Connectivity of green and blue infrastructures: living veins for biodiverse and healthy cities

Imagination and Creativity for Cities and Nature II

Philosophies of action for resilient cities

Following the inspiring Plenary Session of the Paris Forum on NBS on the 7 April (http://www.bioveins.eu/blog/imagination-and-creativity-for-cities-and-nature-i), I attended the session on “Can nature support quality of life and resilience [in cities]?” This turned out to be a masterclass on how to implement NBS projects.

Pyschology professor Ricardo García Mira discussed one of his projects, GLAMURS, which investigated transition models for lifestyle choices. He defined lifestyles as patterns of time use, in particular locations, related to consumption practices. You can read about their results and policy recommendations here: http://glamurs.eu/2017/03/20/what-we-found-out/

Morgane Colombert, assistant professor of engineering at Paris-Est University spoke about the challenges of designing buildings for changing and dramatically varying climates.

The star of the show, though, was undoubtedly Sebastien Maire, General Delegate of Ecological Transition and Resilience for the city of Paris. Everyone was enamoured of the intelligence and agility of his perspective, and the session became a masterclass in his approach.

First he described the situation of Paris and its resilience strategy. He began by explaining that a century of technological progress had made Paris more, rather than less, vulnerable to disasters. The technological networks for electricty, communications, transport, and so on, have been built one on top of the other without planning or coordination, leading to increased disruption of services if one is affected. Erosion of social cohesion, at the simple level of people having social interactions with the people they live near, has also left Paris vulnerable, since public services cannot know everything or do everything: people need to be able to help one another in an emergency, or to prevent an emergency. At the same time, an emergency event like a massive flood can also inspire citizens to ask for better adaptation measures, and, ironically, repair and implementation of new, better infrastructures stimulates the private sector economy. Catastrophes can have productive aftermaths. The goal, of course, remains to protect the citizens of Paris, and for this Paris has not a Resilience Plan but a Resilience Process. I found this particularly interesting since in nature conservation the rewilding movement has also focussed on processes rather than plans with goals and targets. Is this a nascent movement among enlightened policy makers towards more flexible and site-based implementation?

In support of resilience as a process rather than a plan, Sebastien Maire went on to explain that, in his view, resilience is context-dependent, specific to a particular place or territory, and thus inherently about integrating across multiple issues and potential benefits to various stakeholders. Resilience, he said, is not about the dogmatic implementation of Nature-Based Solutions or any other programmatic approach. He was delightfully skeptical about certain “received approaches” such as the use of big data analysis to design sustainable systems, and the creation of value to justify and promote interventions. The deployment of arrays of sensors, massive data collection, modelling and big data analysis, he suggested, more often than not result in useless and unused datasets, without contributing to action (but with a large energy expenditure and carbon footprint). Rather than acquiring external funding for investments in new data sets and consultancies, he preferred to work with in-house on-the-ground expertise. He also related the cautionary tale of the metro in Quito, Ecuador, which was intended to connect the poorer sections of the city with the richer sections through the new public transport network. As no investors wanted to fund this plan for social mixity, the World Bank came up with the idea to convince investors that the metro stations would create residential value; the metro system was funded, but the increased housing prices around the stations pushed out the working poor, defeating the social purpose of the transport system. Mr. Maire saw gentrification as a threat to social cohesion, and thus resilience, in Paris as well.

Mr. Maire described a concrete example of a project he was carrying out in Paris, the OASIS project (https://www.20minutes.fr/paris/2327383-20180830-video-paris-cours-recreation-vegetalisees-enfants-jouent-frais). The city recognised that as the temperature during school periods increases on average, and with more heat waves, children cannot use their schoolyards because they are dangerously hot. Why not redesign school yards, which cover 73 ha of cement in Paris, as oases of heat mitigation? A pilot project has already been carried out and will be implemented in all the schools of Paris over the coming years, using existing budgets and expertise at the Mairie de Paris. The new school yards are co-designed along with the students, teachers and parents, using smart materials that are pervious to water and release humidity, for example. However, teachers and parents did not want school yards to be parks or gardens: soil dirties clothes and shoes, while trees attract pigeon defecation, so both were widely nixed. This shortsighted and rather illogical attitude (aren’t all the parks of Paris entirely filled with parents and small children every weekend?) points to the limitations of using participative methods when working towards innovative solutions. Mr. Maire, however, remained positive about including citizens in actions for resilience, and drawing on their imaginations, as a form of building social cohesion. He told us that a new programme of Paris Volunteers will soon be trialled in the 3rd arrondissement, which will train neighborhood volunteers to map potential sites for nature and NBS where they live.

Everyone seemed to be energized by Sebastien Maire’s perspectives, and went off to lunch with a desire to do things the intelligent way. I, however, took one of the climate-change-compromised (but well-functioning) transport networks and went to a colloquium about “remarkable trees” (http://www.bioveins.eu/blog/remarkable-trees)…

Note: one of the images is a print by Greyson Parry. The book is The Language of Cities by Deyan Sudjic (2016, Penguin), showing two images of Brasilia, the city designed de novo according to the best modernist imagination of the mid-1950s.

-- Meredith Root-Bernstein, 7/4/2019