Grenoble mayor leads push for 'green' city of the future
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Grenoble Mayor Eric Piolle became the first Green Party candidate to win municipal elections in a major French city in March 2014. Eighteen months into the job he spoke to FRANCE 24 about the struggle to re-imagine the city of the future.
Piolle, 42, is an industrial engineer by training and a former Hewlett-Packard executive. In 2014 he made history by becoming the first Green Party candidate to win a municipal election in a French city with a population of at least 100,000.
He answered FRANCE 24’s questions this week in his office at the Grenoble City Hall.
FRANCE 24: What do you consider to be your most important accomplishment in Grenoble so far, and what is your biggest challenge ahead?
Piolle: There is not one major accomplishment, even if some of our changes got worldwide attention, like banning advertising billboards in public places. I think our greatest achievement has been to inspire new hope.
Everyone has figured out by now that we are seeing the emergence of a new model for society and our objective is to align our public policy with that model. So that includes lots of small examples – like limiting the height of new buildings, protecting the water table, pushing for organic school lunches, limiting the speed limit to 30 km per hour, creating new green spaces inside the city and in our decision not to raise local taxes. We see our job as finding lasting solutions rather than managing problems, [and] as addressing the root causes of social, environmental and economic dysfunction – and the three go together.
The biggest challenge we face is to carry out these changes at a time when the national government is imposing major austerity measures. When we began our mandate Grenoble was the city in the worst financial shape among French cities with a population of over 100,000 people. And so our transformation requires time, but we have to deal with the government’s recessionist policy, under which we need to cut our budget by 9 percent in three years – it’s unheard of in public policy.
What do you tell entrepreneurs and business owners who say too many environmental measures will harm the economy and who threaten to take jobs elsewhere?
I don’t think entrepreneurs view the situation in those terms. They are foremost citizens who are also affected by climate change, who worry about what the future will look like for their kids and their families, and who are also shocked by the inequality and violence of the capitalist system. So those two lives are not disconnected: they are both citizens and business people who see huge opportunities in the new economic model.
The new model is one of actors working in a network, it is less top-down and less centralised, and it has huge potential in terms of job creation because renovating existing buildings requires more labour than building new ones ... Recycling and eating locally produced foods [also] create more local jobs. So I think there are huge opportunities for entrepreneurs, even if they have been hit hard by the economy – and the levels of unemployment in Western countries are shocking.
Nevertheless, representatives of Grenoble’s shopkeepers recently walked out of talks with your office, saying their concerns were not taken seriously. Among other things, they oppose converting a major street into a “bikers only” thoroughfare. Why did talks break down?
We are trying to work with local shopkeepers to transform Grenoble’s city centre and we want to a common approach in assessing the problems we face. And it’s true that local businesses are being hit extremely hard by the political decisions of the past 40 years, namely allowing huge supermarkets to be built on the outskirts of the city and organising urban spaces with a vision in which the “car is king”.
So we are trying to re-imagine the city centre as a place of shared experiences, and I know that customers will come back to the shops when we revive those areas. Grenoble has witnessed two urban revolutions. The first was the return of some pedestrian-only streets in the city centre in the 1970s. Shopkeepers put up a bitter fight against this measure, but then were the first to recognise it is what allowed them to keep doing business downtown. The second revolution took place at the end of the 1980s, and that was the return of the tramway, and once again shopkeepers were up in arms about that. Now we are trying to launch the third revolution, and the objective is to build a wider and calmer downtown area. I think the shopkeepers have everything to gain from this and I hope they will see the wisdom of it. We see it happening everywhere: Oslo, Brussels and Rio are giving increased space to pedestrians. We know what the city of the future needs to look like and I think we need to get there as fast as possible.
So Grenoble’s government will proceed with plans to expand pedestrian-only areas?
We will enlarge pedestrian-only areas and create new thoroughfares reserved for public transport, bicycles and pedestrians.
You worked for a US technology giant and oversaw logistics for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Would you say the French have a harder time accepting change than others?
The French have launched huge changes, like the French Revolution, or resistance to Nazi occupation. And they have been ahead of the curb in the world of academics and scientific research, so we have big potential for change. But it’s true we have this culture of debate and verbal exchange that is more marked than in other countries. In the United States, perhaps people are more prone to take action to improve things along the way.
It may be a cliché, but one that is often cited: The French want to make something perfect on the first try. When I think about our approach in Grenoble I think we are forging our path as we move ahead. We try to give ourselves confidence by overcoming obstacles as they come, rather than waiting for a big revolution.