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From the Field

In the Name of Metropolitan Attractiveness

The Sacrifices and Rituals of Major Urban Renewal Projects

By comparing two urban renewal projects in Lille and Hamburg, Clément Barbier shows that the staging of attractiveness by local authorities contrasts with their powerlessness to attract businesses and new residents, and that this policy is not without effects on the working-class areas concerned.

Since the early 1990s in Europe, the injunction to promote “territorial attractiveness” seems to have become widespread at all levels of government. In several conurbations, including Lille (in northern France) and Hamburg (in northern Germany), the affirmation of “promoting attractiveness” as a new public-policy imperative marks a turning point in the history of the development of “disadvantaged neighborhoods.” Faced with the failure of priority geography policies designed to solve this “problem of neighborhoods,” this objective of local social development was gradually integrated into a strategy of growth and international influence for metropolises.

It is this metamorphosis that I set out to question here, by tracing the history of two major urban renewal projects: ZAC de l’Union, in the north-east of the Lille conurbation; and IBA Hamburg on Wilhelmsburg island, to the south of downtown Hamburg. My study of these two projects [1] highlights the inability of local authorities to steer business location decisions and household settlement choices; the sustainability of these attractiveness policies thus appears somewhat enigmatic. What purpose, and whom, do metropolitan attractiveness projects serve? And how do territorial-development professionals deal with the powerlessness and contradictions they face?

IBA Hamburg and ZAC de l’Union: two incomparable projects?

Since 2007, the Zone d’Aménagement Concerté (ZAC) [2] de l’Union has sought to develop an 80‑hectare site of former industrial land that straddles the boundaries of three towns in the northeast of the Lille conurbation: Roubaix, Tourcoing, and Wattrelos. When the project was officially launched, the area was a huge site that had been reduced to wasteland following an acquisition and demolition procedure carried out by the Établissement Public Foncier du Nord–Pas-de-Calais (public land-management corporation for the former Nord–Pas-de-Calais region [3]) (Barbier 2019a). The master plan calls for the establishment of companies in “sectors of excellence”—innovative textiles, image and higher services—ultimately providing 4,000 jobs, the construction of an ecodistrict to accommodate 3,000 residents, and the development of an urban park and a school. The project, which has been regularly reworked, has come up against a sluggish real-estate market in a highly stigmatized geographical area, where the establishment of economic activities and the marketing of housing have been extremely difficult, leaving plots in the heart of the zone still vacant.

IBA (Internationale Bauaustellung) Hamburg [4] is an urban renewal project launched in 2007 on the island of Wilhelmsburg, located on the Elbe in the southern part of the Hamburg conurbation. The aim of this “international building exhibition” was to develop a series of exemplary projects within a total perimeter of 35 km² (13.5 sq. mi.), divided into three main themes. The first of these, “Metrozone,” aims to redevelop a series of “urban wastelands” with several housing programs that do not involve the direct eviction of businesses or residents. The second, “Kosmopolis,” involves the creation of school facilities and social centers promoting "multiculturalism". The third, “City in Climate Change,” promotes low-energy architecture and the construction of renewable energy production infrastructures. Buoyed by the massive influx of capital into Hamburg’s real-estate market, home-ownership housing programs by private developers and investors have contributed to a rapid transformation of the island’s center, in conjunction with the renovation of the S-Bahn (suburban train) station and the development of a vast park that won the "International Garden Show" - Internationale Gartenschau.

While at first glance these two schemes may appear difficult to compare, a cross-analysis of their trajectories reveals two paradoxical convergences around the common goal of making "problem neighborhoods" emblems of "metropolitan attractiveness".

Invoking attractiveness to dismiss what already exists

The vagueness that surrounds the discourse on promoting the international influence of metropolises does not prevent local development technicians and experts from referring to this imperative of territorial renewal to designate, often indirectly and euphemistically, the companies and residents who no longer have a place in the neighborhoods to be redeveloped. When the IBA project was being designed, the fact that most of the land on the island of Wilhelmsburg was owned by the City of Hamburg, as well as the weight of the residents’ mobilization around the "right to the city", helped to ensure that the land required for the development operations was produced without eviction. However, an analysis of the expert reports that helped define the objectives for transforming the island’s population reveals how the statistical over-representation of the working classes, particularly those of immigrant origin, was constructed as a problem that the attraction of real-estate investment was intended to solve. The presence of port-related industries was also identified as an obstacle to the development of Wilhelmsburg. By developing a more upscale residential offering, the IBA is contributing to a sharp rise in property prices and driving out one of the last affordable living spaces in the Hamburg conurbation, where the market has been under drastic pressure since the end of the 2000s. The eviction of the working classes and of industrial activities deemed incompatible with the new residential functions assigned to the Elbe Island was delayed, and took place in the years following the official end of the project.

The relegation of populations and companies perceived as not conforming to the site’s metropolitan vocation was played out in a much more direct and anticipated manner at Union. When the project was being drawn up, the archives of the consultancy firms consulted enable us to retrace the symbolic sorting operation that was then undertaken. Thus, the invocation of the populations and economic activities to be attracted is first and foremost part of the stigmatization and marginalization of those occupying the project area. The vagueness that surrounds the designations of the targets of this attractiveness policy - "innovative companies", "creative people" and "families" - contrasts in this case with the precision with which small industries, local businesses and residents are identified as no longer having a place in the "metropolitan site of excellence" planned for this intermunicipal area. These economic activities and residents are therefore being asked to leave the Union area, which is gradually becoming a wasteland as a result of successive takeovers and demolitions. While in Wilhelmsburg, the IBA’s promoters mainly bypassed the participatory dynamics initiated in the 1990s with the "social development of neighborhoods" programs, the technocrats in charge of the land action upstream of the Union project initiated a vast operation to produce economic and urban decline. In fact, the eviction of populations and businesses deemed undesirable and incompatible with the site’s metropolitan vocation was carried out in the name of promoting attractiveness (Barbier 2019a).

Putting on a show of attractiveness in a context of powerlessness

The second convergence identified between the IBA and the Union concerns the way in which attractiveness is invoked in the course of implementing these projects. Over and above the elements that distinguish the contexts in which these urban renewal policies are deployed, we find similar attempts by the various project managers to ward off their inability to guide the investment decisions of their private partners. Even in Hamburg, where the real-estate economy was experiencing historic growth at the time the project was launched, the first private investments were only gleaned thanks to the direct support of elected officials, who made use of the local developers most closely associated with the municipality, at the cost of providing the land (virtually) free of charge. In the Union zone, the few companies that have set up business and the participation of a single developer in the construction of housing are the exclusive result of interpersonal relations between business owners and local councillors. These dealings frequently give rise to quid pro quos, particularly as regards access to land in other, more sought-after areas of the Lille conurbation.

In these situations, where the employees of the two development companies are unable to influence market mechanisms, their mission to promote the attractiveness of the metropolitan area leads them to multiply their communication efforts around the willingness of public authorities in this area. Local events - such as real-estate fairs and trade fairs dedicated to certain economic sectors - are the preferred venues for such publicity. While these fairs are full of speeches in praise of the international influence of the regions, the exchanges take place, according to those primarily concerned, between regional development professionals from the same locality. In the course of our four-year survey, none of the project managers suggested that these fairs could be useful spaces for securing the support of private partners.

Observing the work of project managers and the meetings at which they work to set up each development and economic development operation, we also witnessed some surprising scenes. At l’Union in particular, when the project had been bogged down for several years, employees of the development company and the metropolis’ international promotion agency, some of the most critical behind-the-scenes critics of the contradictions and vagueness surrounding the project’s objectives, found themselves in a position to reappropriate discursive procedures similar to those they had openly denounced in the past during less exposed exchanges. While they regularly agreed on the overly imprecise and restrictive nature of the "sectors of excellence", particularly around innovative textiles and image, the project managers, once brought together in a crisis meeting, then organized under the aegis of the agency director, gave their support to a reworking of the project around an even more inconsistent notion - the "lifestyle" - and the wish to make "three sectors of excellence". - and the desire to make "three axes: sport, leisure and screens" the "vectors of change in society" (Barbier 2019b).

The boondoggle of attractiveness policies

Beyond the differences that remain between these two urban renewal projects, the IBA Hamburg and the Union have two similar ways of dealing with the contradictions of attractiveness policies. However powerless they may be to influence the investment decisions and location choices of solvent households and high value-added companies, projects to promote metropolitan attractiveness are capable of influencing, sometimes quite heavily, the destiny of cities and their inhabitants. Between the relegation of populations and economic activities deemed unworthy of the vocation of excellence that is hoped for in certain "disadvantaged districts" and the staging of a fantasized capacity of local authorities to make cities shine internationally, many sacrifices and ritual performances are committed in the name of attractiveness.

In conurbations like Hamburg, where land is highly sought-after, these policies can accelerate the change in image and the rise in property prices of the districts they aim to develop. As symbols of the commitment of elected officials to the redevelopment of their territory, they also serve to increase the rents of property owners and the profits of private developers, while helping to boost the tax revenues of local governments. But very often, and particularly in the more stigmatized urban areas such as Roubaix and Tourcoing, urban renewal carried out in the name of attractiveness translates above all into a waste of public funds and the destruction of working-class areas.


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To cite this article:

Clément Barbier & translated by Oliver Waine, “In the Name of Metropolitan Attractiveness. The Sacrifices and Rituals of Major Urban Renewal Projects”, Metropolitics, 8 December 2023. URL :

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Journal supported by the Institut des Sciences Humaines et Sociales (Institute of Human and Social Sciences) of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS)