by the ANRU, has yet to be started. The municipality has already formulated ambitions. Dialogues with the residents take place. The same problems arise here as in all large social housing complexes from the 1960s and 1970s: poor insulation, small dwellings and outdated public space. The positive thing is that not only the complex and the public space are being improved, but that public transport is linked to the area to improve the connectivity. The current residents are worried about the affordability of their homes after the renovation, and whether they can continue to live there. After all, one part will be demolished to make room for new housing to attract people from outside the neighbourhood.

With mixed feelings we cycle back to Paris. The spatial approach of the Grands Ensembles focuses primarily on aesthetic renovation, not on programmatic, social or management renovation. On the one hand it is nice to see the original plans being respected. Rigorous demolition to introduce other forms of living and thus to achieve a better social mix as has happened in the Bijlmermeer and the Western Garden Cities in Amsterdam, are not to be expected here. The ensembles are left intact and reinforced in their original idea. The renovation of Cité des Courtillières has been done very well. Residents can once again be proud of their neighbourhood and finally may feel that they have been heard. On the other hand, this approach also raises questions. The houses remain small and dark, they still do not have outdoor spaces and the plinths are still anonymous. The park is beautifully designed but has a big surface that requires intensive maintenance. Will there be sufficient budget for this in the future; experience learns that this is rarely the case. It is also questionable whether this renovation enables the neighbourhood to reinforce its social economy; Is it possible to achieve a more diverse composition of residents, given the limited realization of new owner-occupied homes in relation to the large number of existing social rental homes? It is impossible to answer these questions now. For that, our visit to Bobigny is far too short, the approach was only recently implemented, and the problems of the Banlieus are far too complex.

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