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Isabelle Berry-Chikhaoui, Élisabeth Dorier, Sinda Haouès-Jouve and Julien Dario
p. 13-20

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1The theoretical and normative framework of sustainable development, generalized in recent years as an international referential for town planning, is to a large extent responsible for the enthusiasm among urban planners for the notion of environmental quality. The aim of this issue is to compare the research studies and points of view of researchers examining this notion on the basis of empirical studies, and beyond the normative approaches which today underpin the discourse and policies related to the ‘sustainable’ city. After a brief critical survey of the notion within the institutional and academic fields, this introduction will present and put into perspective the nine constitutive contributions of this volume.

Environmental quality in the institutional field

2In the institutional field, the notion of environmental quality is constructed at the interface between public policy and technological and economic imperatives. In the most widespread operational uses, it is based on a range of architectural norms, property certifications and the dictates of public urban development and town planning policy, the frameworks of which are often based on ‘best practices’ developed in northern Europe. Over the past fifteen years, a profusion of experiments related to models of ‘the sustainable city’, and more recently ‘the city in transition’ or ‘the resilient city’, have made their appearance. Environmental quality is now a political and technical construct which governs these normative systems at different scales, from building to conurbation. In France, these systems (thermal regulation, AEU®, EcoQuartier, HQE and HQE2R®, etc.), developed by a highly diverse range of stakeholders (State, local authorities, associations, professional organizations, etc.), might result in simple recommendations, refer to best practice referentials or become established as relatively complex and constraining label–awarding or certification systems. The notion has furthermore spread through planning tools that have been entirely updated since the early 2000s (SCOT: territorial coherence scheme, PLU: local urban development plan, PCET: territorial climate and energy plan, SRCE: regional ecological coherence scheme, etc.), with diagnostics and action plans based on tools for the measurement of urban living conditions.

3Apart from the case in France, these environmental quality referentials are also widely used at international level in a range of economic, political and geographical contexts, in particular in the southern Mediterranean, as a basis for various key environmental redevelopment and urban regeneration projects. The particular modes of transfer and appropriation in South countries have been reported in various publications which stress the stakes and the limitations, in particular their role in the processes of internationalisation and territorial marketing (BARTHEL P.-A. et alii, 2011 ; BERRY-CHIKHAOUI I. and HAOUES‑JOUVE S., 2011 ; NAVEZ BOUCHANINE F., 2007). In parallel, international indices and rankings of environmental ‘performance’, ‘innovation’ and ‘quality’, although difficult to transpose according to the geo-economic context (presented here by AZZAG E. et alii.), are seen as increasingly necessary for the promotion of cities. Very recently, real estate ‘eco-projects’, in particular in new towns or outlying areas, such as bio-Istanbul (ARIK E., 2014), are seen as new flagship products for the Mediterranean.

4Everywhere, this normative approach to environmental quality has been the basis for the construction of new referentials for the urban living environment, playing a role in current ways of creating the city at all scales. However, the diffusion of this referential is not in itself a guarantee of urban quality given the ambivalence of the production of the city. On one hand, the expected environmental performance remains limited as long as the application of this referential does not call into question the classic economic priorities involved in urban production. On the other hand, policies for urban redevelopment and the increasing commercialisation of environmental amenities have an undeniable impact with regard to social issues and environmental injustice. Finally, this referential attributes little importance to residents’ priorities and uses, despite the increasingly insistent calls for participation in the implementation of public policy (SENECAL G. et alii, 2005, SEMMOUD, N. 2008 ; RENAULD V., 2014).

Environmental quality in the scientific field

5With the spread of the sustainable development paradigm, the notion of environmental quality has made its way into various disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences (geography, sociology, environmental psychology, town planning, economics, etc.), although no single definition has emerged. The construction of this notion has been largely fuelled by pre-existing and inter-connected notions of resident satisfaction – based on assessment of the amenities of the city or neighbourhood (access to services, public transport system) or housing (light, thermal comfort, sound-proofing, etc), of the quality of life and of well-being, which are based on more subjective referentials and are situated at the interface between the social sciences and town planning (CAMPBELL A., 1976 ; PACIONE M., 1984, TOBELEM ZINOU C., 1995 ; MARANS R., 2003 ; MOSER G. and WEISS K., 2003 ; VAN KAMP I., 2003 ; TAEEB‑RASHID S. et al., 2013).

6The actual experience of environmental quality through the sensory perceptions and reports of inhabitants has long been the subject of studies in environmental psychology, of which some of the findings have been integrated into geographical investigations. Generally based on questionnaire surveys conducted among individuals, environmental psychology studies focus on the subjective aspect of the notion of ‘quality’ as perceived at different scales – city, district, neighbourhood, housing – and on the inter-individual variability of hierarchies of perception, in particular according to age, gender or context (CRAIK K., Zube E., 1976 ; GUSTAFSON P., 2001 ; MARANS R., 2003).

7In the 1990s, pioneering works (VAN POLL M., 1997) already highlighted the fact that the assessments of the experts differ from the perceptions of residents. The PhD thesis by Van Poll shows that the perceived quality of the urban residential environment is conceived as a hierarchical and multi-attribute concept where physical criteria of stress or well-being (related to characteristics of the general urban and built environment) are combined with psycho-social criteria. More specifically, several works have analyzed the impact of the accumulation and perceptive compensations between disamenities and amenities. The emphasis is on the positive impact of amenities (such as green spaces), good relations with the neighbours and the affective attachment to the neighbourhood on the acceptability of local disamenities such as noise (GIDLÖF‑GUNNARSON A., ÖHRSTRÖM E., 2007).

  • 1 In parallel with the development of territory-based case studies which propose methodological trial (...)

8In social geography and sociology, beyond sense-based and individual-based approaches, the quality value attached to the place is also based on a collective dimension through links of identity, practices and social relations that result from various forms of territorialisation of the urban space (DORIER-APPRILL É., 2006). According to certain critical tendencies, at the origin of the approach based on the ‘environmental justice’ notion, the assessment of environmental quality reflects a system of socially constructed and structurally unequal environmental values (HARVEY D., 1996, PÉROUSE J‑F, 2006). In this light, the investigation focuses on environmental inequalities in the urban space, and the relations between environmental inequalities and social inequalities. This area of scientific prospection and political investment, rooted in the urban culture of English‑speaking countries, is more recent in France, where there is research in progress but where scientific production remains mainly theoretical (LAIGLE L. and OEHLER V., 2004 ; EMELIANOFF C., 2007). In a historical perspective of the analysis of social relations, J. THEYS (2002) suggests that “environmental quality – matched with the valorisation of real estate - has been a factor for social segregation”. These inequalities have been described both in certain South countries, such as Turkey (PÉROUSE, 2006), and North countries (FABUREL G., 2003 ; GUEYMARD S., 2006 ; INSEE première, 2003)1.

9A number of urban projects situate the idea of environmental quality at a level of priority that contains the risk of eviction of poor populations. Here, the focus is on the resulting undesirable impact: the inflation of property prices in proximity to the natural urban spaces (LUTTIK J., 2000), the ambivalence of the municipal authorities between the redevelopment of poor neighbourhoods with high‑quality environmental amenities and their social reoccupation (NAPOLEONE C., 2005 ; PÉROUSE J.‑F., 2006 ; BERRY‑CHIKHAOUI I ; DEBOULET A., 2007, BONO P. et al., 2008 ; BEAUDET G., BLANC N. et al., 2009). Certain works also reexamine the disparity of treatment of territories and populations or the possible negative side-effects, in terms of social relegation, of environmental protection programmes such as the creation of the Parc des Calanques at Marseille (DELDRÈVE V., DEBOUDT P., 2012 ; DELDRÈVE V., HÉRAT A., 2012). In this issue, M. Srir and E. Azzag focus, in the context of Algiers and Marseille, on the interplay between the actors and the instrumentalisation of the concept of environmental redevelopment.

10Furthermore, social science studies on environmental quality as a dimension of the quality of life examine the place of this notion in the practice of urban redevelopment and as an aspect of attractiveness. This notion is seen in terms of housing performance and comfort, of the landscape, upgrading of collective and public spaces and the quality of the urban environment at a larger scale (renaturation of urban natural spaces, control of air pollution, noise, urban heat islands, etc.). One trend in urban studies research sees the promotion of environmental quality as a springboard for urban attractiveness, targeting the ‘creative classes’ in a context of the strong competitiveness between cities (FLORIDA, 2002 ; CLARK, 2003). While this theory may have achieved considerable success among representatives of public institutions concerned with urban issues, to the point of being incorporated within their framework, it has been the target of widespread controversy in academia. One of the criticisms concerns the segregational character of urban action based on this selective approach to environmental quality (PECK J., 2005 ; MARTIN‑BRELOT H. et al., 2010, ECKERT D., GROSSETTI M. et al. 2012).

11The notion of environmental quality lends itself particularly well to interdisciplinary approaches at the interface between the social sciences and humanities and the physical and life sciences and engineering sciences. The emergence and the affirmation of this interdisciplinary aspect is rooted in the increasingly consensual construct of the notion of environmental quality as resulting from objective and subjective values which characterize the living space of inhabitants at different scales (VAN POLL R., 1997 ; BONAIUTO M. et alii, 1999 et 2003 ; PACIONE M., 2003 ; SENECAL G. et alii, 2005). Multidisciplinary approaches focus on the relationship between measurement of the parameters of the physical environment (thermal comfort, ventilation, noise, air quality, aesthetic quality, etc.) and notions of feeling, perception and well-being, associated with the subjective dimension of environmental quality KWEON and ELLIS, 2005 ; BLANC, 2000 ; BLANC, 2011 ; HAOUES‑JOUVE et al., 2010 ; SENECAL et al., 2005). Sense-based approaches aim to take into account the multisensory character of individuals that influences the feeling of architectural and urban ambiance (MARRY S., 2011). In this issue, Guillaume FABUREL et alii. deal with the richness of perceptions associated with the experience of eco-neighbourhoods, perceived through the use of ‘multisensory backpacks’.

12Despite these innovations and early conceptualisation of a theoretical framework (PICKETT S. et alii 1997), there are still few empirical studies offering a properly integrated approach between analysis of individual perceptions, physical-natural indicators, socio-economic criteria and socio-political analyses (FRONTCZAK M., 2012 ; FRONTCZAK M., VINTHER‑ANDERSEN R., WARGOCKI P., 2011, BONAIUTO M. et al., 2003 et 2006). Recently, geographical studies have shown that, in zones with high levels of disamenity, the residents’ confidence in public authority action, their awareness of their collective ability to alter their living conditions, influence their level of discomfort or satisfaction, and in general their assessment of their environment (GUEYMARD S., 2009).

13The recent research project EUREQUA (Évaluation mUlticritères et Requalification Environnementale des QUArtiers, 2012-2016), presented in the present number by the study of BERRY‑CHIKAHAOUI, DORIER, HAOUES-JOUVE et alii, seeks to take up this challenge. Combining an approach based on the measurement and modelling of the material features of the urban environment (urban climate, acoustics and air quality), with perception-based and social approaches to the relation with the environment, the aim is to develop a multidisciplinary expert assessment of the environmental quality of the living environment at neighbourhood level, also integrating assessment by the actors and residents, that might serve as guidelines for redevelopment scenarios.

Aim and overall focus of this issue

14On the basis of a survey of this literature and of the observation and analysis of the institutional projects based on the referential of environmental quality, this issue of the journal Méditerranée aims to compare research studies which examine the very notion of urban environmental quality, its assessment criteria and issues. Beyond the normative approaches that today underpin discourse and policy regarding the ‘sustainable’ city, the aim is to understand the process of construction of environmental value systems with regard to the material, political, social and cultural dimensions of the living environment and their importance for the territories.

15Our starting point is the hypothesis that the notion of environmental quality is a multidimensional socio-economic, cultural and political construct, of variable geometry according to the actors concerned. Its complex character (ÖHRSTRÖM E., 2007 ; SENECAL G. et alii, 2005) means that it cannot expect universal acceptance, whether on the part of the town planners, residents with divergent priorities and interests and even from different scientific disciplines. This construct-based approach is the overriding focus of this issue, where we see described, in varied territorial contexts and on the basis of in-depth empirical studies, diverse definitions or facets of the notion of environmental quality, according to the actors concerned.

16From here, it is a matter of first enriching the classic assessment criteria for urban environmental quality (which are generally based on combinations of quantitative and qualitative indices), promoting fine-scale empirical and complex approaches for urban territories.

17This methodological choice is a response to the challenge of taking into account the wide variation of definitions, of the perception and representation of environmental quality according to the actors concerned: residents, political decision-makers, technical and economic operators according to the social and territorial context.

18The aim of this issue is to describe these variations and compare approaches based on the measurable parameters of environmental quality with other approaches promoting the perceptions, social relations, practices, representations, claims and territorial mobilisation of residents. In addition, we consider that these variations are worth observing at micro-spatial scales, since part of the components of the urban environment may be heterogeneous within a restricted perimeter, and furthermore they are generally perceived differently according to the individuals and social groups that cohabit.

19A second line of inquiry focuses on the issues and impact of environmental redevelopment policies and operations in urban territories: urban redevelopment, certified sustainable urban development projects, operations aimed at removing disamenities or developing amenities, whether undertaken by public authorities and/or the private sector.

20Finally, owing to the diverse background of the contributors, this issue offers an insight into several scientific approaches (geography, town planning, sociology, ecology), which highlights the multifaceted nature of environmental quality.

Presentation of the papers

21These contributions reflect the wide range of research themes and methodological propositions with a focus on environmental quality, first of all in terms of the countries covered: France, Algeria, Lebanon, Turkey, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden, Germany. Then the towns studied, of diverse size, economic context and environments: Algiers, Beirut, Istanbul, Marseille, Rome, Toulouse, Paris, Rennes, Lauris, Melle, Saint-Pierre d’Oléron, Poitiers, Torcy, Lille, Amsterdam, Malmö and Hanover.

  • Four papers are focused on the issues and impact of urban environmental redevelopment and improvement plans and projects (DELPIROU ; BEREZOWSKA-AZZAG ; SRIR and AZZAG ; PÉROUSE) ;

  • Two articles place the emphasis on the social perceptions and representations of the urban environmental quality by the residents and users (FARAH and JOUNY ; BERRY‑CHIKHAOUI, DORIER, HAOUÈS-JOUVE, FLAMAND et alii) ;

  • One paper concentrates on the interest of multi-sensory approaches to fully take into account the depth of the residents’ ‘experience of the environment’ (FABUREL et alii) ;

  • Two papers, based on combined ecological/sociological approaches, examine the representation of nature in the city by redevelopment actors on the ground and by users (M.‑H. LIZÉE, C. BOURDIL, C. BARTHÉLÉMY et alii ; A. MARCO, M.‑J. MENOZZI, S. LÉONARD et alii).

22Several reports and studies highlight the environmental vulnerability of the cities of the Mediterranean cities in relation to climate change and the question of risks. This new focus is today gaining ground in various projects in both the institutional and academic fields contributing, as the study by E. BEREZOWSKA AZZAG et alii shows, to instilling frameworks of reference and ‘best practices’ (CATMED). This paper raises the question of the pertinence of these referentials and standardized systems, originating for the most part in North countries, for developing countries where the context and the issues are different.

23The research focused in particular on sea front improvement schemes (SRIR and BEREZOWSKA-AZZAG) on either side of the Mediterranean (Algiers-Marseille) and the environmental controversies at Istanbul (PÉROUSE) and Rome (DELPIROU) highlight the possible discrepancies between a norm-based environmental project, driven by the public authority, and its sometimes mixed reception by the local civil society, providing an insight into the problems related to social issues, governance and communication. The case of Istanbul, with the events at Gezi, highlights the possible political instrumentalisation of environmental issues.

24Environmental issues are framed differently according to the scale envisaged. The cases of Algiers, Rome and Istanbul provide a basis for analysing the problems raised by the metropolis-focused policies of equalization payments and internal ‘compensation’ within conurbations during redevelopment schemes. It is difficult to reconcile the different scales of environmental quality. The question of ecological ‘compensation’ (in terms of the extent of developable areas vs the quality of certain landscapes) is at the core of the discussions and actions of urban densification, with conflicting perceptions. The absence of a cultural and political consensus on the notions of sustainability and environmental quality may either contribute to ‘the sterilisation of public action’ (DELPIROU : Rome), or be the source of misunderstandings or even conflict (PÉROUSE).

25Several papers focus on micro-local scales, highlighting the overlap of measured and perceived criteria for environmental quality with the different individual and social elements with which the experience of urban living is constructed. In the paper by Faburel, Manola and Geisler, we are given an insight into the wealth of possible analyses of the landscape and environmental framework in the a priori norm-based context of the eco-neighbourhood, on the basis of a multi-sensory approach defining sensory landscapes. Following the same line of inquiry, the paper by J. Farah and R. Jouny highlights the discrepancy between the ‘expert’ conception of environmental quality and residents’ perception based on day-to-day experience and subjective feelings. Still on this question of the subjective referential linked to social representations, the article by I. BERRY‑CHIKHAOUI, É. DORIER, S. HAOUES‑JOUVE, A. FLAMAND et alii reveals the micro-territorial contrasts between resident assessments and the importance of perceptual bias linked to the interference of stimuli and to the forms of social habitus.

26Finally, the two articles based on a combined sociological and ecological approach (LIZÉE et alii ; MARCO et alii ) remind us that while ecological diversity is a form of environmental quality, it is paradoxically rarely et the centre of public policy and resident perceptions. These papers attempt to better understand how users ‘deal with’ the ambivalent dimension of nature in the city and show the internal contradictions in the assessment of the place of nature in environmental quality: the pre-eminence of nature/ naturalness is appreciated as long as it is ‘tamed’ and well-maintained. Despite current trends with regard to well-planned management, many city-dwellers still tend to interpret the presence of spontaneous urban vegetation in the neighbourhood as a visible manifestation of negligence, where it is in fact an indicator of ecological richness. The health-focused referential related to ‘upkeep’ thus remains predominant in the way this vegetation is perceived.

27In this set of studies, the question is raised of the role of the scientist who, through the application of integrated methodologies, may contribute to providing complex territorial diagnostics of environmental quality and to adapting the normative approach to public policy. The methods of the original studies, empirical or analytical, presented in this number, are varied and innovative:

  • Construction of multicriteria indices (BEREZOWSKA-AZZAG et alii)

  • Analysis of projects and of public authority environmental rhetoric as a starting point (BEREZOWSKA‑AZZAG et alii ; SRIR ET AZZAG ; DELPIROU ; PEROUSE)

  • ‘Bottom-up’ approaches with a focus on resident hierarchisation and discourse (FABUREL ; FARAH ET JOUNY ; BERRY‑CHIKHAOUI, DORIER, HAOUES-JOUVE, FLAMAND et alii).
    These qualitative and open methods accept possible discrepancies between values freely expressed by residents and the referentials that are proposed to them during
    the surveys: Farah and Jouny qualify as ‘pragmatic’ this complex alternative approach.

  • Methodologies based on an urbanistic and/or landscape diagnostic of the neighbourhoods concerned at the conurbation scale (BEREZOWSKA‑AZZAG et alii) or at fine scale: SRIR, FARAH, and JOUNY, BERRY‑CHIKHAOUI, DORIER, HAOUES‑JOUVE, FLAMAND et alii)

  • Approaches focused on perceptions and thus on the sensory coupled with discourse: three original qualitative methods are proposed in the studies presented here (interviews, commented walks and multisensory backpacks.

  • Multidisciplinary approaches between the social sciences and humanities and life sciences: the impact of maintenance practices in urban spaces on the fauna (LISÉE et alii) and on the flora (MARCO et alii). These combined studies involving sociology and ecology provide a basis for assessing the impact of human activity on biodiversity at micro‑scale. These studies examine the modes and tangible effects of new policies for the management of urban vegetation-covered areas: the interface between public policy, professional practice and residents/users in contexts where the environmental referential is applicable.

28The full set of studies presented here constitutes an approach to environmental quality taking into account the diversity and the richness of interpretations proposed by the humanities and the life sciences. While these studies in no way attempt to provide a definitive definition of environmental quality, a concept that is intrinsically shifting and multi-faceted, they each in their way constitute a heuristic contribution.

29Environmental quality thus becomes a framework of interpretation for the study of the perceptions and practices upon which is based the existence of a territory, through the depth of the functional, social, affective and sensory dimensions that are constitutive of the image of a neighbourhood or a city, the perceived limits of which rarely match the administrative limits, the preferred framework of action for the public authorities. These studies may then claim to go beyond a piecemeal vision of environmental quality policies, the fragmentation of which may lead to a rift with the territorial stakeholders (residents, associations, etc.). Finally, without claiming to constitute a book of specifications, the articles in this issue provide an operational contribution towards a soundly-based concept of urban policy relative to the environmental upgrading of territories, urban densification, eco-neighbourhoods, the renaturation of water courses, etc. While the perception of city-dwellers and residents constitutes in itself a framework of interpretation of environmental quality, it also represents a governance issue with regard to public policy. Vigilance with regard to the social, political or environmental impact is thus necessary in the implementation of these policies, which otherwise may prove entirely counter-productive.

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1 In parallel with the development of territory-based case studies which propose methodological trials, two special numbers of recent journals, the Dossier ‘Inégalités écologiques, inégalités sociales’ (ecological inequalities, social inequalities) (2007) in the journal Développement Durable et Territoires and n°665-666 ‘Justice spatiale’ (spatial justice) in the Annales de Géographie 2009, examine the emergence and the issues of this topic broadly transposed from the urban and scientific context of the English speaking world.

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Electronic reference

Isabelle Berry-Chikhaoui, Élisabeth Dorier, Sinda Haouès-Jouve and Julien Dario, « Foreword », Méditerranée [Online], 123 | 2014, Online since 01 December 2016, connection on 22 January 2018. URL :

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About the authors

Isabelle Berry-Chikhaoui

Maître de Conférences en géographie, Université Montpellier 3, UMR 5281 ART-Dev, Monpellier, France,

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Élisabeth Dorier

Professeur de géographie, Aix Marseille Université, IRD, LPED UMR_D 151, Marseille, France,

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Sinda Haouès-Jouve

Maître de Conférences en urbanisme et aménagement, Université Toulouse Jean-Jaurès, LISST-Cieu (Centre Interdisciplinaire d’Études Urbaines), UMR 5193, Toulouse, France,

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Julien Dario

Doctorant en géographie, Aix Marseille Université, IRD, LPED UMR_D 151, Marseille, France,

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