Snake hunt

We all appreciate biodiversity, but most of us would prefer not to find a snake in our boots. Perhaps that’s why Grenoble Alpes Metropole chose to do biodiversity engagement around La Tour Sans-Venin, a magical tower famous for its power to keep snakes at bay. The metropole has a lot of natural wonders positioned around and between its municipalities, so it’s no surprise that creating a balance and harmony between the urban and the natural world it high on its list of priorities. The ways that it has chosen to do this are creative, fun and very effective.

Game Design

Tasked with finding a way to improve engagement and understanding around nature and biodiversity, both for residents and visitors, and for politicians and administrators, the first thing that they came up with was a digital solution.

“We thought people could use their phones to discover information about the area,” says Guillaume Tournaire, European affairs officer for Grenoble Alpes Metropole, “but a young intern on our team, Samuel Durante, who was also working on the design of the project, had the idea that it would be better to have something that was more alive. He pointed out that when people are in the natural area, we want them to leave their phone in their pocket! And besides, they won’t have network coverage up there.”

They began by focusing on one of the six major natural areas, a hilly landscape that is mostly used for leisure and recreation. The area has plenty of placards with information about the local flora and fauna, culture and history – but how could the local government work to bring that to life and get people to really engage with the area?

“We manage six protected natural areas, and each is very different. We want people to know them and understand what is the meaning of each one,” Tournaire says, “and we want people to take care of them and respect all the different ways people use them – whether it’s families having a barbecue, people mountain-biking, or those that come to watch the birds and other animals – they all need to respect each other and the environment.”

So, what was the idea that they came up with? “We contacted a company that is an expert in immersive games and escape rooms. Together we designed a game with actors, clues and riddles that would deepen people’s understanding and experience of the area. It was called ‘The treasure hunt of the seven snakes’ because it took place around La Tour Sans-Venin.’”

Shocking success

Tournaire hoped that the intervention would be successful, but even he had a hard time believing just how successful it was. “It was a sunny Saturday afternoon,” Tournaire remembers, “I left my daughter to enjoy it as part of a friend’s birthday party. When I came back to see how the hunt was going, I was surprised to find cars parked everywhere. I thought, ‘this can’t be for the treasure hunt!’ But it was – we had anticipated around 500 people, and 1,500 showed up! That was a huge challenge for the organisation team, and it was amazing how well they managed the staggering numbers.”

Actors, each embodying a specific character from the area’s history, gave participants clues and told them stories about the area that they could use to find secret objects and figure out their next steps. “The message was really to show biodiversity close to home, and the need to respect biodiversity and nature.”

To see it, one must feel it

There is a lot to discover in the area, even a spot where the famous philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau used to come to contemplate. It was Rousseau who said, “it is in man’s heart that the life of nature’s spectacle exists; to see it, one must feel it,” and this activity truly took that on board in its effort to awaken the local natural world in people’s hearts.

After repeating this even in autumn 2019, the metropole is now planning a second iteration in June in another of its natural areas, one that is closer to the city and more commonly used for local recreation. They won’t just repeat the formula, but will come up with something new again to ensure that people remain engaged. “We have understood that games are a great way to get people’s interest,” Tournaire says, “it is a little expensive working with all those actors and with a specialised immersive game company, but it was worth it to see so many people really engaging at the same time as having fun.”

Beyond the participants

But it wasn’t just the people participating in the treasure hunt that the city had managed to engage. There was another motive for planning this intervention: “The idea was to get everyone working together.” There are a lot of stakeholders with an interest in the area, “people from the metropole, the different municipalities, some NGOs, the cycling federation, and many more,” all of whom were involved in designing the activity.

“We met a couple of times a year, but sitting in meetings you don’t really get to know each other.” When you’re designing a game, thinking of clues, imagining characters, you really get a feel for each other’s understanding of, and priorities around the area, as well as their personality. “This was a chance to really exchange on what are the problems, and what are the solutions.”

Active engagement

This philosophy of actively engaging stakeholders and breaking down barriers between them is deep in the structure of Grenoble Alpes Metropole’s biodiversity strategy, also evident in their ‘Masterclass’ approach. Like the treasure hunt, the masterclasses are part of an EU funded project, Landscape and Open Spaces – Development of Alpine and Metropolitain Areas, that involves a number of other cities, including Ljubljana, Much, Vienna and Salzburg.

The Masterclasses bring together people from different backgrounds, politicians and practitioners, to brainstorm on biodiversity policy. “The idea is not to say ‘I am a politician’ or ‘I am an administrator,’ but rather, ‘we are people who want to improve biodiversity and nature and work together’.”

“We met on different topics. Each master class was organised in the same way. The last one was road infrastructure and biodiversity. During the first meeting we always have a keynote speech, to gain knowledge. For the next one, we actually go out to a location that is relevant to the theme, that’s ‘practice’, so for this last one we went to a road going through a natural area. At the next meeting we always have a workshop, that’s ‘exchange’, where we discuss ideas and come up with proposals for concrete policy. We try to keep groups to about 15 to 20 people so we can have real discussion, and we always take a participative approach.”

Always a connection

The point is to bring together people with different interests, not just biodiversity enthusiasts, as many people’s work in different areas can have effects on biodiversity. “When we spoke about agriculture the point was not to say ‘we need to have local food, local biodiversity.’ Of course we do! But what we need to discuss is how what you are doing has an effect on the landscape and where the connection could be between agriculture and urbanised areas. Because there will always be some connection that you will find.”

One thing that the metropole discovered is that the way you frame things is very important. “It’s not enough to say ‘Put nature on the street.’ People will put it there, but when it comes to looking after it, they will say ‘That’s not my job.’ You need to say I am doing this or that, and if you want to participate, you’re welcome. That’s the way to get people involved.”

Now, the city is getting ready to hold more of these silo-smashing training exercises, more game design workshops, and, of course, more treasure hunts. And the story doesn’t stop there; cities across Europe will sharing and taking up nature and biodiversity practices like this one through the new European-Funded project Green City Accord.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer