The twists and turns of planning permission: questioning the management of diffuse urban development in French metropolises


  • Solal Lambert-Aouizerat Laboratoire AAU - CRENAU (ENSA Nantes)


planning law, building permits, public ethnography, Street-Level Bureaucracy, local urban plan




While the French planning system has already been studied in urban studies, the application of the norm at the level of individual authorization has never been fully grasped by scientific research. And yet, the study of discretionary power and the street-level bureaucracy has already been the subject of several studies in the sociology of public action (Belorgey, 2012). However, there is a lack of research on the implementation of urban public policies in diffuse urban planning on an operational scale. This question ties in with the need to observe the application of regulations concerning soft densification (Dunnning, Hickman and While, 2020).

Following recent research looking at this street-level bureaucracy of urban planning (Lieto 2021 ; Lindblad 2020), this paper is part of a doctoral research project on the front-line planners in French cities. This research calls on ethnographic survey methods, involving observation of services, documentary analysis and semi-structured interviews (Dubois, 2012). It also claims a comparative approach between two French cities. The challenge is to study two territories with a single urban planning document for a multiplicity of autonomous political actors (municipalities).

In responding to this communication, we wanted to shed some light on the behind-the-scenes aspects of the creation of individual building rights, when the local urban development plan is implemented through the drafting of a building permit. Indeed, in a context of ecological production of the city, our research demonstrates the new role taken on by the instruction of town planning authorizations. It is no longer simply the administrative validation chamber for local urban planning standards, but has become a veritable repository for public policies governing housing production. Considering environmental, architectural and technical matters, this administrative procedure is taking a major role in conducting urban public action in metropolitan cities. We will therefore draw on our observations of several French municipal and metropolitan departments to illustrate the changes in this declaratory procedure, which has a long history in European law.