Urban playground

Imagine climbing up onto the back of a giant mechanical elephant that takes you on a tour through the city, giving you a unique perspective and opening up your mind to new possibilities.

Now imagine the way a football team must work as a unit to pass the ball around the pitch – each individual player’s creativity coming together in a common effort to score a goal.

To paraphrase one of Nantes’ most famous sons, the writer Jules Verne, anything you can imagine, other people can make real.

In Nantes this message seems to have been taken to heart. These two concepts, inspiration through culture and playing together combine to motor the city’s innovation strategy.

Culture permeates the city. As does an understanding that bringing together different people on common initiatives can lead to creative frictions that inspire better ways of doing things.

Let’s all play the ‘jeu à la nantaise.’

Great debates

Since 2014, the city of Nantes has held three great public debates on topics that are at the heart of citizens’ concerns: ‘Nantes, the Loire and us,’ ‘energy transition is up to us’ and ‘longevity, let’s open up the possibilities for all.’ Each of these debates has resulted in a set of citizens’ recommendations being presented for consideration to the city.

The idea has always been to mobilise as many people, associations, companies and others as possible to engage in a comprehensive debate, come up with and test out new ideas.

The most recent one, which was concluded in the summer, but for which final results are yet to be determined, started from the idea that senior citizens are valuable members of society. In the words of mayor Johanna Rolland, in a big city “les aînés sont une richesse” (senior citizens are a strength) – and with close to 176,000 over 65s expected to be living in Nantes by 2050 that is just as well.

In each debate, citizens are encouraged to enter the dialogue online and to participate through other practical activities. The second great debate, which involved 53,000 people, sought to involve Nantaise more in ownership of local energy issues. Although climate change is a well-recognised societal challenge, discussions highlighted that encouraging the necessary behavioural shift to achieve climate goals is another task entirely.

With this in mind, the seven-month long process aimed to make sure the energy transition makes use of local resources, is citizen-led and actually benefits local people.

As Mayor Rolland, puts it, “Les changements que ce sujet implique au niveau des modes de vie, de la lutte contre la précarité énergétique, etc., justifient pleinement l’organisation d’un tel rendez-vous pour permettre à tous et à toutes de s’approprier les enjeux.” (The changes this subject implies in terms of lifestyle, the fight against energy poverty etc., fully justify the organisation of such a meeting, to allow everyone to take ownership of the issues at stake).

Some of the 33 recommendations included the creation of an ‘office of the Earth’, which will fund 500 projects by 2025, as well as the inclusion of 500 citizens each year in energy transition challenges. This year, for example, 600 citizens jointly invested €120,000 to run a renewable energy power plant that consisted of 3,000 metres of solar panels on the rooftop of one of the city’s markets.

According to Rolland, “la transition énergetique, c’est une aventure collective” (the energy transition is a collective endeavour).

Another popular request included that residents should not be more than 300 metres’ walk from the nearest green area, be it a public garden, park, forest, watercourse etc. and that nature in the city should become a top priority, something that Mayor Rolland is only all too aware of. For her, “l’enjeu majeur pour demain, c’est celui de la conciliation entre transition écologique et justice sociale” (the major challenge for tomorrow is that of reconciling the green transition and social justice).

The city is now planning to create 36 hectares of extra green space in Nantes by 2020 and to protect 1,500 hectares of trees in three urban forests within its metropolitan area.

City lab

The dynamism and innovation of Nantes doesn’t stop there, however. For Nantes, that’s just a start.

The city lab encourages citizens, businesses and others to come forward with new ideas and gives the most compelling innovators the chance to test out their idea for real in parts of the city that are earmarked as testing grounds, as well as offering a support system for the whole project. In essence, the city becomes a playground for innovation.

In the same manner as the great debates, a concept that may even have inspired the more recent French national debate, it promotes the voices of, and collaboration between, Nantes’ inhabitants.

This has already led to a world first to lower the cost of social housing by constructing a single-storey house using a 3D printer. The Yhnova project brought together academics, manufacturers and the public sector who jointly invested in and came up with the blueprints for the 95m2 design.

Factories of innovation

The city also offers financial support to projects that propose an innovative solution to a societal need, such as homelessness, while creating employment, providing social and/or environmental added value and engaging citizens.

The 5 bridges project, which also benefits from European funding, set up a 24/7 homeless shelter in a nice neighbourhood of the city. The centre actually aims to create a space where homeless people interact with local residents and passers-by, which is facilitated through means, for example, of an urban farm.

According to Mayor Rolland, “the 5Ponts project is emblematic of the initiatives that we would like to promote on the territory. Located in the centre of the city, 5Ponts will provide better reception and new assistance opportunities for homeless people.”

15 places to be reinvented

Imagine a city that involves its citizens in decisions about its cultural heritage. Nantes, like many large cities, has many unused publicly owned buildings and areas of land. Last year, citizens were given the opportunity to rethink how they would like to use many of these spaces and the city listened. Now, an abandoned chapel is set to become an urban mushroom farm, where shiitake mushrooms will be grown on used coffee grounds and sold locally; and, in an old art gallery, residents plan to create a place where others can learn about creating zero waste.

This is only a soupcon of what Nantes has to offer… No imagination is needed to consider why it recently won the title of European Capital of Innovation 2019 for these citizen-led innovation projects.

To return to Jules Verne, that master of imagination, “we should always put a little art into what we do. It’s better that way.”

Alex Godson Eurocities Writer