The Rhetoric of Contemporary Urbanism: A Deconstructive Analysis of Central City Neighbourhood Redevolopment

By Mercier, Guy | Canadian Journal of Urban Research, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

The Rhetoric of Contemporary Urbanism: A Deconstructive Analysis of Central City Neighbourhood Redevolopment


Mercier, Guy, Canadian Journal of Urban Research


Resume

Prenant appui sur l'exemple du quartier Saint-Roch a Quebec, l'article analyse la rhetorique du discours urbanistique qui depuis une decennie environ justifie et programme la revitalisation des quartiers anciens en Amerique du Nord. L'objectif est de contribuer, sous l'angle de la geographie culturelle, a la comprehension de ce nouvel urbanisme qui semble avoir autant de succes dans l'opinion que dans la pratique. Il est d'abord montre que ce discours se construit essentiellement comme une autocritique puisque son premier ressort argumentatif est de reconnaitre l'echec de l'urbanisme qui, apres la Seconde Guerre mondiale, a voulu renover les quartiers anciens en recourant aux demolitions massives et a la reconstruction systematique. Il est ensuite explique que, sur cette base, se developpent des figures de rhetorique paradoxales capables de justifier : (1) la protection du patrimoine bati tout en le destinant a des usages innovateurs ; (2) la mixite des usages tout en ecartant rigoureusement certaines d'entre elles ; (3) la necessite de l'urbanisme participatiftout en reconnaissant l'impossibilite d'y inclure toutes les categories sociales.

Mots cles : Nouvel urbanisme, revitalisation urbaine, patrimoine urbain, democratie participative, Ville de Quebec, recit urbain

Key words: New urbanism, Urban renewal, Urban Heritage, Participative Democracy, Quebec City, Urbanistic narrative

Abstract

Using the example of the Saint-Roch district in Quebec City (Canada), this paper is an analysis of the rhetoric of urban discourse which for the last decade or so has driven and justified the revitalization project of older urban areas in North American cities. The goal here is to add from a cultural geography perspective to the understanding of this so-called new urbanism which seems to have great success in both practice and public opinion. This paper will firstly demonstrate that this discourse is built essentially as a self-criticism, since its fundamental principle is to recognize the failure of post World War Il urbanism which favoured the renewal of older urban areas through large scale demolition and systematic reconstruction. Next, this paper explains that on this basis a set of figures has emerged which have paradoxically been used to justify: (1) the protection of built heritage while at the same time allowing for innovative uses of this heritage; (2) the diversity of uses of urban heritage while at the same time actively excluding certain options; (3) the necessity for participatory urbanism while at the same time acknowledging the impossibility of including certain social categories.

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North American city centres have undergone major changes since the end of the Second World War. Formerly located at the heart of urban life, they first of all absorbed the shock of an exodus to the suburbs. Abandoned for the most part by industry, business and the middle class, whole neighbourhoods deteriorated and became havens for fringe groups. These circumstances tarnished the reputation of such neighbourhoods while at the same rime spawning ambitious projects to rebuild these inner-city areas. The areas were then subject to large demolition campaigns in an effort to radically modify their role and appearance. Such urban renewal, mainly geared toward restoring the service sector, gave rise to modern large-scale CBDs (Garvin 1996).

The optimism of the instigators of this movement was not, however, shared by all. Many lamented the disappearance of an urban landscape inherited from a time when the coexistence of industry, business and housing expressed the very purpose of a city. Some people were also worried about the lot of the captive population groups whose living conditions deteriorated as their neighbourhoods were modernized (Harvey 2000a).

This renewal-oriented urban planning (which was perhaps as much a victim of its own excessive nature as of the resistance it generated) did not always "deliver the goods," at times leaving the typical city with an unfinished appearance (Fishman 1987). …

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