‘It’s a beautiful thing’: how one Paris district rediscovered conviviality

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The Guardian

It was a distinctly un-Parisian revolution although it began on an inner city street. No barricades were assembled to block the nearby boulevards and no radical students hurled cobblestones ripped from the pavement. Not a single monarch had their head chopped off.

Instead, a 215-metre-long banquet table, lined with 648 chairs and laden with a home cooked produce, was set up along the Rue de l’Aude and those in attendance were urged to openly utter the most subversive of words: bonjour.

For some, that greeting led to the first meaningful exchange between neighbours. “I’d never seen anything like it before,” says Benjamin Zhong who runs a cafe in the area. “It felt like the street belonged to me, to all of us.”

The revolutionaries pledged their allegiance that September day in 2017 to the self-styled République des Hyper Voisins, or Republic of Super Neighbours, a stretch of the 14th arrondissement on the Left Bank, encompassing roughly 50 streets and 15,000 residents. In the five years since, the republic – a “laboratory for social experimentation” – has attempted to address the shortcomings of modern city living, which can be transactional, fast-paced, and lonely.

The 215-metre-long banquet table will be lined with 648 chairs. Photograph: Hyper Voisins

The experiment encourages people not just to salute each other more in the street but to interact daily through mutual aid schemes, voluntary skills-sharing and organised meet ups.

“The stereotype of a Parisian is brusque and unfriendly,” says Patrick Bernard, the former journalist and local resident who launched the project. “But city living doesn’t have to be unpleasant and anonymous. We want to create the atmosphere of a village in an urban space.”

“Conviviality is not just a good feeling,” adds Bernard. “It can become a powerful asset, an essential economic and social agent in the construction of tomorrow’s cities.”

Nearly 2,000 people now attend weekly brunches and apéritifs in local restaurants, cultural outings, memory exchanges, children’s activities and more. During the pandemic, residents mobilised to make masks, deliver shopping to vulnerable neighbours and bake cakes to support a local charity. Crucial, too, is the digital aspect: dozens of WhatsApp groups include those dedicated to repairing broken devices, selling second-hand goods, and sharing healthcare resources.

The neighbours gather for a garden party in Parc Montsouris, Paris, in 2018. Photograph: Peter Yeung/The Guardian
Neighbours’ share a meal on Rue de l’Aude, Paris. Photograph: Thierry Nectoux/Hyper Voisins

Anna Morosova, 31, originally from Russia, believes the project has given her life invaluable stability since divorcing. “I live alone, but if I need help there is always someone,” says Morosova, an architect who is now planning to set up tango classes. “There’s an energy this place gives me.”

Mireille Roberdeau, an 86-year-old widow who moved to the area in 2000, says the scheme has given her a reason to get up in the morning. “I was quite timid before,” she adds. “I wouldn’t speak to anyone. I would scowl at people. But now I look forward to going out. It’s good because my doctor says I need to get out.”

Anna Morozova, a local resident, says the project has given her stability since her divorce. Photograph: Peter Yeung/The Guardian
Mireille Roberdeau, 86, says she was too shy to mix with neighbours before the scheme. Photograph: Peter Yeung/The Guardian

Roberdeau, now a keen user of the WhatsApp groups was hospitalised in March but says neighbours delivered her groceries when she got home. “There’s an ambiance to this place,” she says. “It has changed me.”

Beyond the “eating, drinking and celebrating as social engineering”, in the words of Bernard, that defined the initial stages of Hyper Voisins, the long-term targets – aimed at transforming the very nature and functioning of an urban neighbourhood – come under four pillars: environment, healthcare, public spaces and mobility.

It has, for example, collaborated with non-profit Les Alchimistes to install organic waste disposal points in former parking spaces and to turn the matter into compost. Perhaps more radically at a time of strained healthcare provision in France, it is launching a health clinic geared towards local needs. With €500,000 of funding from Paris city hall, it will have a staff of 10 and offer extended opening hours, consultations without appointment and home visits. Crucially, “user citizens” will support caregivers and be closely involved so that they are more informed players in their own health.

“Someone might be in hospital and can’t return home because they need support,” explains Bernard. “But what if we put in place a scheme for local children to do shopping for patients, so they could come home a week early. It would be better for patients and create big savings for public services.”

To reduce local car use by residents and traders, Hyper Voisins plans to buy electric bikes with trailers and install a communal electric bike charger. It is also in talks with the mayor to potentially levy a local tax on unwanted businesses such as estate agents, banks and delivery hubs and give residents a vote on whether they can even move in. “We want to promote stores that improve our daily life,” adds Bernard. “If not, like a polluter, they should pay.”

The Hypers Voisins project has no formal relationship with City Hall but it fits into a wider strategy of encouraging people to become more active in their communities.

“Paris is a big, cosmopolitan, diverse city, and it must stay a city of the people, a place where people live together happily,” says Pénélope Komitès, the deputy mayor of Paris in charge of resilience. “Through conviviality, solidarity and strong links between our inhabitants, we can better absorb unexpected shocks.”

Plant boxes installed by the Hyper Voisins at Place des Droits de l’Enfant. Photograph: Peter Yeung/The Guardian
During the pandemic, residents made masks, delivered shopping and baked cakes to support a local charity. Photograph: Peter Yeung/The Guardian

Hyper Voisins sees itself not only as a powerful tool for cooperation at the micro level, but a grassroots counterpart to the widely feted, more top-down approach of the 15-minute city – the urban design concept developed by Carlos Moreno, the French-Colombian theorist in which all of a resident’s needs are in close proximity.

“Hypers Voisins is an incarnation of the proximity of inhabitants running their own projects,” says Moreno. “It looks to rally inhabitants and reanimate neighbourhoods.” he says. “I’ve followed it since its launch. It has inspired me.”

Since the pandemic, many Europeans have come to better appreciate their surrounding spaces and communities, according to sociologist Charlot Schans. “We need people-centred cities and public spaces that work towards public life. Hyper Voisins is an excellent example of reclaiming urban development.”

Schans is the director of Place Making Europe a non-profit network that operates across 30 countries to promote better public space policies. “Cities tend to be developed from the top down,” she says. “The result is that often there’s growing loneliness, and they are becoming less mobile and less healthy places.”

“Place making is the idea that we own and create these spaces together,” she says. The Spanish city of Pontevedra, for example, has banned cars, Barcelona has developed its “Super Block” system of pedestrian-first, nine-block grids, and Amsterdam is offering nonprofits money to buy out tourist shops and replace them with locally oriented businesses. Bernard also cites the inspiration of Montreal’s Solon Collectif, a community project that has cut local energy consumption through a shared heat transfer fluid circulating in underground pipes and reduced food waste by canning local fruit and vegetables.

‘Conviviality is not just a good feeling’: Patrick Bernard and the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, tour the Republic of Super Neighbours. Photograph: Hypers Voisins

Paris City Hall had planned to formalise the Hyper Voisins model with a rollout to four other arrondissements in the city. An unprecedented squeeze on the city’s budget caused by the pandemic has put that on pause for now.

Yet a study by sociologist Camille Arnodin found that Hyper Voisins – and two other community volunteer projects in Paris – had reinforced pandemic resilience, transformed weak neighbourly links into strong bonds, improved social mixing and reduced social isolation.

Arnodin’s report called for more resources to back similar schemes by the end of 2023. “We plan to build a route for others to grow,” deputy mayor Komitès says. “The idea is not to reproduce what the Hyper Voisins does everywhere, because each neighbourhood is different. They could be very, very different initiatives.” ”

Patrick Touzeau, 46, who moved to the area with his three children in 2018, says the concept “should be everywhere”. Photograph: Peter Yeung/The Guardian
Event to mark the transformation of a public square at the Place des Droits de l’Enfant in Paris’s 14th arrondissement. Photograph: Peter Yeung/The Guardian

Hyper Voisins hopes to inspire other districts and is carrying out research in conjunction with two universities with a view to developing courses that would ultimately train “neighbourhood friends” to perform in other districts the role Bernard performs voluntarily in the 14th.

But could Bernard’s vision work beyond its original setting, a left-leaning, largely middle-class quarter in a relatively wealthy area of Paris? Arnodin’s study, for one, noted issues over inclusion: the scheme could risk leaving out either those who don’t wish to participate in activities or those who “don’t feel included or informed”.

“It is always possible to do more to reach out to different inhabitants,” Bernardacknowledges. “But there’s no magic bullet. The model must be adapted. We must see how it works in areas of the right or left, among disabled people, rich, young …”

But he remains bullish about the wider potential of the the not-so-quiet revolution powered by a million bonjours. “We’ve had a lot of success. We’ve profoundly changed how people live.”

A recent event at the Place des Droits de l’Enfant allowed neighbours to celebrate reclaiming the public space. A lifeless road junction, according to Bernard, no longer performed its role as an “urban square” – a place for life, interaction and meetings. But after residents were consulted about what they thought the square should become, it was cleaned, pedestrianised, planted and had street clutter removed with a grant of nearly 200,000 euros from the City of Paris.

The new public square was inaugurated on a sun-kissed day of homemade food, live music, ecological board games for children and compost sharing. “Here, people have time to talk,” says Patrick Touzeau, 46, who moved to the area with his three children in 2018. “It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a collective effort. The benefits don’t happen straight away, it takes time. But I think that this concept should be everywhere.”

July 14, 2022 at 10:33AM Peter Yeung

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