Guardians of the water

“Ma barque glisse dans le ciel / Sur le lac immatériel (My ship glides through the sky / Across the lake of the ideal)” – Albert Samain, Lille, 1902

Unplanning development, roads, houses; unlearning methodologies, priorities, preconceptions; unpolluting air, water and land – Lille Metropole has sailed through the sky into a cloud of unknowing, carrying a wake of negation all the way to the destination of zero.

“As you can imagine it was rather a hard decision to take for local politicians,” says Paul Gaspar, European Policy Officer for Lille Metropole, “because they had to renounce to development projects of their territory.” Politicians in the southern part of the city abandoned almost 500 hectares of urban extension areas that had already been registered on the urban planning documents, and all with one vision in mind: to protect local groundwater.

Lille Metropole covers a large area with plenty of agricultural land which supplies most of its water. Indeed, 26 municipalities located in the south provide 40% of the territory’s drinking water. “Lille Metropole is committed to sustainably to protect this resource,” Gaspar explains, “so the problem is with urban expansion, with intensive agriculture. They are really affecting our water resources, and this is a big issue for us.”

Working closely with these 26 municipalities, Lille Metropole will propose a new model of development to renounce any urban growth in this area. Instead, policymakers will look to foster new types of housing, economic activity, agriculture, services and mobility.

The lake of the ideal

Many governments have resisted the admission that to reduce and protect people from the effects of climate change, industry and infrastructure cannot simply be revolutionised but will actually have to take a step back. Reaching this insight was no small step for Lille Metropole either; it was the design methodology that the city has embraced, leading to its being declared World Design Capital 2020, that has helped it to unlearn the old ways and consider new ones.

Being part of the Covenant of Mayors is mandatory, I would say.
— Paul Gaspar

One way of finding innovative approaches for tackling climate change is just to open your ears and see what local people are thinking and how they can be involved. “Naturally, our climate plan, both in its development and its implementation, mobilises citizens and various stakeholders in the territory in favour of the transition,” explains Audrey Linkenheld, Vice-President of Lille Metropole and Head of Ecological Transition and Climate.

It was with this approach that the city brought together everyone concerned with the local water supply, from farmers and the agricultural industry to businesses large and small, urban planners and local people. “The project was to go out of business-as-usual ideas and out-dated ways of working,” Gaspar remembers, “for a more cross-sectoral approach to this.”

The people and organisations of Lille Metropole take part in water policy decisions

The idea was also to change habits across the board, for the metropole to work with businesses and industries to help them reduce their consumption of water and their production of polluted water. The engaged groups came up with tonnes of ideas, Gaspar remembers: “Transferring to more sustainable agriculture, using less pesticides, integrating more the water cycle into the construction cycles, developing more soft mobility in areas that need to be protected.” These groups will remain engaged throughout the process, both through meetings and using an online consultation tool to collect further inspiration.

A new covenant

It’s hard to change old habits.
— Paul Gaspar

Another way that the metropole has sought to shake itself out of old habits has been by looking outside to other cities across Europe and the world. Ten years ago, Lille Metropole joined the Covenant of Mayors, a global movement of city leaders aiming to reduce local emissions.

This year, the metropole has updated its commitments to the covenant’s new 2050 goals – to achieve climate neutrality in under 30 years. “Quite naturally when the new version came out we wanted to sign again,” states Gaspar.

“I think it really translates to what we’re doing at the local level. Rendering our commitment in the Covenant of Mayors is to give visibility to actions we’re doing on the ground as well as having an innovative way to network with other cities to exchange on experiences, build capacity and maybe also find partners for projects that we are building locally.”

Through the covenant community the metropole has been inspired in its work with “economic partners, local companies and small and medium industries, helping them to become more sober energy-wise,” Gaspar explains.

“Being part of the Covenant of Mayors is mandatory, I would say. It’s an opportunity to see what other cities are doing and an excellent way to find cities that have the same challenges that we are facing,” says Gaspar, who hopes new initiatives like the Green City Accord and the renewed commitment in the Covenant of Mayors will deliver new European partnerships.

The metropole has joined a host of European initiatives, an arsenal which it intends to leverage to ensure that change becomes a local reality. “It is in this spirit,” says Linkenheld, “that Lille Metropole has already signed the Green City Accord and is renewing its commitments in the Covenant of mayors for energy and climate. In the same spirit,” Linkenheld declares, “Lille Metropole is proud to join the Eurocities’ Mayors Alliance for the European Green Deal and is strongly mobilised to contribute on a daily basis with all its actors on its territory into this transition, responding to the climate emergency.”

The metropole is also part of the Dramatically Reducing Embodied Carbon in Europe project, for innovating with the use of biomaterials in buildings. Through the covenant’s networking events, Lille Metropole is currently searching for other cities to join projects to further develop its work on protecting groundwater while fostering economic activities, preserving biodiversity and improving soil quality.

Manufacturing scarcity

One area where scarcity is always felt in governments is the budget. In order to be better able to feel the finitude of natural resources, the metropole has translated climate issues into budgetary ones. “For the last two years, Lille Metropole has been implementing a climate budget, which analyses in detail the impact of our expenditures and investments on climate and air quality,” explains Linkenheld.

A waterside pier in Lille

The climate budget is a way of assessing local projects and policies in terms of their impact on climate change. “It’s hard to change old habits,” Gaspar confesses, “and people who make projects and policy don’t tend to think about what it’s going to cost environmentally, more financially and sometimes socially.”

Now all local operations with a cost in excess of €100,000 will have to be subjected to an analysis of whether they have positive or negative implications for local emissions, an evaluation which will become part of a decision-making toolkit for politicians.

Learning to unlearn

Another way that Lille Metropole is provoking innovative thinking within its walls is through a Public Policy Lab which helps employees unlearn old ways of doing things, “In their two-day training I learned to unlearn what I did before on building a project. It’s about innovation, really getting people to express their potential and to collaborate,” Gaspar adds.

Though not directly employed in the metropole’s groundwater project, the policy lab runs regular training for municipal staff and is on-call for outreach when new projects are being designed. It also extends its services to outside partners that the metropole is working with.

Gaspar thinks that such a lab is something that could and should exist in every city. “They don’t tell us how to do things, they make you think, to solve problems; you have a lot of tools at your disposal, and you can even make calls to people for advice during the training. It was really about this journey into the unknown and finding new ways to approach problems.”

A ferris wheel reflected in a pavement in Lille Metropole

“We often think only of achieving the project in a certain timeframe, getting all the deliverables done,” Gaspar confesses, “Of course those are important parameters, but within a certain level of constraint you have to see how you can inject creativity. It might sound a bit theoretical what I’m saying, but when you’re experimenting with it, it’s also quite new and it’s fun.”

It was Lille poet Albert Samain that penned the line “Ma barque glisse dans le ciel / Sur le lac immatériel (My ship glides through the sky / Across the lake of the ideal)” at the beginning of the 20th century. Now Lille Metropole, through a process of moving from the ideal to the real, will use a suite of new techniques of ideation to keep its lakes, rivers and groundwater clean.

The mirror of the waters

While the metropole looks outside for ideas, the rigorous process of self-analysis never comes to a halt. “This change in our organisation will constantly evolve through time,” Gaspar says. “It’s a process, of course it’s difficult, especially at first. But more and more people are getting involved so I think it’s paying off.” As far as the work on water is concerned, Gaspar’s unlearning has helped him refrain from leaping to any conclusions: “Protecting groundwater is not something that will be achieved in a few years but only over a longer period of time.”

Protecting groundwater is not something that will be achieved in a few years.
— Paul Gaspar

Albert Samain’s poem begins, “Comme de longs cheveux peignés au vent du soir / L’odeur des nuits d’été parfume le lac noir / Le grand lac parfumé brille comme un miroir. (Like long hair combed by evening wind / the summer night scents perfume the black lake / the great perfumed lake shining like a mirror).” It is in the mirror of its lakes and waters that Lille Metropole will evaluate just how much it has achieved.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer