Nantes is the fifth largest city in France with a population of 306,000 – the largest it has ever been. It is the country’s fourth largest metropolitan area, with 949,000 inhabitants in 24 municipalities across 549 sq km. It is the administrative seat of the Loire-Atlantique department and the Pays de la Loire region, and since 2016 one of France’s new ‘metropoles’. Conquered by the Bretons in 851, the city’s omission from modern-day Brittany is still debated as the cultural influence is still strong.
Nantes is located in North West France at the beginning of the estuary of the Loire, France’s longest river. It is 50km inland from the Atlantic (like some other important port cities eg. Bordeaux, Bilbao, Antwerp), sitting at the confluence of two Loire tributaries and where river current and sea-tides cancel each other out. The silting this caused led to the formation of the many islands upon which Nantes was originally built. It has been an important port city since antiquity, and, that said, its relatively peripheral location and mercantile history has meant it has always been outward-looking.
Repeated expansionary demolition and the city’s terrible WWII experiences left it with less historic built fabric than some other French cities. Their most prominent pre-Middle Ages landmark is the Gothic Château des Ducs de Bretagne, which sits on a Loire channel infilled after WWII and now the site of Parc Mercoeur and Feydeau Island. After the Renaissance Nantes spread west from its medieval core along new embankments, in unique ‘Nantais baroque’ style.
During the height of the French Colonial era in the 17th Century Nantes became the largest port in France, largely due to slavery: almost half of the entire French Atlantic slave trade passed through it, which is recognised in the unique and moving ‘Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery’ on the Quai de la Fosse riverbank in the city centre. After the abolition of slavery in 1794 the city continued to illegally transport slaves up to 1827 – the last city in France to do so. The French Revolution and Napoleon’s ‘Continental Blockade’ resulted in an economic decline.
The local entrepreneurial mercantile spirit in the city soon resurfaced with the development of a new canning industry for the port’s significant fishing catch and local vegetable production. Shipbuilding rapidly became another city specialism, built on years of marine expertise. A huge sugar refining industry grew using former slave trade connections, which diversified into associated food products eg. flour, biscuits and confectionary (eg. LU). One of the city’s most famed citizens at this time was Jules Verne, whose creativity was inspired by stories of the city’s sailors and merchants.
Continual channel infilling to prevent flooding and provide land for city expansion made Nantes’ port very tidal and dangerous, especially for larger ships. By 1835 a transfer port had to be built on the mouth of the Loire estuary at Saint Nazaire, which by 1868 was more productive than the port in central Nantes. This decline was accelerated when Saint Nazaire became a major naval base in WWI, and Nantes was captured by the Nazis in WWII and subject to consequential heavy Allied bombing. The city had barely started recovering when it was hit hard by global restructuring in the 1970s. Unemployment rates jumped to almost 20%, and the last major shipbuilding facility closed in 1986, leaving 340ha of derelict and polluted land in the heart of the city, mainly on the city’s last remaining island, the Ile de Nantes.
Under the leadership and ambition of Mayor Jean-Marc Ayrault (1989-2012) and artistic visionary Jean Blaise the city refocused itself into one of France’s greenest, fastest-growing and liveable cities. Key to this was a huge investment in culture as the strategic driver for social and economic rejuvenation, albeit with two cardinal rules: 1) events were free, and 2) they happened outdoors/in public spaces in all parts of the city. This in turn supported the growth of the services sector and tourism, aided by the opening of the TGV high-speed rail route to Paris in 1989. The city also looked to its former industrial and ongoing agricultural strengths, and encouraged investment in innovation and R&D in food processing and manufacturing, and emerging new fields such as food security.
There is a very strong and visible tradition of co-working in the city and at metropolitan level, and between private and public sectors – known as “Jeu a la Nantaise”, and taken originally from the style of football adopted by FC Nantes, which emphasises team-work and collective action over individual skills. Initiatives begun within the municipality were rolled out to other public agencies, such as the police and SNCF (the national railway operator), and the private sector via representative bodies and individual businesses.
Nantes’ post-industrial recovery has been impressive. Under the leadership of Ayraut initially, and since 2012 Johanna Rolland – one of the youngest Mayors in France, and also the Mayor of the wider Nantes Metropole region, thereby ensuring consistency of approach and priority – its economy is now one of the strongest in France outside of Paris, and job creation is currently second-highest in the country. 3,500 new businesses are established every year in the city, and it has the fastest growth rate in the digital sector in France. Key industries include aeronautics, food- and agri-tech; and financial services. Unemployment levels in the city (6.9%) and metropole (6.4%) are also consistently lower than the regional (7.6%) and national (8.6%) averages.
The city has an excellent grasp of its current and future issues and challenges, using a range of modern forecasting techniques and constant evaluation to ‘tweak’ service design. In addition the city’s University – long a sleeping giant – has reorganised and now has 33,000 students and over 50% of R&D-focused staff, often working in direct partnership with industry to enhance key economic strengths. Growth of 30% in student numbers is the aim, with support programmes for extensive workplace learning opportunities; commercialisation of ideas; and start-up creation and growth. The arms-length inward investment agency for the region has a particularly strong focus on the ‘soft’ aspects of business establishment and relocation. ‘Humanscale’ was a word often positively used about the city by businesses and entrepreneurs, especially in comparison to Paris.
As a consequence of its economic growth Nantes’ population is growing at the fastest-rate since the 1950s, equating to an additional 17,000 residents a year. This is the third-highest metropolitan growth rate in France, behind Toulouse and Montpellier. However Nantes’ growth over the past two decades has been driven by domestic immigration and natural birth rates. Almost half of the population is under the age of 30. Just under 10% of the city’s population were born outside of France, and until very recently the city’s relatively peripheral location had been a detractor to crisis immigration.
The city has a clear strategy for dealing with current and anticipated population growth, using its well-established integrated land-use and transportation planning framework to deliver its statutory local framework plan (‘PLU’). It was already implementing the delivery of the additional housing (36,000 social and private units by 2025), transportation infrastructure, schools, health facilities, etc, current population growth would demand. In fact Nantes is actively pursuing even greater population growth.
Nantes appears to be fiscally ambitious but sensible as a city: for example, they knew that the significant financing it had to borrow to deliver the new Bottiere-Chenaie eco-neighbourhood (1 of 3 in the city) would be repaid within seven years because of the structure of public-private housing revenues, and by using advance intelligence to ensure social housing was full from day one. Impressive ongoing micro-level analysis ensured that any housing vacancies were filled within a few days.
The impressive 30-year plan for the former industrial Ile de Nantes will deliver one of another new eco-neighbourhoods. Its 4.6 sq km will be an extension to the city centre, with a series of distinct but interconnected neighbourhoods, hosting a mixture of high-quality distinctive permanent and pop-up uses. Major interventions such as a new 1,000-bed regional hospital and a new 5,000-student University campus were designed as anchors for critical mass activity on the island, with the former also a catalyst for a new health biosciences cluster. Signature architecture from the likes of Jean Nouvel and public art installations create a distinctive environment which has incorporated remnants of the industrial history wherever possible. There was even a high-quality yet accessible restaurant on the island, with many ingredients grown onsite in adjacent polytunnels, hives, etc.
The city’s quality of life is highly-regarded, with a 2018 survey ranking it as the best city in which to work in France, notably due its extensive cultural and leisure offer, impressive blue-green infrastructure and ‘humanscale’. It was also in the top two of two other polls of ‘best cities and towns to live in France’. The city invests 11% of its total annual budget into culture, with a strong bottom-up approach to community engagement and delivery, including funding one free cultural event/festival for every neighbourhood each year. ROI for every €1 is a leverage of €3-4; annual tourism – which barely existed before 2000 – is now at two million visitors, and growing at 5% per annum.
There is a sense of fun throughout the city which makes it a wonderful place for all ages to visit: the Sunday Times in 2014 even called it “the loopiest city in Europe”! This humour even permeates into ‘serious’ spaces such as the city centre Botanical Gardens, which is one of the world’s foremost centres of excellence in biodiversity.
Nantes was European Green Capital in 2013 – the first, and to date only, French city to win this accolade. 41% of the urban area is public green space, with no resident being more than 300m from a designated green space. It is also ranked highly for its commitment to investment in biodiversity. Environmental considerations are often linked into the city’s strong cultural thread – for example, through the ‘Estuaire Project’, a linear series of art and leisure installations running 50km from the city centre all the way to the estuary and out to Saint Nazaire. The organic redevelopment of the Ile de Nantes has seen natural and semi-natural habitats interwoven into new public leisure and play facilities, urban market gardens and urban infrastructure (eg. wildflower verges and roundabouts).