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Governance of urban nature

Nathalie Blanc, Sandrine Glatron, Thomas Lamarche, Aleksandar Rankovic and Anne Sourdril


This paper analyses changes in the governance of urban nature in French urban policies over the past two decades. It demonstrates that the importance of “sustainable development” procedural principles has significantly declined in public policy agendas, a decline that has occurred alongside the rise to prominence of sectoral approaches based on performance and control, whether they focus on climate or urban biodiversity policies. Faced with these transformations in public action—namely the emergence of a centralized and sectoral management of urban policies ill-suited to the complex socio-environmental territories—collective movements in civil society are developing initiatives based on cooperation across territories. Consequently, the urban governance of nature reflects the conflicts between centralized policies and the composite and fragmented reality of the governance of nature in the city. We use the notion of “tinkering”, which refer to the general fragmentation of initiatives, actors, alliances and conflicts in the context of space usage in the field of urban nature, to describe these dynamics. Based on two studies of the urban policies developed by central French government authorities since the 1990s, we identify three principal discrepancies, based on three main separations, that illustrate “tinkering” with the governance of urban nature. The first relates to the discrepancy between “living nature” (biodiversity policies) and “physical-chemical nature” (in climate change policies) (Climate and biodiversity policies: sector-based governance). The second reflects the discrepancy between a technically oriented understanding of the environment and the sensory understanding of inhabitants (Discrepancies between representations and practices). Finally, the third concerns the different levels of action (Discrepancies in scale: the relationship between top-down and bottom-up governance).

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A new hybrid governance of urban nature: French case-studies

1Approaches to the inclusion of nature in the governance of cities have undergone a circuitous evolution since the 1990s. Following the ecosystem-based approaches of the 1970s (Duvigneaud 1974) and the municipal environmentalist approaches of the 1980s (Garnier 1994; Blanc 1998), sustainable development has radically altered how environmental matters are factored into urban policies. Thanks to the invention of new forms of governance, the notion of the “sustainable city” has facilitated the development of projects integrating various dimensions of the environment (biodiversity, climate, etc.) while also taking city-dwellers into account (Rumpala 2010). Consequently, notions of governance and sustainable development developed side by side in the 1980s (Adger et al. 2003; Jordan 2008; Meadowcroft 2007).

2In the Dictionnaire des politiques publiques, Patrick Le Galès, who has been researching the genealogy of governance since 1995, suggests defining governance as “the set of approaches used to coordinate, pilot and lead sectors, groups and society, beyond classic government institutions” (translated here). This breakthrough is fragile as governance remains a descriptive term that is mostly used to describe relationships between the local authorities and the state. Lastly, in France, the term governance is often defined as the processes that aim to co-construct a shared interest in a specific intention in association with a specific audience. Sylvie Lardon et al. (2005, translated here) refer to governance as a situation in which “the institutions of the State and politicians no longer have a monopoly on public interest, and in which society, in its diverse forms, has an important responsibility in the co-construction of our collective destinies. It emphasises the array and diversity of actors involved—or who could be involved—in the management of public affairs. The challenge of such approaches is to organise discussions, exchanges and coordination among the different—institutional as well as local, individual and collective—actors involved, to set shared goals, produce accepted and legitimate norms, and translate these into rules and apply them”.

3Sustainable development has been presented as having the potential to renew public policy by counteracting sector-based or partial approaches that separate, for example, energy, climate and biodiversity (Adger and Jordan 2009; Béal, Gauthier, and Pinson 2011; Whitehead, 2003). However, more recently, under the impetus of the increasing prevalence of neo-managerial-type public policies (Bezès 2008; Epstein 2013; Le Galès and Scott 2010), urban policies—including climate and urban biodiversity policies—have favoured sector-based approaches focused on performance and control (Beal 2011; While, Jonas, and Gibbs 2010). Consequently, the procedural conception of sustainable development, which emphasized governance with other stakeholders and prevailed until the 2000s, was gradually replaced by managerial approaches to environmental and urban policy, as well as by target-based control and evaluation systems. The deployment of sector-based policies in the environmental field has made this a particularly sensitive phenomenon (Beal 2011; While, Jonas, and Gibbs 2010). Performance, evaluation and control indicators are key components of instrument-based “governmentality” (Lascoumes and Le Galès 2004), one of the major features of neo-liberal dynamics present at the urban level in particular (Le Galès and Lorrain 2003). On top of this control of public action is the logic of liberalisation, whereby public action creates competition between rival tenderers seeking to deploy their initiatives. In response to increasing public debt—and reactions to it from international financial institutions—actions are increasingly delegated to third parties (Duménil and Lévy 2011).

4Confronted with transformations in public action, i.e., a centralised and sector-based management of public policy that is ill-suited to dealing with the socio-environmental complexities of territories, collective movements have emerged out of civil society notably in cities striving for a “new urbanism” (see, for example, Andrews and Edwards 2005; Brulle 2000; Brulle and al. 2007; Carmin 1999; Deelstra and Yanitsky 1991). These movements have developed initiatives based on cooperation at the territorial level; they are committed to local approaches and to taking charge of ecological transformation. On one hand, these developments are attempts to finding low-cost solutions to socio-territorial problems facing public bodies. British neoliberal doctrines have helped to disseminate a model of “active citizenship” and of increasing devolution of formerly public responsibilities—such as the environment—to the ”third sector” (and also said voluntary sector) (Fyfe 2005). On the other hand, it is also important to, first, take into account approaches that are based on autonomisation and facilitated by these citizen-driven dynamics and, second, to reflect upon their impact in terms of broad changes that are symptomatic of societal change (Blanc, Emelianoff, and al. 2008). Indeed, faced with the decline in political participation, there is a need to reflect upon the vitality of the democratic system and, in particular, upon its capacity to nurture “collaborative governance” (Sirianni 2009). We are currently witnessing the emergence of new forms of engagement (Douay and Prévot 2012) based on direct action that are not given much media exposure by the institutions or parties involved. Analysis of these spaces of spontaneous civic appropriation highlights their political importance, especially when territory is one of the major sources of conflict currently experienced by institutions. This is a key component that brings together the human and social sciences to approach lived space (Blanc 2004) in a new way. In other words, there is a need to analyse the cultural transformations spearheaded by new forms of engagement in civil society.

5Therefore, rather than reflecting hybridation between public and private stakeholders and dynamics (Fischer and Svendsen 2014), the urban governance of nature reflects conflicts between centralised governance projects and the composite and fragmented reality of the governance of nature in cities. Aside from the gap between the stated intentions concerning neo-liberal management and the dynamics of governance on the ground, our use of the notion of “tinkering” to characterise these dynamics links back to the major compartmentalization of initiatives and stakeholders, as well as to their alliances and conflicts within the context of the uses of urban public and/or private spaces. So, the different players interact and confront each other around these different ways of organizing natural objects, spaces, elements, all of which legitimize—and are legitimized by—the different stakeholders. At the metropolitan scale, such practices have both anticipated and unanticipated effects in different spheres of society, for example, political, scientific, inhabitant. Secondly, the production of nature in cities implies the production of urban spaces that are public and private, individual and collective. Such spaces are also the products of individual, collective, public and private initiatives invested in diverse control and governance institutions (Roweis and Scott 1978; Scott 1980). The increasing numbers of stakeholders, types of spaces and bases of intervention, together with the disappearance of integrative political frameworks, are particular features of tinkering that are specific to the management of environmental issues. They blend purely local dynamics with the dynamics associated with the locations of these spaces in urban networks at the international level. It is therefore necessary to look at the processes through which actors are legitimised via their involvement with nature in the city, as well as at the increasing legitimacy of nature in the city as a standalone political issue (Haiko 2007).

6For didactic reasons, we begin this paper with a discussion of the governance and evolution of urban nature (1) In particular, we will present the new roles and actions undertaken by citizens and grassroots organizations and study why, in certain cases, the governance of urban nature has been “tinkered with” (2). We will develop our argument by explaining the various discrepancies we have observed, using concrete case study-based examples of the impact of such discrepancies on practices of tinkering or crafting (3). We also clarify the link among the increasing importance of civil society in local development, ad hoc forms of governance, and how the latter might lend inspiration to institutional forms of governance (4).

  • 1 Throughout this paper, we will use the terms “nature in the city” and “urban nature” interchangeabl (...)

7To support this argument empirically, the article draws upon data collected via several research programmes focused on natural features and urban governance. Broadened to encompass the varying means of governing urban nature, our research contributes to two research programmes that focus, respectively, on interdisciplinary analyses of urban green corridors in 7 French cities (Blanc and Clergeau 2013) and on the relationships between political adaptation to climate change and biodiversity policies at different scales in the Ile-de-France region. This research focuses on contemporary policies dealing with nature in the city. Our findings underscore the importance of ecological engineering in planning practices and point to the processes at work as human societies shape urban nature1.

The evolution of the governance of urban nature

8The terms governance and sustainable development both emerged in the 1980s. Both claim to be tools that facilitate the inter-sectoral, multi-scale and trans-scale, and multi-stakeholder complexities of environmental policies. Since the introduction of these terms, new participation-based governmental procedures have been deployed. Different types of stakeholders (including economic and collective stakeholders from civil society) have grown in influence, taken on more responsibility and expanded their skillsets in the planning process (Swyngedouw, Moulaert, and Rodriguez 2002). Numerous works on governance have highlighted the fact that local authorities have benefited from the erosion of the states' ability to integrate and develop alternative regulation and integration mechanisms. They thus provide the means for some local authorities to reclaim autonomy in defining their own development and in the regulation of social conflicts. The urban ecology charters and urban environmental policies of the 1980s did not revolutionize the organisation of local government. Beginning in the 1990s—with the launch of the campaign for sustainable cities (Emelianoff and Stegassy 2010)—and especially since the 2000s (Béal 2012; Keil & Whitehead 2012; Krueger & Gibbs 2007; Raco, 2005; While, Gibbs, & Jonas, 2004), the imperatives of urban quality, nature in the city and participation began slowly to move to the top of local political agendas. Local factors, bottom-up approaches and the opening up of decision-making processes now lie at the heart of sustainable urban governance (Denters 2011; Kooiman 1993; Le Galès 1995; Pierre & Peters 2000; Stoker 2000), including the development of contracts, charters and various forms of partnership (Pinson 2002, 2009). As such, the conflicts between neo-managerial approaches to urban policy—sometimes associated with the representation of large urban technical systems—and forms of local democracy influencing the reappropriation of local space have challenged the development of metropolitan spaces (Le Galès and Lorrain 2003). These conflicts have also triggered further debates over the technical management of the large infrastructure networks that shape urban spaces. Such debates concern the key issue of public hygiene, as well as that of urban comfort. More recently, debates have addressed the perspectives opened up by the sustainable city; see Pickett et al., 2013. The technical thrust of public engineering is omnipresent in metropolises. In France, given the prominence of the large public engineering corps, public engineering plays a well-established role and has historically resulted in a centralised and monopolistic market structure due to the technical-economic nature of infrastructure (Stoffaës 1995). These new demands of governance throw a cog into the wheel of public and technical approaches to urban management. The issue of nature in the city and the very local focus on nature might be the basis of a new era for urban governance.

9Analysis of changes in natural spaces in the city shows that such spaces were initially vacant areas and have since been reappropriated by civil society bodies for environmental and food-based activities (parks, green belts, collective gardens, urban farms, etc.) that have become major foci of this grassroots mobilisation. Aside from the diversity of resources used to impact the environment in these areas (legislative, political, educational, etc.), territory always appears to constitute a key focus in attempts to combat the symptoms of the “urban living crisis,” as well as in civic environmental and food practices.

10Accordingly, environmentalist associations have introduced major changes into urban governance processes, a phenomenon that has been analysed in detail in the USA (Horton 2004; Svendsen and Campbell 2005). More and more research is focusing on both formal and informal groups of citizens dedicating themselves to the conservation of nature in cities and tackling general quality of life issues (Fisher and Svendsen 2014). Such research aims to demonstrate how environmental mobilisation has gradually become a factor in the management of urban ecosystems (Bulkeley and Betsill 2005). This community-based creativity appears to be capable of adapting to territorial modes of governance (Connolly, Svendsen, and al., 2013) by taking the form of “network-based democratic governance” (Sirianni 2009; Connolly, Svendsen, et al., 2014). More generally, urban gardening spaces — as one type of open space asset — are thought to promote civic engagement, collective empowerment, and community-building (Rosol, 2010; Saldivar-Tanaka and Krasny, 2004; Tan Leon and Harvey, 2009). The “planner-centric” planning model is challenged as rational and anti-democratic, whereas collaborative planning practices in urban gardening projects reflect and enable new forms of urban governance and collaboration.

11Thus, it is neither the government at the national level nor instrumental economic reasoning that has an exclusive grasp of what is at stake in terms of the governance of urban nature. Rather, confrontation, rivalry and cooperation surround the relationship with nature. What we have observed is a variety of new territorial combinations and compromises—reached at the local level—with the new ”stakeholders in the game”. This variety is consistent with the conclusions of Lovins et al. (1999) and the path to a “natural capitalism”: different groups (NGOs, consultants, public authorities, etc.) are trying to make sustainable development workable and are looking for new compromises. We believe that such efforts are worthwhile, as one important aspect of ecological and social transition is to enable the construction of local resilience via adaptation policies co-produced in such a way that cities and communities can reconnect and work together to take responsibility for climate change. These communities may also reclaim the environment as a common good and embrace changes in the notion of responsibility (Haikio 2004). In a context of uncertainty, “rebuilding local resilience” requires the identification, activation and harnessing of the combined synergies of local capabilities (Bacqué and Biewener 2013) to simultaneously facilitate a sense of living together, support territorial initiatives and cultivate an ability to confront differences and the “habitability of the milieu”.

12The different conflicts observed in our case studies lead us to conclude that the governance of urban nature is currently being redefined and that the processes at work involve a degree of hybridation and “tinkering” that is far removed from related neo-managerial ambitions.

“Tinkered” governance

13Dealing with urban governance is contingent upon adhering to intentions in order to grasp what actually governs stakeholders and their actions (Jessop 2002). It also involves showing how neoliberal governance functions—as well as asking about how it does not function—by looking at what is affected and what is not. Regarding urban nature, it appears necessary to show that the action of organizations on the ground is far from being governed directly by the instruments of governance and that the different spaces of action—and of civil society—remain largely autonomous, thus enabling a certain tinkering in public action.

14The term tinkering rarely bears positive connotations unless it used to describe repair work or the assembly of fragile, eclectic or dichotomous items. When we look at the succession of regulatory measures that are created and modified—a process referred to by political scientists as “institutional tinkering”—we can recognize “that this tinkering occurs too frequently to be coincidental” (Frinault 2005, translated here). We therefore need to grasp and interpret what this tinkering process entails. The consistency with which roles and actions succeed each other and move between actors “invites us to move beyond thinking that this is mere cyclical organisational tinkering. Hybridation is a major component of regulation since it literally involves rendering the conflicts within an economic regime endurable” (Gallois and Nieddu 2015, translated here).

15It is in this same sense that Elinor Ostrom extensively explores the types of “crafting” that allow societies, as well as stakeholders (e.g., farmers faced with water problems), to adapt to rules. Stakeholders are required to interpret, adapt to, or reconstruct the rules to create new ways of managing a resource or new types of relationships with nature (Basurto and Ostrom 2011). The term ‘crafting’ emphasizes the artisanship required to devise institutions that can both match the unique combinations of variables present in any system and adapt to changes in these variables over time (Ostrom, in Aligica, 2003).

16The notion of tinkering can enrich current debates on governance. For this reason, it is more pertinent to use the less restrictive notion of tinkering, which insists on de facto types of governance and not solely on established forms of governance (power systems). Thus, it seeks to identify the arrangements and compromises that are inevitably at work in the production of nature in the city. Indeed, “for several decades now, and still today, the environment has been a ‘laboratory’ in which new types of governance are constantly being invented. (...) It is important not to forget, however, that this drive for innovation coexists alongside an almost obsessive desire to strengthen the traditional (‘command and control-type’) means of State involvement” (Theys 2002, translated here).

17As Le Galès and Lorrain have argued, the notion of tinkering also allows us to “move away from macro-social analyses that are too quick to conflate the idea of a post-Fordist economy and ungovernable global cities, and instead look at how cities work and are governed de facto, as they continue to function for better or for worse” (Le Galès and Lorrain 2003 : 316, translated here). Using the notion of tinkering could help to understand this construction of governance on a trial-and-error basis.

18Throughout this article, three main characteristics underpin our use of the term tinkering to describe governance: the lack of regularity in the way things are justified (the physical-chemical sciences vs. "living nature", sciences vs. lay experience, etc.); the different approaches used at different local levels; and the contextual nature of the options adopted, which are very much linked to social, cultural and political contexts.

19These features underpin our analyses of the case studies developed below. Changes in the governance of urban natures and the deployment of participation in different contexts culminate in the “tinkering” with governance highlighted in our research: this tinkering is especially apparent in the gap between the stated objectives and effects of the governance of urban natures when we compare national policies and their deployment at the local level.

Discrepancies in the governance of urban nature

  • 2 Our research has allowed us to classify the main registers of stakeholders’ discourse on urban vege (...)

20This article draws upon data collected via several research programmes focused on natural features and urban governance. Our research has been broadened to encompass the various means of governing urban nature and is part of two research programmes that focus on, first, interdisciplinary analyses of urban green corridors in seven French cities (Blanc and Clergeau 2013), and, second, on the relationships between political adaptation to climate change and biodiversity policies at different scales in the Ile-de-France region. The findings of these studies underscore the importance of ecological engineering in planning practices and point to the processes at work as human societies shape urban nature. The first programme, “Evaluation des trames vertes urbaines et élaboration de référentiels: une infrastructure entre esthétique et écologie pour une nouvelle urbanité” (2009-2012—“Evaluation of urban green corridors and development of frameworks of reference: an infrastructure between aesthetics and ecology for a new urbanity”), pointed to major differences in the implementation of the law, as well as to the array of tools used to address green and blue corridors depending on the stakeholders involved. While this ambitious project (involving 50 researchers and 11 French research labs) initially attempted to understand the role that green corridors can play in the creation, maintenance and conservation of the ecological cities of the future (both in terms of society and the environment), empirical research gradually pointed to the difficulties associated with implementing the law. The second multi-disciplinary programme, “Changement Climatique et Trame Verte” (CCTV—Climate Change and Green Corridors), has brought together research teams from four research institutes in the social sciences, atmospheric sciences and ecology. Its first research focus was the creation of links between green corridors and adaptation to climate change for scientists, managers and citizens. We showed how these relationships, which are often expressed simply in terms of urban vegetation rather than as urban green corridors, cannot be understood without reference to the local characteristics of the territories involved and to ecological or biophysical issues; they must also address the political and social issues at stake and the topic of urban vegetation more broadly. In particular, this research has helped define methodologies to contrast different types of knowledge and representations concerning the role of green corridors in urban climates and air pollution2. Ecologists investigated the temporalities of urban natures with a focus on long-term patterns in several plant and soil variables related to carbon and nutrient dynamics in soil-tree ecosystems in the streets of Paris. The atmospheric sciences teams also studied and proposed methodologies to enhance the manner in which urban effects—particularly urban vegetation—are incorporated into models. At the time of the research there were very few links between biodiversity and climate policies.

21Within the context of urban ecology, it is important to examine the discrepancies observed between urban nature—which is generally handled on a sector-by-sector basis (e.g., water policies differ from climate change adaptation policies)—and scientific discourse that calls for a complex approach or an ecosystem-based examination (Blanc 1998). This discrepancy at the public policy level has been noted since at least the 1990s and juxtaposes environmental municipalism focused on green spaces and quality-of-life conditions (Garnier 1995) with a systemic approach involving programmes such as Urban Ecology Plans. Starting in the 1990s, the implementation of Agenda 21 aimed for cross-disciplinary action with a “silo” approach to organising municipal services. Ultimately, however, this resulted in more sector-based policies to tackle environmental issues, such as biodiversity and climate change adaptation policies. Alongside this—and despite the fact that participation is an important component of implementing sustainable development policies—inhabitants’ environmental representations and practices differ from the discourse and implementation of environmental public policy. We therefore need to look at how urban policies, researchers and inhabitants interpret this complex situation and apply it in their spheres of action. We will embed this analysis of the discrepancies observed and described here based on three main distinctions. The first relates to the discrepancy between “living nature” (biodiversity policies) and “physical-chemical nature” (in climate change policies) (Climate and biodiversity policies: sector-based governance). The second reflects the discrepancy between a technically oriented understanding of the environment and the sensory understanding of inhabitants (Discrepancies between representations and practices). Finally, the third concerns the different levels of action (Discrepancies in scale: the relationship between top-down and bottom-up governance).

Climate and biodiversity policies: sector-based governance

22Research that is part of the CCTV programme into French regional and municipal policies related to Climate Plans and Biodiversity Plans has underscored the sector-specific focus of environmental policies. We worked at the Paris and Greater Paris (Ile-de-France) scale, conducting semi-structured interviews with managers and teams working on different French planning documents: the City of Paris Climate and Biodiversity Plans, the Regional Ecological Coherence Plan (SRCE) and the Regional Climate, Air and Energy Plan (SRCAE), and we diachronically analysed the texts themselves. The interviews and the official documents used were recorded, transcribed and analysed thematically. Our analysis of the interviews and related documents points to a disconnect: although there is official discourse on vegetation (e.g., on parks, green corridors, green roofs and walls) as a source of potential solutions for adapting to climate change in the city, there is a lack of any major connection to these topics in current planning documents (in Biodiversity and Climate Plans or the SRCE and SRCAE, for example). As far as EU urban and regional policies are concerned, the objective of cohesion—and the principle of partnership—lost some ground with regard to the imperative of competitiveness during the 2000s (Bache 2008). Already perceptible when the Lisbon strategy was adopted, this trend intensified after the failure to adopt the 2005 Constitutional Treaty, a failure that can be seen as a serious blow to the integration process and a downgrading of priorities such as territorial cohesion and sustainable development (Colomb and Santinha 2014).

23Moreover, such connections are only very loosely based on data or scientific findings, and they sometimes nuance or even contradict the arguments used to justify the relationship between vegetation and climate. Among other things, our research has demonstrated the strong sector-based segmentation of vegetation and climate policies at the city and regional scales; communication problems between the teams in charge of vegetation and climate/air-related topics; and even fierce competition among different stakeholders over the visibility, importance and legitimacy of action plans (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Main features of French biodiversity and climate plans

Climate and energy plans and teams

Biodiversity and vegetation plans and teams

Role of greening to adapt to climate change

Greening important & more and more vegetation in climate adaptation models

However, no work with the institutions and teams in charge of biodiversity and vegetation at either the city or regional scale.

Greening seen as essential to adapt to climate change

Resentment towards some climate teams for their slow embrace of biodiversity and vegetation issues

Official discourse on adapting to climate change through urban greening is also used as a means to reassert the value of vegetation and biodiversity policies threatened by climate policies

Status of the plans


Need to be taken into account

Not obligatory

Perception of plans by officials and citizens

Seen as important and a global issue

Seen as minor and a local issue

Source: Des politiques du végétal et du climat à l’échelle de Paris et de l’Île-de-France: combinaison ou compétition? From Sourdril and al. 2013.

  • 3 The research presented by the atmospheric sciences in the context of this project has created the h (...)

24Discourse concerning the links between vegetation and climate do indeed exist but are mostly rooted in “trendy” social representations, competitive logic or attempts to make policies more visible. Indeed, green and blue corridors are conceived more as green infrastructure developed by planners than in terms of their potential ecological value for living beings. When defined, biodiversity is often assimilated with unoccupied interconnected spaces. Insight into functional biodiversity is often sacrificed in favour of species diversity. And yet, discourse focusing on the influence that the greening of cities can have on urban climate may have an impact on the implementation of research and more integrated measures in the near future, including at the micro, meso and global levels. Biodiversity, which could be considered as a set of living systems, is thus reduced to just one parameter of climate control and carbon storage. Furthermore, as noted in discussions with ecologists, vegetation is often represented as static in models, and urban vegetation’s own temporal dynamics are often overlooked. New methods are being developed to improve the representation of urban vegetation in digital models, which will serve as future decision-making tools3. An increasing number of experiments are being conducted at the neighbourhood and agglomeration scales, e.g., Greater Paris or Madrid. Interaction among the atmospheric sciences, ecosystem sciences and the social sciences and humanities has shown that these can work together to make tools “more useful” for managers and policy-makers, i.e., more realistic and better adapted to the planning issues underpinning the implementation of green corridors.

25We may therefore consider that, in failing to assert its credentials through scientific models of environmental complexity—especially vegetation-climate interaction—or by forging links between climate and biodiversity policies at the various levels of intervention under consideration, governance of urban natures falls into the domain of tinkering that was outlined above.

26Alongside this first discrepancy in the governance of urban nature, which is tied to the administrative and institutional divide in environmental policies, there is a discrepancy in the representations of different stakeholders based on their roles and practices.

Discrepancies between representations and practices

27The semi-structured interviews we conducted in Paris between February and September 2012 allowed us to observe that inhabitants, regardless of the neighbourhoods in which they live, generally do not use the terms “green corridor” or “climate change” spontaneously and do not connect these topics to their representations of urban vegetation or to atmospheric phenomena or air quality. However, people’s relationship with the environment does mediate their implicit relationships with climate, air quality and vegetation, although vegetation is not necessarily viewed from the angle of green corridors that feature a continuity of planning and plant arrangements. Inhabitants tend to define phenomena in relation to nearby green spaces, their relationship with plants (notably in terms of gardening and aesthetics), and their personal experience. They talk about experiences relating to the “countryside”, imaginary settings and stages in life. We noted that people conceive of the relationship between vegetation and climate and air based on impressions, feelings and emotions, rather than scientific information.

28Overall, city dwellers do not draw clear, simple and spontaneous connections between green corridors and climatic events. They do not refer to climate change adaptation. The reasons for this are very likely terminological—the terms “green and blue corridor” and “climate change adaptation” are not part of lay vocabulary—and tied to knowledge about the phenomena. We can add the additional issue of scales of understanding and the action of phenomena, as well as the sector-based nature of data and the limited promotion of this information at both the scientific and political levels. There is also a likely dissociation that occurs between different “worlds” (inhabitants and everyday life, political-technical, scientific, Boltanski and Thévenot 2006).

29Our findings show that climate change policies have mainly consisted of accounting for the impacts of climate change on ecosystems and urban spaces, as well as accounting for urban vulnerabilities, an approach that partially or totally masks the relationship between populations and their living environments (especially vegetation) that develops in the course of ordinary life or via a commitment to collective action. For Adger (2001: 925), “this range is limited compared to the spontaneous reactive adjustments in resource use and livelihoods that will be required by every individual whose livelihoods are directly or indirectly weather-dependent”. This implies grasping the social dimensions of climate change by considering what has been broken or lost in the relationship between city dwellers and their built environments, as well as what could be “retrofitted” or restored through experience and collective action.

30We may, therefore, consider that, in failing to address laypeople—especially because of the complexity of expert language and policies’ discrepancies with ordinary stakes regarding nature in cities—the governance of urban natures falls into the domain of tinkering that was outlined above.

Discrepancies in scale: the relationship between top-down and bottom-up governance

31A third discrepancy exists between the levels at which public policies for “managing” nature are implemented. The reshaping of urban sustainable development policies effectively began with the Grenelle de l’Environnement (round table environmental conference) organized in 2007. Although the conference cannot in itself be considered as a decisive moment in the evolution of environmental policies (Boy, Brugidou, Halpern, & Lascoumes, 2012), it accelerated a number of transformations that had been underway since the early 2000s. In 2008, the elaboration and subsequent publication of the first and second Grenelle Acts (2009 and 2010) were an early sign of a more top-down approach adopted by state authorities. Neo-managerial reforms initiated at the beginning of the 2000s and amplified under the Sarkozy presidency aimed at replacing this “fusional” model with a more ‘dual system’ in which the central state would withdraw from daily implementation and negotiation functions at the local level and focus instead on setting broad objectives and creating incentives (money, rewards, labels, promotion of best practices, etc.) to influence the conduct of local governments.

32Passed on 12 July 2010, the law on the “National commitment for the environment (ENE)” exemplifies the importance of a “spatialized” environment as a tool for public action. By creating article L. 371-1 in the Environmental Code, it gives “green corridors” and “blue corridors” the goal of “halting the loss of biodiversity by participating in the conservation, management and restoration of environments needed for ecological continuity, while also taking into account human activity, notably farming, in rural areas”. Both of these tools are part of Regional ecological coherence plans (SRCEs) (Article L. 371-3 of the Environmental Code). For the government, a green and blue corridor approach can provide an opportunity to renew planning initiatives in a regulatory and prescriptive way, notably via increasingly powerful decentralisation laws (e.g., the law of 27 January 2014 on the modernisation of territorial public action and the affirmation of large cities). It is interesting to note how this policy is implemented at different levels, as well as the network of stakeholders involved and the tools that are used. At the regional level, green and blue corridors are often limited to maps and diagrams of spatial planning recommendations. Indeed, the regional level is considered to be the administrative and political level that serves as a buffer for harmonising European and municipal biodiversity policies.

33Yet, the current administrative regions (created in France in 1982, modified in 2015) have trouble carving out their positions given the relatively short time that they have existed in the public administration arena. At the regional level, farmers and foresters are important stakeholders in developing SRCEs. For the latter, the governance of green and blue corridors at this level offers a window of opportunity. Naturalists also play an important role at the regional level but not at the local level, where their involvement and the scope of efforts to mobilise their knowledge are quite limited. For municipalities and urban inter-communal entities, green and blue corridors tend to be part of an urbanisation plan designed by stakeholders from the planning sector. The ecological goals advanced at the regional level differ from uses and practices at the inter-communal level, where inhabitants are concerned about their own involvement in nearby areas. At the inter-communal level, planning departments are involved in designing such ecological interconnections. Consequently, there is a risk of disconnect between green spaces managed at the municipal level, such as local facilities to enhance living conditions, and an efficient green network—in terms of biodiversity—at different levels ranging from municipalities to the EU level. More than just a conflict of use in the usual sense, this is a conflict of representations or goals. Here, too, what becomes clear is how hard it is to take into account the complex nature of biodiversity, as well as its relationship with climate.

34Our interdisciplinary work has pointed to a gap between measured biodiversity (notably by the ecological sciences) and the ecological and social impact of green corridors. Studying this gap provides better insight into the relationships between science and society and rekindles questions surrounding the types of shared frames of reference for “citizen science”. Local municipalities also have a very poor understanding of “ecological issues” in biological, social and urbanistic terms. Yet, the role of policies is fundamental for raising awareness among populations and for implementing corridors (appropriate governance: stakeholders, context, taking into account the time factor, etc.).

35Therefore, we may therefore consider that in failing to address the discrepancies between top-down and bottom-up dynamics, the governance of urban natures falls into the domain of tinkering outlined above.

On the challenges of governing urban nature

36Faced with the difficulties of implementing policies to promote nature in cities, and the many challenging dimensions of such policies, collective mobilisation opens new windows of opportunity for action, which, although they definitely contribute to tinkering with the governance of urban natures, still remedy many of its defects. Indeed, we need to factor in the autonomisation mindset aided by such citizen dynamics and to reflect upon their scope in terms of major, symptomatic societal transformations (Blanc, Emelianoff et al, 2008). In other words, we need to analyse the cultural transformations driven by civil society and underpinned by the efforts of associations notably involved in urban governance in order to develop an understanding of the “stewardship” groups.

37In the 1970s urban participation began as a protest movement against modern urbanism and rational planning. In the 1990s, sustainable development and the different stakeholders involved (ICLEI, for example; the Rio Declaration, 1992; the Aarhus Convention, 1998) renewed the road paths to participation and decision-sharing in local policies. Urban participation became a cornerstone of renewed methods for producing cities—and notably sustainable cities (Bacqué and Gauthier 2011) and urban governance (John 2004). Some current manifestations depict it as imperative for public action to oppose increasingly unpopular large planning projects (e.g., high-speed TGV train lines, extra-high voltage lines). Yet, the “black boxes” of projects generally remain in the hands of designers, while political decisions continue to be the preserve of public authorities. The findings of research into environmental democracy (Barbier and Larrue 2011) point to the inefficiency of participatory procedures in France, both in terms of sharing information and decision-making.

38There has also been a shift in political involvement towards “direct” action (i.e., not through the intermediaries of institutions or parties), which expresses a crisis of confidence in the ability of words and ideas to transform reality. The effects of rhetoric and societal opposition to change, particularly in the field of the environment and sustainable development, have encouraged new types of involvement: the environment as a social and political issue, and as a living environment, now form a re-configurative axis for social involvement (Thévenot 2006). “Quit talking, just do it” has become the urgent watchword of new activists who, according to Jacques Ion, exist “by and through their actions, and no longer via their ideological, trade union or political beliefs” (Ion 2005, p. 4, translated here).

39Wether it relates to urban participation or to spontaneous direct action, intervention in, or the handling of, natural urban spaces offers a special medium through which to explore civil environmentalism and new ways of appropriating public space, as well as to explore the development of intermediary network actors who serve as brokers (Baudry 2012). The notions of “meso-level brokers” or “bridge organisations” (Connolly, Svendsen and Fisher 2013) appear to be particularly essential in relatively decentralised socio-ecological systems. As Ernston (2010) also concludes, the management practices of civil society groups engaged in local ecosystem management play a crucial but neglected role in upholding ecosystem services; moreover, the “mesoscale of city scale networks is understudied” and indivisible, notably via public action itself as well as the large number of co-existing stakeholders (in competition with each other).

40The main issue noted by analyses of such involvement is the importance of intermediary stakeholders who sometimes act as network leaders or as brokers between networks and the different levels. Also noted is the role of networks in the construction of metropolitan territories. Consequently, there are numerous associations whose aim is to help with the creation of gardens: e.g., AJONCs in Lille, Les Jardins d'aujourd'hui in Bordeaux, Graines de jardin in Paris, Les Jardins d'Amélie in Marseille and Le passe-jardin in Lyon. Such associations are part of a national network known as “Le Jardin dans tous ses états” (“The garden in all its forms”), which functions through regional correspondents and working groups. The common thread running through their approaches is to support a project only if the inhabitants are sufficiently motivated. These initiatives have recently begun to receive different types of support from municipalities, who provide them with land.

41The City of Paris has created a “green fingers” unit, drafted a shared gardens charter and made its support contingent on signing an agreement with the association that manages the site, with the goal of ensuring that the charter is respected. The City’s services then supply topsoil and install a water source and fence at the site. In other contexts, institutions—namely those in charge of urban policy —have included community gardens in their urban social development programmes for underprivileged neighbourhoods. Such top-down approaches rarely generate much resident enthusiasm, however, and often encounter problems with procurement of land from social housing providers. New tools such as charters, agreements and documents defining new uses (e.g., “0 phyto”, for pesticide-free gardening) link these associations to public authorities. In opposition to visions of a society controlled solely by mercantile interests, new approaches to regulating public space have arisen independently of, or in liaison with, public authorities.

42Meanwhile, non-profit networks (e.g., Energie Cités) and transversal urban networks have become more active. Ecological and green party activists contend that local authorities and cities inter alia can contribute to a new form of global political regulation: “the framework of analysis [of the sustainable city] cannot remain at a local level but will have to take account of the complex ways in which global environmental governance is mediated vis-à-vis local, national and global scales” (Bulkeley and Betsill 2003 : 26). The increased political autonomy of cities has, in turn, resulted in the implementation of territorial governance that is occasionally in conflict with the governing administrative region. It is in such contexts that activists and cities may construct action networks that gradually work towards a vision of networked sustainability. Such municipal networks are rooted in an historical past of cooperation and twinning; these are now being renewed through a shift away from state frameworks of political action in favour of multi-scale governance that cuts across national policies. Such networks are also designed to develop vertically and to involve inhabitants and local associations working on activist or professional themes.

43At the same time, the State is in the process of reclaiming environmental issues at the expense of participatory environmental public action. Indeed, France’s model of public action has been renewed via a combination of unbundling, territorialisation, contractualisation, generalised negotiation—a multiplication of scales. In sum, governance is occurring at several levels in the wake of decentralisation and the extension of sustainable development favourable to the principles of open democracy. This model is currently losing ground to government systems with clear and direct allocation processes, which involve replacing the “shared analysis—project—contract” tryptic with the “indicators—programme—control” tryptic (Pinson 2010). It appears that, following a short phase that corresponded to the territorialisation of public policies with a “coordinating” State (Estèbe and Donzelot 1994), there has been a move towards forms of mobilisation typical of Fordist (Pickett 2013) and “clientilist” cities, shifting from proximity, the presence and distribution of services and divisible goods, political collectivisation, and partisan, union and non-profit networks, to types of mobilisation involving a large project, the creation of an image for the city, and political communication. Alongside these types of mobilisation, there are still a few remnants of local communication policies, of which local environmental policies are very much a part.

44At last, it is also interesting to note the differing opinions of stakeholders regarding the deployment of natural areas. Residents’ associations and more informal groups find themselves having to address complex situations involving issues related to society, culture and local geography. The municipal services in charge of green spaces implement, for the most part, pre-determined technical operations as part of their mission. Goals are not defined in the same manner for all, and the causal relationships underpinning such goals are also different. Norms and values about what is just, attractive or good also differ greatly. Consequently, the American concept of “stewardship” (Connolly and al. 2012; Fisher and al. 2012) offers a novel key for analysing French territory. It is actually impossible to accurately translate the concept of “stewardship” into French because the practice itself is so utterly foreign to both the centralised nature of public policy and public service, and to the form of French environmental agreements (notably concerning urban spaces). And yet, civic and grassroots actions are proof that different forms of attention are paid to nature and the conservation of natural spaces (Fisher and Svendsen 2013; Fisher et al. 2015, Svendsen and Campbell 2008). They also fulfil other criteria: such actions offer a form of involvement based on in situ experience and a type of governance of spaces that counters the idea of individual “capacitation” with territorialised collective involvement; this involves working with networks and networking. And yet these actions and associations are not very visible: although they are involved in action and innovation, they are often left out of formal spheres of governance. “Stewardship”-type activities are rendered invisible by the three-fold domination of the public nature of environmental services, the political nature (notably at the local level) of decision-making in terms of urban infrastructure and, lastly, the professional nature of the management of green areas. Indeed, “stewardship” activities in France are not part of de jure governance, notably in terms of public decision-making; rather they are part of de facto governance, rooted in territories via specific portions or aspects of territories. We consider it important that the relationship between de facto and de jure governance should be featured on our research agenda. Environmental mobilisation is frequently based on innovations and experiments that are often hidden in formal governance arrangements and contribute to de facto governance of nature. Consequently, our research approach focuses on the places and territories where ‘ecosystem governance necessarily “takes place”, i.e., on the fact that the physical location of ecosystems, their associated actor groups, and their arrangement in space do influence ecological processes” (Ernston and al. 2010).

45Contemporary conflicts over nature in the city and the technical and financial capacities of central government (and local government) have further bolstered citizen-based initiatives and are transforming the role of the “public sector” in urban environmental governance. Therefore, rather than insisting on the dualism of either top-down or bottom-up strategies, special emphasis should be placed on how new modes of open-space governance of new urban gardening initiatives depend on informal collaboration among different stakeholders. This means that the governance debate should account for the inherent power relations between different actors when negotiating governance principles.


46Whether in terms of green corridors, climate policy or gardens, the governance of urban nature is a multi-level process. Depending on the local context, the levels of governance involved lead to specific local arrangements and to a tinkered governance that is not to be shunned—one that underscores the importance of “brokers”. Such brokers have very different forms and statuses, but they are all involved in the maintenance and even in the construction of policies applied to nature; they are a gauge of the tensions between centralisation and decentralisation. We can therefore identify interesting fault lines between the strength of sector-based policies and their institutional natures and innovation, driven by local actors. In New York City, where we explored civil society mobilization with a team of American researchers, such “meso-level brokers (…) both centralize the functions of a subset of local stewards and allow for decentralized innovative practices by connecting local autonomous groups with higher-scale resources and knowledge (Connoly and al. 2013)”. We believe that there are many such “brokers” among researchers in the social sciences and humanities, and among both amateur and professional naturalists. There is no denying the malleability of environmental topics—and of urban greening more specifically: from the micro-scale to the national level, vegetation can be turned into a lever for action.

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1 Throughout this paper, we will use the terms “nature in the city” and “urban nature” interchangeably, both in the singular and plural forms.

2 Our research has allowed us to classify the main registers of stakeholders’ discourse on urban vegetation, both in terms of individual and collective narratives focusing on nature in the city, as well as the political and normative aspects and conceptual dimensions of this discourse. We have also identified the main categories used by inhabitants and local actors to talk about nature in the city (the term “green corridor” as well as “plant”, “tree” and “square”) and climate (the term “climate” as well as “atmosphere”, “pollution” and “heat islands”). The multi-disciplinary nature of this research aims to develop a vocabulary that could be shared by teams working in the social sciences and humanities, ecosystem sciences and atmospheric sciences and to understand the methodologies used by each, as well as the limitations of these methodologies.

3 The research presented by the atmospheric sciences in the context of this project has created the hypothesis that it is difficult for discourse to rely on scientific findings because very few well developed evaluation methods actually exist. Indeed, the atmospheric sciences have trouble incorporating living matter into their climate models. Living matter is taken into account in physical and chemical terms: this involves modelling the mechanical and thermal effects that objects have on the atmosphere (these objects include obstacles to air flows, heat or humidity sources, or heat or humidity sinks), as vegetation can exchange particulates and gas species.

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Electronic reference

Nathalie Blanc, Sandrine Glatron, Thomas Lamarche, Aleksandar Rankovic and Anne Sourdril, « Governance of urban nature », Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], Briefings, 2017, Online since 05 June 2017, connection on 25 July 2017. URL :

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About the authors

Nathalie Blanc

(LADYSS) CNRS, France.

Sandrine Glatron

(DynamE) CNRS, France

Thomas Lamarche

(LADYSS), Université Paris Diderot, France

Aleksandar Rankovic

(IDDRI), Sorbonne Universités, France.

Anne Sourdril

(LADYSS) CNRS, France.

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