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Sustainable cities: for a choral transformation

This article includes some proposals from the book "Inventing sustainable cities" (Ed. Dunod, 2022), in which we review the horizons of sustainable cities and the conditions to be met to build them in a broader and more efficient way.

In the incubators and accelerators we operate at INSKIP, we help entrepreneurs include users in their innovation process. The objective is to match solutions to the needs of the public, and to minimize the risks of project failure. This user-centric approach is even more relevant when it comes to transforming the city. Firstly, because the city is everyone's business and political action must be carried out democratically, giving everyone the opportunity to express themselves, in order to achieve a broad consensus. Secondly, because effective change management requires the involvement of all stakeholders in the transformations, from the outset. This is why participatory and educational tools play a key role in the transformation process of the sustainable city. 

Multiple and fragmented concertation actions, initiated from above or below.

As Sébastien Maire, president of the association Ville Durable France, reminds us in an interview for our book, "it is not so much the 'solutions' for the sustainable city that are the priority, as the collective processes of learning and understanding the real situation, and the consequent evolution of project governance and territorial management."

These processes take several forms and involve elected officials, private experts, architects, academics, and sometimes actors from the economic and associative worlds. In Saint-Fons, the urban planning agency and the Cerema coordinate workshops that have resulted in 800 actions. Elsewhere, such as in Seine Saint-Denis, the Rêve de Scènes Urbaines association aims to offer communities integrated idea boxes.  The IBA (Internationale Bauausstellung or International Building Exhibition) model proposes to go a step further, by reporting on the design work at each stage to a wide audience, to make the city's construction more transparent. The Ministry of Housing has begun work on adapting this model for the creation of future eco-cities. Its advantage is that it includes a participatory component, in addition to the educational component and workshops.

There are also participatory initiatives from the citizens themselves, which are expressed either within the framework of specific and limited operations (conferences on the city of tomorrow, participatory budgets) or in a more spontaneous way (we refer to the Cre-sol in Tours for example), but in the end just as limited, as the authorizations are often lacking.

It is difficult to reconcile the top-down approach of elected officials and experts, which is long-term and massified, with the bottom-up approach involving citizens, which is short-term and localized. However, the city cannot effectively reinvent itself without both, and they must coexist throughout the duration of a project - from start to finish. At stake: the relevance of the solutions deployed and their adoption.

For a large-scale choral transformation

It seems to us desirable to reconcile these two approaches in order to facilitate the management of change, to de-risk and optimize projects, to bring together the various stakeholders in the upstream phase and to maximize the chances of success once the works have been delivered. To do this, cities would benefit from systematically working on 3 axes:

  • The city must play its role as an educator, working to raise awareness among the various publics upstream of the projects. Educating the citizen of the sustainable city is a necessary prerequisite for change in the city. It would be logical for these actions to be continuous, available in different formats to ensure better accessibility, and uncorrelated with projects to avoid the bias of presenting certain approaches as necessary solutions.
  • The city can then bring the projects to the fore in a collaborative manner, playing the role of facilitator with the help of urban planning agencies, CEREMA or CAUE, to build consensus around the projects upstream, and better define them at the same time. Alternatively, it can use citizen initiatives as open-air "beta tests", tests that - in the interval between two projects - allow the second to mature and gain in relevance. Finally, calls for innovative projects would benefit from involving citizens more. Today, only 35% of calls for innovative urban projects include a consultation or citizen participation process. Cécile Dang, managing director of CityLinked, points out that only four cities (Sceaux, Bagneux, Angers and Toulouse) have set up a consultation process before or in parallel with the contest.
  • Promoters can then take over by involving citizens in the project, from the design phase through to delivery, via participatory work sites that help to make the site their own.

These would be the three axes of what we call the "choral transformation". The chorus, in the Greek tragedy, acts in the play as a collective character, which expresses the points of view of the society. It echoes its judgments and its emotions, while the plot unfolds under its eyes. 

It is in this sense that we understand "choral": if the population cannot have a structuring role in the project, it must nevertheless play the role of active spectator, throughout its development, by bringing its comments and impressions so that in return the project gains in relevance. Choral transformation is also - in the musical sense of the term - the possibility for several voices to produce a harmony together, by responding to each other. Such a transformation allows to give a voice to the citizens and to make it resonate throughout the project, involving them in the ideation, design, implementation and maintenance of the sustainable city. In a way, it seems to us that the democratic transformation of the sustainable city is the first condition for a successful transformation, both for theoretical and methodological reasons.

Complete book available here (in french): Inventing Sustainable Cities: Ideas and Tools to Meet Today's Challenges (Matthieu Chéreau & Maxime Guillaud)

Let's build together !