French Senate calls for more ambitious policy to curb urban sprawl

Even though the transformation of natural soils reflects the dynamic growth of the French economy and demography, it is having a heavy impact on the environment: loss of biodiversity, reduction of carbon storage potential, the inability of soils to absorb water properly, and loss of agricultural land. [Jan von nebenan/Shutterstock]

As French senators prepare to examine the country’s climate and resilience bill, members of the Senate’s Economic Affairs Committee published a report on Wednesday (12 May), calling for a more ambitious policy to achieve a net-zero goal on land artificialisation. EURACTIV France reports.

The committee’s report proposes ideas on how to curb urban sprawl in France, noting that urban areas now cover “22% of the country, compared to 7% in 1936”.

When modified, land is artificialised and becomes incapable of absorbing CO2. “Between 5 and 9.5% of French territory is now artificial,” the report noted, stressing that “almost 28% of this surface area is due to infrastructure, 14% to economic activity and 42% to housing.”

The Citizens’ Climate Convention – a panel representing French citizens on climate issues tasked with coming up with climate-related proposals – took up the issue and drew up thirteen ideas to considerably limit soil artificialisation in France.

As a result, the country’s National Assembly adopted two key proposals: halving the land artificialisation rate compared to the last ten years, and achieving the objective of “zero net artificialisation” by 2050.

According to the senators, these legislative proposals come in addition to an already important legislative arsenal, which includes local urban planning schemes (PLU), territorial coherence schemes (SCoT) and ecological coherence schemes (SRCE), with local authorities being among the major players.

“Today, nearly 58% of SCoTs set themselves a quantified objective of reducing the consumption of space by more than 50%,” the senators said.

However, the proposals featured in the climate bill are not satisfactory, the senators warned. “It is more relevant and effective to set objectives at the level of SCoTs and PLUs, in coherence with the distribution of decentralised competencies, and at a level that allows the best dialogue prior to the setting of objectives,” they added.

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European Biodiversity

Even though the transformation of natural soils reflects the dynamic growth of the French economy and demography, it is having a heavy impact on the environment: loss of biodiversity, reduction of carbon storage potential, the inability of soils to absorb water properly, and loss of agricultural land.

On this last point, senators have warned about the country’s “capacity to ensure food production” in the years to come.

This phenomenon was also observed on a European scale by the European Environment Agency (EEA) in an analysis of land occupation and use in 2019. “The most significant losses were in agricultural land, mainly due to urban expansion and agricultural retreat, while the total woodland area remained stable,” the EEA stated.

In its biodiversity strategy for 2030, the EU has unveiled measures to protect ecosystems, including the creation of “protected areas” that would represent 30% of Europe’s land.

An old battle

The fight against soil artificialisation is nothing new in France.

In July 2018, the country’s ecological transition ministry made it a major objective of its biodiversity plan, stating that “urban planning and commercial development policies will be reviewed in order to curb the increase in artificial surfaces (buildings, transport infrastructures, car parks, sports grounds, etc.) and to promote urban planning that is low on space consumption.”

In their conclusions, the senators proposed various solutions to protect France’s natural soils. These included making the Brownfields Fund permanent, improving the use of public land establishments. They also proposed to expand the national “Action Coeur de Ville” plan, which aims to revitalise the town centres of 222 medium-sized towns.

The text of the new climate bill will be presented to the Senate in June.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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