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Stemming disposable culture tide
(China Daily)
Updated: 2005-05-03 07:08

PARIS: Drive into most middle-sized French towns and the scenery is today much the same. First, in the middle of nowhere, come large out-of-town stores and hypermarkets.

Next there are new apartment blocks or houses. Then come smaller businesses - computer shops, MoT test centres, budget hotels and chain restaurants.

Next, you drive into the slightly run-down outskirts of the town's 19th century expansion. And finally, maybe half an hour or more from the first Bricorama, or Carrefour, is a beautiful, carefully-preserved town centre.

New government figures show that half a million Britons, among countless others, have fallen for the charm and the calm of la France profonde to the extent of buying a home here. But anyone thinking of doing the same should beware. The nature of the French countryside is changing and every year, there is less and less of it.

The environment minister, Serge Lepeltier, presented a report by the National Environmental Institute earlier this month. The report suggested that the green fields and rolling hills of rural France were being eaten into at an alarming rate as towns creep relentlessly outwards.

"Urban landscapes have advanced significantly and farmland has regressed," the study says. "The urban framework... is growing everywhere. Of the 59 per cent of France's territory occupied by agricultural land, 4.8 per cent has been claimed by urban creep in the past decade."

The report, part of a pan-European land use project known as Corine, using aerial photography to assess major changes in the landscape, says transport infrastructure - roads, railway lines, airports - has expanded even faster, by 12 per cent over the past 10 years.

And Corine almost certainly underestimates the extent of the phenomenon, since a change must affect at least five hectares (12.5 acres) before it is registered. Isolated houses, electricity pylons, mobile phone masts and the other paraphernalia of urban sprawl do not count.

"Enormous changes are underway," Anne Kriegel, a landscape architect, told the newspaper Le Monde recently. "Some 60,000 hectares of agricultural land are disappearing every year, 20,000 of them in the greater Paris region, to be replaced by urban zones. A whole environment is disappearing."

The change is alarming because the countryside is a vital factor in France's economy, Kriegel said. "It isn't just a matter of it being about pleasant walks and the poetry of clouds. The countryside is France's biggest public business. It's a national asset that, through tourism, brings in twice as much as agriculture, three times as much as the automotive industry, 10 times more than the luxury goods trade. And who gives a damn? No one."

Urban creep is not confined to France. But it is more noticeable here because of a recent, almost exclusively French phenomenon - urban-rural drift. Last year, for the first time since the World War II, the French countryside stopped losing population to the cities.

The fate of countless villages - an ageing population, young people fleeing at the first opportunity, shops and services shutting one by one as their owners retire or go bankrupt - is gradually being reversed. In 1999, the last year for which figures are available, the countryside gained 410,000 inhabitants.

The newcomers are not just office workers who, thanks to France's 35-hour working week and the Internet, can spend several days a week in their holiday homes.

Nor are they commuters. Nearly half of the "neo-rurals" find jobs where they move to or in the nearest town. Many start businesses.

The phenomenon crosses class and job boundaries. From 1990-1999, 312,800 elderly people left cities, along with 167,000 managers and independent professionals, 440,000 white-collar and 407,000 blue- collar workers.

The Interior Ministry says a total of 2.2 million people have moved to the countryside in a decade. The vast majority does not, however, settle in the deepest, remotest areas. They opt for small towns and villages within easy reach - say, 50 kilometres - of a major urban centre.

The most visible evidence of urban creep has been around Paris, Lille, Lyon, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Montpellier, Marseille and Nice, in western Brittany around Rennes and Nantes, in the Rhone valley and along the entire Mediterranean coast.

"It's about achieving a social equilibrium," Kriegel said. "Beautiful landscapes and an agreeable living environment help foster a sense of well-being. When a space is badly organized, it generates aggression.

"We need to change our mindset, to repair, organize and transform each place sensitively. It's the only way to avoid the banality of the `everything is disposable' culture."

(China Daily 05/03/2005 page6)

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