Les Grands Voisins. Image: Centre for London

Here are four innovative urban projects underway in Paris

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Anne Hildalgo worked for 13 years as Deputy Mayor before becoming Mayor of Paris in 2014. One might be forgiven for thinking that her ideas would have been blunted by the time she arrived in office. Instead, she is showing that the French capital can be a thriving centre for civic and social innovation.

There is an urgency to promote civic innovation in Paris. Income, wealth and opportunity divides run deep in the region. France’s richest and poorest communes are only a few kilometres apart, and in the latter, youth unemployment is close to 40 per cent.

The city has also been shaken by fears of homegrown terrorism, and by the refugee crisis: in the year to March 2018, 60,000 refugees arrived at the Paris 18e Registration Centre. Despite this increasing need, the city’s charitable sector is eroding. The number of new associations created in the city has been declining for several years in a row.

Innovation policies designed to tackle these social problems are often hit-and-miss – but Paris offers up some interesting examples. Under Hildalgo’s leadership, the city has encouraged liveliness and nurtured enterprise in the city’s overlooked spaces. New spaces for innovation have been enabled and funded, as at Station F. Existing projects have been supported, as at Les Grands Voisins; and there has been effort to stimulate new ideas (Réinventer Paris, Budget Participatif).

Les Grands Voisins – a Moveable Feast

A public developer has opened up a disused hospital as temporary homeless accommodation, with 600 beds. Rather than gating the site to prevent interactions with neighbours, the associations managing it have turned the hospital into a lively neighbourhood with offices, shops and bars with a social purpose: providing employment for people returning to work or for refugees who haven’t yet secured the right to work. A programme of events draws in neighbours as well as visitors from all over Paris.

The public subsidy is no more than the cost of renting out temporary accommodation in the private sector, and the office space let out to 250 companies covers the project’s running costs. According to organisers, Les Grands Voisins experiment has become one of the most diverse spaces in inner Paris, and is boosting the morale of the city’s charitable sector.

Le Budget Participatif

Between 2014 and 2020, Parisians can decide how €500 million euros – 5 per cent of the city’s investment budget – should be spent. Citizens put forward propositions, which are vetted by City Hall according to their feasibility, and then voted upon.

As projects only come out of the investment budget, most are improvements to public spaces, for instance through greening and street redesign. Paris has spent much energy encouraging participation, and the large funding pot is gradually raising interest: the number of voters has risen to 200,000 in 2018, a third of them high school students.

Réinventer Paris

The City of Paris has pioneered a competition to revive disused sites and unloved public spaces. For its second edition in 2017, the City auctioned leases on 34 sites owned by public bodies in the capital – from power and metro stations to a 17th century mansion – in exchange for architectural, economic, cultural and social value. In a city that is short of space, Paris hopes to unleash creative energy by giving access to vacant sites rather than keeping hold of them.

Station F

Paris opened the world’s largest startup hub in 2017: 3,000 workplaces, support services for entrepreneurs, and several restaurants and bars. The City of Paris facilitated the project by making compulsory purchase of the site to sell to a developer who financed it with support from a public financial institution.