Montpellier Advanced Knowledge Institute on Transitions 

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First CAT-stay the University of Montpellier: getting started on questions for the social-ecological reshaping of European Cities and Metropolitan Areas

The first CAT-stay for our group from October 4-8, 2021, was hosted by the Montpellier Advanced Knowledge Institute on Transitions (MAK’IT), one of the newest Institutes of Advanced Studies (IAS) and a flagship project for the Montpellier University of Excellence Initiative (MUSE).

DAY 1 – Getting started for a week full of teamwork and meeting new people

Our first day included a visit to Agropolis International, one of the venues for the “Montpellier Global Days for Science, Education & Innovation: Africa 2021” where we met the director of MAK’IT Patrick Caron. The session “Feed increasingly populated African cities” offered insights into the food systems in African cities and, for us, raised the question of productive green infrastructure and the connection to urban food production. Over lunch, we discussed urban food policies as a collaborative governance model with Nicolas Bricas (CIRAD, the Centre for International Cooperation in Agricultural Research for Development), a model which could potentially be applied to green infrastructure planning.

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Our host, Marianne Chaumel, introduced us to MAK’IT and helped to set us up in the open space office at the Institut de Botanique of the University of Montpellier. Here we could spend our breaks at the “Jardin des plantes de Montpellier”, the Botanical Garden. It is the oldest botanical garden in France, founded in the 16th century and includes an arboretum, an orangery, a succulent collection, and a systematic garden. The diversity of plants from around the world provides the perfect setting to reflect on the benefits of green infrastructure in cities.

DAY 2 – Shaping green infrastructure from different angles and across scales

During day 2, we had a discussion with Max Rousseau, a Research Fellow in Political Science, Specialist in Urban Planning Issues and member of CIRAD and the Joint Research Unit ‘Actors, Resources and Territories in Development’ (ART-Dev). We talked about smart shrinkage and rightsizing of cities, a challenge that numerous cities are facing, including questions about which are the “winner” and the “loser” cities in global urbanization, with implications on who can afford investments in green infrastructure. In particular, for cities that are less well of, the concept of low-tech urbanism relates to the idea of finding locally adapted solutions with low resource needs and minimal impact on the urban environment, an approach that differentiates green infrastructure from grey infrastructures.

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Tactical urbanism, an approach that several cities pursued by implementing pop-up bicycle lanes during the pandemic, was discussed as an approach for creating new uses and perceptions of public spaces by temporary adding greenery, painting streets etc., potentially leading to new visions and narratives about urban living.

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With Roel Plant, an adjunct Professor of Landscapes and Ecosystems Geography at the University of Technology Sydney, and currently a MAK’IT Fellow by the TU Delft, we discussed the importance of the social evaluation of ecosystem services. Nature-based solutions need to work within complex urban systems in terms of technical and biophysical dimensions but also from social-cultural and governance perspectives. We looked into the relationship between economies of scale and ecologies of scale and what is guiding green infrastructure research trends. Roel Plant suggested to study the B&B Highway project (creating “Bed and Breakfasts for Birds, Bees, Butterflies and Biodiversity”), as an example for promoting socio-ecological networks with an educational dimension.

DAY 3 – Exploring green infrastructure in Montpellier

On Day 3, Bernard Maurin, the Vice-President for Real Estate and Sustainable Development from the University of Montpellier joined us to discuss the university’s sustainability strategies. In this session we learned about actions to enhance biodiversity on campus related to water management,  by planting endemic Mediterranean species that are drought resistant and irrigation avoidance to reduce water use. With a 50.000 m² large stormwater retention basin at Campus Triolet as well as with walls and dykes to protect buildings, the university is pursuing different strategies to adapt to climate change enforced flood impacts. However, he emphasised that other green infrastructure measures such as rainwater harvesting and green roofs are difficult to implement because of yet unfavourable cost-benefit ratios. Moreover, in terms of urban planning, anti-terrorism restrictions impede better connectivity and integration of the university’s green spaces as public areas into the city, as the campus fence has become a requirement. The university is interested in a more integrated city planning, even though there are barriers such as security demands.

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A walk through the “Antigone” quarter and along the River “Lez” revealed interesting socio-ecological interactions. Close to Antigone and upstream, the river’s embankment and floodplains are made of concrete, but become more natural downstream, first with a grass-covered floodplain and dyke, then with increasing embankment vegetation and finally a riparian forest. This urban river gradient revealed changing social and ecological interactions, with more social interaction in the urbanized parts and fewer people with solitary activities such as fishing or running in the more natural parts. The urban developments along the river in the Parc Marianne Ecodistrict include multifunctional stormwater retention basins used as small parks when it’s not raining. Both, the restored Lez River and the retention basins are inspiring examples of the socio-ecological reshaping of an urban riparian landscape. At the same time, the new ecodistrict has high housing prices and will likely attract a certain demographic of well-off urban professionals. It will thus also represent an interesting case in how such an urban quarter will develop in terms of social diversity and community building.

DAY 4 – Discussing scaling and connectivity of green infrastructure

On Day 4 we had a seminar with the MAK´IT Fellows and presented our project topic and goals. We had a lively debate on the mainstreaming of green infrastructures using the concepts of replication, scaling out, scaling up and scaling deep, leading to the importance of the cultural dimension of transformations and the conflicts between replication of green infrastructure and the need for context-specific solutions. Gentrification was also addressed considering that green areas are supposed to contribute to citizens’ quality of life but, in fact, often lead to upgrading and the displacement of societal groups that needs these amenities the most. Examples were presented on how citizens initiatives allowed for the creation of small green spaces in Rotterdam’s disadvantages quarters and how those bottom-up investments and their value for the citizens were not considered in top-down planning, resulting in discussions about the advantages and disadvantages of top-down versus bottom-up planning and how citizen’s perspectives can be considered better in green infrastructure planning. The day also included another talk about the potential trade-off of green infrastructure: Didier Fontenille, director of the Key Initiative MUSE Risks and Vectors (KIM RIVE), introduced us to his research on mosquitos in urban areas and how vectors carrying diseases need to be considered during planning and management of green infrastructure as potential threats to humans but also animals and plants.

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We also visited the Ovalie Ecoquartier with the responsible urban planner Nicolas Lebunetel, Lebunetel + Associés Architectes - Urbanistes. The quarter, being planned and developed since 2003 is located in the southwest of Montpellier. The urban project is designed along a sloped area of 42 ha with visual and physical connections to the adjacent countryside with traditional landscape elements such as vineyards and pine trees. The landscaped area also incorporates a large water retention basin. A characteristic of the quarter is the interplay of public and private spaces. All blocks include communal green areas maintained by the building owners which are placed either on the front, back or in between building blocks.

The integration of these green spaces in the front allowed the creation of wider and greener streets. The green courtyards are visible and accessible at street level through "openings” in the housing blocks and also function as retention basins. The housing blocks combine small duplex houses with private gardens with apartments on top. This project represents a well-connected green network with a nested system of linkages between the quarter and the surrounding open landscape and between the building blocks and the surrounding public spaces.

DAY 5 – Focussing on water-related green and blue infrastructure and joint research interests

The last day in Montpellier started with a “Vendredis découverte” (Discovery Fridays) seminar of the Joint Research Unit (JRU) “Water Management, Actors, Territories” (G-EAU). Dr. Marcel Kuper, Director, JRU ‘G-EAU’, Dr. Olivier Barreteau, Vice-Director of UNESCO International Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Water Systems Dynamics (ICIREWARD), and Dr. Nassim Ait Mouheb, Researcher at JRU ‘G-EAU’ received us at the SupAgro Campus while Montpellier’s scientific water community joined virtually. Marcel Kuper highlighted several common research interests with the JRU ‘G-EAU’ including wastewater reuse for irrigation, risks and adaptation, and participatory approaches in living labs. Nassim Ait Mouheb presented an “Experimental platform for wastewater reuse in irrigation” in Murviel-Lès-Montpellier which he coordinates.

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The reuse of domestic urban wastewater for irrigation of green spaces as a means to maintain green infrastructure was vividly discussed and is certainly a point to be further explored. Further common research areas were pointed out, for example, by Phillipe Le Coent, who worked on the H2020 NAIAD project on the valuation of Nature-based Solutions (NBS) for water-related risks with demo cases in Copenhagen, Montpellier and other cities; Bruno Molle, who studies microclimatic effects of urban green; or Margreet Zwarteveen, another MAK’IT fellow, who researches on water governance in relation to (gender-) equity and justice. We welcomed the interest of researchers of Montpellier’s water community in the socio-ecological reshaping of cities and are interested to look for future research opportunities together.

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We reflected on the concepts related to scaling and for capturing the complexity of green infrastructure as part of social-ecological systems, which we discussed within our team and with other researchers, which we will further investigate. We debated about the complexity of urban green infrastructure across different spatial scales and visited examples, from small multifunctional plot-level retention basins to district-level networks of green spaces and the River Lez as an important blue-green corridor. Overall, the week provided plenty of networking, inspiration and a productive ground from which our project can grow further.