NANTES, France —This post-industrial city near the Brittany coast has tried all manner of things to distinguish itself as the other important city in France.
Theme-park style rides combined with public art – loads of it, literally, including a giant mechanical elephant that sashays out to a plaza with up to 30 people on its back, and playfully sprays water from its trunk at those on the ground. A memorial celebrating abolition, as a mea culpa for being a major seaport for the slave trade. A conference center, of course, and equally ubiquitous literature touting the city as the center of Europe, with plane routes equidistant from Dublin, Lisbon, and Milan.
Yet all of that was never quite enough. So the city embarked on an aggressive campaign to be the greenest city it could possibly be, as a kind of ultimate distinction.
The transformation has not been subtle.
"They do not like cars now in Nantes," says the kind gentleman who gave me a ride on a recent afternoon from the Sozo Hotel, a re-purposed cathedral. He had just gotten a parking ticket, for the crime of keeping his mini on the street five minutes past the allotted time.
My destination that afternoon was the Eco City World Summit. Jet-lagged and running late — I confess! — I got there in a car. But Nantes wants me to walk, ride a bike, or ride gleaming new bright white trams that criss-cross the city one after the other, with two- or three-minute headways.
Far and away, the key feature of being green for Nantes has been to discourage car use. The message is clear on the wide streets coming into town: the transport hierarchy has been flipped around. Seventy-five percent of the street is devoted to spacious rights-of-way for bus rapid transit. There are prim new stations every several blocks. Cars are relegated to narrow lanes on either side.
Drivers yield to pedestrians, and those on foot boldly step into crosswalks. Parking spaces have been minimized, and space for cars has been redirected as public space, similar to Times Square. Residents and visitors hop on nearly 1,000 bike-share bicycles at over a hundred stations, navigating via hundreds of kilometers of bike paths.
There are other parts to the green program, including lots of adaptive re-use of manufacturing sites, from a tobacco complex to a biscuit factory. There’s all kinds of preservation efforts around the estuary that has been trashed by years of shipbuilding and other maritime industrial activities. And there's a big emphasis on local food: tender langoustine and a fresh glass of the region’s legendary Muscadet can be had at impossibly hip places such as Be2M and Etrillum.
But the cultural shift in transport seems most apparent. Drivers who once ruled the realm might not be blamed for feeling like second-class citizens now.
For its efforts, Nantes was named the European Green Capital for 2013. Previous winners of the prize, awarded by the European Commission, include Stockholm (also mostly car-free at the center) and Hamburg.
That the more recent winners have been more medium-sized, even obscure (Vitoria-Gastiez?) is notable. London and New York are in the major leagues of sustainability. For second-tier cities searching for identity and a raison d’etre, being greener than their peers seems to be a particularly intense competition, a new kind of municipal arms race. A casino, a hall of fame, a museum by a starchitect, a sports arena? Forget about it. The economic development team wants to boast of having more bike-share stations than Le Mans or Lyon.
If Nantes ever considered itself in the position of being the Cleveland of France, the path forward is clearly to become the Portland of France. It’s a laudable ambition, though more profile-raising remains to be done. At a dinner party after the conference in – inevitably – Paris, several guests looked at me blankly as I spoke of this green capital two hours away by high-speed train. They'd never been.