Study days: ALARIC

Call for Communications


Deadline for submission of proposals: 6 January 2020

Scientific committee response to authors: 4 February 2020

Deadline for sending text for selected proposals: 2 March 2020


The aim of these study days is to create a dialogue between multidisciplinary projects for which long-term observation and the varied nature of the documentation used form the basis of a method able to provide information on practices, changes in urban materiality and territorial representation. Reflecting on the definition of urban change and methods of understanding it should enable us to examine how we observe current urban transformations in progress, as well as the relationship between such transformations and a forward-looking approach.


Format of the communication proposals

The communication proposals may be drafted in French or English. They must not exceed 4,000 characters (approximately 2 pages) and must include a precise title and some bibliographical references. They must indicate the names of the authors, the institution to which they are attached and their email address. The proposals must correspond to one of the three themes described below. The selected authors must submit a short text (10,000 to 15,000 characters, including spaces) for the purpose of the study days.


 Various upheavals are currently reshaping urban organization and ringing in a new age of cities, linked not only to shifts towards a ‘post-industrial’, ‘sustainable’ society but also to the acceleration of metropolization and the accentuation of socio-spatial segregation (Béal et al., 2011; Davezies, 2012; Velz, 2015). To understand these changes, it is necessary to step back and consider these contemporary factors in our interpretation of the production of cities from a long-term perspective. The seminar thus aims to examine how we think about change itself, based on a look back at changes in urban production over the course of history. This approach can help us understand the significance of urban changes currently in progress and also feed into a forward-looking approach to future cities. In effect, now as in the past, the construction of a new urban reality takes shape through observation of the invention of new practices, ways of living and of getting around, and the ability to give meaning and value to local spaces.

An analysis of the production of the city therefore assumes an ability to observe and identify moments of discontinuity punctuating long-term trends. Urban change therefore takes the concrete form of a multitude of experiences, constituting laboratories feeling around for a way to translate long-term transformations at the global level into local, day-to-day life. In this context, changes in the social sciences have brought about new methodologies for observing urban change and have imposed the need for a more diverse range of documentation, offering a variety of disciplinary perspectives on the city in progress. The field of Digital Humanities in particular, which seeks to apply digital technology to the social sciences, has opened up new possibilities for understanding urban change in the past.

This general approach can be broken down into three complementary questions, offering both a methodological and reflective consideration of the concept of urban change and defining the three areas of work:


-          What is urban change?

-          How can we document and map urban change?

-          Can we base a forward-looking approach to the city on our knowledge of its urbanisation dynamics?


  1. 1.    What is urban change?


‘Urban change’ is a difficult concept to grasp scientifically, insofar as its definition stems from several scientific approaches. The sociological and geographical fields see urban change through the lens of social change (Merlin and Choay, dir., 2010) and the interference of cultural and social practices in urban production. Urban planning and the political sciences focus on understanding the changing roles of different players and shifting powers to identify moments when ‘the city is conceived differently (change in knowledge about the city) and then produced differently (change in the shape of the city)’ (Lévy, 2005). Social geography, meanwhile, has made it possible to reassess the role of representations of space in the construction of the social meaning of places (Lussault, 1998; Di Méo and Buléon, dir., 2005). Finally, the current predominant approach to urban change is based on a long-term, typo-morphological interpretation and the observation of transformations to the urban materiality, particularly using geographical information systems to develop hypotheses on the processes of change at work. At the crossroads of several disciplines due to the diversity and complexity of processes observed (changes in practices, the roles of players and techniques), the challenge is to broaden the approach to urban change, taking materiality and the social imaginary into consideration.

The question of urban time clearly lies at the heart of a definitional approach to changes to the city. In effect, these processes take place over time, consisting of continuities and ruptures: ‘The city belongs to the long term’ (Roncayolo, 1996). How do researchers characterize the timeframes of urban change and what conceptual models do they use to identify moments of discontinuity marking the transition from one urban age to another?

This theme calls for a comparison of the sometimes contradictory definitions of urban change and moments of discontinuity in urban production, to collectively discuss methodological choices in the different disciplines. In this context, this session will examine in particular the way in which scientific diversity can provide a broader understanding of the transformation of cities.


2.    Documenting and mapping urban change


Contemporary research into urban history is characterized by a significant increase in projects to observe urban changes through the widespread implementation of historical geographical information systems (GIS), sometimes using 3D to observe the changing structure of cities (Gregory, 2003; De Roo, Bourgeois and De Maeyer, 2013). These projects bring together the processes involved in the transformation of the urban fabric thanks to the formalization of spatio-temporal databases describing the urbanization of a given territory over the long term (Gauthiez, 2004; Rodier and Saligny, 2010; Mathian and Sanders, 2015). This theme aims to examine the current state of these approaches by questioning the ongoing methodological issues regarding their implementation and in particular the relationship between these projects and the data observed and their formalization. In other words, what urban change do these projects objectivize?

The revival of urban change mapping has inherited a multitude of approaches to urban production, characterized by the expansion of social science objects used, such as sensitive approaches to the city. Thus, the development of digital humanities has encouraged an examination of the benefits of using a varied corpus of documents to describe and understand changes to the city (Gregory et al., 2015). Special emphasis is now given to images, oral testimonies, multimedia documents and the press. What type of urban documentation is currently used in research projects and can we talk about a renewal in terms of how we use it and in how we understand urban change? Mapping practices are therefore faced with the challenge of taking into account issues firmly anchored in social science methods. How to represent spaces and temporalities that are poorly defined and subject to interpretation? What status should be given to an archived document the content of which cannot be reduced to purely spatial or temporal data but which is significant with regard to understanding change processes traditionally the domain of the human sciences?

This theme thus aims to present projects to document the mapping of urban production and the transformation of cities over the long term, while remaining sensitive to the scientific diversity of the projects, new elements in the corpus of documents used and the proposed mapping approach.


3.    Can we base a forward-looking approach to the city on our knowledge of its urbanisation dynamics?

Identifying the seeds of transformation in present-day cities: this forms the basis of the ALARIC project, which offers the hypothesis that the ‘sustainable city’, far from simply establishing the aim of a programmatic approach under construction, could from the outset identify with changing practices and the developing imaginary that is generating them. In doing so, the hypothesis supports the more general perspective of urban change occurring more through shifts than by ruptures, i.e. far from the ideal situation of a project conducted on a rational basis. From this perspective, identifying in the history of cities the means of their transformation constitutes an ambition not only oriented towards knowledge of the past but which also concerns contemporary spatial planning practices and the definition of the role of the spatial planner.

There can be no urban action without urban conception; ‘thinking about the city leads [in effect] to projecting the city’ (Roncayolo, 1992). Urban planning, which is, after all, what this is about, has built its legitimacy on the basis of structured models pitting progressivists against culturalists (Choay, 1965, 1979). These two sides have a contradictory relationship with history; the first rejecting inherited situations and past teachings except as an example of what should no longer be done, and the second seeking both how to proceed, like Camillo Sitte (1889, 1902, 1996), and the source of an inspirational continuity of their analysis and action, like Patrick Geddes (1915, 1994). The aim here is to move beyond this conflict and away from this conservative relationship with history, which is but a direct mirror image of its rejection by progressivists. By examining past urban production, the aim is not to seek models or countermodels, nor recipes or plans of action, but to identify levers for understanding urban change that may be reinvested in the present.

Our understanding of urban production, both past and present, can thus be considered as a means of understanding the processes involved in the production of cities, as frameworks providing guidelines for action removed from the overly standardized approaches of urban policies. Nourished by the specificity of situations, it ultimately places the project in the context of the singular moment sustaining it, while identifying overlaps and inertia in the representations and imaginaries interpreting and influencing it; it makes it possible to escape from stereotypes and models to develop a truly contemporary understanding of the urban space from both the theoretical and practical point of view that Françoise Choay (1970) has been suggesting for a long time now. This theme therefore aims to examine the urban projects pursued and developed today from the point of view of spatial planning over the long term in the history of cities, both in terms of continuities and ruptures.


These study days conclude the ALARIC project (Identifying Incremental Change) funded by the Labex IMU. This project, dedicated to the exploration of urban change in former industrial areas of the Lyon-Saint-Etienne region, forms part of a transdisciplinary perspective which aims to foster dialogue between the different approaches to the object of the research. Special attention will be paid to communications focusing on innovative methods or critical approaches for understanding urban change past and present, presenting the influence of new digital technologies in new analyses of urban change, and to the role of so-called ‘sensitive’ experiences in understanding changes to cities.

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