How France Still Pays For Bad City Planning In The Middle Ages

The English chose to build their towns next to rivers. The French instead built on the ruins of Roman cities. A look at how these centuries-old decisions have impacted today's economy.

The medieval center of Dijon in eastern France
The medieval center of Dijon in eastern France
Jean-Marc Vittori

PARISWhat if all of France's current economic and social problems were the fault of Julius Caesar? Could the nation be suffering from weaknesses that have been concealed for two millenniums?

These strange questions have captivated many people on, an interesting European website for ongoing economic debates. The most-read article last month compared the settlement of cities in France and in England — under the Roman Empire and during the Middle Ages. Of course, it may seem scatterbrained to study such a topic amid an economic slowdown, social tragedies and populist temptation. But it may help to understand the economy better.

Let’s go back in time: Julius Caesar invades France. Emperor Claudius conquers England a few decades later. The Romans create colonies and build roads so their troops can move around. And cities begin emerging with sometimes defensive, often commercial, and always administrative purposes.

But at the start of the 5th century, the Roman Empire begins collapsing along with its entire network of organized living and infrastructure. Roads deteriorate, and cities lose their inhabitants. The first period of urbanization comes to an end. These cities, of course, eventually resurfaced, but in an environment transformed by technical progress, when people could navigate on rivers with heavy cargo. Waterways become more important than roads for transportation. People begin building canals for the first time, not for drinkable water, like the Romans did, but to navigate.

This is when France and England took different paths. In England, towns began being built along rivers. In France, they were rebuilt where Roman cities used to stand, alongside lost roads and often far from major waterways. Dijon, Chartres and Troyes, which were rich medieval cities, were located along non-navigable rivers.

Seventeenth-century engraving of Chartres's skyline — Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“Only three of the 20 largest cities in Britain are located near the site of Roman towns, compared to 16 in France,” economists Guy Michaels and Ferdinand Rauch found in their academic research, which is summarized on

Water means prosperity

Cities that are accessible by waterways are more prone to high growth. In the year 1300, transporting voluminous goods by waterways was 10 times less expensive than by moving it by land. So these cities grew quickly. In 1700, 87% of English city-dwellers lived in towns that had access to naval navigation — inland or outland — compared to 58% in France. Thanks to a more efficient urban network, England managed to gather more precious resources to finance its industrial revolution.

The origin of this difference between France and England may be religious. Above the English Channel, the Roman Catholic Church disappeared with the Empire. Beneath it, it resisted. Bishops were major local figures with economic and social roles. In the 6th century, the first unification of the kingdom by King Clovis, who was about to convert to Catholicism, prevented the kind of political fragmentation that was destroying the English urban network. And the French cities survived.

All of this, of course, is ancient history. Over the last century, roads and trucks have filled in for these French weaknesses. So how is this distant past relevant? First, because it shows the long-term importance of earlier choices. “Path-dependence in city locations can still have important welfare costs today,” one researcher concludes. In an emerging world’s booming urbanization, this is a precious reminder.

This comparative study of medieval towns also reveals the importance of factors that have been left out of economic analyses for too long. By being schematic, “mainstream” economists have focused on market forces — and their oppositions. They then discovered (or rediscovered) the roles institutions play. But history and technology serendipitously play roles that are at least as important. Researchers have shown that techniques existing in regions 3,000 years ago have an influence on the income per capita today, that early access to plowing has weighed on modern productivity. Others have shown how strong or weak family ties have changed the organization of a country’s economy. Others still have argued that countries with artificial borders (as many have been drawn in Africa) have had real economic and political handicaps.

In other words, the ancient past models the present in depth. This is undoubtedly very true in France. Many of the country’s current strengths and weaknesses find their origins in centralized power initiated by Clovis 15 centuries ago, earlier than in any Western country. The multi-layered bureaucracy, the ultra-presidential regime and heaps of regulations, for instance, are all part of this ancestral movement. This, of course, does not prevent change. But there is a deep-rooted resistance, down to the most archaic layers of our collective mind.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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