Jacques Lévy wins the 2018 Vautrin-Lud Prize
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.
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.
- Jacques Lévy biography
- HABITER – A University of Reims research project
- Chôros association
- Article published on Espace-temps.net on 26 July 2018
- Interview in Courrier International on 31 August 2018
- EPFL article: 8 November 2016
- EPFL article: 3 October 2017
- EPFL article: 26 January 2014
- MOOC EPFL
- Podcast of France Culture (radio)