When the participation of the inhabitants accelerates the transition, experiences from the field

September 2019

Le Collectif Paysages de l’Après-Pétrole (PAP)

Starting from the observation that the top-down procedures of major studies and projects imagined by famous experts and implemented by important elected officials have shown their limits, Laurence Renard, landscape designer, and Nicolas Tinet, urban planner, both co-founders of the Fabrique du lieu, have chosen, through 4 experiences, to renew the approaches starting from the needs and desires of the men and women who live in the area. They are betting on such a method in order to direct its future towards a «  post-oil landscape ", convinced that it will allow an indispensable evolution. To achieve this way of thinking, they had to unlearn their respective professions and imagine new procedures, invent legitimate animation tools and know how to analyse the results.

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When the participation of the inhabitants accelerates the transition, field experiences

The top-down procedures of major studies and projects devised by famous experts and implemented by important elected officials have shown their limits. As landscape and urban planners at the Fabrique du lieu, we have chosen to renew the approaches starting from the needs and desires of the men and women who live in the area. We are betting on such a method in order to direct its future towards «  a post-oil landscape ", convinced that it will allow an indispensable evolution.

To achieve this way of thinking, we had to unlearn our jobs as landscape and urban planners and imagine new procedures, invent legitimate animation tools and know how to analyse the results.

The ambition of the experiments described here was to collectively achieve a more resilient future. Certain contexts allow for a real capacity for change among the inhabitants. But each breeding ground is unique. None of these experiments can be duplicated identically.

The hamlet of Lhopiteau in Beauce is home to about fifty houses, several cereal farms and an organic market gardener. The latter wanted to plant hedges to protect his crops. The approach involved other farmers and relied on the inhabitants to unblock local tensions 1(2014-2018).

A public order from the Pays Centre Ouest Bretagne was awarded to us in Trémargat, a small town known for its militant actions. The inhabitants, organized in a collective, wanted to valorize their wood resource for heating and construction. Attached to their bocage landscape, they called upon landscape gardeners to carry out a consultation and succeed in preserving a useful bocage (2015-2016).

Within the framework of the call for projects «  inhabited valleys  » financed largely by the Etablissement public foncier de Normandie, the approach started in 2018 concerns eight communes of the Lévrière valley and a little more than 2,000 inhabitants. The CAUE de l’Eure had identified a potential for citizen mobilization in this rural area, with a strong desire to revitalize the villages.

The issue of the agri-urban fringes had been addressed during the forums organised by the terre&Cité association on the Saclay plateau. The commune of Villiers-le-Bâcle represented an ideal testing ground. The approach begun in 2018 is therefore financially supported by the Paris-Saclay Community and the Fondation de France.

Methods and form of these experiments : thwarting the classic missions reserved for experts

In many traditional public commissions, residents are invited to give opinions when architects, town planners and landscape designers have done their expert and inventive work. It is as if the inhabitants know nothing about it, and that it is up to the experts to have the good ideas, paid as they are to do so. Behind these instituted postures, there are concerns, habits that are sometimes difficult to get around.

Several strategies can be tried to renew situations. We can go beyond the framework of public procurement and set up self-study approaches. With a group of residents and various partners, a program is formulated and support is sought to finance it.

In order to develop this type of action, you must have been in the field and understood the issues of the territory from its strategic documents. An idea for an action is deduced from it and submitted to the partners who could be associated with it in order to check whether it arouses a certain enthusiasm and to develop it if necessary. Instead of writing applications to pre-existing calls for tenders, specific funding requests will have to be put together. This is the approach taken for this agroforestry project in Beauce, with the farmers and inhabitants of the hamlet of Lhopiteau (Eure et Loir). In the same way, the ecolandscape project undertaken with the inhabitants and the town hall of the commune of Villiers-le-Bâcle (Essonne) is the result of such a self-initiative. Although there is no guarantee of success and it is very time-consuming, this type of installation allows us to test methods of co-construction which will be reassuring references for future sponsors 2.

Participatory experiences find fertile ground in the collectives of inhabitants. This is the case in trémargat, in the Côtes-d’Armor, where the collective management of the landscapes of the commune that we have installed has found an involved and even passionate support and, at this very moment, that of the Lévrière valley where the dynamisation of seven communes is being set up within the framework of a public commission.

Get the inhabitants

There is no universal method or duplicable toolbox to set up actions that mobilize the inhabitants and lead them to contribute to the territorial project. Refusing a pre-existing methodology, we then exchange with people to identify the profile of the inhabitants, their availability and habits of citizen involvement. How to plan effective communication supports ? In Tremargat, everything goes through the associative café : offices have therefore been set up there, whereas in Beauce, door-to-door visits have enabled some people to leave their homes. In the Lévrière, these visits had had no effect. The artists of our collective managed to get a few residents to participate in creative workshops.

At this stage of the mobilization, the ambition of the approach must be announced and admit any good will that would get involved. In any case, the success of an initiative cannot be measured by a participation rate. It takes a lot of energy and time to transform taxpayers who have benefited from decades of preformed services into involved citizens.

All legitimate in the local project

Whether he is a landscape gardener, urban planner, architect or ecologist, the first test for the expert is to know how to stay back : not to hold the pencil, not to have the knowledge, to bear the frustration when things do not seem to progress or when conflicts arise. If the inhabitants are to express themselves and take control of the future of their territory, they must feel completely confident, legitimate and listened to. To ensure that each word is worth all the others, rules have been instituted in Villiers-le-Bâcle: once the regulatory « tour de table » has been abolished, the use of first names and the use of first names on a first-name basis erase all distinctions, and everyone is involved as a « inhabitant, citizen or user », even the elected representatives and institutions that revolve around the project.

Recognizing the legitimacy of the inhabitants often remains difficult for many professionals and elected officials: it is necessary to anticipate defensive reactions in order to avoid the re-establishment of a balance of power. The worst thing that can happen in a concertation is to have mobilized the inhabitants by telling them that they will have an impact on the project, and that this process is failing to get off the ground. This is why the ambition of the consultation must be validated upstream in a very official way, and the postures agreed upon by mutual agreement. Discussions will be open to better define the project, but the decision-making role of the elected officials will be respected and reminded to the participants 3. As for the experts, whether institutional, professional or associative, they can, on a case-by-case basis, be given a space to express themselves to give lectures that will launch the project, guide guided walks that will sharpen the eyes and raise awareness among the population.

Or they can meet representatives of associations, farmers, institutions and politicians for an exchange of skills, as we did in Villiers-le-Bâcle. The essential thing will happen in the exchange.

From the individual to the collective

Once the framework has been set up and the participants have been brought together, the participatory project begins. The method depends on the means available : the time allowed for co-construction, the number of facilitators, and the premises where the consultation takes place. Sometimes the time is reduced to a two-hour session, sometimes the process involves regular meetings over several months, as was the case at tremargat, where we organized a series of guided walks, meetings, questionnaires, drawing and photography workshops, collective work sessions and plan-guides on pilot sites.

At each stage, we propose to the participants to express themselves individually on the question asked, then to debate in group, and finally to share in assembly. From an individual vision to a shared vision, this process allows each person, once he or she has expressed his or her opinion, to be nourished step by step by the eyes of the other participants. We keep a written record of each of these moments in order to follow the evolution of the ideas and opinions exchanged. « One of the rules is not to judge any proposal and to provide a display space for each one in order to keep track of it in a space called « in debate » where the ideas that do not reach consensus are written down. It sometimes turns out that ambitious or offbeat ideas that have been discarded a little quickly come out later when the thinking has matured 4.

There is what makes for debate, but above all there is what makes for consensus. Co-construction approaches often lead to such convergences. In Villiers-le-Bâcle, the development of a public plot of land devoid of development was dealt with by two groups of inhabitants, with no possibility of exchange between the two. The result is impressive : 80% of the main development principles and technical solutions (species, furniture, management) are comparable. Same experience with the employees of a private company, and same result.

Experience in the field

When it comes to local facilities, moments on the ground are the most effective for arriving at relevant and shared proposals. The system is less formal than in the auditorium and allows people to speak freely. This stage was particularly revealing at Trémargat, where the use of a pencil and a sheet of paper had created tension among some participants who considered the system too academic. In the field, the body and its gestures replace the pencil, each person can position himself in space to materialize an element or spread his arms to show where to clear the vegetation. During these in situ experiments, we sketch schematic plans to locate the main elements. In tremargat, we proposed block diagrams, the participants preferred plans.

On the fringe of Villiers-le-Bâcle, we led the inhabitants, schoolchildren and employees of a company to survey an area for a landscape diagnosis. Equipped with these simplified plans, we invited them to measure «  the state of health  » of the landscape - good, average or bad - by a colour or a symbol. These three levels will be translated into issues: to be preserved, to be enhanced, to be eliminated.

The term « state of health » is easy to understand, and coloured pencils, stickers or smileys are not likely to put off almost anyone.

To go further in the appropriation of the landscape, we have experimented with the « sensory baluchon » imagined by the researcher Théa Manola, which distributes to the inhabitants a small bag containing various tools to collect their impressions 5. Some inhabitants realized that they believed that their apprehension of the familiar space was limited to sight. Through this exercise, they rediscovered the variety of their sensitive experience of a landscape. The terrain is above all the time of realization, the time of the life of the site. We therefore try to integrate a phase of collective worksites into our projects. We did this in Beauce with workshops for planting fruit trees and hedges, and in the Lévrière valley with a cultural event on a departmental road where we organised a walk, a picnic, games and an exhibition. These actions of appropriation of space allow the understanding of a site and induce its evolution.

The results

While these methods allow for real participation of the inhabitants in the spatial planning process, they cannot guarantee that these are more resilient projects. However, an analysis of current actions seems to show that, under certain conditions, consultation with the inhabitants facilitates change.

Rather resilient inhabitants

Whether they are involved, or even militant, or on the other hand distrustful of projects that would harm their living environment, these approaches open to all actually attract a majority of people already concerned by a desire for change. Most of the participants had an environmental or social fibre which in the Lévrière valley with a cultural event on a departmental road where we organized a walk, a picnic, games and an exhibition. These actions of appropriation of the space allow the understanding of a site and induce its evolution made it possible to direct the projects towards an approach respectful of the territory and its environment.

In Villiers-le-Bâcle, the inhabitants spontaneously proposed local species, differentiated management practices (mowed meadows, eco-grazing, etc.), recycling (wooden furniture from tree felling, reconversion of abandoned sites), measures to promote biodiversity (nesting boxes, insect hotels, openings for the passage of fauna). Multimodal traffic was defended with a bicycle shelter attached to the bus shelter, pedestrian and bicycle connections, a bivouac for bicycle tourists equipped with public dry toilets 6.

In the Lévrière where the ambition is also to move towards a post-oil territory, the utopias collected during the artistic mobilisation phase by the Collectif PetitPoisPrincesses abound with alternative solutions. As far as energy is concerned, the inhabitants propose the creation of a citizens’ union installing energy turbines on a mill. In terms of housing, the conversion of a school into an Ehpad has given rise to the idea of a «  béguinage ", an intergenerational shared housing for the elderly. In terms of food, a shared canning factory would be made available to farmers and private individuals. For the social link, a concept of a «  rotating café at home  » would make it possible to create meeting places in the homes of the inhabitants. The opening of churches to activities other than worship is being organized.

Modesty at the heart of the projects

It might be feared that the inhabitants would express excessive wishes : they are generally very concerned about public expenditure. Tempering certain ambitions often nurtured by elected officials, the inhabitants prefer more local and collective solutions than pharaonic projects. In the Lévrière valley, some elected officials are campaigning for the creation of a hospital or the setting up of a bus network. Faced with these proposals, some inhabitants have investigated examples of rural medical houses hosting the offices of various specialists and the development of telemedicine. They also suggested negotiating with the school transport company to accommodate non-school passengers.

In Lhopiteau, in Beauce, rural roads are often the only uncultivated road network. One of the market gardeners who mainly use one of these paths has made deep ruts on peeled, unvegetated soil. Our expert solution was to program a restoration of the path with resistant sowing. The inhabitants had a better idea, that of diversifying the market gardener’s routes to better distribute the load of its passages. This proposal proved to be compatible with the operation of the operator.

In Trémargat, where the landscape had been taken into account from the outset, consultation with the inhabitants made it possible to temper the ardour of the woodcutters and to arrive at less radical, more refined and more respectful management methods for the sites : maintenance of the emblematic trees, pruning subject by subject rather than linear, creation of views, maintenance of edges.

Unexpected initiatives and results

In Beauce, while the initial motivation was timid, the inhabitants came together as a collective to defend their landscape against a project to set up a relay antenna, and one of the inhabitants painted frescoes representing the Beauce landscapes on the facades of his house located at the entrance to the hamlet.

At tremargat, a blockage appeared concerning the trees pruned into trognes. The tradition of the trognes consists in periodically cutting down the side and top branches of the oaks to produce firewood. The trees are then reduced to sections of scraped and amputated trunks. The younger generation does not accept the idea of brutalizing the nature of the oaks in this way. It was therefore decided to carry out a specific awareness-raising and consultation process at a later date on this subject, which seemed to be part of the identity of this area.

The most disconcerting experience finally took place with a class of CM1 from Villiers-le-Bâcle. After having planned to protect all that was natural, the forest and the birds, the children imagined with a beautiful ensemble a noisy urban future for the fringe of their village, with an amusement park, a shopping centre, luxury villas… to our great dismay and that of the teacher.

In spite of such surprises, these steps clearly demonstrate the good impact of our accompaniment. Better than a study destined to end up on a shelf, our work creates social bonds, the appropriation of public things and more resilient futures. Very often, we gradually fade away from these approaches. Our success is measured when people forget to mention us at a meeting or in an article, using the phrase « we did » and omitting that we, the experts, contributed to their outcome.

The posture of the professionals is therefore crucial in fostering citizen ownership. For their part, it would be useful if public funds could be used to develop this field of action. Rather than financing so many studies and schemes hoping to convince the population to conform to new practices by changing their way of life, public funding could give the inhabitants the means to organise themselves and build their own «  oil-free landscape ".

These four experiments carried out in rural areas with a population strongly attached to its identity show that, with a little coordination, the transition can be made by inviting everyone’s efforts and asking for their own invention. This transition is based on a renewal of local governance and shared initiative. In this way, the landscape can become « everyone’s business ».

1 This project took place with funding from the Leader programme, the Pays de Beauce and the Fondation de France.

2 A simpler strategy may be to use the « concertation component » most often provided for, in the majority of public orders, in the form of an information meeting. According to the Robert, concertation means « projecting together, by discussing ». We can be more ambitious than the specifications and take advantage of such meetings to invent a project.

3 It is unlikely that their decision will negate the process that has co-built a project and will facilitate its acceptance. « Participation is not a goal but a means to improve the quality of the design and the progressive acceptance of change. Bertrand Folléa, L’archipel des métamorphoses, Editions Parenthèses, 2019, page 78.

4 At Villiers-le-Bâcle, the idea of a bivouac set up with a covered shelter had at first seemed incongruous, but gradually came back to the heart of the project. In Beauce, the planting of fruit trees seemed superficial and then became the emblematic element that allowed several inhabitants to get involved.

5 Regarding auditory impressions, a USB key will copy the recordings made with one’s phone. To touch it, a jar, an envelope, a sheet and some scotch will collect samples of materials. For taste, a sheet to write a recipe made from locally collected ingredients. For sight, a sheet of Canson paper, watercolour pastels and a brush to paint a landscape. For the sense of smell, a sheet to describe the fragrances you’ve smelled.

6 From a landscape point of view, the result is worthy of a professional. The view cones are revealed, the motifs - a line of pear trees, millstone walls, groves rather than hedges - were chosen to respect the landscape values of the place. The space is worked with breaths, fullness, emptiness and contrasts, nuance in the limits as well as in the depths.