Co-building the city with participatory housing in Strasbourg

In Strasbourg, the local authority’s commitment started with the Ecoquartier association and its eco-neighbourhood project. To address the lack of political response and reaction, the association decided to launch a high environmental quality participatory housing project, which became its hobbyhorse.

The city of Strasbourg, now interested, decided to launch a call for projects entirely dedicated to participatory housing, a first in France.

Participatory housing experienced unprecedented development in France and in Europe in the early 2000s (Participatory housing first emerged in the 1960s in reaction against the lack of housing and continued in the 1970s-1980s, driven by the quest for a better living environment, away from conventional mass housing). It has become a way of objecting to increased commodification and individualism in society and regaining control of one’splace of residence by integrating economic, social and environmental aspects.

Participatory housing is radically different from the standardised offer of conventional property developers in that it enables residents to integrate their own choices and values into their future residence. It is this freedom that makes participatory housing such an interesting energy transition tool.

Depending on the groups of residents behind the initiative, participatory housing projects may integrate very different principles and values, like solidarity, environmental-friendliness, equal housing rights, social and generational diversity and non-speculation. In all cases, participatory housing heralds a new way of designing, building and managing both housing and the city. Participatory housing is based on the principles of social, inclusive economics and integrates a reflection on citizenship and living together; it is defended by people driven by a common desire to participate in public urban planning and housing policies by making their own building and planning choices. Participatory housing usually involves sharing space and costs, but may also include other features such as the use of environmentally-friendly materials, kitchen gardens, the availability of social housing units or public space for neighbourhood activities. All these initiatives can be encouraged by local authorities.

What is the role of local authorities in participatory housing ?

Since participatory housing is still a recent, experimental topic for most stakeholders, it is relatively unfamiliar to local authorities, at least to French ones, except for the members of the national network of French local authorities in favour of participatory housing, which was created to share experience on the subject. The involvement of local authorities may, however, be a deciding factor in bringing projects to fruition.

Relations between the local authority and group of inhabitants

Krämer and Kuhn (2007) identified three categories of relations between the local authority and the group of inhabitants at the origin of the project: (1) the local authority“plays a central role in the project”; (2) the “tandem” model establishes a genuine partnership between the authority and its citizens, notably through project assistance provided by the municipality”, and (3) the local authority is just a facilitator.

In Berlin, Hamburg, Amsterdam and Montreuil, the municipality played the role of a facilitator, for example by helping community groups find plots of land, but did not integrate this activity into its public urban policies. The strong development of participatory housing in the 2000s, however, once again questioned these links. Participatory housing has become a co-building tool: local authorities are taking a more active role and integrate these projects in their urban, environmental or social strategy.

In Montreuil, for example, participatory housing has never been the subject of a specific public policy:“However, the fact that the authority supports participatory housing initiatives and associations is indicative of the interest it takes in the approach and is a way of recognising its social value”

The city of Strasbourg decided to make participatory housing a central component of its public policies, in the 4th Eurometropole Local Housing Programme (2009) and in its “eco-neighbourhood” approach in favour of sustainable planning and housing. The fact that the same elected representative is in charge of both the city’s energy strategy and participatory housing also contributes to reinforcing the links between the two.

Strasbourg: a lightning development

In Strasbourg, the local authority’s commitment started with the Ecoquartier association and its eco-neighbourhood project. To address the lack of political response and reaction, the association decided to launch a high environmental quality participatory housing project, which became its hobbyhorse. The association bought a plot of land from the municipality and once the project was completed, it organised meetings to spread the initiative to other groups of citizens interested in the idea. This new strategy, by showing that it was possible to get reference projects built, contributed to raising the local authority’s awareness of the issue. The city of Strasbourg, now interested, decided to launch a call for projects entirely dedicated to participatory housing, a first in France. Throughout the process, the municipality used the neighbouring examples of Tübingen and Freiburg as a source of inspiration.

What is the dialogue between stakeholders ?

Since participatory housing is an experimental object and unknown to most stakeholders, difficulties may arise during discussions. The city of Strasbourg has put a lot of effort into communication, not only internally, with its technical departments, but also with notaries, banks, urban planners, property developers, architects and groups of citizens.The idea was first and foremost to reassure and obtain the involvement of citizens by proposing and explaining the operational frameworks designed to facilitate project realisation.

Most conventional developers, for example, perceived participatory housing as a form of competition, a challenge to their traditional role.

For them, this new approach could only be a source of technical and legal difficulties for project holders. It was therefore necessary to reassure them, explain the processes, and engage discussions… Over time, relations have become less tense and some promoters now propose shared terraces or the co-finalisation of projects to groups of families, concepts that clearly evoke some of the features or benefits of participatory housing.

Social landlords and urban planners also viewed participatory housing as a new, “risky” approach. Community groups were new players and conventional stakeholders did not know how to work with them for a number of reasons: obstacles linked to the introduction of new practices, incompatible operating methods, lack of know-how. Again, assistance with communication and collaborative work to create a common culture were necessary. Since then, pioneer players have come forward and are now overseeing a number of projects.

Assistance and time are two key factors when it comes to increasing the chances of seeing the approach result in actual construction projects. Significant support is also provided to applicant groups and then to consultation winners: assistance in making sure that the financial reality has been taken into account, obligation to seek professional project management assistance, etc. During the consultation process, the city of Strasbourg makes sure that the various groups involved do communicate (applicant groups, interested citizens, Ecodistrict association, architects, project consultants, consultancy firms, general contractors, etc.). It also provides advice on the financial arrangements of the project.

Every two months, the main local stakeholders attend a steering committee meeting: SERS, the social landlord involved (Habitat d’Ill),Conseil d’architecture d’urbanisme et de l’environnement(non-profit consulting organisation in architecture, urbanism and environment), elected representatives, practitioners, the Ecodistrict association… The main challenge is to create a common culture and to continue to reinforce the partnership momentum. More generally speaking, financially viable projects completed within the allowed timeframe generate consensus on the benefits of participatory housing and contribute to the dissemination of similar initiatives and consultation processes in Strasbourg and in other cities. (A nationallocal authority network promoting participatory housing exists in France, but no institutional network at European level has been created yet ).

Participatory housing encourages environmentally-and energy-aware citizens to go beyond the legal requirements in terms of energy sources and materials, promotes a more demanding governance and awareness model than traditional methods and demonstrates the energy and financial performance of these projects. It is therefore an energy transition tool that has a role to play in the development of green urban planning and participative cities.