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When Urban History meets Environmental History: an interview with Loïc Vadelorge

Our time is saturated with injunctions to environmental transition, which are all calls to break with a consumerist past inherited from industrial civilization and more particularly from 'The Glorious Thirty'.

For the last twenty years, however, environmental historians have done a lot of work and revealed that the environmental unawareness of the societies that preceded us was a myth. How can these works of environmental history help us to think about the current period and to give it a depth that it lacks?

Loïc Vadelorge has been a professor of contemporary history at Gustave Eiffel University since 2012, after having successively taught at the Universities of Versailles-Saint-Quentin and Paris 13. His work focuses on contemporary urban history (20th and 21st century). He was director of the ACP laboratory from 2013 to 2019 and is since 2019 the scientific leader of the LabEx Futurs Urbains, which is supported by the University Gustave Eiffel and involves a variety of partners.



You are currently working on the link between urban history and environmental history. Can you tell us more about this?

L.V : Until recently, the urban history of the 20th century focused mainly on understanding ruptures such as the formation of suburbs, the policy of large housing estates or new towns, the understanding of the secular sprawl of cities or, more recently, the urban social crises. In this history of urban production, the environment has often been ignored, as it has been in the history of industry and labor. The current evolution of historical research aims, on the contrary, to restore the environmental elements of the history of cities, whether they result from public policies (green spaces, living environment, risk management, energy policies, etc.) or from crises (industrial accidents, social movements opposing the artificialization of land, etc.). The aim is to reveal the historical depth of environmental issues applied to the city.



Does this relationship have an impact on the transition of cities and territories?

L.V : For most of our contemporaries, starting with local elected officials and government leaders, our time must break with the way cities were built in the 20th century. Recourse to history reveals that the urban societies of the 19th and 20th centuries were not closed to environmental issues. In environmental matters, caricatures of the past of cities lead to urban renewal that is often fraught with consequences for both landscapes and populations. The key words of our time (sustainable development, climate or energy transitions, eco-neighborhoods, resilience forum) must be confronted with the reality of a continuous urban production that does not respond to the wishes of the populations, nor to the challenges of the climate crisis. Urban history encourages us to reflect on the intrinsic qualities of the new urban complexes produced throughout the 20th century (suburban housing, garden cities, large complexes, new towns) before initiating the current processes of renewal and densification.


You will be speaking at the opening plenary of the FUTURE Days on November 29. What do you expect from this event?

L.V : From the outset, Future Days have been a meeting place for researchers from different disciplines, for students and researchers, and for political and community leaders and universities. This meeting is all the more necessary as the environmental transition requires the creation of a political consensus, to which the university must contribute. The distrust between the political class and the university, which has been observed in recent years, both at the national and local levels, is fraught with consequences. The challenges of an environmental transition that is both efficient and socially equitable require that the humanities and social sciences be listened to.