Image by Christel SAGNIEZ from Pixabay

Turning to face the river

In deciding to reimagine an emblematic riverside square, Nantes faced challenges around both design and democracy. Its deliberative approach rose to both.

Plans to redevelop a city-centre square in Nantes were initially met with concern and conflicting opinions. Particularly from the traders of the iconic market that had been a famous and much-loved feature of the riverside site for well over a century.

“Little Holland is the most picturesque Nantes market,” said artisan pasta maker Henri Refuto when he was first told of the plans. “But,” he continued, “the square is filthy, access is complicated and, seen from the outside, it looks awful behind rows of pick-up trucks.”

While Refuto recognised the need for change, he was cautious about it too. “We must beware of losing the market's character,” he said.

For cheesemaker Anthony Couëdel, whose family has traded at Little Holland for generations, the main worry was his livelihood. “I was totally against the project,” he admits, “we worried about the future of the market.”

Retiree Eric Gachet's view of the proposal was different again. He saw it as an opportunity to create more green leisure space: “A square is normally synonymous with conviviality. We should be able to stop there for a drink and a chat.”

From the start of the Little Holland Square transformation project, it was clear that this emblematic eight-acre site linking the Loire with the city centre had a special place in citizens' hearts - and aroused strong emotions and opinions.

There was, however, some common ground. It was difficult to dispute the fact that the area had lost its way and its purpose and needed to be recreated for 21st century living.

Boats, baths and transport hubs

Taking its name from the Dutch merchants who traded there in the 17th century, the square had many incarnations. As a bustling port, a recreation area with public bathhouse and gardens, a railway hub - and a place to go for all the fun of the fair.

At the end of the last century the site hosted sports, social and cultural events alongside the popular weekly market. But 20 years on it had, fundamentally, become little more than a huge, ugly car park for over 1,000 cars.

“Because of its history and location, Little Holland Square is a particularly sensitive place for everyone in Nantes,” says Catherine Veyrat-Durebex, project manager in the city's citizen dialogue, evaluation and foresight department. “So the redesign of the area is a major challenge with high expectations from citizens.”

The city determined to make the renewal project even more than a symbol of its ambitions to respond to the urban transitions currently facing cities - liveability, energy, mobility and the role of nature.

“The project is also,” says Veyrat-Durebex, “a landmark in terms of democracy and our commitment to making the city with citizens, at every stage, on an equal footing with other stakeholders.”

Deliberative democracy in action

Nantes is well versed in citizen engagement. In the last six years alone it has set up 200 projects to which tens of thousands of citizens contributed, and organised three great debates. One of these was on the major urban renewal programme centred on the Loire that includes the Little Holland Square project.

For this project, the city scaled-up a rigorous participation process it had already developed as a common reference for all sectors.

“More and more urban projects take into account the sensitive, pragmatic and non-expert view of citizens and stakeholders,” says Emilie Bazin, another project manager in the citizen dialogue, evaluation and foresight department involved in the project.

Bazin describes Nantes' engagement approach on this project as, “A holistic, sensitive, multi-actor, multi-thematic process that goes beyond a public consultation and the collection of individual points of view by developing a deliberative dynamic which enables a collective point of view to be brought out.”

In the case of Little Holland, she says, “This view emerged from several meetings of a panel of citizens plus repeated visits to the square as well as other places in the city, working on senses, atmosphere and feelings and interviewing experts such as traders, shopkeepers and businesses in order to come to agreed recommendations.”

Seizing the opportunity to have a say

This panel of 30 citizens, selected from 270 who had volunteered or been randomly drawn, also took part in a series of workshops where these recommendations were discussed in the context of specific issues such as potential uses of the square, access and transport and environmental and climate change challenges.

Creative thinking during a citizens workshop

“It's not often we are asked our opinion as a citizen and I seized the opportunity to bring my views to the project and help beautify the city,” enthuses resident Nicole Noblet. “It was exciting to debate with people of different ages and backgrounds and speak directly with experts and town planners.”

These workshops proved an equally stimulating forum for the planners from the urban landscape agency - who citizens had played a role in selecting.

“Citizens' reactions advance our reflection,” says Karima Agha, town planner, TER agency. “Their vision converges with ours: they want nature, to regain access to the Loire, comfortable spaces and a flexible configuration to allow unexpected uses. But they are also critical and demanding and their questions force us to defend what we really care about and to change certain choices.”

Throughout the participatory process the city made the most of digital and real-world means to keep its community of stakeholders informed and involved.

The city website was used to survey traders' views and encourage a broad range of citizens to voice their opinions. It also published news updates plus every document produced during the project, from the original mandate to an explanation of its decisions and final plans.

Bringing local understanding to urban planning

These plans owed much to the ‘citizens' opinion’ document generated by the site visits and workshops and presented to elected officials for their consideration.

So what ideas did citizens come up with to liven up the square and the banks of the Loire - and which ones made it into the final design?

On the list were sports facilities, nautical activities, open-air cultural spaces, bookstalls, cafes and music kiosks, to mention just a few. Mindful of the guidance of experts, citizens became adept at taking into account issues such as noise nuisance, how car use could be minimised and access for people with disabilities.

“The final design was deeply reshaped through the participatory process,” says Veyrat-Durebex. “Major changes were implemented such as a car-free square designed for people not cars and a smaller underground car park.

How the reimagined square and market will look

“Citizens also overruled the planners' idea to build a belvedere, deciding it didn't correspond with their needs. Instead, there would be more green space, with three times the original number of tress, and a larger dock giving direct access to the river bank.”

An artist's impression of the square's green spaces

Human-centric design for the future

Over the coming decade, Little Holland Square will be transformed beyond recognition in one of the biggest city centre renewal projects in France.

It will again enable the city's metropolitan heart to turn towards the Loire, with a multi-use green esplanade where citizens can stroll, read and picnic at the river's edge. And it will come alive with activity, as in its heyday as a bustling port, thanks to a programme of activities and events, just as citizens had envisaged.

It will also meet their expectations for an ecologically virtuous environment and for an easily accessed space where soft mobility such as walking and cycling rules.

And what of the market and its traders?

Very early on in the process, the market was deemed essential to the future life of the square. From that moment on, traders were deeply involved in decisions to do away with its dysfunctional elements and reconfigure its layout and logistics to make life easier for them and more enjoyable for their customers.

And those rows of trucks that used to mask the market's charm? They're tucked away out of sight in specially-sized spaces in the new underground car park.

The renewal of Little Holland Square