Céline Barthon

Bridge Impacts on Islands off the West Coast of France – Céline Barthon

Island-bridges, peninsulas, or simply connected islands: the evident ambivalence of these new configurations makes them difficult to both categorize and conceptualize. They remain obviously surrounded by water, and are therefore islands in terms of the orthodox definition; and yet they are just as obviously linked permanently to the mainland. The key question therefore becomes whether a material infrastructure (in this particular study, a bridge) can modify the structure of a particular geographic space. How is an island space, erstwhile contiguous with the continent, altered by a newly imposed continuity with the mainland? Does it have any repercussions on the manner in which the locals (can we, dare we, still call them islanders?) connect, engage and relate to their geographic condition? Does it spill over into recasting the perception of the mainland and its citizens by the locals; or of the locals by mainlanders? Do these categories – locals, mainlanders, island, mainland – assume a stronger or weaker salience with a fixed link?The critical analysis of the impact of fixed links which connect islands to mainlands is one exercise that can help answer such searching questions. This chapter will seek to clarify how the new configuration of the linked (ex-?)islands of Oléron (total land area: 175km 2), Noirmoutier (55km 2) and Ré (85km 2) on the Atlantic coast of Western France has contributed, caused or exacerbated specific social changes; this is done in the context of a hypothesis that states that bridges are fixed links that threaten insularity in an extreme way and are the consequences of new ‘mainland-island’ interactions and dynamics. After all, how different are these three locations from other, neighbouring islands which have notbeen linked in the same definitive manner? One should be able to proceed beyond myth, hearsay and anecdote by: first, analyzing the context in which the bridging process has taken place on the three islands in question; and, second, comparatively assessing what has happened post-bridge on both the three chosen sites as well as on neighbouring islands which have not been bridged, possibly concluding that specific changes, if any, are therefore really a consequence of ‘the bridge effect’.

There is a series of pertinent social, economic, cultural and political dynamics impacting on islands connected via fixed links (in our case, 3 bridges and one low tide connection) to mainlands, which are ultimately very similar in form, though not necessarily in intensity, to other neighbouring islands which remain without fixed links. In the balance, the motivation has been similar in principle: how to exploit the advantages of integration, modernity, tourism and distance decay without losing the treasured qualities of island life, in a context of changing population demographics. The politics of sustainable development on all the Îles du Ponant, with or without a fixed link, is similarly gripped by concerns with the demands of tourism, permanent residents, land stewardship and the management of sensitive natural or traditional habitats. One can observe a change in the rate and tempo of transformation since the fixed links act as accelerators, hastening change: for example, the islands with fixed links have proven to be more attractive to tourists as well as to new permanent residents, thanks to their guaranteed access. Facing this situation, the bridged islands appear as new spatial configurations, facing tricky situations regarding the management of the various and contradictory pressures imposed upon them by external demands. This situation suggests the necessity to resort to filters and price mechanisms to impose an element of access control.

Still, there are limitations as to what one can do, since all three bridged islands are most attractive to tourists, and their land area is limited. In such situations, two long-term policy options present themselves: one is to move away from islandness, to associate with coastline municipalities and facilitate assimilation into a contiguous mainland territory; the other is to emphasize islandness and its difference and alterity from contiguous mainland territory. Oléron and Noirmoutier appear to have taken the first route; Ré has taken the second. Thus, bridges do not impose predictable outcomes on the islands and islanders that they connect. Paradoxically, the most resilient island community of the three under study has been the one that, at face value, appeared most threatened of being engulfed. The bridge has emphasized the differences and Ré is today recognized as a community under French law with strong heritage laws in place and with the tourist inflow somewhat regulated via a differential toll mechanism.

This success is not without its problems, however; the resulting gentrification has made housing on the island increasingly out of reach of many of the island’s own inhabitants –many of whom may, ironically, in future, be obliged to leave their own island in order to secure affordable accommodation. Ré may face its future as a recognized community, granted, but would this be a community of temporary and permanent residents who hail from the mainland? A protected and regulated island space, yes; but would this be ultimately for the benefit of non-islanders?

Having assessed the extent of the mutations of the ‘bridged islands’ and the chain reactions set off by the building of permanent links, the heuristic interest of these new configurations appears clearly as they give us a foretaste of their “bridgeless” counterparts’ future and may even foreshadow the evolution of the continental coastline as a whole.