fbpx

Special feature

Medium-sized towns

Medium-sized towns are in demand. Waiting for the next census, we can look at property prices, which speak for themselves: a 6% rise on average for all cities with between 20,000 and 100,000 inhabitants.
But it is above all the existing property market that is benefiting from this trend. At a time when the ZNA goal (zero net artificialisation of land) has been set to combat the loss of biodiversity and the climate emergency, the French government is leading a proactive policy, notably by providing 234 medium-sized cities with €5 billion to revitalise their centres through the Action Coeur de Ville programme.

Introduction

“So Bouygues Construction is interested in Nevers?” smiles Abdou, a graphic designer we talk with in the Rue Jeanne d’Arc. “I did well to invest here, then!” He tells us that he left Paris at the end of August to move to this provincial city. “I’m getting away from all the hassles of living in the capital to take advantage of the comfort of a smaller city. If you’d told me that I would do this ten years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you!”

The change in perception of the medium-sized city, especially on the part of people from large cities, is clearly noticeable since 2020, under the influence of the pandemic and the boom in remote working.
“Angers, Poitiers, Angouleme (…), which form part of an outer belt of Paris (…), are coming back into their own, with clients coming from the big cities,” remarked Professor Jean-Claude Driant of the Paris School of Urban Planning on France Culture radio on October 11, 2021. “They need to maintain links with the large cities. (…) [Newcomers] can settle within 1.5 hours of a metropolis.” And Paris is counting its losses: there were 6,000 fewer schoolchildren at the start of the current school year, according to the education authority.

Five years after the publication of Olivier Razemon’s survey, How France Killed its Cities (2016), newspaper headlines are full of hyperbole: “Medium-sized cities, the ideal living and working environment for the French” (Les Échos, November 2020); “Medium-sized cities are having their revenge” (Le Monde, February 21, 2021); “Medium-sized cities are the new French Eldorado”, (Ouest-France, March 3, 2021).

“It’s not yet possible to quantify how many big city dwellers have moved to medium-sized towns and rural areas – we’ll have to wait until we have censuses for the years 2020-2021,” cautions Driant.
Especially since the notion of a medium-sized city is “far from being universal”, warns Jean-Benoît Albertini, General Commissioner for Territorial Equality.
In the foreword to the issue devoted to medium-sized cities in the journal of his directorate (the CGET, now part of the ANCT, National Agency for Territorial Cohesion) [1], he demonstrates “the diversity of situations” using a map. In green are “favourable situations”, mostly coastal cities on the west and south coasts of France, such as Quimper, Lorient, La Rochelle on the west coast, Narbonne and Sète on the south coast, as well as Pau in the Pyrenees, where property prices are indeed rising. In red are the “unfavourable” ones: especially the cities of the centre and the north-east, where no “price explosion” has been seen.

But two dimensions allow us to define these cities, which account for a quarter of the French population of France and jobs and help “create a strong network throughout France,” according to the CGET publication.
First of all, the cities’ “populations [are] in the range of 20,000 to 100,000, distinguishing them from large cities, which have populations of 200,000 and above.” The other key dimension is their “intermediary effect they exercise on their surrounding territory.”

In the United States, some cities have been dubbed “zoom towns” during the pandemic. “In other words, cities where it is possible to use the “Zoom” web conferencing tool,” explains We Demain in an article from February 2021. “These are cities with tens of thousands of inhabitants, located a few hours from major urban centres and above all close to nature, reports the American press. Of course, these cities have excellent broadband connections (…). Aspen, The Hamptons, Cape Cod and Truckee were all originally vacation destinations, but they are now attracting new residents. As a result, property prices are soaring.”

Property prices are also on the rise is France, by an average of 6%. According to the website seloger.com, five medium-sized cities figure in the top 10 of cities with the biggest increases in the past year: Vannes in Brittany (17.3%), Évreux in Normandy (17.1%), Clamart in the southern outskirts of Paris (17.0%), Laval in Brittany (16,9%), and Tourcoing in the North (16.7%).

The French government’s desire to see the revival of town centre housing and shops needs to be brought into line with the aspirations of the public. It is primarily the market for second homes that is under pressure, as well as that for houses with gardens on the outskirts of cities. The Action Coeur de Ville programme has already put €5 billion on the table with the aim of revitalising city centres. The challenge is to make sure that it is not wasted.

[1] CGET, “Regard croisé sur les villes moyennes – Des trajectoires diversifiées au sein des systèmes territoriaux”, La documentation française, 2018.

New residential aspirations of the French: are medium-sized cities making a comeback?

The French like medium-sized cities. They are close to the countryside, boast high-speed or very high speed broadband that makes remote working possible, and offer local services comparable to those of a large city without suffering from population density. They are “best of both worlds” cities.

Maybe the grass is greener… in a smaller city! The successive lockdowns and the rise of remote working have confirmed the desire of large city-dwellers for nature, peace and quiet and lower population density. During the first lockdown, 1.2 million people from the Paris region moved away.
Today, nearly three-quarters of Paris region inhabitants would like to move to another town, according to an ObSoCo survey published in October 2021: 60% of them are eligible for remote working (compared to 33% of professionals for France as a whole, according to Le Télégramme of October 5, 2021). This desire is now shared by the majority of French people: more than one in two would like to live elsewhere and half of them plan to do so in a medium-sized city or a small town near a large city. The ideal density is a maximum of 4,000 inhabitants per square kilometre, according to the latest ObSoCo survey.
“These city dwellers simply want to return to their roots,” said historian Pascal Blanchard, a guest on France Inter radio on October 14, 2021. Above all, they want “to live and work in a ‘human-sized city’ where housing prices are much lower than those of a big city, as long as it provides an impeccable broadband connection and the same level of services,” notes Philippe Archias, director of innovation at Chronos and director of Astrées.

Best of both worlds

“Medium-sized cities offer the best of both worlds,” explains Archias. “People perceive them – it’s actually partly perception and partly reality – as offering a better ratio of quality of life to cost of living than big cities. With the same or a lower budget, they can afford an extra room, perhaps work remotely more easily and get closer to nature. At the same time, they can access acceptable levels of services (kindergartens, schools, health services, etc.) that rural areas do not offer. Moreover, they are perceived as cities in the countryside.”
This is confirmed by Camille, a young mother who recently moved from Rouen to Montargis, a medium-sized city south of Paris. “Take a look at the scenery!” she says. “It really does deserve its nickname of the Venice of the Gâtinais, doesn’t it? Here, I have 15 m2 more space for 30% less rent, and my daughter has settled in well at her new nursery school. And if ever I have to go to Paris for an event or a meeting, I’m there in an hour by train. It used to take an hour and a half from Rouen. And there aren’t many traffic jams here!”
According to Joël Bruneau, the mayor of Caen, Normandy, these cities “obey the rules of the 15-minute city. The essential functions are grouped together within a fairly compact area.”
A young designer, Clément Boutillon, left the Paris region to return to his home city of Nevers. He discovered porcelain two years ago at the Georges porcelain works in Nevers. It has become his passion, and the city officially welcomed its third porcelain producer in January 2021.
But choosing to work in a medium-sized city is not just restricted to remote workers or the self-employed. “Medium-sized cities are attracting international companies,” announced a headline in Les Echos on November 5, 2020, while an article in Le Monde on February 21, 2021 reported: “The Hermès luxury group, which already has a facility in the Meuse valley, plans to open a second leather goods workshop north of Charleville-Mézières by the end of 2022.”

Co-working spaces are increasing, some of them specialised

At the same time, so-called “third places” are developing, workspaces that allow remote workers employed by a company and self-employed people without offices to come together. In Valence, in south-western France, five co-working centres have opened recently in the city centre, as shown in the first video in a series produced by the French Mayors’ and Local Authorities’ Exhibition, devoted to medium-sized cities.
In Lorient, Brittany, two co-working spaces are attracting attention for the vitality they are generating: La Colloc, created in 2014, where people can come and work by the hour or by the day, and the Centre d’Affaires Lorient Mer (CALM), created in 2015 on La Base, the area surrounding the former submarine base. Defined as a “pro-working” space, it is intended to encourage marine professions to pool their skills.
A niche economy has emerged to support this new way of working. Relais d’Entreprises, founded by Dominique Valentin, seeks to provide a “relay” between employees’ homes and their companies, similar to France’s historical postal relays, as a way of reducing work-related travel. Its principal target is the “dormitory areas” on the outskirts of cities or in rural areas. “The fastest, most economical, most eco-friendly and safest journeys are those that we do not make”, says the website. Its ambition: “In the 17th century, there were 1,400 postal relays in France. This is our objective for 2030.”
More recently, the same entrepreneur, Dominique Valentin, and four partners co-founded the VivrOVert website. “You start by entering macro criteria (such as living in the mountains or near the sea, in a rainy area or not), and then more detailed criteria (e.g. less than 10 minutes from a third place, close to a high school, in the sun, and, say, an hour and a half from Lyon in a city with good transport services,” explains Valentin. Once all the criteria have been entered, a map of France is displayed, divided into tiles of 25 km2, coloured according to the corresponding territories: green means that all the criteria have been met, orange or yellow that they have been partially met. The company works with the national employment agency, local authorities and networks of estate agents, enabling the user to access job offers and see available properties in the area.

Checking out all the parameters before deciding

VivrOVert is a website (with free registration) that encourages people to reflect and think carefully about all the parameters involved in a lifestyle change. “Sometimes people don’t calculate the ratio of quality of life to cost of living correctly,” warns Philippe Archias. “For instance, they thought they would spend less time commuting, but this doesn’t always turn out to be true. In a dual-income household, perhaps one of the partners can’t find a job locally and is forced to make longer journeys, which wasn’t the intention. Because of having to make longer journeys for work or for personal reasons (if you want to go out in the evening, for example, you may have to go to the next city, say 20 or 30 kilometres away), the city of short distances is, for some people, a false promise. Especially if you want to maintain a ‘metropolitan’ lifestyle. In some cases, this can lead to additional costs in the short term, if you have a house to heat rather than a flat, or a much higher mobility budget when two cars are needed, and so on.
“These are elements to consider when you think that medium-sized cities do not benefit from the commutativity of big cities, which works as a risk-reducing factor (if you lose your job it is harder to find alternatives quickly).”

Addressing potential tensions

Newcomers are not always welcome, as they drive up property prices. This is the case in Compiegne, in northern France, for example. “Locals are struggling to find property in Compiegne and blame the massive influx of Parisians,” reads the Courrier Picard of February 26, 2021, at the risk of broadening the rift between the Compiegne “old-timers”, as they see themselves, and affluent new arrivals, recently highlighted by the French political scientist, Jérôme Fourquet, in The French Archipelago (2019): “When you drive around the city, there is a striking contrast between this area [the working-class Clos-des-Roses district], which has become a hub for drug trafficking (…), and the Avenues district, close to the edge of the forest and the racecourse, where you find a very affluent population living in enormous homes (…). The process of archipelisation at work in French society [can be seen] even in a medium-sized city such as Compiegne.”
Raphaël Pollet, development director of the Belgian developer Iret, sees a positive side to this: “All the cities that have a form of gentrification are terrific. It makes it possible to have more income through taxation and creates value for everyone.” He points out that fighting against poverty in one neighbourhood is not the same as fighting against wealth in another.
Philippe Rio, the mayor of Grigny, a town in the outskirts of Paris, was recently voted the world’s best mayor by the City Mayors Foundation, an international research think tank dedicated to urban affairs. He wrote in Libération on September 16, 2021: “Fighting against poverty means investing in healthcare, education, jobs and training.”

What government measures can help improve medium-sized cities’ quality of life and their appeal?

The French government’s strong commitment to medium-sized cities is reflected in the Action Coeur de Ville programme, launched in 2017 and extended until 2026. But many authorities have not waited for the latest government measures to ensure their development.

The communications campaign launched by the city of Lunel, in the south of France, on January 21, 2021, to announce an ambitious regeneration project for the historic town centre did not go unnoticed! Using puns, the eye-catching slogan seemed to say “Lunel dares to re-open its brothels!” But in fact, it was introducing “MetamorphOse” (“ose” is French for “dares”), a project representing a €53 million investment over ten years to restore housing and local commerce, and to boost the city’s appeal to attract inhabitants and tourists.
It could not have happened without the French government’s support. Lunel is one of the beneficiaries of the Action Coeur de Ville (ACV) programme, launched back in December 2017, consisting of €5 billion intended to regenerate the centres of 222 territories, involving 234 cities with populations between 15,000 and 100,000. Added to that are aids from the National Agency for Territorial Cohesion and the hundred government-backed property funds announced in 2020 by the French finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, intended to enable towns and cities to purchase disused premises and finance their renovation.
But above all, these projects could not be carried out without the determination of the mayors, who need to devise strategies to retain and increase their populations.

Original programmes to support city centres

When Pierre Soujol, the mayor of Lunel and president of the Community of Communes of the Lunel region, gave a news conference on January 21, 2021, he was talking on behalf of his own city, but also acting as the spokesperson for the mayors of other medium-sized cities in decline: “[Our city] has great potential. But without free-flowing arteries, without rehabilitating run-down and insalubrious housing, without reopening shops, the heart of the city will die.”
More than €3 billion has already been committed from the €5 billion budget allocated from the Caisse des Dépôts, Action Logement and the Agence Nationale de l’Habitat for the Action Coeur de Ville (ACV) programme, according to the Presidential website on September 7, 2021. On the same date, speaking at the fourth national conference of the ACV programme, French President Emmanuel Macron promised an additional €350 million from European funds to keep the programme running until 2026, as well as extending the brownfield fund, again according to the Presidential website. In his speech, he emphasised the “radically new method” designed for its implementation, “which will extend to projects for deprived neighbourhoods, entrances to cities and areas surrounding railway stations.”
“The programme was introduced with the aim of taking a 360° view of 222 territories,” comments Emmanuelle Obligis, Ile de France / Centre Loire Valley regional director and director for real estate and the private sector at SCET, in the interview that concludes the present dossier, “a multidisciplinary view involving a number of areas of expertise (housing, retail, public amenities, mobility, economic development, etc.) and devising an action plan that would enable us to begin the operational phase rapidly.”
“These municipalities had never had a specific plan since the time of President Giscard d’Estaing,” enthused Caroline Cayeux, the mayor of Beauvais and president of the Federation of French Cities, speaking on France Inter radio on March 28, 2018, “such a detailed, simple and rapid plan.”

To support this programme, French finance minister Bruno Le Maire announced the roll-out of one hundred real estate companies in 2020 to renovate 6,000 small shops over five years, for a total of €300 million invested by the Banque des Territoires. “Added to this is €500 million in loans to activate these real estate companies, which are set up with local authorities,” explains Le Maire. “They will buy vacant premises or shops that are about to close, where there are countless ‘to let’ and ‘for sale’ on the facades of shops with closed shutters. They will renovate them and rent them out at a preferential rate.”

The Arts et Métiers engineering school has also joined the Action Coeur de Ville programme thanks to the “Au Coeur des Territoires” programme, launched in 2019. “To improve access to higher education training in the regions,” states the Banque des Territoires website. Around one hundred training centres will open by 2022 in medium-sized towns. Finally, the Territoires d’Industries programme will support the industrial sector until 2022. It was launched in late 2018 by the government, and granted a budget of €1.3 billion. “Three years after launching [the programme], we had launched 1,400 projects and created 27,000 local jobs,” tweeted Jacqueline Gourault, the French Minister of Territorial Cohesion and Relations with Local Authorities.

“Come and try it!”

For the last year, Gourault has been claiming “more and more flexibility” and “more and more competences” for local authorities as a result of what is known as the 3D Law (for Decentralisation, Differentiation and Deconcentration). Thanks to their inventiveness, local authorities are the first to develop strategies to ensure their own sustainability.
This is thanks to the attractiveness, local development and innovation agencies and territorial marketing agencies set up by regions, departments and inter-municipal structures. There are now roughly thirty of them in France, compared to only nine in 2017. “In concrete terms, they are trying to appeal to a wide variety of targets,” explains La Gazette Nord Pas de Calais dated September 18, 2020: “professionals, potential residents, students, tourists, healthcare workers, and so on.” In 2022, the cities of Mulhouse in eastern France and Béziers in southern France, as well as the department of Meurthe-et-Moselle in the East, will also adopt these tools, according to the CNER Federation.
Each authority is then free to develop its own specialised ecosystem. Lunel believes in the future of craftsmanship. “Lunel is a city of art and we are keen to revive the arts and crafts sector,” says Stéphane Dalle, deputy mayor with responsibility for appeal and local development, in an article in La Tribune dated January 21, 2021. “To attract artists and craftspeople to the city, we are offering them around fifty ground-floor premises that we own. A temporary lease will give them the courage to come and do business in Lunel.”
The mayor of Nevers, Denis Thuriot, is focusing on digital technology. His idea is to invite project owners to the city through a scheme called WIN (“Welcome in Nevers!”), which is intended to help them set up their businesses. “People don’t always think of coming to our department, the Nièvre,” he explains. “So we are providing a launching pad. If you have a project to set up, contact us. If you come to try us out, we will pay your travel expenses and your accommodation. In parallel with this system, I have set up a unit for welcoming and supporting your spouse or partner, to help them find a job. And then, if ever you don’t like it, you can leave and it won’t have cost you a cent.”

INTERVIEW CROISÉE

Should we be talking about “medium-sized cities”? What form does the media interest in these cities take concretely on the ground in a French city such as Nevers? How can they be helped in their sustainable development, and how can we ensure the success of the Action Coeur de Ville plan, now renewed until 2026, by attracting operators and, most importantly, inhabitants?

Answers come from Emmanuelle Obligis, Ile de France / Centre Loire Valley regional director and director for real estate and the private sector at SCET (Services, Consulting, Expertise, Territories) [1] and Denis Thuriot, mayor of Nevers, president of the Nevers urban community, member of the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté regional council and co-founder and chair of SIIVIM (the International Summit of Innovation in Medium-sized Cities).

INTERVIEW CROISÉE

Should we be talking about “medium-sized cities”? What form does the media interest in these cities take concretely on the ground in a French city such as Nevers? How can they be helped in their sustainable development, and how can we ensure the success of the Action Coeur de Ville plan, now renewed until 2026, by attracting operators and, most importantly, inhabitants?

Answers come from Emmanuelle Obligis, Ile de France / Centre Loire Valley regional director and director for real estate and the private sector at SCET (Services, Consulting, Expertise, Territories) [1] and Denis Thuriot, mayor of Nevers, president of the Nevers urban community, member of the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté regional council and co-founder and chair of SIIVIM (the International Summit of Innovation in Medium-sized Cities).

What do you mean by a “medium-sized city”?

Emmanuelle Obligis: A “medium-sized city” is generally said to be a city with a population between 20,000 and 100,000.

Denis Thuriot: To simplify, there are metropolises, country towns, and those in-between – these are cities like mine that account for almost 30% of the French population. We are a link between big cities and the countryside. You’ll soon realise this if you spend a little time in Nevers: it doesn’t take too long to reach the fields and herds of charolais cattle!

How many medium-sized cities make use of SCET’s services, Emmanuelle, and on which issues in particular?

E.O.: SCET and its entities (Citadia, CEI and Aatiko) work with about a hundred medium-sized local authorities through calls for tender, on a one-off basis, or through major framework agreements such as those launched by the Banque des Territoires or the ANCT.
Over the past year, there has been a rise in the number of operations, particularly with regard to the retail sector. Some regions are seeing their city centres drained with low levels of occupancy, partly due to the development of large peripheral shopping centres and of e-commerce. This has been considerably accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis.
Looking beyond commerce, the challenge is to recreate the city in all its dimensions, by supporting the renovation of schools, the creation of housing, the growth of economic activities, the development of mobility in connection with new uses, the roll-out of infrastructures and digital uses, etc. We have been very active in the framework of the Action Coeur de Ville programme, a major territorial public policy programme launched in December 2017 to revitalise 222 towns and cities.

Why has a city such as Nevers lost so many inhabitants (12,000 in forty years)?

D.T.: Unlike other mid-size cities, the population has been declining steadily, from 45,480 inhabitants in 1975 to slightly over 33,000 in 2018. We have been neglected by the French regional planning policy for forty years.
We are badly affected by the lack of modern infrastructure to get here: the Paris-Clermont railway line is old and does not make it attractive to pass through or stop in our department, the Nièvre. Without a TGV [high-speed rail] line, we are two hours from Paris. The A77 motorway is a dead end, only going as far as the Nevers Magny Cours Formula 1 circuit. But we are not exactly at the other end of the world!
The former French prime minister, Pierre Bérégovoy, who was mayor of Nevers, had plenty of ambitious projects for the city, but after him, it seems as though local elected representatives were thinking more about their own political careers than the future of the city.
And a final point: economic crises and changing lifestyles have cost us jobs. Take the porcelain industry, for example: when we were young, we had a porcelain bowl for breakfast; a porcelain gift accompanied the passage from one stage of life to another – births, marriages, birthdays, etc. People were proud to display porcelain in their homes. Roofs were decorated with magnificent finials. Twenty years ago, Nevers had six porcelain factories, but only two of them remain, with just fifteen employees.
But I hope we’re over the worst.

We hear a lot of talk about the return of medium-sized cities. Has the demographic curve been reversed in Nevers?

D.T.: You don’t see hordes of cars arriving, but something is happening. We are gaining residents back. Will this last? I don’t know.
This phenomenon predates the public health crisis: according to the French national statistics office (INSEE), our population rose by 300 in 2018 – a first since 1975! The urban community had also been in decline since 2004, but it gained 160.
The Nevers schools, which were experiencing a fall-off in numbers, had 30 more students at the start of the school year, another first. 1% more is not a lot, but what is interesting is that most of these pupils are entering primary school. They are therefore new arrivals, because if they were local, they would be starting kindergarten. Our nurseries are full and we are working on opening new ones.

Are property prices also rising?

D.T.: Estate agents and notaries have reported an overall price increase of 6%, and more than that for houses with gardens. Houses are being rented much more quickly: this is a positive trend.
I am well aware that it is mainly second homes that are driving the property market upwards. Most buyers are Parisians. But I am counting on these homes turning into principal residences. I believe that for now, people are coming to try out the city. If they are happy, if we offer them good nurseries, schools and sports and cultural facilities, they’ll stay. If not, they’ll go elsewhere. And quite rightly, too! It’s up to us to play our cards right. There aren’t all that many cities within two hours of Paris.

The French government launched the Action Coeur de Ville programme in December 2017 to regenerate city centres and attract new residents, and it will be extended until 2026. What are its strengths, apart from the funds that have been allocated (€5 billion for five years)?

E.O.: The Action Coeur de Ville programme, which reflects proactive public policy, was recently extended until 2026.
The programme was introduced with the aim of taking a 360° view of 222 territories, a multidisciplinary view involving a number of areas of expertise (housing, retail, public amenities, mobility, economic development, etc.) and devising an action plan that would enable us to begin the operational phase rapidly.
Thanks to subsidies made available to finance engineering studies, the programme aims to help cities to get a clear picture, establish a diagnosis and decide on their priorities.
It’s interesting because this is the first time in France that the government has invested in a comprehensive policy for these territories. The context of the pandemic combined with the desire of many urban dwellers to live in smaller municipalities are factors that have contributed to its success.

What support does SCET provide for Action Coeur de Ville?

E.O.: We are supporting a large number of cities in this programme as consultants. Having 15 offices in mainland France means that we are close to the field.
This support can take two forms. Firstly, through Project Management Assistance (PMA) missions, in which case, we work alongside the local authority’s contact person in charge of the Action Coeur de Ville programme to help make a diagnosis, structure a strategy and governance, and build a roadmap of actions to revitalise its city centre. For Nevers, SCET and its subsidiary Citadia worked on redeveloping the southern entrance to the city. We can also limit our involvement to specific themes, providing an expert perspective on mobility, retail trade, the renovating of rundown housing, developing healthcare facilities, reallocating public spaces, etc.
Measures designed for employment, training and industry, which were largely missing from the first Action Coeur de Ville programme, must become priorities in order to strengthen the attractiveness of these areas.

How is Action Coeur de Ville regenerating Nevers?

D.T.: The programme has allowed us to access city centre housing, such as apartments overlooking the shops of shopkeepers who no longer live above their shops and which are being used as storerooms.
This programme also allows us to spruce up public spaces. Take a walk along Avenue Pierre Bérégovoy in Nevers [in the old town, extending from Avenue du Général de Gaulle, which runs from the station] and you will see that the pedestrian crossings have been renovated. The Place Mossé [in the south of the city] is being renovated. It will once again become a viewing point, offering a magnificent view of the Loire.
This aid is a fantastic way of accelerating projects.

What about digital solutions? Do you have any in mind?

D.T.: I would like the city centre to become an open-air shopping centre for the whole urban community. I’ve introduced a policy of two hours’ free parking in Nevers. This means giving up €700,000 of revenue, but it’s a way of helping local businesses. Smart road surfaces will make it possible to improve traffic by providing motorists with real-time information on free parking spaces and the fastest routes. Our aim is for there to be far fewer vehicles in the city, but we have to achieve this progressively.
In the evening, we are already testing luminous pedestrian crossings on Avenue Pierre Bérégovoy – thanks to the Flowell system [developed by Colas] – which directs pedestrians and warns cars when a pedestrian is approaching the crossing or beginning to cross. Half of the finance was provided by Action Coeur de Ville. This technology backs up those we have introduced that improve differentiated night lighting on cycle paths and on the road. In some of the streets in Nevers, the lights are dimmed when there’s no one there, otherwise they shine brightly. It’s like a modern-day lamplighter.
One of our plans is to further increase protection by installing surveillance cameras. And maybe a sound system.

How far have the fifty cities you are advising got with the programme overall?

E.O.: We have reached a turning point because the first part of this major public programme has just been completed. But the government has now launched Act 2!
The question we are now facing is how to make projects come to fruition, how to turn action plans into reality on the ground. And for this, all stakeholders involved in production in the city must be committed to these areas. Mixed economy companies are doing a remarkable job and I see that private developers are also trying to find a place (as well as an economic model) in medium-sized cities, even if the market is often sluggish.
We are also working with quite a few local authorities to help them identify and source operators.

Are property developers interested?

E.O.: Yes, I’ve noticed an increased interest in non-metropolitan communities by developers, especially some of the larger ones.
I hear them talking about “reterritorialising their actions”, to use an expression that is familiar to them. Beyond the dynamism of these cities, it’s also true to say that some of them encounter real difficulties in large cities as they try to move their projects forward (change of control from one party to another, debates on density, land scarcity, etc.).
This is an excellent thing, because it is through a mix of public-sector and private-sector actions that transformation will occur. It is interesting to see the large number of mixed capital revitalization projects that are being developed at these local levels.

Isn’t there a danger that newcomers will settle in nice houses with gardens on the outskirts of the city and hardly ever visit the city centre?

E.O.: You’re right, it’s a big challenge. The figures for the last few months show that the new inhabitants who have “fled” from the big cities are mainly looking for houses, not apartments, on the outskirts of the cities. These lifestyle choices are combined with a desire to consume differently, more locally, and to live more outdoors, closer to nature. For city centres to really appeal to these new residents, they have to provide a real quality of neighbourhood life, activities for people to get involved in, and urban and architectural quality! Hence the importance of restoring and upgrading outstanding heritage features.
Most territories have intrinsic qualities and potential; we have to build up on these fundamentals and highlight them to strengthen the territory’s identity.

Apart from a more attractive city centre, what are you counting on to attract more inhabitants?

D.T.: I’m primarily committed to employment and the economy. As you walk around, you will see yellow and blue bicycles: they belong to a start-up company, Bik’air, recently established in Nevers. These rented bikes can be picked up and left wherever you want. They are located by GPS and returned to their original locations after twelve hours. This has enabled us to create four jobs to collect them, maintain them, recharge them, etc. Instead of assembling its bikes in China, the company wants to assemble them in Nevers and is looking to purchase premises.
Our incubator, the Inkub, welcomes companies from Nevers, Quebec City and elsewhere under preferential conditions. The SIIVIM (the International Summit of Innovation in Medium-sized Cities), which I chair and co-founded with the mayor of Shawinigan, a Canadian city midway between Montreal and Quebec City, promotes encounters, enables innovation and inspires dynamism. The summit takes place every year, alternating between Nevers and Shawinigan. We are a land of innovation.

We are also a land of industry. The Nevers Magny-Cours technology park provides more than 700 jobs in the automotive, drone and cycle industries, such as Look Bindings, the only company that still manufactures fasteners in Europe, and Texys, which designs and manufactures sensors for racing cars and motor cycles, as well as for the aerospace industry. We host the Arquus site, which is the logistics platform for the army’s Scorpion programme. Above all, we’re facing many problems in recruiting, even though, as many places have, we have suffered heavy losses.

And thirdly, we have invested heavily in higher education over the past five years. There were 2,000 students in Nevers six years ago, and there are now 3,000. A branch of the University Institute of Technology (IUT) opened this year, specialising in computer science, engineering and the automobile industry. The reason for this opening is that the IUT is supported by the Nevers Higher Institute of Automobile and Transport (ISAT), so students can start training in automotive-related computer engineering at the IUT before continuing their studies at the automobile engineering school.

Our city has 50,000 inhabitants: the challenge is to keep it employed at full capacity!

[1] SCET (Services, Consulting, Expertise, Territories), a consulting company and a subsidiary of the Caisse des Dépôts, offers a comprehensive range of service across the whole value chain of territorial projects.