Jacques Lévy wins the 2018 Vautrin-Lud Prize

The geographer brings geography into contemporary society. © 2018 EPFL

The geographer brings geography into contemporary society. © 2018 EPFL

Jacques Lévy has been awarded the 2018 Vautrin-Lud Prize, a geography award modeled on the Nobel Prize. Named Professor Emeritus at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in 2017 after teaching at the school for 13 years, Lévy currently works for the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne and the Chôros association. He has just published a new book.

The Vautrin-Lud Prize will be given to Jacques Lévy at a ceremony on Saturday, 6 October, as part of the International Geography Festival to be held in Saint-Dié-des-Vosges, France, on 5–7 October 2018. This prize, established in 1991, is known colloquially as the Nobel Prize for geography due to its strict selection criteria and its jury modeled after the Swedish awards.

“I’m delighted to receive this prize. But along with me, it’s the dozens of other people I worked with over the years who are also being recognized. Our collaboration enabled me to carry out the most important work of my career,” says Lévy, whose main research areas include political spaces, cities, globalization, cartography and spatial justice.

Born in Paris in 1952, Lévy contracted hepatitis at the age of 8 and was forced to spend long days in bed. He came across an atlas and, flipping through the pages, found himself transported to another world. Each map took him on an imaginary journey far from the boredom and confines of his bedroom. Looking back, he now believes that’s when the seeds of his calling as a geographer were planted.

EspacesTemps magazine

Lévy began studying at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Cachan, France, in the early 1970s. He obtained a state-certified geography degree in 1974, and in 1975 founded a magazine called EspacesTemps (now EspacesTemps.net) with a group of classmates, including fellow geographer Christian Grataloup. “We wanted to break down the barriers between the social sciences, philosophy, geography and history,” says Lévy. He was also teaching geography at the time to high-school classes in the tough Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis. This experience sparked an interest in teaching methods and the societal issues related to knowledge, and made him aware of the need in his field for a clear technical vocabulary.

From 1984 to 1993, Lévy worked as a researcher at CNRS, where he completed his state-certified PhD. He served as a professor at the University of Reims from 1993 to 2004 and as a senior lecturer and then professor at France’s prestigious Sciences Po university from 1989 to 2007. He was appointed full professor of urban planning and geography at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in 2004, where he set up the Chôros Laboratory. EPFL awarded him the title of Professor Emeritus in 2017; that same year, he founded the Chôros association along with several colleagues, including some his former PhD students.

Reading Kant for others

Chôros is an independent research consortium of some 30 scientists mainly from Switzerland, France and Italy. It was set up as a “rhizome” – or an open, horizontal network – to promote civically minded science, as stated in its manifesto. The idea is to further the efforts of EPFL’s Chôros Laboratory, which was closed in 2017. “We want to bring a theoretical perspective to modern challenges like migration and justice. The goal is to give citizens and policymakers tools for framing their analyses so that they can feel freer in their decision-making. A city councilman doesn’t necessarily have time to read Kant, for example. But we do; we read Kant and other philosophers and can explain how their theories and ideas could be useful,” says Lévy. Today he teaches urban planning and political geography at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne. While he was in Lausanne, Lévy managed the L’Espace en société book collection at Presses Polytechniques et Universitaires Romandes (PPUR). In 2017, he was nominated for the Grand Prix de l’Urbanisme, an urban planning award given by the French ministry of the environment.

The many facets of Lévy’s work cannot be summarized easily. However, a look back at his most often-cited publications (published alone or with coauthors) points to a handful of key themes.

His first few years of research were focused on developing a clear, common vocabulary for geography in French, which he then used to structure his future work. “French-speaking geographers had given up trying to develop concepts and to agree on a simple definition for what is a ‘place,’ for example. So I wanted to establish a clear definition for each term, like in mathematics,” says Lévy. His meticulous work led to the publication in 2003 of Dictionnaire de la geography et de l’espace des sociétés (Belin), written with fellow geographer Michel Lussault. A new, expanded version of the dictionary was released in 2013.

Geography and societal issues

Prior to that, Lévy published Le monde: espaces et systèmes (Les Presses de Sciences Po) in 1991, which has become a classic in his field. This book contains an initial discussion of globalization and what it means for our notions of space, linking geography to the social sciences. Another book, L'espace légitime. Sur la dimension géographique de la fonction politique (Les Presses de Sciences Po), came out in 1994 and stressed the importance of tying geography to broader societal issues, looking more specifically at cities and at maps of French electoral districts.

With the publication of Le tournant géographique. Penser l'espace pour lire le monde (Belin) in 1999, he introduced a new conception of geography that calls on geographers to address factors such as cities, urban planning, political movements and the world we live in. In 2005, Lévy’s interests turned to how digital technology can be used to enhance geographical research. In A Cartographic Turn (EPFL Press), published in 2016, he encourages geographers to leverage the latest developments in computer science – especially data processing – and advocates a new kind of map: cartograms. Cartograms show the real weight of cities around the world and illustrate just how interconnected our globalized society really is.

New software, new maps

Lévy even developed an open-source software program for generating cartograms, called ScapeToad, in 2008, through a project funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. “Globalization has made conventional 2D maps of our planet – where the space is dominated by the Earth’s vast oceans – irrelevant. Today, social networks and other virtual systems linking people together have defined new communities, much more so than countries’ borders. For instance, if Facebook generated a map of the world, it would depict our planet based solely on social relationships,” says Lévy.

His most recent book, Théorie de la justice spatiale (Odile Jacob), came out on 3 October of this year. Written in association with Jean-Nicolas Fauchille and Ana Póvoas – two of his former EPFL PhD students and today members of Chôros – the book opens up a new field of research at the crossroads of geography and justice. It aims to deconstruct preconceived notions about abandoned suburban areas, the redistribution of public wealth and the role of “bobos” – yuppie-hipsters – in societal diversity. With Théorie de la justice spatiale, Lévy once again brings geography into contemporary society, which he analyses through the prism of several disciplines with his primary field as the backdrop.

Art and science

His latest realm of experimentation sits at the intersection of art and science. In 2009 and 2010 he led a research project at EPFL titled “Cosmographies: Sources et ressources pour la cartographie contemporaine,” which entailed linking up historical maps with those created by modern artists over the past 20 years. He posted two films on the internet portraying his research at EPFL: the first, Urbanité/s, in 2013 (available on vimeo); and the second, Thinking Places, in 2015 (available on vimeo). Thinking Places is a series of nine videos in which nine different researchers from his lab explore a city from a fresh perspective. “Modern artists inspire us geographers. For over a decade these artists have been exploring the concept of personal space, especially in their own movements. I want to enhance their work with a scientific approach and apply problem-solving techniques to the new issues they are bringing up,” says Lévy. He already plans to work with a choreographer to examine the languages of modern dance.


“Geography has established itself as the urban science by combining three approaches: first, a theory of social space that goes beyond the empirical definition that the discipline assigned long ago to its objects and instead undertakes a methodical study of spatial expression in social relationships; second, greater dialogue, not just with history, our old companion, but with all the other social sciences, from sociology and economics to political science and anthropology; and third, a commitment inscribed in cities’ policies and achieved through research on urban planning and urban development. Jacques Lévy was the pioneer behind this shift and one of the central figures of its realization.”

Philippe Descola, Collège de France, Paris, France

“I’ve known Jacques Lévy for a long time, both professionally and as an individual. His extensive knowledge of modern and classical culture and the many languages he speaks have allowed him to grasp the societal diversity in today’s world. His research on cities and globalization are well-known here in Italy, where he is viewed as one of the most innovative and visionary geographers. The mapping experiments he carried out at EPFL’s Chôros lab are revolutionizing the role of maps in understanding mobility and societal dynamics. He is also a sensitive, caring, intelligent person. He can read into someone and, in a joking, light-hearted way, play on that to create a deep sense of empathy. I think winning the Vautrin-Lud Prize is an appropriate, well-deserved reward for the researcher and the individual who has understood our world and those who live in it.”

Emanuela Casti, Geography Professor, Università degli Studi di Bergamo, Italy

“It is a pleasure to learn that the Vautrin-Lud Prize for this year has been awarded to Jacques Lévy. I have known of Jacques and his original research and writing in urban and political geography for many years. He is a worthy recipient of this honor not least because of his dazzlingly innovative cartographic work and his role in encouraging new ideas about place and the production of knowledge. I have enjoyed working with Jacques on a number of occasions, so I can also attest to his skeptical wisdom tempered by wit and humanity. I can think of few other contemporary geographers who have had the impact on my own work that I would attribute to Jacques.”

John Agnew, Professor of Geography and Italian, University of California, Los Angeles, USA

“‘The world doesn’t have enemies, it has problems.’ I can’t even remember how many talks and lectures I’ve ended with this quote from Jacques – while showing Martians on the screen. This aphorism reflects his views on the emergence of a global society as well as an ongoing dialogue with all social sciences. Back in the 1970s, we debated these trends with a youthful rage, running up against old epistemological tenets for geography as well as other disciplines. That’s what prompted us to create EspacesTemps. One regret I don’t have in my career is not having always continued learning by holding things up against Jacques’s thoughts – written, spoken and debated. Thanks, Jacques.”

Christian Grataloup, Geographer, Professor Emeritus, Université Paris Diderot, France

“What has Jacques done for the field of geography? Provided proof that space – on every level, from our bodies to our world as a whole – is political and is a factor in power relations. What has Jacques done for the social sciences? Provided proof that you cannot understand modern societies without taking into account their spatial aspects – unfortunately, a common misconception. And what has Jacques done for geographers? Provided proof that a theoretical, conceptual debate, even if it’s heated, is essential for rejuvenating knowledge and opening up closed mindsets.”

Michel Lussault, Geographer, Professor of Urban Studies, Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon, France

“Jacques Lévy has left an important mark on our school. He fundamentally reshaped the relationship between geography and the social sciences – and more specifically between geography and architecture – by continually rethinking the notion of space, which is an essential concept for both disciplines. The need to always refer to the concept of a place rather than a space provided fertile ground for discussions with architects, in terms of teaching as well as research. ‘Think Space’ was even the name of one of his PhD seminar series that I was lucky enough to attend; each time I discovered a completely novel topic. Jacques’s main takeaway can be summarized in what he wrote in his important book, Le tournant géographique: ‘The spirit of a place – what makes a given space both similar to and different from another one – is not a dream or a die-hard spirituality, it exists. So you should learn to see it, tame it and reflect on it.’”

Luca Ortelli, Architect, Full Professor and Head of the Construction and Conservation Laboratory (LCC), EPFL, Switzerland