Interview of the month: Benoît Gérardin

3 minutes of reading

Benoît Gérardin, Assistant Director of property development with Linkcity Nord-Est, presents La Maillerie, an urban renewal project where life went on even before the buildings had been constructed.

l'interview shared innovation

What does this project involve and what are the challenges of this particular site?

La Maillerie is an urban renewal project in Croix and Villeneuve d’Ascq occupying the former 3 Suisses logistics site, where works commenced five years ago. It has all the features of an 80,000 m2 town, namely a school, market, shops, public gardens, facilities for senior citizens, and for people with disabilities, some corporate buildings; in all, around 3,000 people are expected on the site. This project is being carried out in close collaboration with local authorities, and Linkcity has partnered with the property developer and promoter Nodi.

Very early on, we thought carefully about the identity and spirit that we wanted to give this new neighbourhood. Using Cityplay, our collaborative town building game, we were able to identify the major issues and expectations relevant to all stakeholders and residents. The four main themes that guided our journey are: conviviality, new forms of mobility, rural features in towns and shared governance.

Secondly, and still in keeping with our desire to co-develop alongside the local community, we decided to set up a project hub, an initial investment that has worked well, mainly thanks to our associations. We brought life back to the site before introducing the buildings, and the project hub provided a natural way to make this social link. A number of initiatives emerged, all of which are consistent with the project identity.

We were also keen to make this project a showcase for the circular economy. We delivered on an industrial scale: recycling the wooden pliable flooring and crushing the concrete for reuse in new construction concretes, for example. We have also employed a real BtoC approach through a number of initiatives:

• All stakeholders, individuals and associations have been able to come and help themselves prior to the buildings being demolished. The site and its history have been linked to the inhabitants and associations, for example, the stairway balustrades and handrails have been turned into bespoke furniture and former site employees have come to retrieve various symbolic objects.
•  A waste sorting and recovery centre has been opened in a building decorated using recovered objects, just like its starting inventory.
• The “Refab Market” collective has even organised a fashion show featuring creations made from materials recovered on the site.
Using the circular economy, it has been possible to forge links between the past, present and future, and also between the stakeholders themselves.

There is at least one event taking place every day in the project hub: yoga classes, combat sports, conferences, repairs workshop, gardening, etc. How have you managed to create a sense of community without any inhabitants and what are the advantages of a project like this?

To begin with, we were the ones who contacted the associations ourselves and carried out the day-to-day running such as reception duties, issuing keys, and so on. We even delved into the wonderful role of cultural activities development !

Little by little, the social life of the neighbourhood has helped to spread positivity. We organise events for the residents and also to foster their sense of project ownership, shopkeepers come and sell their wares – in short, everybody can come here! A bistro with capacity for 80 diners has very recently opened. The project hub has become a laboratory and a prefiguration centre, where the inhabitants can come and make their own contribution. Our goal, for now, is that the events and the community life that we have established will continue in the longer term.

More and more urban projects are introducing this type of approach. What does that mean for the development of our business ?

We are convinced that the prefiguration element is a determining factor for our projects. We have even recruited someone to this post on a full-time basis.

Our partner Nodi has a background in mass retail, and is well versed in BtoC relations, unlike Linkcity, which only has dealings with corporate bodies. Introducing this aspect has made it possible for us to establish this particular approach.

The role of developer in major urban projects historically involves dividing up a plot into viable lots. This experience has proved to us once again that our business is also about creating an identity and building desirability into the projects that we create. And in doing so we also create real value. We often work on sites that have a rather complex history, but have no life or inspiration left in them. Providing pre-operational activities is the formula that enables future residents to project themselves into a desirable future life. Lastly, our business is starting to take on an element of storytelling.

Our challenge is also to prove that such investment in increasing the intangible value of our project constitutes a real selling point. This approach is one that we could replicate in other projects, remembering of course that the prefiguration model works when it is tailored to suit its specific context and its local stakeholders.