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Contrasting Two Models of How Places Survive

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Two September experiences reminded me of the strength and fragility of urban places, and the inherent ironies of surviving town forms. One such experience was here, at home, while preparing for a keynote address in New Hampshire scheduled for later this month. The other was on the road in southern France.

For the New Hampshire address, I have been asked to illustrate universal characteristics of urbanism to local government representatives, and the presentation is coming together well. The basic elements of the classic New England town is a convenient  model for today's quest for compact, walkable urban areas. To existing residents of such towns, it's a well-documented, "remember your past" message.

As new urbanist leader Elizabeth Plater-Zybeck summarized in an Atlantic article by Stage Stossell some 14 years ago:

"Many New England towns had rules stating that you couldn't live more than a mile from the town green, in order to maintain some sense of community and control. Others controlled the way you could graze your animals on the land or how many animals you could own, in order not to deplete resources."

But more challenging is addressing the second reminder, the one from France -- what happens when the underpinnings for a town are taken away?

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A few weeks ago,  I had a spontaneous encounter with a small urban settlement -- once called Brovès -- that has ceased to exist, other than as a physical, roadside reminder. I had read about French ghost towns before, most recently in Mark Byrnes' Atlantic Cities piece on Goussainville-Vieux Pays -- lost to the Charles de Gaulle airport flight path -- and in other, haunting accounts of Oradour-sur-Glane, the village-scale, preserved memorial to a wartime massacre of long ago. But this time, even without a catastrophic event, a village had vanished, with no apparent story to offset the sudden find.

On our way to Bargème, my brother and I crossed Le Grand Camp de Canjuers, a military installation in the Var region of Provence, an area well known for resistance operations during World War II. The expansive plateau and limestone surroundings are punctuated by military roads and fences, and frankly, there was little that was remarkable along the way. That is, of course, until a townscape appeared, just off of the highway, shown in the images presented here.

The former village of Brovès is a stage at first deceptively alive with structure -- like the New England town, a church and surrounding buildings dot the landscape. But it is a remarkably silent landscape, a silence with military "interdit" (in English, "no entry") signs that begged for research. I obeyed the signs, leaving the research for later.

Subsequently, I learned that Brovès is one of several villages and hamlets abandoned in the 1970s in favor of Le Grand Camp de Canjuers.  Google "Brovès" and you can see the story even more clearly, with old postcards, others' images and makeshift video adding poignant, multimedia flair.  

In particular, a video posted by Marc Moitessier on Vimeo last year includes a first-hand account (a "témoignage") of the back story:

Brovès, 12h20 from marc moitessier on Vimeo.

Two years ago, Jean-Baptiste Mallet, a Marseilles journalist, also told the back story of Brovès in an article framed around long-term looting of the townsite and the prospects for restoration. As Mallet explained (translated to English):

"Here, the tower has no bell. Crows ring the hours. The passage of time has smashed roofs, broken tiles, cracked the church, buried the laundry... and destroyed the facades of old farmhouses. All this accelerated by looters plundering... stone, wrought iron and antique tiles."

Like the video above, Mallet's story proceeds in a way more salient to the human side of place and home. He spins a tale of a ninth-century village, continually inhabited, with houses handed down from generation to generation, until 1974 when long-term military camp plans were finalized, and the last residents were given just a few days' notice to leave. He concludes (again, translated):

Brovès no longer has any legal existence. In a Kafkaesque process Brovès-born citizens who renewed their identity papers found their documents stamped "né à Seillans", a commune---a larger municipality to which Brovès was attached.

There is a larger French socio-political picture, of course that speaks to military defense decisions of the Cold War era. But at core, my sudden encounter with Brovès contrasts markedly with urbanism that can be reclaimed in the New England landscape addressed above.

In New Hampshire, I certainly plan to remind current residents of the the underlying premise for a surrounding town. The silence of Brovès provided a stark and confounding contrast. I found while photographing the townscape that without its people, the urban form along the highway had little voice.

Are there practical lessons from these two models of how a place survives? I have a two-part response:

The first I have mentioned many times while championing the interdisciplinary view of today's urbanism: multiple, intertwining forces define how places evolve.

The second is a commonly cited Shakespeare passage about the nature of cities. The full form of the passage is particularly insightful.

From Coriolanus:

SICINIUS
What is the city but the people?

Citizens
True,
The people are the city.

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Images (other than the indicated video) composed by the author in the former Brovès, Provence, France. Click on the image for more detail. © 2009-2013 myurbanistAll Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

For more information on the role of personal experience in understanding the changing city, see Urbanism Without Effortan e-book from Island Press.

This article first appeared in similar form in myurbanist.

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