15 Aug 2010

In Concrete Terms (Part 1)

Foreword: I am not interested in taking sides with who-did-what-when-where-for-how-much. I am trying to act on nature's behalf and ultimately in everybody's interest - in the long term. I am not affiliated to a party or a group in any way, shape or form. I am only a nature lover in fear of out-of-control builds. I also happen to have spent 99% of my life in towns and cities and know how alienating they can become and how important it is therefore to preserve our natural environment...

Corsica vs. the great property debate... Countless official and non-official publications have exhausted the topic and politicians have relished it as their pro-or-con battleground. Economists, business analysts, media commentators, university lecturers, pillars of the local community and good old Joe Public have all expressed opinions, pointed the finger and done the maths.

Stories regularly abound in the local press about the greed and excesses of unscrupulous promoters and developers alike who are acutely aware that they have reached France's very last frontier of unspoilt spaces (last few remaining!), an Eldorado within reach that they are ready to take full-on for that last megabucks finale! Hear-say tells us that elected members of certain local authorities have eased up the legalities, under duress or willingly, to enable property development on their territory. Certain government-appointed officials seem to have reinterpreted the law in favour of property schemes, while local environmental lobbies are literally fighting a losing battle, but their determination has set a precedent by helping to delay a property boom that could potentially ruin Corsica's natural assets.

Meanwhile, as a thin silver lining orbing the black cloud of greed and corruption, Conservatoire du Littoral, a governmental environment agency, favours a softly-softly approach, trying to conciliate ecology, economy, eco-tourism and sustained development; so far 18,000 hectares of land in Corsica have been placed under the Conservatoire's authority, with a pledge to preserve the natural habitats under its management against (further) human degradations.

Experts reckon that in terms of property boom, Corsica is 10 to 15 years behind the Côte d'Azur, which in itself is particularly worrying as it indicates only a small time gap (smaller than I believed it to be). A drive down the French Riviera and satellite megalopolises will give you an idea of the extent of the spread! At night from sea, you can't help but notice a concentrated constellation of lights - like a bad bout of eczema - along the coastline. An almost uninterrupted sprawl links towns and cities, and you end up losing track of where you are.

Travelling down South late one evening, and stopping over at a hotel we had randomly spotted off the motorway, we had no idea where we had landed. If there were any signage, it was confusing. Even the hotel's literature couldn't quite convince us as to where exactly we were. It turned out we had reached Aix-en-Provence, but it all seemed a blur. No landmark, no place of interest, not a sign of historical value that would give us a reassuring hint. We had landed in a residential sprawl, a sprawl too many, made up of housing estates laid out in a crazy paving sort of design, interspersed with the ubiquitous soul-less shopping parks that drain life out of city centres to inject it artificially into those outstretched suburbs, and all interlinked together by a confusing network of ring roads, 'A' roads and bridges.

The next day, looking for a petrol station in the neigbourhood, we appreciated the extent of that extended suburb, with its mish-mash of styles, tiered constructions and conflicting planning policies. It wasn't difficult to make out that only 10 years ago or so the countryside (urban countryside) had flourished where we were now standing, and across the road that wide tower-block coming off the ground was going to be the latest man-made barrier between the green mountain on the horizon and the sea of bitumen and concrete where we were stood... (to be continued)

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