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Narrative nonfiction

Political sensitivity’. Subjective feedback on the unexpected effects of an urban planning study

Ménager les sensibilités. Retour subjectif sur les effets non escomptés d’une étude d’urbanisme
Laurent Matthey


This essay focuses on public authorities utilising the notion of ‘neighbourhood identity’ for guidance in city making. It was born of a twofold fascination: in both Switzerland and France, the concept of ‘neighbourhood’ is omnipresent in urban policymaking and town planning projects, albeit with constantly shifting meanings, such that the extent of its influence might be surprising. In both Switzerland and France, the neighbourhood seems to be the scale by which a specific type of anchoring is understood, which deserves special treatment in terms of identity. I am interested in the tactical use of such categories (to the extent that they may be a means to an end) within the framework of a strategic moment of city making: the urban project.

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Should neighbourhood identities be used to guide city making?

1This essay—I call it an essay because it consists primarily of reflections on past experience—focuses on public authorities that are utilising the notion of ‘neighbourhood identity’ for guidance in city making. It was born of a twofold fascination: in both Switzerland and France, the concept of neighbourhood is omnipresent in urban policymaking and town planning projects. Moreover, it has constantly shifting meanings, and the extent of its influence might be surprising (from Lefebvre to Bourdin, the extent of this influence has already caused a great deal of ink to be spilled); in both Switzerland and France, the neighbourhood seems to be the scale of understanding a specific type of anchoring, which merits special treatment in terms of identity. I am not trying to say that the neighbourhood is not a relevant scale for public action (I am agnostic on the subject). Nor do I intend to say that resorting to identity as a category in the understanding of urban planning measures is particularly harmful (once again, I am agnostic on the subject). Instead, I am interested in the tactical use of such categories (to the extent that they may be a means to an end) within the framework of a strategic moment in city making, i.e., the urban project.

From the lived space to public action: Is the neighbourhood an intermediary object?

2It may seem a bit naïve to be astounded by the frequent occurrence of the term ‘neighbourhood’ in urban activities. For example, in my field—geography—the neighbourhood has been the focus of studies that question its lack of definition, its vague, shifting boundaries. Recently, attempts have been made to understand its functional logic and experiential dimension (Humain-Lamoure ‎2007). Thus, it has been emphasised that a neighbourhood, as an individual geographical unit, ‘pertains to the <lived space> of a certain community of belonging and its representation, with certain landmarks and key places. It rarely corresponds to the statistical or managerial grids […] because, in order to exist, it requires a certain <consciousness of belonging to the neighbourhood>’ (Théry 1992, 411).

3More generally, the interest that urban studies scholars have shown in the subject of the neighbourhood is part of a long scientific tradition. Early on, in fact, urban studies scholars became interested in what was left of village-like communities in the universe of the big city. Contrary to the traditional view that big cities are the death knell of warm sociability and organic solidarity (e.g., Tönnies [1887] 2010; Riesmann [1950] 1964), these scholars showed that the community had not been expelled from the urban universe but had instead become part of a differentiated whole (Weber [1920] 2003). Studies showed that big cities consist of spaces that offer sufficient demographic volume to allow common interests to be shared within reserved spaces, thereby fostering the development of types of behaviour that are repressed in smaller population groups (Park [1925] 1995).

4Researchers have therefore devoted themselves to studying the localities of community life (Whyte [1943] 1995; Young and Wilmot [1957] 2010; Coing 1966). The neighbourhood came to appear as a mode of organisation of collective living (Valegeas 2014 commenting on the studies of Ledrut 1979), as a ‘place of social connection’ (Genestier 1999). In fact, ‘in the history of urban sociology, notices of the death of the neighbourhood are just as common as the celebration of the neighbourhood’ (Authier 2002, 90). Moreover, such celebration even led certain critics to speak of an ‘ideology of the neighbourhood’ (Lefebvre 1967).

5Other studies have attempted to conceptualise the neighbourhood’s psychological role as ‘one of mankind’s shells’ (Moles and Rohmer 1972), serving as a buffer against the larger world, a day-to-day space-time nexus associated with emotions (Noschis 1984) or, more recently, conceptualised as one of the limits of the subjective body of the inhabitants (Mager and Matthey 2015). In parallel, monographs have sought to grasp the spirit of place that permeates a neighbourhood. Authors have focussed on the ‘local atmosphere’ that leads to the formation of cultural or creative neighbourhoods (Ambrosino 2008). Based on the morphology of a neighbourhood, efforts were made to track down the genius loci (a certain something that underpins the perennial identity of a neighbourhood), explaining a type of quest for urban differentiation in certain parts of a city (Tirone et al. 2013).

6Finally, as Valegeas (2014) has shown from a more operational perspective, the neighbourhood has been transformed into an operational category of public action (disadvantaged neighbourhoods, for example) and of urban planning (e.g., eco-neighbourhoods or the ‘urban project’ pilot programme in the Swiss Confederation). The neighbourhood became the scale of urban policy, the ‘space of diagnosis’ and ‘field of action’ (Valegeas 2014), helping to make it one of the ‘omnipresent notions in the discourse of cities and city making’ (Bourdin quoted by Valegeas 2014).

7It is not necessarily original to focus on how public authorities utilise the neighbourhood in urban projects. It is a bit more original to ask what the public authorities do with neighbourhood identities in urban projects.

Between a ‘view from the inside’ and a ‘view from the outside’: territorial identity is a process

8The practice of urban planning draws upon two different conceptions of identity. The first refers to a rather essentialist understanding (Mouffe 1995) that can convey the notion of the homogeneity and uniqueness associated with identity. Approaches that aim to identify the ‘givens’ of the boundaries of a project (Marot [1995] 2010), to define the ‘untouchable’ aspects of a project site (Matthey 2013) or to reveal the nature of a site (Cogato-Lanza 2005) may be considered representative of this conception of territorial identity.

9The second conception of identity takes a more relativistic approach (Kozakaï 2007): identifying a perimeter involves comparing the territories (on a certain scale) or from the transposition (on a certain scale) of the tensions that are observed on a smaller scale. The figure of the mosaic, a type of topos of urban analysis, is emblematic of such treatment of territorial identities. The differences that are observed at a given level become the characteristic elements of a higher-level of urban identity, such as the diversity of neighbourhoods (and of socio-spatial conditions), which help create a myth of the cosmopolitan city.

10Generally speaking, the areas of expertise and practices of urban planning also tend to develop a relatively open conception of identity (Jones and Moss 1995) in which identity is often understood to be involved in a process of transformation from one state of the territory into another (the main objective being to take into account the initial situation, the ‘context of the intervention’) in such a way that the identity is both a ‘resumption’ and an ‘extraction’ (to use the terminology of Collin 1990). Thus, the characteristic elements of a place, of a site, are incessantly reinterpreted because they are incorporated into a future.

11In a certain way, identity is therefore subject to the movement that the ethnologist Crettaz has called a ‘dialectic of seeing’ (1993). According to Crettaz, the dialectic of seeing is based on the opposition between ‘seeing’ and ‘being seen’. First, it involves how a given set of inhabitants of a given territory sees itself in the world, how this set of inhabitants represents its living space and how it believes it is seen by others. The relevant scale of seeing and being seen is that of a local unit. However, that unit is always at grips with an outside world that views and understands it in a certain fashion. That outside view influences the internal dynamic of the localised group, which may reject (some of) the identity traits that others associate with it or, conversely, appropriate (some of) the representations that originate from the outside, making them its own. For example, Crettaz shows how the word ‘chalet’, which was brought to the Alps by tourists, has been appropriated by locals as a marker of their identity and has produced a new Alpine territoriality in the second phase.

12What is notable is that this dialectic of seeing and being seen is a major identity-shaping dynamic of contemporary urban projects. In particular, current research (Gallezot 2013) shows that the manner in which professionals or the rest of the population view a given territory is assimilated by the inhabitants of the perimeter in question in the course of the densification operations in Switzerland. This dialectic of seeing initiates a process of transforming the living space into an ordinary (if not patrimonial) landscape that may lead (depending on the project management tools) either to common views or, conversely, to occasional fierce disputes.

13Whether in terms of instability and openness (the tension between ‘resumption’ and ‘extraction’) or processes (the dialectic of ‘seeing’ and ‘being seen’), the identity of a place, of a given locality, is a common category that is rarely analysed in the practice of urban planning. It has been suggested that the identity of a place requires a ‘sensitive approach’, in addition to quantitative analyses. Intuitively, although the concept seems to have a great deal of potential, it often seems to be treated as taboo. It is therefore quite surprising when the public authorities expressly take an interest in the ‘identity’ of the perimeter of a project and the ‘identities of the neighbourhoods’ that surround it.

Neighbourhood identities taking shape: a study of an urban planning study

14Curiosity was certainly one of my motives for participating in an urban planning study during the first half of 2015 that was commissioned by a local authority (hereafter, the mandator) to document the boundaries of an urban project from the standpoint of its neighbourhood identities, in particular. My curiosity was all the greater because the project in question was complex and, at least initially, controversial. Ambitious, it called upon private, public, and semi-public participants. It included significant cultural facilities and transport infrastructures and appeared to be an opportunity to rethink public spaces on a broad scale, notably from the perspective of the ‘networking’ of such spaces.

15Nevertheless, it had the disadvantage of resulting in the destruction of 100 living units (ultimately, only 50 of these were actually destroyed, amply made up for by other construction projects on the perimeter). The announcement of the suppression of those living units led to an incipient dispute, if not an urban conflict: Does this part of the city need such cultural facilities? Are the upcoming developments really desirable? Should it not be seen as the desire of the city planners to raise the rent in the most central areas at the expense not only of an older conception of the quality of city life but also of the more vulnerable populations? Certain residents’ associations came into open conflict with various project leaders, and the choice was made to refer the dispute to the competent courts.

16In this complicated context, our assignment was to draw up a ‘sensitive analysis of the urban components of the site’. We were supposed to identify the ‘dynamics of transition’ through an ‘analysis of landscape, mobility, and sociological, morphological, and planning aspects’. We were also supposed to render visible (to map) the identities of the site (from the perspective of the ‘resentments, affiliations, special places within the scope of action, etc.’). We were regularly reminded that our study and other studies would be used in a participatory process that would accompany the process of the transformation of the perimeter. We were also reminded that our urban planning study would result in a report that might be distributed to the teams that would subsequently participate in the public space design competitions.

17Therefore, I participated in an urban planning study for five months, wondering what we were supposed to be doing, profiting from my observations as a participant, endeavouring to interpret interactions—without my colleagues knowing anything about it. I noted the interactions. I frequently encountered what a personal development manual would call ‘feelings’. I interpreted situations in which I was also one of the participants and developed an understanding and vaguely introspective attitude. Practicing a type of ‘involved science’, I am now trying to analyse my incorporation—with others—into the management of an urban project. I am trying to determine what a mandator would try to do with our participation in the project in question, the various roles that it would try to make us play. In short, I am trying to perform an exercise of critical reflection that no doubt contains certain biases, one of which consists of the difficulty of gaining proper distance. The result is a study of an urban planning project that is inexorably marked by the ‘irreducible empiricism’ that was discussed by Schwarz (1993), a discourse that accepts its inherent limitations but at least strives to minimise them.

18I shall now expound upon three aspects of this urban planning study, three situations that do not constitute the totality and that I see, once again, from my personal point of view. The first situation involves a discussion with the mandator regarding a cartographic document that was produced by our group to represent the various ways in which the inhabitants of the neighbourhoods targeted by our study are attached to their living space. The second situation comprises the task of formulating categories of intelligibility following our phenomenological reading of the perimeter of the project. The third involves the participatory workshops that were held during the course of our actions to generate information regarding the perimeter of the project.

19In this reflective essay, my objective is to show how an urban planning study always has consequences that extend beyond particular areas of expertise. Through a series of epistemological operations and critical situations, we will elicit the necessary conditions to rescale neighbourhood identities, to change the scale of the discussions regarding the transformation of a certain living space. In this manner, we sought ways to tone down the hot debate by dispensing with the initial categories of the understanding of the perimeter.

Three situations that destabilise the ordinary categories of the understanding of the city

20As a stowaway in an urban planning study, I observe and I participate. Mandator and mandatee are gathered around the same table. We take the initial results into account, which remain unconsolidated. Working to diagnose identities to implement an urban project does in fact require asking some methodological questions and defining the relevant scales. We are debating—looking for new angles to better grasp our field of study—and are taking approaches that allow the mandator to obtain a better grasp on the project area to promote its transformation.

The legitimate identity

21In retrospect, our attempt to map city dwellers’ modes of attachment to their living space strikes me as the key moment in our endeavour to destabilise the usual site definition categories.

22If we postulate that individuals (residents) or legal entities (residents’ associations) will somehow express an attachment to a daily space when they speak about it, we begin to correlate the collected discourses with fragments of space. The result is an impressionistic representation—a sort of ‘Map of Love’—that associates territories with feelings. It may seem rather harmless, but the terms that are chosen to characterise such attachments sometimes insidiously demarcate a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. For example, if a residents’ association has begun to archive the memories of one of the neighbourhoods that is required to be transformed, it will devote itself from that point forward to the task of ‘conservation’ of what that part of the city used to be. That approach seems to indicate a certain nostalgia. Because the leaders of the association in question were deeply involved with the life of the neighbourhood, we chose the label ‘nostalgic fixations to identify their mode of attachment on our map.

23The overly explicit expression of a transformation that falls within the semantic field of ‘disappearance’ (it is all about conserving a memory) is highly revealing. Do the words that are quoted show an ‘attachment’ that is well established, i.e., that is representative of all the residents of the neighbourhood? This question led to arguments among the mandators about the relevance of mapping that explicitly labels and lends credence to feelings that are only partial (i.e., that are shared only by certain residents). I defended the representation of reality recorded by our analysis, reminding the others that we were interested in the discourse of the leaders of residents’ associations who are capable of formulating a collective definition of a public issue. I also reminded them of the descriptive nature of our map—we were reproducing ‘what was being said’—and explicitly produced a more hermeneutic dimension of what was said by the participants we encountered. The task of the residents in question is the delicate job of archiving a certain local spirit at a specific time in spatial forms (rather old-fashioned infrastructures, warehouses that were situated in the heart of the city, etc.) that may or may not coincide with the new canons of urban quality. ‘And that’s quite legitimate, I can understand’, I concluded as a provocation, just to see what would happen, and that is when the conversation slid from attachments to identity. Talking about the fragment of the city that sparked the controversy, one of us said: ‘A neighbourhood’s identity changes over time. I’ve been living in this neighbourhood a long time and it’s not the same anymore’. And I wondered, in silence, whether the desire to raise the question of identities when managing an urban project is not in fact a tool that might facilitate the questioning of the legitimacy of those neighbourhood identities that had been alleged by the residents.

Shifting the boundaries

24The task of defining the limits of the perimeter of the project fostered a deeper exploration of this question. Our assignment was to qualitatively record the limits in question. We attempted to identify atmospheres using data-collection tools such as urban drift, urban transect and conversations and exchanges in the field.

25This sensitive study involuntarily partakes of a project to destabilise the prior organisational frameworks of collective life. We are told that meteorological elements interfere with our grasp of the limits of the neighbourhood (the wind sometimes carries the noise of the city far away, and when you hear it you feel a bit like you belong to the place of origin), just as the limits vary according to the directions that are called into play (sometimes, a certain perspective on a fragment of landscape justifies an identity-shaping attachment). We are told that sensations (heat, coolness, humidity) play a role in defining highly localised climates, creating unique spatial identities. Thus, grasping the perimeter of the project through phenomena makes neighbourhoods seem fluid. Their perimeter becomes a membrane that dilates or retracts based on different variables while sometimes ignoring dimensions that are subject to objective measurement. The sights, textures of sounds, and dry or moist atmospheres make it possible to orient oneself in space and to say ‘over here’ rather than ‘over there’.

26While our analysis confirms that the neighbourhoods of the perimeter of the study derive their coherence from the practices of their residents and users, it also attests to the instability of their identity: if the sense impressions of the perimeter vary from one individual to the next, what is the legitimacy of the institutional frameworks of collective identity? This question is all the more relevant because the movement of destabilisation of the frameworks of collective identity resulting from our phenomenological approach is organised according to the built structure (bars, squares, blocks, urban villas, and strips in the styles of 1900, 1930, 1970, 1980), which reinforces the feeling of an identity-shaping mosaic. The identity of the project perimeter gradually appears in the form of fragments, which it may be useful to try and organise into a higher-order synthesis, while doing away completely with the notion of substantive identity associated with a perennial local spirit. At this point in our assignment, I wonder whether phenomenological relativising is a tactical means of producing a collective identity of another scale—all in all, of the scale demanded of us by our mandator.

Rescaling identity

27The question is not merely rhetorical, and the progression in our sensitive diagnosis reinforces its relevance. Work sessions with the project owners follow the exchanges with the residents, the urban transects, the local conversations, and the meetings among mandatees. We collect materials that become data, which we analyse, discuss, and debate. We reveal an understanding of the neighbourhood, and then comes the phase of participatory workshops, conducted based on the community planning mode. This mechanism makes it possible to record the ways in which the sets of scales leverage the rescaling of identities.

28The participatory workshops were based on a precise procedure. After a period of introduction to what is at stake in the transformation of the urban centre, the actors who have come to an evening discussion group based on thematic criteria (merchants, residents) open the discussion at the instigation of a moderator, a veteran urban planner who is a master of the art of planning and of both the legal and economic tools of city making. The moderator first encourages these actors to think in terms of strengths and weaknesses, opportunities, and (finally) threats. He notes the keywords on big white adhesive sheets, which are posted on the wall and then moved around as the main themes take shape. Then, in phase 2, the moderator places tracing paper over the maps to provide a spatial representation of the emerging intentions of the actors at the meeting: new belts of parks and gardens, the northern part of the perimeter conceived of as the animated showcase of the entire city, while the southern part of the perimeter is more intimate, oriented towards neighbourhood life. In phase 3, the moderator offers a highly descriptive summary of the evening’s discussions, which effortlessly places all that was said into a new intelligible structure.

29New logical systems of understanding the identities of the perimeter were introduced in the exchanges of opinions among the attendees because, in particular, some come from outside the project perimeter. For example, the obsolete transport infrastructure, which seems to the residents to mark the boundary of the neighbourhood identity (a horizon), appeared to the actors in the group of merchants as a break weakening the centre of gravity between uptown and downtown. At the opposite end of the spectrum from the ‘home turf’ attitude, the merchants formulate metropolitan proposals that aim to make the urban project in question a tool to restore continuity between the southern and northern tips of the agglomeration.

30In fact, the mandator frequently returned to that identifying trait (the perimeter as a hyphen between south and north) in phase 3 of the workshops during his public commentary on the summary, explaining that it is a strongpoint of the ‘identity of this site’. After all, that is what shapes the identity of this end of the city: a space that pivots around the transport infrastructure, a link between downtown and uptown. The issues were rescaled by means of the very words of the residents and users. Like it or not, our mechanism leads to a rescaling of identities. It is a tool for political rescaling because it aimed to institutionalise a new level of understanding phenomena in a socio-political project (Smith 1992; Brenner 2001).

The construction of communication: urban planning as a prudential practice

31This task of destabilising the ordinary frameworks of the understanding of the world and of rescaling the relevant issues is in line with what might be expected from a researcher who works on a given subject. Thus, it is not up to me to judge what we were doing. In this long subjective discourse, I have attempted to illustrate the way in which a humanistic approach to the project perimeter, which is explicitly respectful of the site and its residents, can help to recalibrate residents’ lines of reasoning in a way that calms potential conflict; even without trying to do so, we make very fine arguments that clarify—and perhaps justify—the upcoming transformations of the part of the city that interests us here.

32More broadly speaking, this egotistical digression involves the use that can be made of an urban planning study. Throughout the process, I have been incessantly told (as a representative of a research institute) that any results that I achieved would be used to support the efforts to involve the population (phase of consultation and/or participation). Similarly, in each exchange with the actors involved in the project perimeter, I had to explain that our mandator played a unique role and was strongly oriented towards community interests and that it wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to improve the quality of the living environment of the residents of the perimeter. With that objective in mind, the mandator was taking an interest in atmospheres, in neighbourhood identities. I therefore had the feeling that our study group was participating at an important moment of publicising the actions that our mandator was preparing to perform, that we were, albeit involuntarily, the public relations agents of a new period of planning that was set to begin. We surveyed and documented the perimeter. We discussed it with the residents. We produced discourses and documents that would be put into circulation. We provided information. The study was thus also about a time of public relations building.

33Even more generally speaking, this long digression involves the nature of the urban planner’s profession. The feelings that we must address in our reading of the site are just as closely related to the qualities of the sites of intervention as to the political system: urbanism is as much an art of urban composition as it is of mobilising the right actors at the right time. We must assess the project territory without offending residents and users, which is particularly important when revealing ‘traces’ of transformations in progress that should be supported rather than opposed. By identifying emerging phenomena, we minimise the risks of upcoming interventions. We are the involuntary instruments of a ‘prudential’ activity’ (Champy 2011) aiming to gain control of the ‘contingencies’ of future projects (Bensoussan and Barbier 2013).

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Electronic reference

Laurent Matthey, Political sensitivity’. Subjective feedback on the unexpected effects of an urban planning studyArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], Special issue 7 | 2015, Online since 17 January 2016, connection on 27 September 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Laurent Matthey

Assistant professor. Institute of Environmental Governance and Territorial Development, University of Geneva, Switzerland. Contact:

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