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Reversing soil sealing - Limiting soil sealing

Limiting soil sealing

Loss of biodiversity, threats to crops, risks of floods, urban heat islands and even global warming are a few of the many consequences of soil sealing. France’s Climat et Résilience law, passed in July 2021, acknowledges the scale of the problem and addresses it by setting a no-net-land-take objective looking at 2050. Property developers and builders are on the front line and getting to work to meet that objective – as early as 2030 in the case of VINCI Immobilier.

The No Net Land Take(or NNLT) objective is tantamount to zero net soil sealing. And soil sealing, simply put, means altering farmlands, woodlands and other natural areas by building on them in ways that will make them partially or entirely impermeable.*.
The goal isn’t to put a stop to all urban development projects – even though the Climat et Résilience law will tighten permitting requirements: it is to start by looking at development from a new angle then compensating the resulting land take.

Reducing total soil sealing

Before compensating, of course, the idea is to reduce and avoid land take, as much as possible, starting at the design phase. By factoring stewardship into property development projects.
How does that work? By ruling out the projects what would take over the most natural space and developments that would seal too much soil relative to the floor space or living area they provide – for example expansive estates with a large number of detached houses.
VINCI Immobilier stopped green-lighting projects that involve sealing more than 1 sq. metre of land for every sq. metre of floor space in January 2022. .

On the other hand, housing needs are increasing, so building nothing isn’t the answer. The answer is to build in new ways.

Sealing soil in one place, remediating soil elsewhere

The no-net-land-take objective is centred around the commitment to unseal as much soil as we seal.
This equates to compensating the land we take over by creating the same amount of natural green areas in cities.

“Eight years from now, every sq. metre of land we seal will be offset by unsealing a sq. metre of soil on other projects in France.”
Olivier de la Roussière, chairman of VINCI Immobilier

This is where urban space recycling comes in. Or the art of giving a new lease of life to an abandoned building or plot – often an industrial one. The good news is that there is real potential in France, as there are plenty of obsolete office and flat blocks, and closed-down barracks, hospitals, factories and shopping centres just outside cities.
Once the spots have been identified – and VINCI Immobilier has 50 in a portfolio of plots that Engie acquired in 2019 in partnership with Brownfields –, the conversion can begin.
Several urban recycling projects, including a few unusual ones, are already appearing.
This is the second commitment in VINCI Immobilier’s roadmap to no net land take by 2030: it has pledged to generate 50% of its revenue from urban space recycling projects.

Unsealing soil at a closed-down industrial plant in Clermont-Ferrand

This plot of land was completely covered by a car park and warehouses in the 1960s then became a storage facility for a press group. It is also in the centre of Clermont-Ferrand. One goal for this development, Les Fabriks de Mai, is to turn the old buildings into 360 new flats, in four blocks 7 to 13 storeys high. Or, in other words, to increase urban density and thereby avoid urban sprawl.
Another goal for this project, which is virtuous in more ways than one, is to create 2,700 sq. metres of natural green areas on this plot.

Updating and upgrading property development

Have you heard of phytomanagement? Until recently, property developers hadn’t. But this this soil remediation technique that harnesses natural processes - for example using roots or micro-organisms to break down toxic substances – has wound its way into their fields of expertise.
The challenges are changing shape, and skill sets are changing with them: “Skills in landscaping, revegetation and preserving biodiversity are becoming essential in what we do,” Olivier de la Roussière confirms.

This transition involves raising awareness and, most importantly, providing training. New tools are appearing, including a calculator to measure soil sealing at each phase in a project. Its users will be trained by 27 environment correspondents at VINCI Immobilier.

Sarah Colombié, Development Director
Planning and Major Urban Projects Department at VINCI Immobilier,
carries the project « Revaloriser les friches du passé »

*Based on the definition by Insee, France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies

Last updated: 13/01/2023