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Dedicated to Rebecca Mitchell, 1980–2019

Le Tonkin. Image: Supplied

T’es cap’ ou pas cap’? Setting out on a cultural excursion, my son’s primary school classmates continually pose this question: Are you capable or not? Jumping over rivulets of urine, dismembered scooters and tantalising food packaging trophies, the six-year-olds proudly consider their capabilities.

I can speak Arabic.
Tuh, we all can.
I can count to ten thousand.
Only ten? Not cap’!
I know some Verlan.
Yeah?
Un truc de ouf!

I am barely capable of French, let alone Verlan, a slang argot predominantly used among the young in part to reclaim the spaces – mainly high-density suburban ghettos – into which self-proclaimed ‘scum’ have been relegated. Several weeks into our move to France, basic phrases elude me: Keep walking. Catch up to the others. We must hold hands. It’s un truc de ouf – a crazy thing – to assist children determined to demonstrate how cap’ they are. They scale the umpteen gates leading them through disused tower block courtyards sprinkled with shattered glass. They guess the number of storeys and hide beneath the long cold shadows: fourteen, sixteen. They recognise the aroma of cannabis resin, kif, that intermingles with kebab grease and the pulchritudinous odour seeping from the ancient sewerage system.

That the children share their world with scores of drug dealer-employed police lookouts, bored youths aggressively driving motorcycles in infernal circles, and a variety of beggars only adds to their interest. They don’t care much for the Brutalist asceticism of 1970s blank-faced buildings, not when Yasmine can run faster than Igor. And yet, when we pause along the main thoroughfare opposite the Émile Zola school, heads lift and reedy exclamations issue forth: Look! Look at that beautiful building!, Oh, it’s a castle for a princess! The children gaze admiringly at its intricate, recently repainted facade whose bricks appear plaited around windows and doors until their teacher urges them onwards.

They know the rules: Hold hands. Whisper. Keep walking. Stop at red lights. Don’t talk to strangers. Never pick anything up from the ground. Madame, Tabitha says, reaching for my hand, why don’t we have a castle too?

Le Tonkin. Image: Supplied

Tonkin’s reputation preceded us. When the news came that my husband would become a civil servant to the Prime Minister, we moved from Melbourne to Villeurbanne’s Tonkin-Charpennes quarter a few days before the commencement of the 2018 school year. Our decision drew raised eyebrows and anxious emails from friends living in Lyon’s calm wooded fringe, home to old money and good schools. Would we really make our home in the banlieues, suburbs in which the ‘other French’ live and supposed seeding beds for extremism? Tonkin is one of Greater Lyon’s 37 quartiers prioritaires, geographical areas experiencing profound socioeconomic problems justifying targeted assistance: 34 per cent of our 2,070 neighbours live in relative poverty, 25 per cent of Year 9 boys won’t pass their exams, 15.8 per cent are jobless, and unemployment has steadily increased since the 2008 crisis.

Perched on the north-eastern shoulder of Lyon, France’s second-largest city, Villeurbanne is home to a prestigious engineering school, two universities and numerous companies and manufacturers. Of Villeurbanne’s eight districts, Tonkin stands resolutely apart in character and purpose. Formerly marshland, it became a flea market until it was seized amid the post-World War II explosion in migration from former colonial countries, predominantly from the Maghreb, or northern Africa. Rectangular behemoths grouped into grands ensembles – now referred to simplistically as ghettos – mushroomed across France, including Tonkin. Le Corbusier, architect and theorist, had achieved his vision, having created ‘machine[s] for living in’ within cities, which he conceptualised as ‘a human operation against nature.’

I stroll through Tonkin one evening with architect Gilles Foussat, whose professional eyes offer perspective to the concrete behemoths that seem to press upon our heads. We follow ribbons of urban detritus – abandoned furniture, festering kitchen refuse, burned-out bins – through echoingly silent dalles, or large concrete slabs connecting Tonkin’s apartment buildings, elevated above the traffic flowing below. ‘To traverse Le Tonkin is like going on a voyage,’ Foussat says. ‘You discover a living quartier with a strong identity. It’s surprising because of its little concrete paths, but also because they’re filled with nature, all connected.’ We could visualise the architects’ dream of living quarters, schools, parks, shops, restaurants and services all easily accessible by foot – but theirs was a concept undermined by navigational and aesthetic challenges.

We respond to spaces – inherently political social products that define what we can and can’t do within them – because we are part of them.

While dalles promote pedestrian and vehicular safety, they are often discredited for their disorientation, expensive maintenance costs and association with delinquency because they inhibit easy access to police cars and propose secret spaces that enable flight. Indeed, Foussat explains that the absence of an easily navigable grid pattern and the small and discontinuous spaces between buildings can make the area feel unsafe. ‘You feel the need to lift your head to glimpse a part of the sky between the suffocating skyscrapers,’ he says. ‘After a certain time, you start walking more quickly to get home because the daylight population has disappeared and replaced by a night-time population who are more worrying.’

I feel I should be proud of Tonkin, having been constructed to enable social opportunities, yet any satisfaction is drowned by the wavelets of despair, neighbourly disrespect and utter desolation that seem to emanate from the raw concrete. To counteract this, in part, Foussat considers that Tonkin’s spaces could better be filled with vibrant streetscapes and necessary services such as crèches, gyms, health care, police and firefighters that connect and engage people.

For people need more than concrete spaces: neuroscience tells us that the hippocampal regions of our curious brains crave the stimulation provided by diverse environments and engaging building facades. Geometry and buildings affect people’s attention, feelings, decisions and acts: We know intuitively when we are in a space that pleases (or displeases) us because our bodies capture sensory information and interpret it physiologically and emotively. We respond to spaces – inherently political social products that define what we can and can’t do within them – because we are part of them.

Wending our way past the primary school’s prison-like walls, there, at last, in the Parc de l’Europe, we see people. We watch couples picnicking or chatting on the concrete benches; children playing soccer, pétanque or merrily squealing in the playground. Tonkin’s only grassy patch, embracing the sunshine and gathering locals into a pulsing centre, feels like its true heart.

Le Tonkin. Image: Supplied

‘Tonkin wasn’t always like this,’ Safiyya says, apologetically, one May morning. Beneath the park’s arcade of unfurling plane trees we eye the circle of police, journalists and onlookers around a blackened car chassis, an alleged reprisal against the previous day’s police raid. ‘If you’d come five years ago, people were respectful.’ She sweeps her arm, indicating the rubbish-choked fountain and the youths lounging in camping chairs nodding to rap music and hurling abuse. ‘You didn’t see these voyou, these thugs… Our community was stronger. If anyone stepped out of line their parents would pull them in.’

What had changed so dramatically? Safiyya sighs. ‘Honestly, some media and politicians still claim that people like us, you know, migrants in the banlieues, cause problems. But we didn’t cause the recession that mean we can’t get jobs. We can’t help it that we have Maghrébin names and nobody wants our CVs. People have lost their jobs and their pride. I think we’ve internalised society’s representations of us, and it’s making us sick.’

Ilyes, one of three young men who play soccer with our children, concurs. He believes Tonkin’s children are ‘stuck’ geographically, socioeconomically, and ethnoculturally, and are mentally spatialised by society. The voyou, too, seek acceptance and meaning. The argot for banlieue, he explained, is au ban du lieu: to be on the edge of a place.

Tonkin’s changing social mix concentrates its marginalisation, explains Eloise, who was born and raised here and now educates our youngest child. ‘Twenty years ago, there were more middle-class intellectuals. Jews, Muslims and Christians would celebrate birthday parties together, but not anymore. Tonkin’s character is more conservative now.’ Eloise plans to move to Lyon, a place she feels is more nurturing and less ‘angry’.

Safiyya, of Kabyle origin, and I have become friends over our year of school runs. Supported by a parenting payment, she moved to Tonkin six years ago in search of affordable housing after divorcing her violent husband. ‘I have to invest in my children,’ she tells me. ‘I can’t let them think they don’t have a future.’ It was Safiyya who introduced me to the Tonkin-Charpennes social centre, which offers services and events including camps and trips to the countryside. ‘Otherwise kids wouldn’t see what life outside this concrete looks like.’

Migrants describe their loneliness as an ‘unbearable pain’, ‘like feeling perpetually lost’, and ‘living outside looking inside’.

Clutching my forearm affectionately, Safiyya says she knows how I felt. ‘When I first moved here I didn’t know anyone. I was drowning in grief. I’d think: who wants to be my friend?’ For a while, the television was her only company. She credits the community centre with helping her meet others through a dance course and her children’s sports classes. She considers it her duty to befriend others to strengthen her community. When I ask her if she believes there is a ‘loneliness epidemic’, she nods. ‘Look up! There are hundreds of poor people housed in the sky who don’t have good reasons to come down.’

Nobody desires loneliness or social isolation. Defined as a subjective state of suffering when one’s social relations are inadequate or lacking, loneliness demonstrates our innate need to be connected meaningfully to others. My new friends – our relationships having bloomed during seven months of French classes – describe their loneliness as migrants as an ‘unbearable pain’, ‘like feeling perpetually lost’, and ‘living outside looking inside’.

The public health impact of poor social connections is remarkable. A 2010 meta-analytic review examining the influence of social relationships on mortality demonstrates that poor social relations have as great an impact on health as smoking. Loneliness, social isolation, or living alone are risk factors for premature death as great or greater than obesity and air pollution. Other studies associate them with augmenting chronic pain and blood pressure, and as risk factors for cardiovascular disease, fatigue, dementia and hastening cognitive decline in the aged, and exacerbating mental health problems. These effects are perhaps caused by the interplay of immune function, sleep quality, health behaviours, gene effects and stress.

In January 2018, lawmaker Tracey Crouch became England’s first Minister for Loneliness, tasked with improving the lives of more than 9 million Britons for whom, as then prime minister Theresa May said, ‘loneliness is the sad reality of modern life.’ The breadth of the problem has been indicated by surveys worldwide, including in Australia, the United States and France, where a significant number live in isolation without social, neighbourly, family, organisational or professional networks to support them. This year, the New Zealand government founded its budget on wellbeing priorities to better care for its most vulnerable citizens. Globally, factors including social mobility, work expectations and socioeconomic disparities have fractured social networks and weakened community cohesion.

Loneliness, social isolation, or living alone are risk factors for premature death as great or greater than obesity and air pollution.

Feeling connected with one’s community is central to reducing loneliness and social isolation. Numerous community initiatives including the French association Voisins Solidaires and the Australian Men’s Sheds help construct new friendships and bring meaning into people’s lives. At the government level, the year 2017 saw England launch the Campaign to End Loneliness, Australia establish the Coalition to End Loneliness and France publish the report Fight Social Isolation to Improve Cohesion and Fraternity. This report suggests that the government integrate social isolation prevention into policies developed by regional, town planning, housing and transport departments. Planning environments for people to live well, the report advises, should include places where people can meet, including gardens and community centres, and enable people to walk to services, shops and transport. Without them, communities lose their cohesiveness and individuals experience ‘social stress’: both early life stressful experiences and urban lifestyles reduce grey matter in the same two brain areas. Social stress is implicated in the significant urban likelihood of depression, anxiety and psychosis.

How would Tonkin be, I ask Safiyya, if it were up to her? She laughs, grasps my forearm and replies simply, ‘A place I’d feel happy in.’

Le Tonkin. Image: Supplied

Where we live affects our wellbeing. Urban design can make people feel good about where they live, and this positivity translates into friendly interactions.

Between 1997 and 2005 Vaulx-en-Velin, the notorious Lyon suburb which experienced a wave of riots between police and disenfranchised residents in the 1980s and 90s, was entirely redesigned using ‘thoughtful architecture’, improving utilities and services with residents’ input. As in La Duchère, a similar quartier prioritaire redesigned between 2003 and 2012, tower blocks were demolished and rebuilt to only six storeys along logical weaves of roads, although the number of social housing apartments was reduced. Transport links were upgraded and extended both to the wider urban environment and into nature. Multipurpose public spaces were created including schools, shops, health and community centres, museums and art trails.

Vaulx-en-Velin’s transformation also results from the mixing of people from differing social backgrounds and the mixing of building functions, forms and facades, such that they, as windows representing Vaulx-en-Velin, according to the town’s website, ‘should be beautiful and not uniform.’

However, the premise of social mixing with urban renewal is itself controversial: renewal can beget gentrification, which disrupts the essential networks of the poor, who are often relegated to more disadvantaged neighbourhoods that lack public transport, job opportunities and services. In 2013 La Duchère was awarded the designation of Écoquartier for its sustainability. It is now a popular choice for young people entering the property market, with a high school success rate higher than the Lyon average. While their transformations haven’t eradicated social exclusion, qualitative experiences demonstrate that they offer a better quality of life; one La Duchère resident stated, ‘one feels one lives in a beautiful place.’

Urban design can make people feel good about where they live, and this positivity translates into friendly interactions.

In his book The Right to the City (1968), sociologist and philosopher Henri Lefebvre contended that urban societies’ qualities and benefits must be equally accessed by all residents, none of whom should be geographically estranged or segregated socio-economically.

Lefebvre also believed that people have the right to conceive their buildings and social spaces. In this vein, geographer David Harvey said, ‘The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is…one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.’ Australia, growing up and out, provides a timely example of the need to enact such a right. As of 2016, when more apartments were constructed than houses for the first time in history, 71 per cent of Australians live in capital cities. The number of single-occupancy households – a risk factor for social isolation – is projected to increase up to 45 per cent in the next 20 years, driven by the ageing population.

More than one million Australians experience social exclusion that is exacerbated by the shortfall in affordable and social housing. Melbourne, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, will need an extra 1.6 million homes by 2050 – the year in which two thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. Lacking the stricter design controls Sydney has held since 2002, and rather than optimising middle-ring urban development, Melbourne has permitted ‘vertical slums’ of micro-apartments in blocks up to 60 storeys high in the city centre, at four times the density allowed in Hong Kong and New York. Architect Professor Kerry Clare believes that these environmentally unsound lodgements reduce liveability by creating unpleasant streetscapes, excluding families, separating inhabitants from street life and limiting their involvement in social spaces. Moreover, public transport prevents isolation, yet approximately 8 per cent of Melbourne’s urban areas with the utmost need have no access to it, while 25 per cent of Melburnians with limited access find their social participation significantly restricted.

Furthermore, the ‘Australian dream’ of a quarter acre block has created a maze of suburbs. Full-time workers commute on average five hours per week alone, of which 10 per cent spend more time commuting than with their children. This impacts upon the wellbeing of the drivers, their families, communities, and workplaces due to the inherent stress and the time lost to families and social participation. Melbourne’s urban sprawl pushes beyond growth boundaries and encroaches on natural habitats. Ever smaller housing blocks are being built, which trap heat through lack of gardens and communal areas such as parks and reserves. Green infrastructure is vital because people who live closer to nature enjoy low health inequality, and tree density is correlated with reduced cardio-metabolic illnesses and greater self-perceived health. Nature’s dense, complex forms soothe our minds. South Bank Parklands, Brisbane’s successful 1992 urban renewal project, highlights the partnership of nature with a central city location to foster socialisation.

If cities are to be places of wellbeing and resilience, both individual and collective efforts are required to create them.

If cities are to be places of wellbeing and resilience, both individual and collective efforts are required to create them. When architects co-design, co-build and co-manage buildings with communities, they share expertise and ingrain social capital, imbuing new neighbourhoods with civic pride, accomplishment and belonging. People want to design their buildings and streets: from Graven Hill, England’s largest self- and custom-build neighbourhood, to Brazil’s Hope Housing Complex, created by inexperienced women who designed and assembled their own homes. The democratisation of building production and assembly via the open-source WikiHouse means residents can build their own homes within co-created neighbourhoods. Co-designed urban renewal projects have fashioned environments which, unsurprisingly, incorporate elements of social cities: green infrastructure, communal recreation areas and low-impact buildings with engaging facades. English examples include Liverpool’s Toxteth renewal, and the ecologically friendly co-housing projects Lilac in Leeds and Forgebank in Lancashire that have a communal laundry, allotments and common house in which residents cook and dine twice weekly together. This lifestyle, one Forgebank resident enthused, gives ‘an opportunity to live in an almost extended family context.’

Perhaps this gentle revolution addresses our innate need to influence our environments through creativity, control and communitarianism. Architects Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein observed that some of the most marvellous homes and towns were built by residents, not architects. In their acclaimed book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (1977) they declared: ‘We can come alive only to the extent that our buildings we live in are alive.’ The spirit of great architecture ‘is circular: it exists in us, when it exists in our buildings; and it only exists in our buildings, when we have it within ourselves.’

Philosopher Alain de Botton wrote that it is ‘architecture’s most important task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.’ Striking the right balance to promote social interconnectedness isn’t easy, and loneliness, social isolation and exclusion can’t be solved by buildings alone. By mixing grassroots action with political will, we can create social cities that foster the security and accountability inherent in the high-quality human relationships that underpin a meaningful existence. A society in which all citizens can say, ‘I count for someone’ and ‘I rely on someone’, is a society in which we can, with confidence​, participate, integrate, share, and live well.

Le Tonkin. Image: Supplied

T’es cap’ ou pas cap’?
– Djibril got a gold star for dictation.
– So did I!
– Cap’!
– I can show you where I live.
– So can I, I’m cap’!
–Tuh, all we have to do is look up.

Months later, accompanying another school excursion, I have all the necessary phrases. Be careful. No jumping. Let’s catch up to the others. Strolling from Charpennes, with its metalwork-embellished stone buildings, across the tram tracks into Tonkin, I realise that the dalles and raw concrete fundamentally form the necessary spaces in which the meaningful happens: where the children determine who they’ll trust, tease or play with. Watching Tonkin’s concrete towers slowly being covered with white cladding, and feeling its streets throb with tension and indefatigable hope, I believe it is ripe for the reimagining of architects, designers, planners – and most importantly, its people.

Correction: Earlier versions of this article incorrectly referred to architect Gilles Foussat as Gilles Moulinoux.