How Lyon provided a new blueprint for greener public spaces

Lyon is at the forefront of a drive to make France’s green spaces more environmentally friendly. 

26 April 2017

It was not always thus. In 2000, Lyon was lagging far behind other cities in its environmental management policies: Nantes, Angers, Montpellier, Dijon and Strasbourg, amongst others, had all begun work in this area a decade previously.

When Senator Mayor Gérard Collomb was elected to head up a new socialist council in 2001, he decided that it was time to improve the city’s environmental record, and gave the Green Spaces Directorate the go-ahead to pursue its ambitious and innovative programme of change.
The Directorate achieved two of its key targets early on. In 2005, Grand Lyon was the first collective in France to be awarded the challenging ISO 14001 environmental management accreditation – other cities had been accredited only in relation to discrete geographical areas, such as the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.
By 2008, Lyon was able to claim that all its green spaces were entirely chemical-free. Since then, the Town Hall has been building steadily on its success, constantly innovating to reduce its negative impact on the environment yet further.

The success of Lyon’s programme lies in the willingness of the city’s 230 gardeners to test new approaches. This requires a hands-off management approach, whereby members of staff are each given responsibility for a different area of experimentation.

They take it in turns to demonstrate to their colleagues what they have been doing, explaining what has worked well and what has not, and providing training and advice. Thousands of different ideas bloom, with the most effective being adopted as good practice.
Often, the simplest solutions have proved to be the most effective. Traditionally, “total” herbicides were used to completely clear walkways of weeds. Once these herbicides had been eliminated, gardeners spent time observing the pattern of weed growth.

They discovered that weeds flourished in sections where water collected, and where the ground was not very dense. As a result of what they saw, they designed convex paths, which sloped downwards on either side and were built with heavily compacted soil. These measures deprived the majority of the weeds of the water and space they needed to flourish.
In the world-famous rose gardens of the Tête d’Or Park, gardeners experimented with a wide variety of materials – from mulches and straw through to coconut fibres – to keep the weeds and fungi down.
Some of these methods worked well, but there remained a minority of roses whose leaves had dropped off by early summer each year. Instead of being treated, they were eventually uprooted and replaced by more resistant varieties, an instance of humans practising the selection commonly seen in nature.

Successfully going green also involves accepting a different aesthetic. Instead of beautifully-manicured lawns, the grass will be allowed to grow; and leaves will be left for longer before being gathered up.
Some of the rose bushes will have a number of small, harmless black spots on their leaves where it has proved impossible to eradicate fungi completely.
There may occasionally be a weed or two on the path in summer – these will be trampled underfoot and will probably die in the hottest weather – “it’s about accepting their presence for a few weeks,” says Daniel Boulens, Director of Green Spaces.

Any compromises in aesthetic have been accompanied by an increase in the richness and variety of species; both flora and fauna. In the rose gardens, introducing ladybirds and allowing a few aphids to survive has heralded the return of many birds, which previously didn’t have much to feed on. “We have restored the natural ecosystem of these places,” says Mr Boulens.
Along with improved biodiversity, the Green Spaces Directorate has introduced some measures that hark back to a more bucolic age.
Horse-drawn carts have replaced rubbish lorries in the Tête d’Or Park, reducing fuel consumption and noise, and providing a talking point for visitors. For 10 years there were sheep grazing on a green space in the fifth arrondissement.

Gardeners weed beds by hand instead of spraying chemicals on them. In their way, ancient methods have frequently proved more satisfactory than their modern alternatives.
Lyon’s experience also proves that ecological measures can go hand in hand with fiscal prudence. Mr Boulens notes that the budget for his directorate has remained completely stable since the start of the programme. “We have not asked for a single euro more,” he says.

Furthermore, for the same money, the Directorate is now managing an area of land that has increased by 10% since the start of the initiative.
Instinctively this is surprising: we expect organic methods to cost more. This has been shown to be true in some areas, however. Pre-2004, Lyon was spending €30,000 per year on chemicals. However, replacing them proved even more costly in some areas: in the rose garden, for example, the purchase of ladybirds and other small predators cost more than the chemicals they superseded.
Similarly, replacing the mineral oils used to power the motors of garden machinery with biodegradable oils increased fuel costs by a factor of four.
The successful balancing of the books has therefore had to rely on a very simple strategy: all additional expenditure must be covered by savings made from elsewhere within the Directorate’s budget.
Thus, whereas previously the city had been paying a third party to transport 3,500 tonnes of garden waste 25km away each year, and was paying again to buy in compost to enrich its soils, it is now self-reliant, using 3,000m2 of its own land for composting, and saving over €150,000 in the process.

In some parts of the Tête d’Or Park, the grass is not cut until it reaches 10-12cm in height, where previously it would have been cut every Monday between April and October. This has slashed the budget for mowing by over half.

It is these economies that pay for the more expensive measures needed elsewhere.
With the coming into force in January 2017 of a legal ban on chemicals in public spaces, cities across France will be casting around
for a more ecologically-sound blueprint.

Lyon’s experimentation has yielded a wealth of possible initiatives, but it is surely its successful husbandry that will hold the most sway.
As Mr Boulens states, “our elected representatives are very happy that we have achieved all of this without spending a single centime more”.

‘We must tend to green spaces as much as is necessary, but as little as possible’ 

What made Lyon decide to transform the environmental profile of its green spaces? For Daniel Boulens, Director of Green Spaces for Grand Lyon and one of the major drivers behind the programme, in 2001 “public opinion had begun to shift towards greener ways of doing things, and this happened to coincide with the arrival of a new socialist, ecological council. I took the opportunity that presented itself”.
The Lyon Green Spaces Directorate started their programme with a single question: Did the city’s green spaces
contribute to quality of life in Lyon?

“Instinctively, we all thought that the answer was yes,” explains Mr Boulens, “but when we did a scientific analysis we found that our green spaces had an overall negative environmental impact, in terms of waste produced, chemical pollution and wasted water. We might have thought that, by bringing a touch of green to the city, we were improving our quality of life, but in actual fact we were damaging it.”
Having identified the problem, the Green Spaces team had to find a cure. “There is no easy solution,” says Mr Boulens. “It’s about finding a strategy to correct each and every negative impact. In our case, we identified 250 negative impacts, so we had to find 250 solutions”.

Public sector organisations are notoriously resistant to change, so convincing employees to make changes on such a sweeping scale was difficult. “Using chemicals was always an integral part
of any gardener’s training,” explains Mr Boulens, “so convincing our gardeners to give them up was a challenge. In the end, we showed them the terrible impact these products were having on human health –theirs included – and that was enough to change their minds.” It was not just their use of chemicals that needed changing, though: Mr Boulens patiently worked to achieve a complete change in mind-set amongst the staff, enabling them to embark on the programme of innovation and experimentation that has changed the green face of Lyon.

It might have been expected that the move from perfectly manicured gardens to wilderness spaces might have upset some members of the public, but this did not prove to be a problem. In the 15 years the project has been running, Mr Boulens estimates that he has had just “a handful of negative comments. Far more common is the member of the public who stops to find out what one of the gardeners is doing, and goes away impressed”.
And what of the future? “Our work will be focused on water-consumption,” says Mr Boulens. “Lyon no longer uses any drinking water on its green spaces, but there is more that we can do. At the moment, we are looking into ways in which we can use the water pumped out of underground carparks and big apartment blocks.”

So successful has Lyon been that Mr Boulens now travels around France, and indeed the globe, picking up new ideas and teaching others the lessons that Lyon has learnt. Does he have any advice for other cities who are trying to improve their environmental record? “You need to tend your green spaces as much as is necessary, but as little as possible,” he says. “There’s no point in doing too much.” As to why they should do this, well, “when we protect our environment, we are really just protecting ourselves,” he says.

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