Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Choosing your ideal French town

Those of us moving to France have a wide range of choices when it comes to deciding where you want to live. In addition to the basic north/south divide and the choice between town or country, coastal location or deeply rural, France is also blessed with a number of small size cities, each offering a variety of attractions.

Recent surveys in Britain and America have revealed a general preference for (in Britain) a 'market town' - one that is regarded as a manageable size and with all basic amenities within a convenient walking or cycling distance. While in America, as I reported in March on this blog (scroll down for more information) there is the start of a reaction against large out-of-town shopping malls, and a desire to live in small city centres that, like the British models, offer convenient shopping and entertainment choices that do not rely of using a car.

Interestingly, one of the major influences on town planning is a book written in the 1960s by a journalist, Jane Jacobs, called (The Death and Life of Great Cities) in which she analysed what makes a small city successful, under four main headings, which can serve as a useful guide when trying to identify you ideal location when moving to France.

1. A mix of 'primary users' who are drawn to the area either for work or because they livve there, plus sufficient attractions to bring in people from outside - such as convenient shopping, a library, a tourist attraction, a weekly market etc. The right mix is needed to generate sufficient 'foot traffic' all day and during the evening to sustain a sufficient number of caf├ęs, bars, restaurants and other attractions. When reading this, I was reminded of the huge difference between London's City area and the West End, the former sustaining a tiny permanent population, and when th area is total deserted between Friday night and Monday morning.

2. The ideal city centre should have short blocks, with plenty of side streets that make access easier from one area to another. Long ininterrupted avenues are not inviting.

3. There needs to be a mix of businesses of different types, from specialist/luxury to those catering for everyday needs.

4. There should be the right density of population who can arrive on foot, which means efficient public transport (buses, trams, metro etc) and sufficient edge-of-town parking.

Many French cities conform to this ideal and, as in America (see earlier posts), there the beginnings of doubts about the efficacy of the out-of-town 'centre commercial' which eats up valuable land needed by hypermarkets and the adjacent parking. The result in many places has contributed to the death of the city centre. In my home town of Perpignan, many empty vacant shop have a sign in the window saying 'A city without commerce is a dead city'.

My local council are slowly understanding this and as part of their remedial efforts the  university, situated in the suburbs, is creating a new law degree campus in the heart of the old town which will cater for 500 students, on the site of the original university found in the Middle Ages!

The French prime minister Manuel Vals has recently spoken about the mistakes of the post-war years when huge estates of tower blocks were built, which have gradually become - in his words - ghettoes and no-go areas, with high unemployment and crime, and created a form of 'social and cultrual apartheid'.

One of the groups promoting the new thinking is New Urbanism (Gooogle will reveal all!) and it clearly distinguishes itself from the Urban Village Movement which promotes the idea of converting former industrial warehouses (think London Docklands) and creating the new ghetttoes, restricted this time to the affluent middle classes.