Improving life on Earth is also about sharing it more effectively. This means inventing cities that use energy and resources more efficiently, encourage local community life, and rethink the concepts of common good and shared space. Right around the world, shared solutions are now emerging that envision this new proximity.
In favor of a frugal city
Jean Haëntjens, economist and urban strategist
“In 2010, the sustainable city concept was becoming lost in vague confusion and red tape. What was needed was to put forward a concept that would reconcile ecological ambition with pleasurable urban life and cost control.” by Jean Haëntjens, economist, urban strategist and author of La ville frugale (FYP, 2011) and Eco-urbanisme (Ecosociété, 2015).
The epicurean concept of frugality (from the Latin fructus for fruit) was a good fit with this essential requirement. Applied to the field of urban strategy, it led to the emergence of three unambiguous questions: How can we reconcile the desire for space with the need for density? The desire for mobility with energy efficiency? Appeal and the optimum use of resources?
The urban model that best answers these questions is a medium-density city, because it can accommodate a range of housing solutions, from small apartment blocks to townhouses. It is structured into neighborhoods from which the main urban services can be accessed on foot. These neighborhoods are connected to each other by public transit networks that intersect at various points (spider’s web network) rather than only at a single central point (star network). This structure allows passenger flows and central points to be distributed across the network. To be simultaneously vibrant and free to breathe, the frugal city is less interested in the surface area of green open spaces than in their uses and layout. Central gardens for each city block, neighborhood squares, urban parks and peri-urban forests are linked by green corridors that criss-cross the city.
Clearly, the transformational changes needed to bring our cities closer to this benchmark scheme depend on the individual context of each. In low-density cities or urban developments, it will be important to add new constructions in empty spaces. On the other hand, excessively dense urban fabrics will need to be opened up by green traffic routes that will replace certain roads or military or industrial brownfield sites. Throughout the city, the ‘star network’ of transit routes radiating from the center will have to be complemented with ‘urban ring’ lines - like the Grand Paris Express (public transport network project) - and new polarities will have to be developed at intersections between these lines. Throughout the city, the ‘star network’ of transit routes radiating from the center will have to be complemented with ‘urban ring’ lines - like the Grand Paris Express - and new polarities will have to be developed at intersections between these lines.
But this frugal city is unthinkable without its residents, who control the way it is used. Taking their preferences and practices into account is essential, but that does not mean they cannot be changed. Participation and sharing are essential parts of resident affinity, but are not enough in themselves. For real-life practices to change, the community must offer a credible lifestyle. Scandinavian cities have shown that it is possible, over time, to create close affinities between the frugal options offered by city administrations and the frugal practices adopted by residents.
As geographical territories in their own right, cities can therefore also be perceived as a set of interactions that combine to give them their distinct identities. Participation then translates as increased interaction between ecosystem stakeholders. With their high level of local involvement, companies also have an important role to play in accelerating social initiatives.
“As a major corporate Group, we have a higher level of responsibility for sharing our skills and passing on our knowledge in all our operating locations.”
Jean-Philippe LACHARME : "Our mission is to facilitate relationships between Saint-Gobain sites and their regional ecosystem. So our organization is structured into 3 regional offices. Since 1982, we’ve been working with those who lose their jobs as a result of restructuring plans, and helping them to find new employment elsewhere. We also sign economic regeneration agreements under the terms of which we commit to creating new jobs, largely through the granting of loans at subsidized rates to job-creating SMEs in affected employment catchment areas. We also provide support in the form of expertise and skills to help these SMEs acquire the resources or tools they need. This has resulted in us developing a skills base we can call upon in contexts other than restructuring, and which enables us to contribute to energizing the local employment areas around this sites. More specifically, we do a lot of work in close collaboration with non-profit organizations.”
Louisa MARECHAL-FABRE : “New issues of social concern have recently emerged. The demand for commitment from our employees is increasing, even though local non-profit organizations need to be supported. Our role is to bring them together and initiate interaction between them, because meeting is the way to share knowledge. The many sites operated by Saint-Gobain in France have already developed this type of initiative. It’s our job to put them in touch with the organizations if their initiatives align with the values of our Group. The C'Génial Foundation introduces secondary school students to the world of manufacturing industry and the career opportunities it offers. Saint-Gobain employees regularly make classroom presentations in partner schools, and teachers visit our manufacturing sites. The central idea here is to bring down barriers and allow people to meet each other. There is also the non-profit Capital Filles, which sponsors girls from priority neighborhoods. We’ve been working with them to develop initiatives within the framework of WIN, the Women in Network community of Saint-Gobain employees, whose role is to promote gender equality.”
Jean-Philippe LACHARME : “We see it as our responsibility to make an active contribution to the economic, employment and societal life of the local areas around our sites, and believe that our commitment is in their best interests: I believe deeply that we can make this a win-win situation in which everyone gives up a little of their time, energy and skills for the benefit of everyone. But it also goes further than that, because allowing our employees to get involved contributes to their sense of achievement and the need for meaning in the work they do, which is becoming an essential essential criterion when people are choosing which company they would prefer to work in.”
Louisa MARECHAL-FABRE : “The societal initiatives of Saint-Gobain Développement are based on the strongly held belief that the company is an intrinsic part of a wider ecosystem whose voice must be heard if we are to make a positive contribution. Our businesses are very local and closely connected with their stakeholders, which also allows us to develop in ways that meet the needs of that ecosystem.”
As the central concept of tomorrow’s cities, sharing must also be built locally by and for its users. But how can this ‘participative’ city of the future be built in conjunction with its residents?
“The urban level gives more flexibility to design new solutions for the inhabitants.”
How did you start working on the future of cities?
I worked with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), mainly with central governments. But I felt that the regional level, the urban level could give more flexibility and be a good place to create and test new design solutions that would be beneficial on the city scale. At some point, I decided to go back to my hometown, Konin, a post-industrial city in Poland. Due to the changes in economic and climate issues, people started worrying about the next stages for the city. I decided to start figuring out, with the local community, what could be the next version of the city.
How did you implicate the inhabitants on the process?
I started using Foresight tools (a forecasting methodology) to create scenarios about the future of the city. We wanted to make sure that the experts were not only “data experts”, but that every step was done together with the local community. We designed a group of 12 local people from different fields, from public administration to education, sports, culture and economy. Then we engaged our public in some targeted discussions, such as students or primary school kids to talk about their needs. At first the inhabitants were very reluctant to talk. But as time went by, and thanks to the local experts, their trust started growing, and they started being ambassadors for the process. In the meantime, we kept gathering insights on which trends were the most applicable to our local context. The process took a year and a half and we ended up with a proper Foresight, a report that included both solid statistics and data modeling, and a social engagement.
How does people well-being can help redesign our cities?
When they saw our report, other public administration officials wanted to use our methodology to be applied to other topics in their cities. Some megatrends are the same all over the world - climate change, mental health crisis, and use of technology – but their interpretation will differ from city to city. So we need to redesign our cities according to their inhabitants needs. We also need to change urban planning that makes it easy and intuitive, for every citizen to act more environmentally friendly. It’s a concrete way to have people change their behavior, and more efficient than the educational campaigns. The objective is also to make people’s lives less stressful or enjoyable. Even further, there is ample research that already shows that the way we design our cities immediately impacts our mental health and our well-being: if the city is designed in a way that provides opportunities to be around other people, to get in touch with nature without the need to drive for 20 kilometers if it makes you feel safe, to get proper sleep because it is not loaded with light 24/7, and you can create smaller communities around your home. Today, people are able to migrate easily and freely and make their own decisions about where they want live. Public administrations are aware that well-being has become a criterion to attract people. That should allow better negotiation around the table of how we want the neighborhood or the city to look like.”
We saw above that the future of our cities lies in greater frugality and the sharing of resources at local level. Thanks to certain pioneers, this transformation is already underway with initiatives such as La Ruche Qui Dit Oui! (The Food Assembly)
They did it
“At La Ruche Qui Dit Oui (The Food Assembly), digital technology has accelerated the introduction of short supply circuits in several Europe countries.”
What was it that sparked the idea behind the launch of the La Ruche Qui Dit Oui! (The Food Assembly) in France?
La Ruche Qui Dit Oui! (The Food Assembly) was founded in 2011 out of the desire to use digital technology to accelerate the introduction of short supply circuits that would connect consumers who wanted high-quality food with producers who needed to be paid more fairly. La Ruche offers a real and practical alternative to supermarkets: you order online and pick up your order locally. Producers set their own retail price and receive 80% of it.
How does La Ruche contribute to the development of a new sharing economy?
We now have 750 outlets in France, and 1,500 across Europe with 250,000 active members and 10,000 producers. Each offers a sharing space within a real community, so every week, we meet with producers, catch up neighbors, provide each other with services, and organize spontaneous events. It's a powerful channel for social bonding. And it's not just in big cities, because La Ruche locations are for everyone: some are in rural areas, and form very extensive networks.
So how did you go about building this collaborative model?
The first La Ruche opened in 2011 in the small town of Fauga, near Toulouse (France). It’s still there and is still located in the garden of its manager Odile. To put together a La Ruche outlet, you have to have the motivation to recruit producers (or choose from our existing list of more than 5,000) and convince consumers. You only need 30 orders to open a La Ruche outlet. Every manager visits their producers to meet them face to face, and make sure that their operations comply with our Charter (locally produced sustainable or organic produce and no intensive agriculture); these standards are then checked by our teams.
So having already opened La Ruche outlets elsewhere in Europe, what comes next?
We’ve had a presence in five European countries since 2014. Our model works particularly well in countries that have a strong local food culture, like Spain and Italy, and in those where there is a high level of environmental awareness, such as Germany. In France, we’ve just launched the Marché-Ruche, which for the first time combines online ordering with the opportunity to buy directly from producers in a market environment. The first edition of these markets has just been held in Flourens, near Toulouse (France).
So shared cities are built through reinvented social bonding and a new relationship with the environment. In this context, community gardens are like laboratories for cities making the transition.
Created in 2012 on a plot of land in downtown Mexico City that had been abandoned for 27 years, Huerto Roma Verde is a self-managed non-profit project. This community took on the task of regenerating this urban space as a focus for participatory socio-environmental activities and projects that benefit the environment and well-being of everyone involved.