Je ne résiste pas au plaisir de publier l’article que le New York Times consacre à ma ville favorite. La reconnaissance internationale se construit sur le long terme. Le dernier article sur Nantes dans la presse grand public anglo-saxonne commençait à dater (secret places in Europe en 2005 Times Magazine) :
NANTES, FRANCE — The 50-ton wooden elephant raises its trunk, bellows and, having aimed the oversize trunk at a couple of bystanders, lets off a cool spray of water. The dozens of tourists riding atop the beast laugh and wave as the elephant lumbers around its surprising stomping grounds, the Île de Nantes, once a center of French shipbuilding. A giant mechanical elephant in Nantes, France, is at the heart of a creative reinvention of an old industrial city that could make it the envy of hundreds of others like it.
Despite its location across the Loire from Nantes’s picturesque center, and the fact that the Île de Nantes helped bring wealth to this western French city and to the Brittany region beyond, the area sank into dereliction after the last shipbuilder shut its doors in 1987.
A giant mechanical elephant will not save the city, but it is at the heart of a creative, some would say whimsical, reinvention of an old industrial city that could make it the envy of hundreds of others like it, from the Ruhr Valley in Germany to the Rust Belt in the United States.
Thanks to the growth of research-based and high-tech jobs and prescient long-term urban planning, Nantes has managed to turn itself into an ambitious and growing city.
“Because we anticipated and planned over the last 20 years, Nantes is now the kind of city that attracts people because the city has successfully implemented a harmonious development,” said Jean-Marc Ayrault, the longtime mayor.
Even before the last of the big shipyards closed, Nantes, like many industrial cities in Western Europe, had lost many of the jobs that the postwar industrial boom had brought. At its peak, in 1975, about 60,000 workers earned their living in local industries, many building big ships or toiling in the agro-food industry. (LU, an iconic French cookie, is still produced on the outskirts of Nantes.)
As a result, the effect of the closure of the last big shipbuilder was to many residents more psychological than economic; by that time, the sector employed fewer than 2000 people. But the event was a turning point. Afterward, City Hall enacted a series of policies based on the belief that new jobs and a better quality of life could combine to bring new residents and keep old ones.
In the process of making the city more livable — by spending billions improving public transport, sprucing up parks and public spaces, and investing in public services — Nantes has become one of France’s premier green cities. It was designated European Green Capital for 2013 by the European Commission.
Nantes’s original industrial prowess was based on multiple sectors. When one type of business left town, others developed, according to Thierry Violland, the head of the city’s agency for urbanism. Now that shipbuilding is gone, several industries, led by aviation (Airbus has a big factory in the region) and agro-food, have joined a strong research cluster in material science to replace some of the jobs lost.
Industrial jobs make up 11 percent of the metropolitan area’s employment. Among secondary cities in France, this is an achievement. Nantes ranks third, after Lyon and Toulouse, whose employment in the industrial sector makes up 14 percent of jobs.
For the commission, which announces the Green Capital prize several years in advance, Nantes’s sustainable public transport system was decisive. The city, the sixth largest in France, has the third-highest proportion of public transport users in the country, according to Florent Lardic, an adviser to the Nantes regional authority.
The city also has ambitious greenhouse gas reduction policies (besides the elephant, the Île de Nantes is also home to a large photovoltaic power plant), and every resident lives no more than 300 meters, or 1,000 feet, from the closest green space. The prize also celebrates the city’s policy of urban densification, which aims to concentrate development in limited areas and build up rather than out, in an effort to stop encroachment on rural lands. Currently, the Nantes metropolitan area’s population is 590,000, but the region expects that to grow by 100,000 by 2030.
There is, of course, a technological component to the city’s success. As early as 2001, the city initiated municipal services on Nantes.fr. Cultural calendars were posted online. People could sign up for free e-mail accounts, either from their home computers or from one of the 150 public terminals the city set up in municipal buildings, in cultural centers and on the streets. Such early investment in information technology led to a fierce following among residents but also means that the first generation of public portals is in the process of being replaced.
The city is currently working with the Nantes School of Design to come up with innovative ways to offer terminals to the public.
Mr. Ayrault, who has been mayor since 1989, insists that the greatest components of the city’s recent success have been the changes that made Nantes a good place to live. While he does not deny the importance of employment, he says that schools and after-school programs, urban art and culture, for example, play an important role in making the city attractive.
“When you move to Nantes, you will find transportation, you will find employment, and you will find the answers for daily life,” he said. “It is equilibrium between economic, environmental and social infrastructure.”
Tax revenue from businesses and citizens, as well as support from the regional and national governments, funded Nantes’s renaissance.
The wood-and-steel pachyderm, which cost €2.5 million, or $3.4 million, when it was constructed in 2007, received E.U. arts funding. It was built in a vast workshop and gallery space that now inhabits the old shipyard halls. Currently, the workshop is building mechanical sea monsters for an oversize carousel that will evoke Jules Verne, one of the city’s most famous sons.
Though the 285,000 visitors who came to see and ride the creature last year did not significantly increase the city’s bottom line, they do indicate that the city’s investments in art and public spaces are attracting interest.
The city’s urban development expert, Mr. Violland, said that in surveys asking residents what are the most important things about their city, three predominate: the Loire, the river that transects the city and once carried newly built ships toward the ocean; the castle of the dukes of Brittany, in which the Edict of Nantes, allowing religious freedom in France, was signed in 1598; and Les Machines de l’Île, the workshop where the wondrous wooden creatures are built.
A version of this article appeared in print on September 30, 2011, in The International Herald Tribune with the headline: A Focus on Attracting Residents. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/30/business/global/a-focus-on-attracting-residents.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all&smid=fb-share