Nantes, the city of trams

On the night of January 7th, 1985, snow fell hard on Nantes. The next morning traffic was paralysed in much of the city: thousands of cars were unable to circulate; public transport came to a standstill.


Tens of thousands of people wondered how they would get to work.

As chance would have it, the first line of the new tramway was inaugurated on that exact day. Nantes was the first French city to reintroduce trams after their being inactive for twenty-seven years. And it was a great debut: on that January 7th trams were the only means of transport that could defy the snow.

Thirty years later, partially due to this fortunate event which spurred the city to take bold initiatives in the field of urban policies, Nantes is at the forefront of European and French eco-friendly cities. Indeed, its efforts were rewarded by the European Commission with the European Green Capital Award 2013.

At the beginning of the years 2000, the local administration under the leadership of former Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault launched a major urban modernization scheme. In the previous decade Nantes' population had grown at a rate unmatched anywhere else in France (from 245,000 inhabitants in 1990 to 270,000 in 1999) and the threat of a rapid and disorderly expansion of built-up areas was very real. Moreover, the population projections issued by the INSEE were alarming: by 2030 the metropolis was expected to have 100,000 extra residents. The scenario that emerged was that of a heavily congested city centre in the midst of a concrete jungle.

The municipality chose the path of densification, creating a development plan hinged on the redevelopment and conversion of existing areas. Not far from the city centre, large areas hosting unused buildings―the legacy of the city's industrial past―were available for these purposes. Among these was the Isle of Nantes, the old working-class district close to the boatyards. Its 337 hectares are currently being converted into an eco-neighbourhood according to modern criteria of urban density, service accessibility, and environmental protection. The goals of this urban policy are essentially two: preventing urban sprawl and reducing car traffic, in order to improve mobility in the city centre and reduce CO2 emissions.

More than one out of four commutes in the city are work-related. Thus, in 2003, the city administration began making large investments in public transport, devoting special attention to the 85,000 employees working in the city. It was established that employers would cover 50 % of travel fees, and would therefore receive financial support from Nantes Métropole, the intercommunal body gathering 24 communes located in the metropolitan area of Nantes. The results have proved the success of both the mobility plan and Plan Climat, the local project for sustainable development: today, 15% of commutes within the metropolitan area are made by public transport, and CO2 emissions are expected to decrease by 20% by 2020.

Mobility plans are but a facet of a much broader vision for the future of the city and are connected with important housing and environmental policies. For instance, the projects for modern eco-neighbourhoods involve the creation of about 5,000 new housing accommodations every year, in order to tackle the persistent population growth. Half of these homes will be social housing for people in the lower income brackets. Furthermore, Nantes is definitely a green city: it boasts up to a hundred green areas including squares, parks, and public gardens; an average surface of 37m2 of green space per inhabitant (tenfold the average of Paris); 400km cycling lanes; 60% of land devoted to peri-urban agriculture and natural open spaces.

Nantes has come a long way since January 7th, 1985. The tramway currently consists of three lines, for a total of 43km and 82 stations. A new line is scheduled to open in 2020. This line will connect the area of Chantenay with the Euronantes business cluster (currently under construction) and will also run through the Isle district. In other words, Nantes' development is predicated on its trams as well as urban policies that combine spatial planning with environmental sustainability.

Translation by Teresa Ciuffoletti

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