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How the French government plans to transform ‘ugly’ commercial zones

The proposal includes transforming sprawling shopping centres into more attractive and environmentally friendly mixed-use sites

An aerial view of an industrial zone in Thiers, France

The out-of-town shopping and commercial zones tend to be sprawling, with little regard for green space or aesthetics Pic: Bilanol / Shutterstock

The French government has this week announced a plan to tackle ‘ugly’ commercial zones, and create sustainable, mixed-use and attractive retail, home, work, and leisure areas.

What are zones commerciales?

Anyone living in France will probably be well-acquainted with these zones, of which there are around 1,500 nationwide. They tend to include several chain and discount stores, and at least one supermarket or hypermarket nearby, all housed within squat ‘shoe box’-shaped buildings.

They have their own car parks and are typically located within driving distance - but often not within easy walking distance - of the nearest town or major road. They typically have many shop signs, advertising billboards and concrete areas; but few plants or trees.

Many sprang up in the 1970s and 80s, when increased numbers of people began to have access to their own car. With more people going to out-of-town shopping centres, complementary businesses shot up next to them, including restaurants, cinemas, and bowling alleys.

How popular are they?

These areas are very popular and economically necessary. 

Figures suggest that 70% of people in France do their regular shopping in them, and they account for 45% of the average household budget. This compares to just 17% of budget spent in town centres. As a result, they are also key for local employment.

“Until now, politicians have focused on supporting town centres. But they only represent a minority of the retail sector in France,” said Christophe Noël, general delegate of commerce group la Fédération des acteurs du commerce et des territoires (FACT), to Le Figaro.

“It's important to send a message to people living in outlying areas that we are also interested in their quality of life.”

Aesthetics and sustainability

Yet, the areas’ fast development - which is still ongoing in many towns - often leaves little room for environmental or aesthetic considerations.

In a bid to tackle the issue Commerce Minister Olivia Grégoire and Ecology Minister Christophe Béchu announced yesterday (Monday, September 11) a plan to ‘transform’ these areas from ‘ugly spaces’ (as Ms Grégoire termed them a year ago) into more aesthetically- and environmentally-pleasing zones. 

The proposals include pilot projects to begin the work, as well as plans to make it easier to have legal approval to move forward.

The plan is also intended to help the spaces continue to thrive sustainably.

In a statement, Ms Grégoire's office said: "Some shopping areas are 60 years old. We now need to anticipate the future of these areas for the next 60 years.”

The new plans include proposals to cut the amount of artificial land around the areas in half, and to make them places where people want to live as well as shop.

Developers are considering ways to reduce the retail sprawl across the land, and instead to construct housing and offices in the zones, meaning that they will need to make the areas more attractive and environmentally healthy.

Freeing up land that has already been developed to build the housing we need is in the public interest,” said Jacques Erhmann, CEO of the Altarea Cogedim building group and former chairman of the Centre national des centres commerciaux (CNCC). He proposed such an idea to the French Economy Ministry in 2020.

“We can make better use of all this space,” said Emmanuel Le Roch, general delegate of specialist commerce federation Procos.

“Improving the accessibility of these shopping areas…reintegrating them into the city, pooling car parks and increasing the density of shops to build something else, that would be positive,” he said.

Mixed-use districts 

To this end, one property company, Frey, recently announced that it had joined forces with Banque des territoires and CDC Habitat to build a mixed-use district. It will build shops and housing in the same area as the Herblay commercial zone in Montigny-lès-Cormeilles (Val-d'Oise).

Etixia, the property arm of clothing company Kiabi (which often has shops in these ‘shoe boxes’, is also carrying out a similar project in Maurepas (Yvelines). Commercial centre building specialist Mercialys is working on a project to refashion and restructure an area in north-east Chartres (Eure-et-Loir).

A report from the Ecology Ministry stated that the aim is not so much to replace the shopping zones, but to update them - although moving existing shops and buildings can cost millions in compensation and building work.

“We must not think that these 'shoe boxes' have no value,” said the report. “They are worth millions, even though they are in a deplorable state.”

The government is now working with local authorities, town planners, architects, retail players and property companies to identify the sticking points to making real change. 

“This is the first government to take a real interest in this subject,” said Antoine Frey, Frey CEO.

Simplifying building transformations 

The government’s plans include ways to remove needless legal obstacles to the transformation of these commercial areas. 

For example, the projet de loi industrie verte (green industry bill) includes measures designed to shorten project durations, and change the rules on building rights and planning permission.

Other changes will make it easier to amend a town planning scheme and allow both homes and shops to be built in one place.

“This measure alone will save us four to five years [per project],” said Mr Frey.

Reducing the length of projects means that the cost of the building work is also reduced, as is the damage to the environment. There is also less risk that a future government will change the law again before completion, and people can move in and benefit from the new areas faster.

The areas most likely to see the biggest development and change are those where there is greater demand for housing.

For the less-attractive areas (both literally and financially), the government has earmarked €24 million to compensate companies that suffer from changing trends, declining conditions, and reduced footfall. These areas of land could then be redeveloped to make way for factories or warehouses.

‘We need to act fast’

Mr Noël, from commerce representatives’ group FACT, warned that the government needs to act quickly if its plans are to be effective. He said that legally, car park areas now need to be covered, and are likely to become solar panel parks within the next few years.

“Once car parks are covered with solar panels, we will not be touching them for the next 20 years,” he said. “So we need to move fast.”

The proposed changes come as an increasing number of town mayors in France are acting to remove publicity billboards and signs in their streets, as they look to reduce ‘visual clutter’ and save energy.

This visual clutter and lack of green spaces are often among the aspects most-commonly mentioned in the annual Prix de la France Moche - or ‘Ugly France Prize’, which awards ironic accolades to towns that are considered to be ugly, cluttered, or ‘banal’, as one winner was grimly termed in 2021.

Read also

Prix de la France Moche: Why is there an ‘Ugly Towns’ award?
Twitter account devoted to France’s ‘ugliest’ architecture under fire
Contest for ugliest places in France reveals top contenders

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