Interview La Rochelle's Urban Community - experienced with the RFSC

La Rochelle Urban Community is a medium-sized conurbation incorporating 18 municipalities, in the urban region of La Rochelle, a city on the French Atlantic Coast equidistant between Nantes and Bordeaux. The Urban Community is already familiar with the RFSC tool, as it was one of the actors that first tested the software, back in 2011. Two years later, what do they think that are the main advantages and results of using RFSC? An EUKN interview with Nathalie Clain-Beauchef, responsible for the Agenda 21 and, Nathalie Debord, European Project Officer. 

La Rochelle was one of the 66 cities/ urban agglomerations that were invited to test the prototype of RFSC. In a report of the testing phase we found that before testing the tool, La Rochelle said that RFSC could be useful to “stimulate the cooperation and communication between different departments (which is not always easy)”. Has the use of RFSC met your expectations? Did the communication between your departments improve?

La Rochelle Urban Community is both a political and an administrative body with extensive competencies, ranging from town and country planning to economic development, environment, urban policy, transport and mobility or socially balanced housing.

After the testing phase, we have waited for the definitive or updated version of the tool and we became officially an RFSC City at the end of May. It is too soon for us to speak about an improvement of the communication between our departments through RFSC. But in itself, the tool does not let anyone unconcerned and is a perfect basis to open and widen the debate. Soon, several great projects of the Urban Community whose management / steering committee associate more than one department (Local Inter-municipality Urbanism Plan, Ecoquartier) will be tested. We think that this tool will provoke an increased cooperation between departments. 

You are using again the RFSC to monitor your Agenda 21. Why are you using the RFSC for this goal? What are you expecting?

We think that the RFSC is a very interesting toolkit for the monitoring of global, complex and long-term projects –with multiple milestones- like Agenda 21. Especially the “check your integrated approach” part, which we focused on. It provided us insights at different moments of the project, and thanks to the illustrations, they were very concrete and pedagogical. For instance, between the moments when we first drafted the project and constructed the action plan, the diagram showed a lack of internal governance, which we corrected immediately.

That is what we find most interesting with RFSC: to be able to question the project at every step of its existence, to, possibly, narrow down, enlarge, correct or enrich its scope. Thus, it is a good support for decision-making, which enable to argue on the choices we make / gives fundament on why to choose this or that option for the project. Moreover, the RFSC provides everyone with a common ground to talk about sustainable development, which can be very helpful: depending on how far one can be from sustainability issues, itis interesting to bear in mind the integrated aspect, and that sustainability is not only related to environment but also to economy, governance and social aspects.

Do you think that the RFSC is improved compared with the prototype you used during the testing phase? Why?

The new version is much faster. That was the first critical point of the first version, the time needed to use the RFSC. There are good improvements on that. It is also much easier to understand. There were some ideas or concepts which were very difficult to understand which are now much more readable.

How many persons, departments, and municipalities are involved or will be involved in using the RFSC this year?

There should be at least five departments involved: Territory and Prospective; Urban Planning, Economic Development, Environment, and Construction and Buildings. Depending on the departments, there could be up to 3 people involved in each department. In total, about 10 persons in the Urban Community. We will have a big launching event at regional scale with the three other Urban Communities of the region, and the four main cities, so then we will introduce a lot of people to the RFSC. It will be at the end of October.

Would you say La Rochelle is a frontrunner in terms of urban sustainability? Do you have specific projects dealing with integrated urban development in which you are using RFSC as a support tool?

We have an important document of urban planning which is about to be drafted, called PLUI in French (Plan Local d’Urbanisme Intercommunal), Local Inter-municipality Urbanism Plan, in English. This is important because it is at the Urban Community scale (while before it was at the scale of every town). We are going to test the integration of the document at different milestones of its existence. We have stated at the beginning of September on the preliminary design of the project. The first results show that the strengths of the project are located in the field of the environment and governance. It’s also the opportunity to question the elected representative about the social dimension of this urban planning document.

I would say that La Rochelle always presented itself as a testing city; always testing prototypes, new ways of behaving, more in the field transport. Now it started to broaden its scope with buildings and other different projects. The RFSC is a proper tool to help us doing this.

Are you using the RFSC with citizens, businesses and other actors/stakeholders? Why?

This is one of our projects. We have the idea to use the RFSC with the citizens in the context of the Agenda 21 for the monitoring of the local action plan. This is still a project. We think that this can be done in involvement with citizens but it is more difficult to associate businesses.

Also, participatory democracy is not always an easy thing. But the RFSC seems to be a perfect tool for that and especially as far as the Agenda 21 is concerned and the monitoring of the local action plan. However, we have not yet adopted the local action plan in the urban community. We expect to do that before the end of the year. So we were not able to share that with any citizens or businesses. We want to be fully operational in the use of the RFSC before sharing it with the outside world. We want all our departments to be really at ease with the tool, before sharing it. We will be in charge of training sessions internally.

What are for La Rochelle the most challenging aspects of integrated urban development?

The big challenge is to associate quality and density. This is the most challenging aspect for us. La Rochelle has a many of constraints in regard to land, with high demand and too less space available, which increases the prices. Yet, culturally speaking, we are always confronted to urban sprawl. The city should be seen as a key to protect natural resources and to fight against climate change. That has to translate in accepting a new urban form. That is why the aspects of density associated with quality are very important.

We need to have a good revision of our financial tools for urban development. We need to find some operational methodology to think the town differently, with more qualitative municipal spaces, presence of quiet areas to counterbalance density, new ways of building to integrate more biodiversity and integrated management of rainwater.

Would you recommend RFSC to other cities? Why?

Yes, for many reasons. One of the arguments we share with other departments is the European, holistic and universal dimensions of the tool: the RFSC is based on all the European reflection about sustainable urban development, including testing cities of 26 countries, and encompasses all the different urban realities and laws to be respected. Yet, the tool is very adaptable to the national context and to local situations and should be considered as a space for debate and not a standardisation of urban development. Neither a platform with evaluation or judgment of cities. Besides, it is a free and didactic process, available thus to all type of town, whatever its size or its human resources.

The tool is interesting too because it allows self-assessment -the identification of our strengths and weaknesses- and conscious decision-making. “Check the integrated approach”, especially, is a useful tool to identify and manage interdependencies between different actions. Whatever the decision is, and it is still the politician’s responsibility, it allows for more informed –and thus, best argued choices.

From an operational point of view, the RFSC can be a good tool to illustrate where is the local authority positioned regarding the European criteria: in France we have the obligation to produce an annual report of Sustainable Development in which we have the obligation to evaluate our actions. The tool of RFSC can be a good support for that, with the choice of indicators.

Last but not least, La Rochelle is about to enter a “peer-cities” network with the cities of Umea, Sweden and Hradec Kralove, Czech Republic. The idea is to discuss common matters, exchange good practices, share impressions about our difficulties, through RFSC.

More information on the RFSC.

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