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From town to Alpine city. Towards a new partnership between towns and the mountain?

Call for papers. Deadlines: march 31st, 2017 (abstract) and september 1st, 2017 (full article). Guest editor : Marie-Christine Fourny (Université Grenoble Alpes, PACTE UMR 5194) This issue is supported by the LABEX ITEM (ANR-10-LABX-50-01) within the “Investissements d’Avenir” programme operated by the French National Research Agency (ANR).

The aim of this call for articles is to raise questions about the transformation that the political, social and economic relations between towns and mountains have undergone –in both the imaginaries and the territorial action that produces them. Around the hypothesis of a new partnership, questions arise regarding the introduction and management of a territorial integration that an Alpine town or city currently appears to represent. Does this go beyond the centre–periphery hierarchies and the decoupling of nature from the city? The organisation of urban regions requires new narratives in order to ensure cohesion among these complex territories. By mobilising and re-signifying these generic geographical objects (the town and the mountain), is it possible to uncover new construction modalities in these categories?


The thematic papers that the JAR has devoted to the urban question have been few and far between. In the 1990s, following the pioneering work of Raoul Blanchard on urban geography, two successive editions were devoted to Alpine towns. The relationship between towns and the Alps was broached in two different ways: on the one hand, by means of the Alpine identity, and on the other hand, via economic development. The two approaches proved to complement each other. The economic angle made it possible to examine the effects of milieu and in particular of the mountain morphology through the prism of polarisation models. It led to a mixed assessment that showed that the trajectory of these cities did not differentiate them from other similarly sized entities in Europe. Nonetheless, the preface outlines “specific Alpine factors, such as relief, traditions, accessibility and weak population density” (Perlik, 1999, p. 10). It also suggests a capacity for specific innovation in peripheral rural regions and called on differentiated policy responses that would allow them to express themselves. In other words, the Alpine town is not so much the product of history and geography but in a developing state of integration between an urban and a territorial space.

The second edition examined the representations and discourses leading to the identification of Alpine towns, and it indicated the challenge of defining common features among Alpine towns, even if only with regard to their location. The Alpine quality proved to be a political, social and scientific construct deployed for its capacity to generate mobilising affiliations and valorising representations. Representing above all a performative discourse, the Alpine town appeared as a political and/or ideological project, whether it has to do with territorial appropriation (the Alpine “capital”), a “club” (network of cities) or the promotion of sustainable development (the “Alpine Cities of the Year” label).

In the end, the two editions suggested that the idea of a new relationship between towns and the mountain, if not under development, was at least wished for and advanced by a number of actors. The relationship was not functional, as is the case with suburbanisation or forms of economic exploitation of resources, but had a symbolic dimension. Modernity had constructed the imaginaries of the town and of the mountain in opposition to each other, and they have been reproduced and actualised in naturalist and rural mountain or tourist and residential policies flaunting differences all while working to trivialise them. However, these articles at the end of the 20th century questioned the possibility of reconciling the imaginaries. More to the point, they examined the conditions under which a composite space emerges, in particular by using the values of the ideal reference to the mountain.

Twenty years later, current trends suggest renewed and more complex relations:

  • The amenity value of the environment plays a driving role in the residential and economic dynamics. It also forms part of both the revitalisation of mountain spaces (via the presential economy) and the appeal of the Piedmont towns.

  • A new relationship with nature is emerging in the cities through urbanism, in food systems and with the development of agricultural areas.

  • Because of their relationship with home, body and nature, people’s ways of living bring a particular quality to the mountain spaces. The latter respond to aspirations in terms of leisure and social and family relations. But they also seem to offer resources and capacities for action to individuals or groups seeking alternative lifestyles.

  • In a context of transition, the mountain takes on new social roles. Adaptation to climate change, (past or present) forms of innovation and exposure to uncertainty all contribute to a renewal of the “laboratory” role, which is to observe and experiment with processes of change.

  • Metropolisation calls into question the relationship between the town and the mountains at new scales. At the local level, one sees institutional spaces forming that integrate both mountain and urban spaces. At the European level, the macro-regional strategy for the Alps leads to work on the interdependence between the Alpine massif and the metropolitan zones and on the recognition of their issues for the whole of Europe.

These developments have to be analysed and interpreted to gain a better understanding of their meanings, convergences and contradictions, as well as their local similarities and differences and the specificity of the mountain context.


The different dynamics that have been outlined refer in a general way to the transformation of relations between towns and their outskirts, particularly in Europe within a context of metropolisation, on the one hand, and to the societal mutations of the relationships with progress and nature on the other hand. In this thematic issue, we wish to question its forms, consequences and specificities throughout the Alpine arc and to identify the features of current Alpine towns. The articles can examine:

  • New political territorialities, management styles and strategies that have been put in place at both the local and the transnational level, from inter-municipal associations to the macro-region. Can cities have a mountain policy? And can the mountain massifs have an urban policy? Which concepts or tools make it possible to contemplate and shape new relationships between rural and/or peripheral spaces? Which institutional innovations are needed or created?

  • Consequences with regard to the place of the mountain in the hierarchy of spaces and their values. In contrast to interpretations in terms of economic or cultural domination, can the mountain find a value of the social model, or even serve as a transitional model (as the example of the Voralberg suggests)?

  • The transformation of the relationship between towns and the mountain in the context of the general development of the relationship between towns and their surrounding spaces. What kind of change does the mountain dimension bring with it? Is there an increase in certain characteristics? Does it make it possible to identify a specific feature? More generally, what are the aspects of urban life or governance that refer back to the relationship between the town and the mountain? An expression of city–nature? A relational space? A bio-region or a new form of asymmetry?

  • The territorial narrative, discourses, practices and representations of the contemporary Alpine town. Does it still make sense to identify a town or a city based on its Alpine features? If the latter are mobilised, how, on what basis, and to what end? What are the semantic shifts between an Alpine town and an Alpine city? What is the link between narrative and practice? With regard to contemporary residential aspirations, what can the contribution of the mountain be to cities and their inhabitants? Is there a possibility to move from this point of view beyond merely identifying environmental consent? Does the mountain offer a specific kind of habitability? What kind, and for whom?


Proposal abstracts (around 600 words) are to be sent in French (if French-speaking author) OR in English (authors of other languages) before March 31st, 2017 Marie-Christine Fourny (Labex ITEM Innovation & Territoires de Montagne. Université Grenoble-Alpes, PACTE UMR 5194) and to editorial board : Olivier Vallade, ; Sylvie Duvillard (Université Grenoble Alpes, CNRS PACTE UMR 5194), Final articles are due for September 1st, 2017. Final articles can be submitted in English, French, Italian, German or Spanish. They have to be in two versions and one version has to be in English. The author(s) must arrange for translation into english, once the article has been accepted for publication.

Publication date is planned for 2018.


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