Participate Translate Blank profile picture
Image for Lyon: is the city's green transition already underway?

Lyon: is the city's green transition already underway?

Published on

Translation by:

Default profile picture Anonymous


In 2020 the French Green Party, Europe Écologie Les Verts, won a major victory in the metropolitan elections in Lyon. Gregory Doucet, the lead candidate, came out on top, and the party secured control of 7 out of the 9 local districts. The métropole of Lyon, meanwhile, a historically socialist region, announced Bruno Bernard, an environmentalist, as its new President. This piece explores two of the measures that gave the party this new sense of political purpose and which are paving the way for a Green transition.

Today, Lyon is home to an ambitious series of initiatives which aim to revolutionise ecological infrastructure. At the time of writing plans are in place to make public drinking water available by 2023, to create urban forests, to provide organic food in school canteens, to construct 450 km of cycling lanes and to implement pedestrian zones around schools.

The last of these proposals was put into action in September 2020 and it already applies to 18 institutions. Gerson Primary School, which is located right in the middle of Lyon's city centre, is one place that's feeling the benefits. "Parents can chat outside the school in the new pedestrianised areas and station their bikes in the designated new spaces that have replaced the former parking places once used for cars," says the headteacher. The entire initiative was set-up during the half-term break last autumn. Now the entire area outside the school is fully reserved for pedestrians.

Manon, who is 24, and lives in downtown Lyon, is very aware of the environmental challenges that the city faces, and supports this new approach to urban life: "Fewer cars means we can help bring back some biodiversity into cities. It can reduce artificial light and it will allow many species to recreate their ecosystem."

Manon also mentions another undeniable benefit: this measure will improve air quality. According to a 2019 study by Atmo Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, an observatory which is authorised by the Ministry of Ecological Transition, the "pedestrianisation" of targeted zones in the centre of Lyon will reduce traffic-related emissions by 75% and will reduce the air concentration of dioxyde azote - the biggest greenhouse gas that cars emit - by over 45%.

Pedestrian zones: meeting places or sites of division?

Nevertheless creating more pedestrian zones will not - on its own - solve all Lyon's problems. In fact, it may even create further negative knock-on effects, such as increasing congestion along highways. For now the municipality has said little about how its pedestrian project will be incorporated into the larger question of how to re-think transport policy. Gérard Franson, of the Air of Lyon association, points to an alarming statistic about the limits of this kind of action. 70% of daily traffic in Lyon can be attributed to non-residents, primarily people who live on the periphery or in the outermost rural areas who commute daily to their place of work "within the walls." In other words, the proposed action will not tackle what remains an overwhelming source of pollution.

"Pedestrianisation will lead to a rise in rents because of the growing attractiveness of these areas"

Pedestrianisation also raises further questions about town planning more generally. Numerous academic studies have attempted to alert the authorities as to the unwanted side effects of this kind of measure. In 2013, for example, the sociologist Thierry Brenac demonstrated that if urban development plans are based purely on an idea of economic attractiveness, and aim only to create little islands of prime real estate to the detriment of the more peripheral areas of the city, the impact in terms of sustainable development will be negligible.

Valentin Lungenstrass, a transport deputy in Lyon, has attempted to re-assure these critics. "We must have a systemic vision," he acknowledges, "pedestrianisation will lead to a rise in rents because of the growing attractiveness of these areas. In order to respond to this social and economic concern, we should plan ahead by devising rent controls in the neighbourhoods where we anticipate there will be a greater concentration of pedestrian zones in the future." With this in mind, the Lyon métropole has already ratified an application for a trial period of rent controls. Even if the policy is passed, however, it remains to be seen whether or not the town planning council will use the pedestrian project as a means of promoting social diversity across the Lyon métropole.

School meals with organic, locally-grown produce

As part of its environmental commitment, the municipality also hopes to create a better sense of community and cohesion among residents. One means of doing this, according to current plans, is to promote the consumption of organic and local produce in school canteens. As Gautier Chapuis, a food security and nutrition advisor, puts it, "[it is important] to reconnect Lyon with the surrounding farmlands and the farmers who play such a crucial role in society." The municipality has already set an ambitious objective: they hope to achieve 100% organic produce and 50% local food in all school cantines within a 50 km radius of the city by 2023. This is no small feat for an area where, at the time of writing, only 40% of school dinners served are organic and where only 60% of the food on the plate is in fact grown within a 200 km radius.

Today only 10% of utilised agricultural land in the Rhône region is dedicated to producing organic food. If the municipality is to enact its vision, then, it must facilitate a total transformation of the agricultural landscape. "We are concentrating first and foremost on the needs of farmers and local producers. Farmers are currently in the middle of sowing their seeds. We must also start working closely with schools in Lyon regarding their own needs, on a quantitative as well as qualitative level, in order to begin the transition," Mr. Chapuis explains.

"One way to offset the cost of the transition will be to decrease the number of meat-based meals"

Nevertheless, the question remains: how, practically, can one convince a majority of producers to embrace organic methods in such a short space of time? According to Alice Martin, head of the 'collective dining' mission at l’Ardab, an organic farming association in Rhône and Loire, a transition towards sustainable organic farming takes an average of three years. In order to respond to the clear economic imbalance between the small local farmers and the large-scale industrial players, purchase prices will need to be reviewed and the inevitably higher production costs will have to be taken into account. The details have not yet been finalised.

"Another way to offset the cost of the transition will be to decrease the number of meat-based meals," confirms Mr. Chapuis. Since the start of the school year last autumn, primary schools have already been offering a vegetarian option on their menus twice a week. "If we had to choose between a local, non-organic breeder and a breeder that imports organic-certified meat from New Zealand, it would be a no-brainer, we would go for the local," says Mr. Chapuis.

It's clear that these kinds of deep structural transformations to the agricultural economy will have to be accompanied by a change in attitudes. Maurizio Mariani, an economic specialist in food transition, has recently reiterated that the city itself can play a leading role in boosting the territorial economy. Nevertheless, while the municipality can clearly demonstrate its desire to leverage the government's revival plan and rise to the challenge, the explanations about what this new procurement model might look like are still rather vague.

Larger-scale changes

The education sector will play an important role in encouraging the local community to pursue a genuine commitment to "eating better." Indeed, both Gautier Chapuis and Tristan Debray, a municipal councillor, see education as an area through which they might be able to consolidate their goals. The two have begun thinking about implementing so called "twinning-programmes" between district schools and farmers, in order to give children a closer look at the agricultural world. Yet again, this initiative, which would, if realised, represent a genuine paradigm shift, is still in its teething stages. The two councillors are keen to express their enthusiasm for re-establishing "food justice" by involving "the children, the parents, those who cook and those who grow" in their activities.

Mouans-Sartoux, a quaint little town on the Côte d’Azur, has successfully adopted this kind of didactic approach in order to integrate 100% fresh, organic and locally-sourced products into school meals. This example has helped the municipality to establish a new system whereby the question of sustainable food can be incorporated into the school curriculum, in order to raise awareness about the issue. The case of Mouans-Sartoux has also inspired the French government to set up an entire department dedicated specifically to the question of "food-education."

These developments are welcome and ambitious. One does have to wonder though: if the municipality is to succeed in jumping from the question of 'who eats better' to making a local policy for widespread change, is it not time the governance model itself was also reviewed?

François Jégou, lead expert of an URBACT network called Sustainable Food in Urban Communities explains the benefit a systemic vision, encompassing an entire town or city, can have. "This approach has enabled nine cities to put a successful town planning strategy in place." By implementing their strategy in this way, Mouan-Sartoux has produced a precedent which is not just locally valuable, but which is relevant at a national and even a European level.

Cover image: MurielChaulet

Translated from Lyon : la transition verte est-elle en route ?