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What is wrong with urban regeneration practices? Towards a Foucauldian analysis of urban regeneration documents.

Anthony Ximenez


Urban design practices are hard to analyse and critique. In this paper, we suggest that part of the difficulty can be alleviated if one problematises them as having a “positivity”. That Foucauldian notion refers to the discursive rules that must be met in order for a statement to be considered as “knowledge” in a specific discipline and at a specific time in history. We then describe the “archaeological” method that Foucault developed to analyse “positivities”. Applying this method to the analysis of a multidimensional diagnosis document produced by a team of consultants in the first stage of an urban regeneration project, we describe the discursive rules of construction that seem to underlie the reasoning displayed in the document. The findings cannot be generalised but they provide strong hypotheses for future inquiry into urban regeneration discursive practices.

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1What kind of reasoning underlies urban regeneration practices? What kind of “problem” do they address and how do they do so? Are they liable to an epistemological critique?

2This paper suggests some answers to those questions by presenting a specific method of discourse analysis inspired by Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of knowledge. It is then applied to a professional multithematic diagnosis document that was produced in the course of an urban regeneration project.

3Only one document will be analysed in this article. We do not aim to produce generalisable knowledge about urban regeneration practices but to show the method at work and the kind of findings it can produce. The document in question was produced in the context of the French National Programme for Urban Regeneration (NPNRU). The NPNRU is a national policy aimed at implementing ambitious regeneration projects in several hundreds of urban districts that have been pre-selected on the basis of their cumulative difficulties (high concentration of social housing, high unemployment rate, safety issues, lack of urban amenities…). Local authorities can apply to the programme with a document summarising their diagnosis of the district’s current situation as well as their vision for its future and how they plan to manage the project. If they are selected, they can get important funding from the national agency in charge of implementing the programme (the ANRU) in order to formulate and carry out a coherent, multi-dimensional urban project.

4The first part of the article will present the more general problem that the analysis of urban design practices poses (considering that urban regeneration is a specific field within urban design). Such an analysis is complex due to the elusive epistemological status of those practices. What kind of “knowledge” is produced? Should the design of an urban project be considered as a science, a discipline, a craft? Regarding urban diagnosis practices more specifically, one major difficulty for the analyst is the fact that they assemble the contributions of many different experts and exhibit constant jumps from verbal reasoning to drawings and maps. This makes it an uneasy task to comprehend and critique the overall diagnosis discourse produced by the professionals.

5Introducing Michel Foucault’s notion of “positivity” as an appropriate concept to grasp the particularity of professional urban diagnosis practices, an adapted “archeological” analysis of the latter will be conducted. Prior to that, this approach will be positioned within the broader range of discourse analysis methods.

6Finally, some results of the research will be presented. We will see that some strong hypotheses can be made about the discursive rules guiding the production of a multidisciplinary diagnosis in the context of an urban project.

The trouble with urban design modes of reasoning and their critique

What exactly is wrong with professional urban regeneration practices? A critical problem

  • 1 The notion of “disciplinary matrix” was coined by T. Kuhn (Kuhn 2018 [1962]: 296-303) and refers to (...)

7The NPNRU takes over from the first National Programme for Urban Regeneration (PRU1) that was implemented from 2004 to 2014 and started being evaluated around 2012. The latter was often criticised for its poor results in terms of social and economic redevelopment of the districts, which was one of the main targets of the Programme. However, there is a gap between observing such a failure ex post and finding out what went wrong in the actual design process of regeneration projects. That gap is not easy to bridge: for example, should the underwhelming results of the programme be attributed to flaws of the national policy itself (that gave too much incentive for the demolishing of residential towers over other lines of intervention, for example) or rather to design mistakes made by the teams of consultants hired locally? One important critique addressed to professionals pointed out their tendency to apply dogmatic views of “good” urban design to all districts regardless of their specific features (see for instance: Comité d’Évaluation et de Suivi de l’ANRU 2013). More concisely: are we confronted with the limitations of the public policy framework or with those of the disciplinary matrix1 of urban regeneration practices?

8It is important to underline the particularity of the problem at stake: it is not a theoretical problem about urban design in general (e.g. is urban design a type of problem-solving activity?) nor is it a practical problem per se (e.g. what is the best way to go about this particular problem?). It is what could be called a critical problem with reference to the Kantian meaning of “critique”, i.e. an enterprise aimed at revealing the intrinsic limits of a certain type of reasoning, that conditions what can legitimately be thought out and demonstrated. Critical problems are therefore problems that question the limits of epistemic practices and the conditions on which they can legitimately be expected to address such or such problem. Now a number of issues are raised by this kind of problems in the specific case of urban design practices.

The elusive epistemological status of urban design practices in relation to NPNRU

9Why is it so complicated to critique urban design practices? There are at least three reasons for that:

  • the disciplinary matrix that underlie those practices is not evident, partly due to the plural nature of the knowledge and savoir-faire integrated through the process of an urban design project;

  • the problems that urban design addresses are wicked (even more so in the context of the NPNRU);

  • the design process is based on a special type of reflexivity that has been described as “thinking-in-action”, largely implicit and hard to formalise.

10First, the idea that urban design practices have a disciplinary matrix is much debated. Those practices are almost inherently plural, i.e. designing an urban project is never done by one single person. They are co-produced, at different levels, and from as early as the diagnosis stage. The team of consultants that is hired by a local authority is always formed of several experts. The latter develop separately their own analyses about the district and, secondly, the lead urban designer makes up a synthesis of all analyses and drafts out some proposals for the future project. This complex process also involves the city servants who are in charge of the project: before the professionals’ diagnosis is officially presented to the city councillors and the various funders of the project, several rounds of debates and reworking take place between the team of consultants and the city servants. Moreover, public participation procedures are frequently set up in order to allow the district’s inhabitants and users to take part in the design process of the future project. All this creates a lot of discontinuities in the intellectual process of project-designing, making it hard to produce an epistemological critique of it.

11Secondly, the very problems that urban design teams address are not the type of problems that instrumental rationality would expect. This is particularly blatant in the case of the NPNRU. The instrumental rationality that was implicit in the evaluations of PRU1 projects – a type of rationality based on comparing ex-ante objectives with ex-post results – may actually conceal the more complicated nature of urban design problems. Since the 1970s, the notion of “wicked problem” has been more and more used to describe such problems that do not fit easily in the paradigmatic representations of a rational problem-solving procedure. Wicked problems – such as “the poverty problem” – are problems that cannot be solved without being reformulated in more specific terms. Now, as Rittel and Weber put it, “the formulation of a wicked problem is the problem”. Therefore: “If we can formulate the problem by tracing it to some sorts of sources […] then we have thereby also formulated a solution. To find the problem is thus the same thing as finding the solution; the problem cannot be defined until the solution has been found” (Rittel and Weber 1973: 161). This means that addressing a wicked problem is not a matter of finding the best solution to a clearly posed problem (as in the natural sciences) but as a design process during which both the problem and its “solution” are debated and interpreted in inextricable ways.

12Finally, design theories have long established that design practices such as architecture and urban design rely on a special kind of reflexivity that differs from the technical rationality of applied sciences. Donald Schön argued that many professions (architecture, counselling, planning, marketing, management…) have been historically despised by research because they do not meet the epistemological requirements of a proper university discipline or science (Schön 2016 [1983]). The reasoning of “reflective practitioners” is often blurred by discontinuities due to constant switches from reflective thinking to thinking-in-action. However, according to Schön, they do work according to rational principles and rules, even though the professionals are not always able to express them verbally.

Critiquing professional urban design practices: a critical problem for current research?

13Design in general and urban design in particular are based on a type of rationality that remains hard to grasp and critique. This problem appears at another level, i.e. in the procedures that scholarly research implements to analyse those practices and their specific rationality. In fact, when one undertakes a critique of the epistemic limitations of urban design practices, one is soon confronted with the lack of a relevant analytical framework. Of course, analytical frameworks do exist. One can identify two main lineages of research based on different problematisations of urban design practices: as a reflective thinking-in-action process; as a public policy discourse.

14The first thread of research focuses on the practice of design as a thinking-in-action process, in which problem-framing and problem-solving practices constantly interweave. In the research mentioned above, Schön argued that the implicit principles and rules that guide design practices could be revealed by observing carefully how professionals think in action. The rationality of professionals is believed to be clarifiable and explicable by scientific observation and description of professionals at work. To do so, researchers have more and more favoured micro-sociological and ethnographic methods of enquiry. Yaneva’s 2009 ethnographic study of the world-renowned architecture practice OMA can be seen as paradigmatic of this trend of research. Introducing her book, she writes:

15“There are no pre-given explanations of design, no established scales, no recognized-by-all conceptual frames; instead, we need to devote ethnographic attention to what it means to design, to the many local arrangements from which creativity springs. And here I am, an ethnographer in the OMA […]” (Yaneva 2009: 25–26).

16In their recent contributions to a collective book about architectural research (Silberberger 2021), Kim Hemersen and Jan Silberberger give other examples of how the observation of designers in action can produce knowledge about these professional practices. The former observes and compares contemporary studio teaching in different European countries, making connections between the philosophy of teaching and the emphasis on problem-solving or problem-framing. The latter develops an ethnographic account of “referencing in architectural design”. Clarification of practitioners’ thinking-in-action is also undertaken by professionals themselves. As Rachael Luck shows in a recent historiography of the relationship between architectural research and design research (Luck 2019), many practitioners produce “practice-based design research”, building on the reflexivity that is inherent to their practice.

17However, there is often a limit to what practitioners reflecting on their own thinking-in-action process can question, and to what scholars can observe. This was already pointed out by D. Schön himself in the early 1980’s: “At any given time in the life of a profession, certain ways of framing problems and roles come into good cur­rency. […] Thus, for example, a planner may take for granted that the housing problem is one of preserving and increasing the stock of decent housing; what else could it be? » (Schön 2016 [1983]: 309–310) Schön is actually quite elusive about this problem, considering that the pursuit of such questions would “take us well beyond the scope of this book” (Schön 2016 [1983]: 283). In another part of the book, he admits that he does not know « what [the professionals’] structure [of enquiry] might be or how it might be discovered, if not by reflection on the actual practice of experi­enced, competent practitioners who reflect-in-action » (Schön 2016 [1983]: 133).

18The problem Schön is confronted with partly lies in the very research method he has developed to approach thinking-in-action, that is observing professionals at work. Can one observe the limitations of a professional’s problem-framing practices without reinstating some sort of superior scientific objectivity as an impartial judge? However, in introduction to his book, Schön has strongly criticised such a scientific attitude towards professional practice. Should professionals find the limits of their own frames and methods by themselves? When they try to do so, their research is often “criticised for being fuzzy, lacking strong theory to guide its practice or guidelines on how to proceed” (Luck 2019). Furthermore, in architecture, professionals and teachers are sometimes reluctant to clarifying the reasoning underlying their design process, rejecting the “methodologisation” of what they see as a specifically architectural style of research-in-action (Silberberger 2021).

19Another approach to urban design practices tends to focus on the textual artefacts produced by urban design teams in the course of projects. This lineage of research often implicitly construes those professional practices as a particular type of public policy implementation. They usually aim for disclosing – based on semantic, semiotic, syntactical, grammatical analyses… – the shaping of them by tacit or subconscious representations, beliefs, values or ideologies. On the topic of urban regeneration discourse in France, Philippe Genestier is probably the most influential researcher. Throughout his career, using methods such as automated discourse analysis, he has analysed the many social connotations and implicit postulates of recurring concepts such as the syntagma “social ties” (lien social) (Genestier 2006), the notion of “social mix” (mixité) (Genestier 2010), the “rhetoric of project” (Genestier 2001), or what he calls the “localist paradigm” (Genestier et al. 2007). Other academics resort to discourse analysis in order to develop a critical approach to urban planning and urban design practices. Let’s mention, among many, Buhler and Lethier’s textometric approach to French urban transport plans (Buhler and Lethier 2019) or recent analyses about the “urban imaginary” and “the techno-centric narrative” of “smart city” (Zaman and Hertwerck 2022, Wang 2017). However, no matter how relevant their findings, a more general question arises: what are the assumptions of such textual analyses about professional urban design and urban planning practices?

20Even though some scholars have made of point of better distinguishing notions such as “narrative”, “discourse” or “vision” when applied to the analysis of urban planning practices (see Matthey 2023), it remains that those practices are very often construed as a certain type of narrative taking place within a broader – social, historical, cultural, ideological… – narrative (see Jacobs, 2006). The analyst will endeavour to shed light on the latter in order to critique professional practices. But isn’t this too big an assumption? Is it so obvious that urban planning and urban design are narrative practices or, more generally, that they are liable to textual explication? We have seen above that some practitioners of urban design – architects in particular – are reluctant to reducing their practices to an implicit verbal construct. It seems that textual analysis may be too partial to account for the whole complexity of professionals’ reasoning.

21Eventually, any attempt to analyse and critique the rationality of urban design is confronted with at least two main practical challenges:

  • the problem that those practices address is not given but constructed in the process of doing;

  • it cannot be assumed that the rationality at stake is narrative.

Going back to Foucault’s Archeology of Knowledge to analyse the “positivity” of urban regeneration practices

22Referring to Foucault in order to analyse professional discourse is certainly not new, as may prove the existence of the acronym FDA for Foucauldian Discourse Analysis in the literature. However, we contend that the particularity of the archaeological method of discourse analysis has somewhat been obscured by Foucault’s later reflections about the relationship of power and knowledge. This has led many analysts to “sociologise” their use of Foucault’s archaeology. As an example, an FDA analyst could recently write: “A Foucauldian discourse analyst is concerned with how ‘games of truth’ are played out in socio-political contexts, instead of focusing on how meaning is constructed in interactional settings. […] Therefore, we may ask: how are the discursive formation of occupational health, safety, regulations constructed? Which perspectives of workplace safety are legitimized, and which are silenced? Who produces the knowledge and which knowledge? And who can exercise their power in relation to this regulation and with which strategies?” (Khan and MacEachen 2021). There is no denying that those questions are relevant in a Foucauldian genealogical perspective. But they may be too hasty in an archaeological one. In the Archaeology of knowledge, Foucault appears sensitive to differentiating his approach from the focus of human sciences on the agent of knowledge. As we will see now, the Foucauldian archaeology is focused on describing how discourse practically problematises the being of things, without trying to explain it in reference to the agent that produced it or their culture. Now that simple descriptive task is not so easy to perform because it requires to suspend the analyst’s tendency to reconstruct meaning and coherence where there is just discontinuity.

Not a science, not a narrative, not just a set of observable practices: conceiving of urban design as a “positivity”

23Foucault’s notion of “positivity” refers to the discursive conditions that a statement must meet to be considered, at a specific time in history, as a knowledge. As Foucault puts it: “To analyse positivities is to show in accordance with which rules a discursive practice may form groups of objects, enunciations, concepts, or theoretical choices. […] This group of elements, formed in a regular manner by a discursive practice […] can be called knowledge.” (Foucault 1972: 181–182) Thus the notion of “positivity” is related to that of “knowledge”. But the latter notion acquires a very general meaning in Foucault’s work: “knowledge” is not tantamount to scientific truth. One could say that the Foucauldian notion of “knowledge” encompasses all the statements that, in the practical life of technological, technical and academic disciplines, are perceived and used as having some kind of objectivity. There are statements that function as objectively or positively “scientific”, others that function as objectively or positively “philosophical”, others as “legal” and so on. These different kinds of positive statements do not have the same rules, the same criteria. Furthermore, many of those rules and criteria are not explicitly expressed but rather incorporated in the manner people construct their reasoning and statements. Foucault’s archaeology is precisely aimed at revealing those rules that statements of knowledge follow in practice rather than properly formulate. This is why Foucault sometimes refers to archaeology as working at the “preconceptual level” (Foucault 1972: 62).

24The notion of “positivity” enables to get rid of some difficulties previously described, regarding the elusive epistemological status of urban design practices (in relation to the NPNRU in particular). Are these practices better construed as a disciplinary matrix or as a public policy framework? Or maybe are they pure ideology as opposed to refutable reasoning? Are they better apprehended as a set of observable practices or as a narrative? Let’s consider that those practices at least have a positivity, that is some sort of objectivity to the actors of a project. The product of those practices is approved by a group of actors endowed with the power to validate it, based on their technical skills. Therefore, even if the criteria for assessing whether this product is indeed the best possible one remain blurry, one can undertake an archaeological analysis of its positivity.

Describing the “preconceptual level” of discourse, where problems are practically constructed rather than explicitly formulated

25The goal of the archaeological method of analysis is to describe how a positivity works concretely, without any preconception of the type of logic that the discourse should exhibit. This is of paramount importance because it conditions the analyst’s way of approaching discourse. According to Foucault, when confronted with a contradiction or a discontinuity within discourse, the analyst – unlike the historian of ideas – should not interpret what the author was planning to say, consciously or unconsciously, relying on biographical, historical or cultural elements to do so. Foucault criticizes the persistent tendency of discourse analysts and historians of ideas to reinstate some sort of coherence into what they perceive ex post as scientifically wrong or incoherent. This can take several forms: “These coherences may be thematic or systematic, explicit or not: they can be sought at the level of representations that were conscious in the speaking subject, but which his discourse […] failed to express; it can also be sought in structures that would have constrained the author the more he constructed them, and which would have imposed on him, without his realizing it, postulates, operational schemata, linguistic rules, a set of affirmations and fundamental beliefs, types of images, or a whole logic of the fantastic. Lastly, […] one can also establish [coherences] in accordance with broader guidelines, one can give them the collective, diachronic dimensions of a period, a general form of consciousness, a type of society, a set of traditions, an imaginary landscape common to a whole culture.” (Foucault 1972: 150)

26The archaeological style of analysis does not aim to find out such great structures of coherence: “For archaeological analysis, contradictions are neither appearances to be overcome, nor secret principles to be uncovered. They are objects to be described for themselves.” (Foucault 1972: 151)

27A positivity – or a system of discursive formation – is not necessarily coherent, neither per se nor in the light of cultural biases or social representations or ideologies, etc. The problem that motivates Foucault’s archaeology does not lie in the tension between the apparent contradictions of a text or a group of texts and the necessity to restore some sort of coherence. It rather lies in the many visible and describable discontinuities, contradictions and oddities appearing within a discourse that however managed to function as a knowledge at a specific time in history. Describing them precisely allows to disclose what Foucault calls the “historical a priori” of knowledge.

28We can now make a connection with the many discontinuities that characterise urban design practices – due to constant switching from verbal reasoning to visual exploration and mapping, due also to the collective dimension of those practices and the intermingling of different types of knowledge and savoir-faire… Those discontinuities translate into discursive discontinuities observable in the documents produced by professionals. For example, urban regeneration diagnoses often have a rather piecemeal look. Very different approaches are successively presented, and it is hard to identify common manners of producing statements. Jumping with no transition from a landscape analysis of the area to the energy efficiency assessment of social housing buildings, the discursive structure of the diagnosis may leave the archaeologist quite puzzled. However, this must not lead the latter to depart from his descriptive methodology, which is based on the principle that discontinuities, oddities and even contradictions must be acknowledged as such and not be explained by recourse to extra-knowledge. If a discontinuity shows in the document without being justified within the latter, then the archaeologist must consider that, no matter how problematical that discontinuity may appear to them, it is not a problem within the positivity of the discursive practices that they study. Actually, those discontinuities will most likely put them straight on the way to the very object of the archaeology of discourse: the historically contingent rules of knowledge production.

Paradoxical positivities: the “problematisations” that negatively read out of positive statements

29The archaeological analysis is not concerned with the actual words and expressions that people use to talk about something: « What are described as 'systems of formation' do not constitute the terminal stage of discourse, if by that term one means the texts (or words) as they appear, with their vocabulary, syntax, logical structure, or rhetori­cal organization. Analysis remains anterior to this manifest level, which is that of the completed construction […].” (Foucault 1972: 75) One could say that the main focus of the archaeology of knowledge is not on what is said about something but rather on how ideas and concepts are constructed, organised and interweaved within discourse. At first sight, this may approximate syntactic analyses. However, in the quotation above, Foucault also keeps syntax at a distance. This is because the object of his approach is not a sentence or a group of sentences, nor is it a group of paragraphs that make up a text. The object of archaeology is not a given that can be analysed positively but something that appears negatively as the more general problem that a discursive production ­— a text, a map, a diagram… – contributes to construct. Through and beyond what is explicitly written or shown about a specific concept or notion, the archaeologist targets how those concepts and notions are practically problematised.

30This clarification came up quite late in Foucault’s work, in the early 1980’s, but it does shed light on some ambiguities of his approach: “I seem to have gained a better perspective on the way I worked [on the project of a history of truth]. It was a matter of analyzing, not behaviors or ideas, nor societies and their ‘ideologies,’ but the problematizations through which being offers itself to be, necessarily, thought – and the practices on the basis of which these problematizations are formed. The archaeological dimension of the analysis made it possible to examine the forms themselves […].” (Foucault 1990: 11–12) Every text or discursive production has a subject that can be described and analysed based on its apparent features. But its belonging to a broader discourse, in a Foucauldian perspective, lies in more general ways of problematising the being of things – problematisations that crosscut many other texts and discursive productions.

31There may be a contradiction here: how can Foucault claim that he does not make interpretations when his goal is to reveal problematisations that a discursive item is part of without clearly formulating it? As Foucault puts it: “Although the statement cannot be hidden, it is not visible either […]. It requires a certain change of viewpoint and attitude to be recognized and examined in itself.” (Foucault 1972: 110–111) To Foucault, what he does is no interpretation: only a peculiar style of description. For example, he explains that, when he studied General Grammar in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, he never tried to compile and summarise all that was once said about some major concepts like “derivation” or “articulation”. Instead, reading texts about “derivation” or “articulation”, he endeavoured to describe how, in the very manner they developed their arguments, they showed regular rules that seemed to govern the production of discourse in General Grammar: “How General Grammar defines a domain of validity for itself (according to what criteria one may discuss the truth or falsehood of a proposition); how it constitutes a domain of normativity for itself (according to what criteria one may exclude certain statements as being irrelevant to the discourse, or as inessential and marginal, or as non-scientific); how it constitutes a domain of actuality for itself (comprising acquired solutions, defining present problems, situating concepts and affirmations that have fallen into disuse). ” (Foucault 1972: 61)

32In a nutshell, analysing a product of knowledge in an archaeological manner requires to leave aside any attempt to explain it, in any way whatsoever. By simply describing what it does at a preconceptual level, one can expect to reveal the historically contingent rules according to which the “being” of things is concretely and practically problematised.

Describing the “positivity” of professional diagnosis practices in relation to an urban regeneration project: some findings

33Having explained the concepts and method of the archaeological analysis of discourse, we can now move on to explaining how it can be applied it to the analysis of a diagnosis document produced by a team of consultants in the first stage of an NPNRU project. This requires adaptations since Foucault never applied his archaeological style of analysis to contemporary documents. It also poses important issues regarding the generalisation of findings produced on such a limited corpus. We will quickly review those problems in conclusion. Before that, the last section of this paper will give the reader an insight into the concrete application of the method. First, the detailed analysis of one part of the professional document will be presented. Secondly, we will summarise some of the main findings stemming from the analysis of the whole document.

34Let it be clear that the analysis presented here is not exhaustive. We do not intend to describe all the actual findings that can be made about urban diagnosis practices but rather the kind of results our method can produce. Our goal is to show that this approach addresses the problems that were elaborated on previously, i.e. how to grasp the specific mode of reasoning of professional urban regeneration practices in order to develop an epistemological critique of them. More specifically, it helps bridging the gap between ex-post evaluations of their results and the actual process of designing an urban regeneration project.

35The multi-thematic diagnosis document whose analysis will be summarised here was presented to and approved by the COTECH (local technical committee) of the project before being submitted to the councillors of the city. It is the combined work of eight consultancies that all have a specific area of expertise: architecture and urban design, housing expertise, local economy, commerce, public equipment, public participation, marketing, urban safety and security. We will translate the contents of the document from French to English and anonymise it (due to the confidentiality agreements that apply to it). Though we will endeavour to remain as faithful as possible to the original text, some inaccuracies may come out as the translation was not made by a professional translator. Let’s specify that the analysis presented here was carried out on the documents in their original French version.

36The table of content of the document, reproduced below (FIGURE 1), will help the reader get an overview of the organisation of the latter.

Figure 1. Table of content of the professional diagnosis document. (Source: Anonymous 2017. Translation done by author.)

Detailed analysis of Section II.1 of the document: “Residing in [the district]”

Stripping down discourse to the bone structure of demonstration

37The first step of our analysis consisted of stripping down the textual material to its main headings, titles and subtitles in order to reveal the “bone structure” of the professionals’ problematisation of “residing in [the district]”. This led to Figure 2.

Figure 2. The structure of part II. 1 “Residing in [the district]”

(Source: Anonymous 2017. Translation done by author.)

Extracting the various maps and representations

38The second step was the extraction of the various maps, drawings, tables and figures that are scattered across the section. This enables to reveal the diversity of them and also compare them in order to reveal regularities as well as apparent discontinuities from one to another. Of course, the treatment of those items is not completely secluded from the textual analysis. The description of the reasoning that organises this section of the diagnosis is conducted in a linear way, as will be shown below. However, the extraction of visual items makes it possible to reveal relations between them that would not appear otherwise.

Figure 3. A selection of maps, figures and tables from part II. 1 “Residing in [the district]”

(Source: Anonymous 2017. Translation done by author.)

Describing the problematisation of “Residing in [the disctrict]”

39Now the description of the overarching problematisation(s) that structure this section of the diagnosis can start. As appears in Figure 2, The concept “Residing in [the district]” is split up into three sub-problems:

  1. Who resides there?

  2. How do people reside in the district?

  3. The private housing stock.

40To address the first question, the diagnosis firstly points out that the district “concentrates situations of vulnerability within a socially fragile city”. This statement relies mainly on comparative statistical data. Some characteristics of the district (concentration in people under 18, concentration in three-children-and-more families…) are shown on maps that spatialise statistical date, using a geographical grid. Comparisons are drawn with data regarding the city and the urban area. Another table compiles data about the population in the different neighbourhoods of the district (average wage, proportion of households with social benefits, proportion of people with no higher-education diploma, proportion of immigrants…) and compares them to the same data regarding the population of the city, of the metropolitan area and of a bigger administrative area (département).

41Elaborating on “How do people reside in the district?”, the professionals re-problematise the questions into three sub-categories:

  • “what the real estate market shows”, focusing on indicators such as real estate prices in the district. Special attention is dedicated to the “image” of the area as a potential threat to diversifying the housing stock, i.e. building private housing and reducing the part of social housing;

  • an analysis of social housing in the area, centred around the dwellers’ social characteristics. Then flat typologies are considered, as well as the energy-efficiency rating of the buildings;

  • a typo-morphological analysis of the built environment, based on maps that point out issues of high density and the presence of big blocks of industrial or public premises engendering legibility and permeability issues.

42Going on with an analysis of “the private market stock”, the diagnosis underscores the significant part of private housing within the district, with vacancy rates being higher that in the rest of the urban area. Another comparison with the metropolitan area reveals that the housing stock is older in the district and shows more “signs of deterioration”.

43As a general summary of the section, a number of housing “stakes” are listed in the prospect of the future project : « acting promptly », « targeting priority blocks of housing »; enhancing « neighbourhood identities »; « positioning the district » in the metropolitan area; « inventing » new housing products; acting “urgently” and “massively” on old private housing; coordinate the projects in the whole urban area; supporting the households who will be impacted by future demolitions.

44A map spatialising those stakes goes along (Figure 4), showing four types of graphic elements whose meaning is explained in the graphic key:

  • priority areas targeted for social housing renovation and/or demolition;

  • priority areas targeted for public action on old private housing;

  • vaguer areas labelled as “urban fabric undergoing changes”

  • a network of streets and squares highlighted in yellow, visually connecting the above-mentioned priority areas.

Figure 4. Summary map of the “Residing in [the district]” subsection’s stakes (Section II.1.D of the document.

(Source: Anonymous 2017. Translation done by author.)

Some hypotheses about the professionals’ problematisation of “Residing in the district” stemming from the description of the section

45First, contrary to what the title of the section – “Residing in [the district]” – seemed to indicate, most analyses are not centred around the inhabitants of the district (and their ways of life, their life journey, their perspective on housing, etc.) but on the site whose boundaries have been defined for NPNRU.

46Second, the methodological backbone of this section is compared statistical analysis. The site is characterised through statistical comparison to the city area and the metropolitan area (mainly) but also to other geographical entities such as the département. This concerns the analyses of the social housing market as well as the private market. This seems to indicate that the most structuring way of producing knowledge about housing is to compare the data gathered about the district to other reference areas that set the norm.

47At some point in the development of “How do people reside in the district?”, one can notice the sudden entrance of considerations about the urban form. These can be described as discontinuous vis-à-vis what comes before. Indeed, the reasoning that this sub-section exhibits is less textual and shows another type of approach to the site, focusing on the physicality of the built environment. It is worth noting that the base map that is used here is also the one used for the conclusive map of the whole section. In fact, this base map and its pattern of representation is recurrent throughout the whole diagnosis document. Each section of the latter ends with a similar map showing the “stakes” that have supposedly been pointed out throughout the section in question. Those summary maps then form the basis on which the professionals will rely, in the last part of the document (see part III in FIGURE1), to synthesise all the thematic diagnoses in four maps, each of which showing one dimension of a SWOT matrix (S for “Strengths”, W for “Weaknesses”, O for “Opportunites” and T for “Threats”).

48Another observation is that the summary of the whole section is much less problematised as a repetition of the strongest points from the preceding analyses than as the starting point of a reflection for future action. Emphasis is on “housing stakes” that mainly are action verbs. One can also note that most of those verbs belong to a rhetoric of strategic action (targetting, positioning, enchancing, coordinating…) that is reminiscent of the first part of the document (see Figure 1): “Contextualisation: governance and strategic vision in [the city]”. This is a point that will be developed further down. Furthermore, the mapping of “stakes” lacks a clear and fully argued relation with preceding analyses. In fact, it pops up quite suddenly at the end of each section, suggesting steps to take that have only vaguely, or not at all, been argued for in the text. This creates what we call a “discursive syncopation”, meaning that part of the argumentation that would normally lead from the written analyses to the mapping of stakes is just left implicit. We will see further down what kind of strategic implications this has for the reading and the understanding of the document.

49Let’s highlight also that the whole section is crosscut by the problem of attractiveness of housing. The importance of that question appears clearly when, in order to specify “how do people reside in the district?”, the first thing being analysed is “what the real estate market shows”.

Some findings stemming from the analysis of the whole diagnosis document

A checkup of the district’s (bad) health, infused with a typically neo-liberal mode of normalisation

50Throughout the document, there is a process of diffraction of the initial “problem” of the district. Originally, the main criterion used for the selection of the districts entitled to NPNRU is the poverty level within the area. Starting with that very concise criterion, the document eventually manages to produce numerous development “stakes”, organised thematically (housing, economy, public facilities…). Thus, the diagnosis diffracts the problem of poverty into a whole lot of development parameters, that are thought of as potential levers for a redevelopment strategy.

51One can then ask: what kind of “diagnosis” is this?

52Comparing this urban regeneration approach to the medical field, one can better qualify the discursive rules of the method being used. In fact, it approximates the logic of a full medical checkup, via a blood test for instance, in which the levels of each component of a person’s blood are compared to “normal” values based on statistical data from the population. Pinpointing differences with those normal values can then lead to a potential medical intervention in order to correct some deficiencies. Further tests can also be required in order to understand some unexplainable anomalies. This search for causes is called “aetiological diagnosis”.

53In comparison, one realizes that the urban regeneration diagnosis does not look for any cause. In fact, what cause should it look for? Of the high unemployment rate? Of social housing problems? Of the underperformance of schools? All those potential “problems” are actually treated like symptoms of an overall dysfunction that will be addressed, not so much by searching for the causes of problems, but by acting on the parameters of the global health of the district. Instead of formulating one or several explicit problems that the professionals should aim to comprehend, explain and solve, their approach favours the identification of a multitude of little potential levers based on the pinpointing of gaps to diverse norms, mostly statistical but sometimes purely social. Indeed, in some other parts of the diagnosis, one finds that the norms used as a reference are social norms, based on value systems that are left implicit. This often goes with the use of photos. For example, in the “Trading in [the district]” subsection, a double page shows series of photos taken in the three main commercial nodes of the area. The terms “good quality” or “bad quality” are used to qualify the urban environment with no explanation of the criteria that were used (see Figure 5).

Figure 5. A selection of graphic elements illustrating social norms used to characterise the district. (Source: Anonymous 2017. Translation done by author.)

54What appears negatively is a certain way of apprehending the regeneration of a place by managing parameters that are related to norms set by other reference areas. This manner of diagnosis can be linked to Foucault’s analyses of the neoliberal governmental rationality. On the occasion of the Walter Lippmann symposium that was held in Paris in 1939, the peculiarity of the neoliberal approach to economic development started formalising. Foucault shows that this rationality intends to govern the market through “conditioning data”, i.e. parameters that condition the good functioning of the market (such as education level, workers’ adaptability, level of innovation…) but do not directly interfere with the mechanisms of free market (unlike the setting of minimum prices or wages for example) (Foucault 2004). Is it not a similar rationality that one finds in the urban regeneration diagnosis? A rationality that mainly acts on parameters that seem to condition the normal development of a district, without attempting to account for, much less acting on the mechanism at stake.

55Figure 6 summarises the discursive process of construction of the district’s development “stakes” throughout the document.

Figure 6. Process of discursive construction of the district’s development “stakes” throughout the multi-thematic diagnosis document.

The evolution of the rules of discursive formation throughout the document: from a medical checkup to a personal development project

56In the last part of the document, after the multi-thematic diagnosis proper, a SWOT matrix is used in order to integrate all the analyses that have been conducted. The SWOT matrix is represented spatially. Each dimension of the SWOT is compiled on a specific map that. Every theme (housing, economy…) has a different colour.

57The SWOT analyses is accompanied with short narratives – one for each neighbourhood within the district. This reveals the narrative potential of the SWOT maps. Every neighbourhood now appears as the agent of a transformation narrative: taking advantage of its assets, the neighbourhood-agent seizes opportunities and avoids threats in order to overcome its weaknesses. The personification of the neighbourhood is very clear. That neighbourhood-agent is an individual that must find their “vocation” within the metropolitan context. The term “vocation” is transparent, normally referring to someone’s professional project. Here, metaphorical and literal senses fuse. After that, four double pages (one for each neighbourhood within the district) develop the “next steps for action” in order to embody the targetted vocations in the future. We will not go any further in the analyses of those double pages for that would take us too far.

58Let’s simply note that the discursive rules of the diagnosis have clearly changed in this last part of the document. The metaphor of the medical checkup is now replaced by a type of approach that is more reminiscent of a personal development project. Each neighbourhood must develop its own agency in order to build a strong identity for itself. This will help it fight against its bad tendencies and open up to opportunities coming from outside. The main goal of the strategy is the securing of a “vocation” that will enable the neighbourhood to find its place within the city and the metropolitan area.

The enclaving of the multi-thematic diagnosis proper within a broader “strategical” discourse

59Finally, there appears to be two discursive layers in the document. The multi-thematic diagnosis proper is caught between:

  • the first part (“Contextualisation”) that brings out the general idea that the future NPNRU project should be rooted in a clear and strong “strategy” of action and governance;

  • and the last part of the document that summarises all the strategical stakes that have been produced at the end of each thematic diagnosis and integrates them using typical tools of business management such as a SWOT matrix.

  • 2 This document voluntarily goes beyond pure diagnosis, modestly suggesting some first hypotheses fo (...)

60Those two discursive layers (the diagnosis proper and the “strategical” discourse) are partly permeable to each other but mainly remain heterogeneous. This particularly shows in the repeated phenomena of “discursive syncopation” that we already mentioned above: quite systematically, in each thematic section of the diagnosis, the step from analyses to the listing of the main “stakes” regarding the future project elides the reasoning leading from the former to the latter. Eventually, the detail of the thematic diagnoses ends up being enclaved. In fact, it becomes possible to discuss the selected stakes and their spatial representation without having to get to grips with the detailed analyses. To a certain extent, this discursive organisation of the document enables to debate, negotiate, “coproduce” the stakes related to each thematic diagnosis without even having to critique the detail of the diagnosis. The latter appear as a discursive backdrop that legitimates discussion about the stakes but whose demonstrative value is actually little relevant. This is all the more important as the professionals themselves put emphasis on discussing their first project proposals in the foreword of the document2.

61There is a form of global coherence underlying the “strategical” discourse within the document that FIGURE 7 below summarises.

Figure 7. The functioning of the overarching discourse of strategy within the professional document, in relation to the enclaving of the multidisciplinary diagnosis proper.

Discussion and conclusion

62What does this adapted archaeological analysis of contemporary professional documents bring to academic debate about discursive practices, and about the urban regeneration discourse in particular? As already mentioned in the first section of this article, the normalising effect of urban regeneration practices has been known by the ANRU itself for at least a decade (see CES ANRU 2012, 2013). Some authors (though not many) have also pointed out discursive mechanisms similar to what we have coined the “diffraction” of problems into a myriad of development parameters (see Allen and Llorente 2018). However, as far as we know, there has never been such a detailed analysis of urban diagnosis practices as the one conducted here, so that the actual process of discursive production of those normalising and diffractive effects by professional practices has never been precisely described. Now we contend that such detailed analysis is necessary if one aims at setting up foundations for the discursive disruption of current practices. Also, some discursive rules such as “discursive syncopation”, leading to the enclaving and obscuring of the multithematic diagnosis proper by a discourse of strategy, had never been brought out before.

63One general point that can be emphasised in conclusion of this paper is that, if problematised as a “positivity”, professional practices of knowledge production – including urban design – can be approached using an adapted version of Foucault’s archaeological method of discourse analysis. This implies to describe patiently how professional documents are organised, how statements of knowledge are produced, how they are connected with one another. Then, on the basis of that description, one can start identifying rules that are cross-cutting.

64Contrary to existing methods of discourse analysis, this archaeology-inspired approach does not focus on the positive elements exhibited by a text or a discursive artefact but by the problems that negatively read out of positive statements. In fact, the archaeological description is more interested in what statements do at the preconceptual level than in what they actually say of things – so that the words, the lexical fields, the co-occurrences of terms or the syntactic structure of sentences are of secondary importance. As a consequence, this approach appears to be little automatable because it requires the analyst to reformulate what is written, said or shown in the document into action statements in order to be able to conduct their analysis.

65Because the analysis presented here is about contemporary documents and not archives like Foucault’s approach, and because only one document has been discussed, epistemological issues arise concerning the scope of the findings and their generalisation. Of course, no generalisation can occur from the analysis of one single document. However, two observations can be made. First, our findings can be considered as hypotheses, which is a product that should not be overlooked. Indeed, the production of rigorous hypotheses is already part of science, and a part that is particularly important in the renewal of scientific approaches and knowledge. Second, those hypotheses can then be tested in an expanding corpus of documents, which will reinforce some of them and invalidate others. This means that the procedure is much more inductive than Foucault’s systematic analysis of big corpora of archives.

66Overall, we think that the approach that has been presented and discussed in this paper can pave the way for a better understanding of the critical problems of professional practices. As Foucault puts it, the whole procedure is about spotting, “within what is given to us as universal, necessary, mandatory, the part of it that is contingent and due to arbitrary constraints”. So that it becomes possible to make a “practical critique in the form of a potential breakthrough” (Foucault 1994. I translate).

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1 The notion of “disciplinary matrix” was coined by T. Kuhn (Kuhn 2018 [1962]: 296-303) and refers to all the methods and rules as well as the values, the beliefs and the “paradigms” that, within a discipline or a science, enable to produce knowledge.

2 This document voluntarily goes beyond pure diagnosis, modestly suggesting some first hypotheses for future reflection. [...] We make proposals and suggest steps to take in order to start a discussion. Surely, those proposals are not perfect, they mainly aim for starting a process of co-production: they must provoke reactions and are still to be altered, completed, improved” (Source: Anonymous, 2017. I translate from French to English).

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List of illustrations

Caption Figure 1. Table of content of the professional diagnosis document. (Source: Anonymous 2017. Translation done by author.)
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Caption Figure 2. The structure of part II. 1 “Residing in [the district]”
Credits (Source: Anonymous 2017. Translation done by author.)
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Caption Figure 3. A selection of maps, figures and tables from part II. 1 “Residing in [the district]”
Credits (Source: Anonymous 2017. Translation done by author.)
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Caption Figure 5. A selection of graphic elements illustrating social norms used to characterise the district. (Source: Anonymous 2017. Translation done by author.)
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Caption Figure 6. Process of discursive construction of the district’s development “stakes” throughout the multi-thematic diagnosis document.
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Caption Figure 7. The functioning of the overarching discourse of strategy within the professional document, in relation to the enclaving of the multidisciplinary diagnosis proper.
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Electronic reference

Anthony Ximenez, What is wrong with urban regeneration practices? Towards a Foucauldian analysis of urban regeneration documents.Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 24 | 2024, Online since 04 April 2024, connection on 12 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Anthony Ximenez

Lab’Urba, Cité Descartes, Bâtiment Bienvenüe, 14-20 Bd Newton, 77420 Champs-sur-Marne

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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