Impact of Urban Morphology on Social Life: Case Study of La Duchère, Lyon


Buildings and public space morphology strongly impact the living communities. Social interaction is one of the major design elements in urban planning. Apart from providing a living space for the inhabitants, housing should also offer spaces for public life to incubate. Building such neighbourhoods is a challenge with no perfect solution. However, in the late 90s, the outline of an ideal emerged (Urban Task Force, 1999). This ideal advocates compact and interconnected neighbourhoods, a mix of use and a variety of housing types, detailed below:

  • Interconnected neighbourhoods: Any urban unit is always in interaction with its environment. Pedestrian friendly areas are advocated because they encourage sustainable and inclusive mobility network. However, it doesn’t mean cars should be moved out of the city. Despite their negative impact on quality of life, they are essential to deliver complete mobility solutions (Congress for the new urbanism, 2001).
  • Compactness: With the objective of preserving the natural land, it is essential to favour use of brownfields and reuse built areas. It enables connecting amenities inside and outside the neighbourhood. Neighbourhoods should have a discernible centre and defined borders, enabling citizens to quickly identify how the city can support social life (Urban Task Force, 1999). The proximity of inhabitants and activities is a way to enhance involvement in the community, through more interactions between people.
  • Mix of use: Linking mobility with mixed land use reduces the burden on the transportation system (Urban Task Force, 1999). A mixed land use makes the neighbourhood more attractive and liveable. It improves the level of social interaction within the area.
  • Housing diversity: Just like mixed land use, a broad range of housing types is essential in creating a sense of community. At the same time, it is necessary to allocate tenures for social housing. It attracts people of diverse ages, ethnicities, and incomes (Congress for the new urbanism, 2001). Thus, interaction between different parts of the society, enhanced by compactness and mix of activities, leads to an enriched community.

However, things were not the same in the 50s. In this period, France faced a nationwide housing shortage. In 1946, there were 5 million inhabitants without proper housing facilities (Fourcaut, 2010), slums began to develop in cities’ outskirts and the city centre dwellings suffered hygiene and sanitary issues. The urgency for the need of housing infrastructure started rising. The French government responded to this crisis by building rapidly and in large proportions (Fourcaut, 2010). The newly created neighbourhoods had all the necessary equipment: schools, shops, public services and places of worship. It corresponded to the ideals of modernity of the time, and the comfort provided contrasted with the former living conditions of the inhabitants (Hersemul, 2016). This article analyses the impact of the urban form of these constructed buildings on the inhabitants and their social relations. It explores the case study of La Duchère in Lyon, France, a housing project representative of this category. It is currently in a state of flux, implying a concrete transformation of its urban morphology.

La Duchère

The preferred form of buildings in La Duchère is that of long and high buildings. In addition to high density, these buildings have an economic benefit to construction. The crane is installed on rails and builds housing along a straight line, following the “Crane Road Technology” (Bachelet, Bres, Djirikian & Lot, 2006). The road network is similarly structured around a North-South breakthrough within the neighbourhood. The urban form of the entire neighbourhood is therefore determined by this criterion of simplicity. The urban block disappears to favour an operational framework. The high density of buildings free up spaces to integrate vast public spaces. This is how the traditional street disappears, as the road frame remains on the periphery and circumvents the set it without entering it.

Figure 1 – How the shape of buildings determines public space. (Allain, 2014)

The Decay of a Social System

The response of inhabitants to these buildings is heterogeneous. Some of them boast larger, airy and bright housing, especially compared to previous insalubrious housing (Dagues, 2019). On the other hand, critical voices raise, concerning the same kind of housing projects in France.Promiscuity is deplored, while public spaces are vast but empty (Tchernia, 1960). These testimonies started bringing about considerations that quickly highlighted the weaknesses of the urban construction of the district. Public spaces are omnipresent on the ground, but remain empty and little invested by the inhabitants, whose high up habitat is not connected to these spaces (Urban Task Force, 1999). It was then realized that the buildings, through their morphology, eliminated the relationship with the street (Urban Task Force, 1999). These features are representative of a specific architecture regarded as overwhelming cubic and monotonous blocks (Tchernia, 1960).

Figure 2 – “massive cubic and monotonous blocks” (GPV La Duchère, 2018)

Figure 3 – Relation with the street between a high building and an urban block

The zoning method is privileged in the neighbourhoods of French housing projects built during the 50s (Fourcaut, 2010). The functions are clearly separated in areas of work, housing, traffic or recreation. This form of urbanization, even with high density, is not conducive to socialization. The inhabitants meet less new acquaintances and have fewer close relations (Mouratidis, 2018).

In addition, green spaces are also rare in La Duchère, despite its direct proximity with the Vallon Park. It is an underutilized asset that is totally cut off from the neighbourhood due to the disruption by the massive buildings. Prior to the time of construction, this rupture is also present between the district of La Duchère and surrounding neighbourhoods. There are very few connexions amongst the inhabitants despite being close to each other spatially. Due to the north-south road breakthrough, there is a scarcity of east-west traffic preventing any dialogue with surrounding areas, particularly because of the real rupture in the urban space created by the “barre des 1000”, long tall buildings extending from north to south.

Figure 4 – A neighbourhood isolated from its surroundings (GPV La Duchère, 2018)

A Physical Renewal

The proximity of the buildings gives a perception of many social interactions. However, they are limited to the corridor or the building. While for any suburban neighbourhood, the spatial environment of social interactions can be easily expanded (Grafmeyer, 1998).

From the observations, a common objective emerged. The goal is to recreate a new scheme of social relations by physically transforming the neighbourhood. In 2001, Le Grand Lyon launched the “Grand Projet de Ville” at La Duchère, a large-scale operation to revitalize the troubled neighbourhood. A steering committee of stakeholders at national, regional and local level was composed to determine the political orientations for the project. It was coordinated by “Mission Lyon la Duchère”, an organisation created to coordinate citizen participation and maintain a coherence. In the meetings, groups of citizens express their needs and aspirations for their habitat and control if the commitments are respected. Finally, the realised proposal of neighbourhood regeneration is assigned to different organisations. A team of 3 architects designs the urban transformation and an urban planning society, SERL, coordinates the tendering process.

Figure 5 – The renovation project (GVP La Duchère, 2018)

The choice to demolish “barre des 1000”, the numerous transformations of the buildings and public spaces impacted the neighbourhood’s morphology. By doing so, three modes of development came forward:

  1. Replacing 15-storey buildings with mediumsized buildings (maximum of 7 floors) helped in recreating the lost relationship with the street, while maintaining a similar density. More openings are now created towards the street, in contrast with the former buildings that only had few main entrances leading to parking space. Seeing the street from the window makes it possible to consider one’s dwelling as part of the urban space and in relation with its other inhabitants (Urban Task Force, 1997). Through this, social interactions are expected to be no longer limited to the corridor or the building.
  2. The newly created urban blocks integrate the public green spaces within them. This design intervention has two functions:
    • First, the urban space becomes more permeable for the surrounding natural spaces that become a part of the neighbourhood and provides a better quality of life for its inhabitants.
    • While being located inside the islets, these places are now accessible to all. A buffer space between the public and the private sector works as a place of exchange to favour more social interaction. Inhabitants canhave different levels of privacy and thus, have different opportunities for diversified social interactions.

Figure 6 – The transition in perception from private to public space (Google Maps, 2019)

3. New habitat forms are more heterogeneous, in order to overcome the monotony criticized by the inhabitants. The coordinating organization “Mission Lyon La Duchère” launched numerous architecture competition for each block, leading to a myriad of architectural styles. They clearly make a rupture with the brutalist and functionalist architecture of the former long buildings. The scale of the neighbourhood seems more human and pleasant.

Figure 7 – Diverse architectural forms (GPV La Duchère, 2018)

The transformation of the image of the neighbourhood also promotes a diversity in the interactions. One of the major issues of the rehabilitation was to ensure a broad range of social profiles within the inhabitants. The neighbourhood decreased its affordable housing share from 80% to 55%. New services, like a gymnasium, shops and café-restaurants were also accommodated. The project now invites enterprises to establish their businesses in the sector. Office buildings are built next to the living places. This way, the neighbourhood is more dynamic, and people have reasons to go out in the street.

To support this new dynamism, a spacious plaza at the centre of La Duchère has become the heart of citizens’ life. Adding urban furniture like stairs and trees help in making it a pleasant place, at all times even when it is empty. Streets organization was also enhanced. By eliminating the rupture created by the “barre des 1000”, east-west traffic lanes emerge. They form a physical link with the surrounding neighbourhoods and helps in limiting the social isolation suffered by the housing project. The pedestrians now have a choice of different paths to access, each offering a different experience of the neighbourhood. This enables the public spaces to encourage more interaction between the people, buildings and services.

Figure 8 – Evolution of public space (GVP La Duchère, 2018)


The transformation of the district of La Duchère now lasts for 16 years and is expected to end by 2025. This project has been carried out over a long term in order to perceive the impact of the urban project on the social functioning of the district. The first analysis draws a positive assessment, as in 2014, 67% of the inhabitants thought that the quality of life has been significantly enhanced (GVP La Duchère, 2018). The last parts of the project must complete this development in order to achieve a real success.

This neighbourhood was a pioneer in 1958 for the new French housing policy. In 2018, it is pioneering innovative urban forms. These initiatives are inspired by many projects all around the world, and can inspire many others. The case of La Duchère is useful for cities struggling with social issues in some neighbourhoods, or seeking for any urban transformation. It is already possible to analyse the consequences of urban transformations, and to see to what extent it is applicable to another context.

In any case, those neighbourhoods, deeply and voluntarily transformed, must be subject to a constant interest, as understanding the habitat in its social context is essential to ensure sustainable development of future urban spaces.