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