FIRST PUBLICATION VOLUME #30 PRIVATIZE!
AUTHOR Oscar Gential
DATE February 2012
This article was firslty published in VOLUME #30, PRIVATIZE!, in february 2012
Any representation or reproduction of this article and it contains images made without the agreement of the author or his personal representative is illegal (except under the right to quote or copy private home or personal use).
BIMBY, an urban blockbuster
Synopsis. Of the 34 million dwellings that currently exist in France, 19 million are houses.1 While urban sprawl has become the avowed enemy of urban planners and increasingly so of architects, the research project BIMBY aims to define a new mode of urban production where traditional ones can’t take place – in the residential suburbs that comprise the most part of urbanized France and Europe. The individual house and the famous backyard play the main characters in this success story. It consists of an attack to the core of the Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) ideology by replacing ‘Not’ with ‘Build’. This economic, political, urban, and architectural phenomenon could offer some real opportunities. And if it seems that everyone has something to gain, why should we do without it?
“Property is theft!” “Property is freedom.” It depends on the property owner. These two paradoxical phrases from the polemicist and self-proclaimed anarchist of the nineteenth century, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, echo with the terrifying headlines of today.
The first could be found floating in the air on Wall Street, written on the flag of an occupier. The second could be written on another street – that of an ordinary private housing community.
Land ownership is and has always been the sinews of war for urban operations and private campaigns. So, what else?
A new hope. At the galactic crossing of the collaborative consumption path and the macro-territorial planning freeway, the rebels’ starship BIMBY bursts in.
A strike back. A visionary urbanism without any land control.
A return to the inhabitant and his small plot of land – land that can be shared and welcome new buildings.
The force. A diffuse network. A shortened process. Custom construction. Case-by-case scenarios. Owner-to-owner negotiations.
Is it a rebellion? No, it’s a revolution!
The breach. Inappropriate dwellings for an occupant’s needs. Houses that are too large, energy-greedy, and unsuitable.
Some life situations enable the BIMBY intervention – among others, divorce, aging, widowhood, handicaps, debt.
Increasing urban density is not an absolute claim of BIMBY’s approach but is inherently a part of it. To build without sprawl, rather – that’s its course of action.
Launched in 2009 by the French National Research Agency (ANR), a call for proposals entitled Ville Durable (Sustainable City) brought together the first casting of BIMBY – academic circles, local authorities and public engineering offices. The founders also hoped to involve private actors – builders, real estate investors, and developers – but they were not present at that time. Indeed, when BIMBY makes the individual house the keystone of urban development, it gives full power to builders but eliminates the developers – their foster mothers. The lobbyists prefer their alliance with the building industry while they politely support the project. Little BIMBY can grow without them.
During the course of the three-year project, new protagonists have come on board – new public actors like municipal governments, elected representatives, and planning departments. In fact, some operation-oriented parties are acting as pioneers taking possession of this still experimental project.
Gold rush. How couldn’t we understand these cities, these representatives, these public officials, who are attempting in vain to counter urban sprawl – this avowed gangrene – through several mandates? They need new weapons, but this time nonviolent, politically legitimate, and technically well-founded ones.
These experimental partners are taking charge of BIMBY bringing about some changes in the project through dialogue, knowledge sharing, and implementation. An already-operating work-in-progress.
BIMBY’s modus operandi, just like a suburban house, is in fact quite trivial. It consists only of the division of plots – of the millions of parcels of land more than a thousand square meters in area, usually occupied in France by a singular house.2 This triviality sounds like a revolution, carrying the gene of innovation rather than utopia.
Everything is at stake in this mise-en-scène. The approach must be enlarged, with a multi-faceted discourse. BIMBY has to convince local representatives that it’s possible to cast the first stone in this diffuse form of urbanism composed of many individual initiatives. A change in certain by-laws and rules are necessary to make the division of plots easier and in turn enable and control this kind of city making. Ultimately, it is more controllable than it seems.
Once again, we must wait for the suitable moment. The time to act is when towns review their Plan Local d’Urbanisme (PLU)3 with its fourteen articles. This is the trick. The number of articles in the new version of BIMBY’s PLU is the same as its forerunner – they’re just re-interpreted. At the crucial moment when towns look at their urban strategies, BIMBY intervenes to provide new perspectives, to create new building rights, to adapt the parameters that enable to design new shapes, and not to freeze what already exists.
The decisive act. BIMBY engages property owners in a dialogue with architects. Any property owner who wishes, may meet with an architect. The interview lasts one hour. The participants find their plot on the computer’s screen. The earth viewed by Google as a gentle way in. The architect-mediator brings the house to three dimensional life. The owners explain their familial and personal situation while the architect states the economic benefits of a possible plot division. Trust is developing. Ideas emerge. The architect promotes, corrects, and reinforces these ideas. Trust increases. A possibility to build a second house. The architect counsels. Orientation. Parking areas. Views. New, intelligent, and fitted forms are integrated into the model. The ideas of the inhabitants. The advice of the architect.
Several towns have already used this process and it has shown its relevance. A quarter of the inhabitants were interviewed. At the end, four out of five people wanted to carry out this kind of operation. One hour was enough for them.
Money. Crisis. Recession. Who doesn’t need 100,000 euros these days?
Selling a part of your land brings in money, and even more money if you build on it. For those who were afraid of it, architecture creates wealth. Another advantage is that the smaller the project, the fewer the interested parties involved. As the number of actors decreases the more some costs can be reduced or completely avoided.
The morphologically adapted shapes of BIMBY can’t be found in the catalogues of housing developers. Custom production is called for in many BIMBY cases because of heightened constraints. This case-by-case adaptation process does not fit with the economic model of traditional developers. For them all costs must be minimized. Therefore, small construction companies appear in the foreground. Sometimes their costs are higher but they’re able to build houses of better quality.
Besides raising local interest, we need to also change the framework. France has 19 million single-family houses and about 160,000 new ones are built annually. If only a small percent of these owners decide to divide their plot to build a new house, then these new houses won’t contribute to urban sprawl. The supply generated from this act could even exceed the demand. Anxious developers would start to fret over losing their business. The stakes are high. Micro and macro economies, embodied in the architectural project and territorial planning, intersect, collide, and complement each other. This approach could generate a new equilibrium on a large scale. There are good reasons to believe in a generalization of the phenomenon.
A large-scale diffusion must carry the contagion of the BIMBY virus. The high number of daily visits that bimby.fr generates is already symptomatic of this expected pandemic. The contagion first formed itself through online articles and documents. The incubation of one percent of individuals and professionals would be enough for a breakout. And it has probably already started.
Like eBay, Airbnb, Zipcar, or more generally the collaborative consumption movement, the salvation of BIMBY will be its capacity to generate credibility and trust. This trust requires a medium of expression. The initiators of BIMBY aim at collective appropriation through BIMBY+, a digital platform of exchange between those who have taken part in the project, those who want to, and those who are interested. If only what they have initiated could fly on its own.
No star-chitect, no star-representative, is the head of BIMBY+. This network of urban planning exchange does not have a face, but must have thousands.
At the dawn of an era of universal accessibility to data and knowledge, BIMBY+ must set an example, using an open-source logic as its starting point. The diffusion of a culture of architecture must still too often have a price. While architects don’t appreciate TV shows popularizing their noble practice, BIMBY dreams of playing the main character.
Behind the stage
Architects design a small fraction of the houses actually built. Still dreaming to build once again Mr. Savoye’s house or Mrs. Dall’Ava’s, it seems that they have forgotten Mr. Nobody’s. Is the almost unanimously consensual fight against urban sprawl the powerful excuse that denigrates the individual house – where 57 percent of French people live? Not really. The single-family house does not offer the same benefits to the owner and to the architect. Significant effort for low reward. There is still the excitement generated by architectural design but not always the profit.
It’s easy to avoid the use of an architect. We can even build a French castle or a Parisian palace of 169 square meters without an architect.4 That explains their low presence in the housing market. We can get along without them. BIMBY has to put one’s cards on the table to enable the reconciliation of the architect with the private individual. It’s the crucial gamble.
Other hindrances appear. Land division is seen as de-valuing a plot – a misconception by most of the population.. Nowadays, the urban rules authorize the division of only one in five plots in France. Nonetheless, BIMBY provides answers with political, economic, urban, and architectural legitimacy.
Will the architect again have the right to be interested in the suburban house, that which they’re currently forced to denigrate? Will they be able to cherish the individual house, just as it has loved them so much?
“If this is hell, why it is so popular?”5 What works for Los Angeles – “the city that American intellectuals love to hate”, as Mike Davis says – could also work for the individual house. The connection is less naive than it looks. Los Angeles is both the temple of the house and the paradise of NIMBYism. BIMBY bets on a letter, the discreet synonym of a quiet revolution.
Greater Paris, Lille Metropolis 2030, Amiens 2030, and so on. All the French territories want to predict today their difficult days ahead. Territorial and prospective projects have become common practice. Metropolises and cities are trying to reinvent their model of urban development. Housing plays a key role. 70,000 new units annually in Greater Paris; 50,000 new housing units in Bordeaux – a city where sprawl breaks records. Treating BIMBY as the sole solution to the problem, however, could lead us to an impasse. As its founders say, BIMBY is only one piece of the puzzle. BIMBY is already there and has to play its role of alternative hope during this critical period. At the heart of this frenetic economic and social crisis, the weakness of the big can be offset by the opportunism of the small. If the private house, which bears the stigma of an American individualism, has emancipated individual freedoms, can it play a role toward a collective freedom – a common interest at last regained?
So, to build or not to build, in my backyard?
The writing of this article was made possible through the involvement of David Miet, one of the BIMBY’s project managers, who agreed to be interviewed. www.bimby.fr
1 “Distribution of housing in 2011, France” At: www.insee.fr/fr/themes/tableau.asp?reg_id=0&ref_id=NATFPS05201 (accessed November 16th 2011)
2 “UMF Union of French Houses” At: www.uniondesmaisonsfrancaises.org (accessed November 9th 2011)
3The Plan Local d’Urbanisme is the main document of urban planning at the municipal level.
4 In France, the use of an architect is required only if a project will result in the net floor area of house being over 170 square meters.5 Bryce Nelson. “If This Is Hell, Why Is It So Popular?” in New York Times March 3rd 1991. - a review of City of Quartz, Excavating the future in Los Angeles by Mike Davis, 1990.