To face a heavy trend of social and spatial fragmentation in urban areas, Nicolas Détrie is inserting new room for experimentation within cities. He does so by temporarily occupying vacant buildings and outdoor spaces to test lively urban prototypes that both mix social groups and capacitate citizens to develop new social, cultural or economic initiatives.
The New Idea
Nicolas sees the need for accessible physical space as an opportunity to bring different dimensions of a city’s population (from marginalized populations, such as homeless people and migrants, to more privileged social groups) together to co-habit and learn from each other. To create this true “societal platform”, he designs and managed the temporary occupation of unused vacant buildings and outdoor spaces. For Nicolas, occupying a space is about building a specific and vivid identity, economy and culture around it, in order to generate long-term cohesiveness between diverse social groups.
Nicolas is pioneering and adding a whole new way to work with spaces in cities, shifting the focus from the final structure to the process and from the permanence to the opportunity of temporariness. Nicolas is building on his experience of temporarily occupying 15 spaces in France (from a few months to several years), such as wastelands, gardens and a former hospital, where they managed to create citizen engagement, new relationships and networks; a broad range of publics (start-ups, citizen organizations, homeless people, migrants, youth...) are either living, working or visiting the space where they can test various initiatives (solidary restaurant, urban agriculture, small shops...). Nicolas has demonstrated the power of his methodology through projects in big French cities, such as “Les Grands Voisins” in Paris: a cooperative village of 34,000 square meters attracting more than 1,000 citizens a day, and he is now ready and legitimate to influence a broader audience.
Nicolas has thus introduced a new role to design and manage a room for experimentation within cities. Institutions see value in such a vibrant space generating life and long-term cohesiveness, and are thus keen on integrating it into urban planning. Nicolas now spreads this role and the associated specific knowledge and skills to other groups of designers, architects, social organizations and local public authorities in order to multiply the number of these societal platforms for experimentation across territories.
Cities are increasingly fragmented, both socially and spatially. In 2018, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities and urban areas host a melting pot of social groups. Nevertheless, the different social groups within a city tend to split in different socially homogeneous areas and don’t interact much. In this context, true inclusiveness is hardly achievable as the different walks of life (business, social work, citizen initiatives, etc) remain operating in their own sphere, with their own narratives. As a result, part of the population don’t feel legitimate in all shared spaces, such as places designed for cultural events or entertainment, while they are in theory open and accessible to everyone. This fragmented use of the shared space deeply narrows the opportunities for learning through connecting to others. This also makes citizens more prone to a feeling of distrust, generating tensions and violence. There is a gap between the way the space is used for people and the missed opportunity to build real connections that change the fragmentation by purposefully using the space differently.
This gap is strengthened by the way shared spaces are designed and planned. The focus is made on a defined final result, letting apart the process to build the space and make it vivid. Most investment capacities are directed toward urban planning projects that are thought and implemented to last over the very long-term: the spaces are designed to be long-lasting, immutable, as they represent heavy investments. The period between conception and delivery of urban project can last several years. The space planning process thus lacks agility and reactivity. Huge investments don’t encourage experiments and innovations. Some projects turn to be already obsolete when they finally get achieved. Once realized, urban spaces are hardly adaptable to changes in society.
In addition, citizens are not involved in the public space planning process and are considered as mere “consumers” of the shared spaces. Thus they tend to adopt a passive and wait-and-see attitude toward the public authorities. Most of them don’t feel entitled or legitimate to contribute to solving the challenges the city they live in face. However, more and more cities start seeing citizen engagement as key for social cohesion building, and test participatory initiatives such as opening participatory budgets or events. Though encouraging, decision makers still lack skills to add a new and impactful piece to the public spaces design process.
Since 2013, with his organization Yes We Camp, Nicolas has been sharpening the key design principles to create and curate an “enabling” shared space, meaning a space where everyone feels legitimate to take initiatives. First of all, Nicolas is leveraging the power of “temporariness” by using vacant buildings and outdoor sites whose owners are keen on lending the land for free for a short-term duration because this helps them to save security and maintenance costs for an unused and thus unprofitable site. In this win-win strategy, the land owners are also motivated by the attractiveness the temporary occupation will add to their space on the longer term. The limited duration (usually a few years) of the Yes We Camp space occupation projects also lowers the barrier for the municipality to accept and support the implementation of the project. Temporariness also nurtures the experimental mindset Nicolas aims at creating in an “enabling” shared space.
Once the temporary use of a vacant site is dealt with the owner, Nicolas mobilizes a team (paid staffs as well as volunteers) to co-design and curate the place in order to turn it into an attractive space for a broad range of publics that should all feel entitled to occupy the area. Major design principles of this process are openness, to ensure real co-design, and intentional social diversity. For instance, openness is ensured by an on-site dedicated office offering to anyone the possibility and tools to suggest new initiatives or get involved in existing ones as well as by the deliberate existence of non-specified areas that are freely available for citizen's initiatives. As for social diversity, it is structurally ensured by the on-site presence of less privileged or less mobile social groups that would not have come otherwise; it is also reinforced by a crafted arts programming that brings diverse and not only conventional performances.
From 2015 to 2017, Nicolas and his team applied these design principles to co-lead the temporary occupation of a vacant hospital located in a rather posh area of Paris, at the behest of the public local authority itself. Major partners in this occupation were an historical social work organization managing emergency housing, for which this type of collaboration was new, and another non-profit organization helping with the logistical management of the space. During 2 years, permanent residents (600 vulnerable people, mainly homeless and migrants, housed on site), workers (staff from 250 organizations such as non-profit associations, small businesses, start-ups, artists...) and occasional visitors cohabited in 34,000 m2 of indoor and outdoor spaces. The formerly abandoned hospital thus became a place where a broad range of people came to live, work, test and develop initiatives (such as solidary restaurants, small local shops promoting eco-friendly products, an open wellbeing space, collaborative arts and craft workshops) or enjoy events. The presence on-site of an emergency housing center ensured the formerly mentioned structural social diversity. This occupation project, called “Les Grands Voisins” (“The Great Neighbors”), met great success, attracting more than 1,000 citizens a day and seeing the emergence of numerous citizen initiatives, some of which led to the creation of sustainable activities. For instance, a chocolate maker tested her concept and products in “Les Grands Voisins” and has now established a small business to sell her products in other places; a migrant from Burkinabe started a small welding business to share his skills with the visitors; several of the homeless residents housed by the social work organization tested their own small activity (hairdresser, cook, photographer, etc.). As a sign of concrete new impactful social interactions, several homeless residents have also been hired by other organizations settled on site. “Les Grands Voisins” became a trendy place “to visit” in Paris and proved that it is possible to bring back vulnerable publics at the center of the city without generating any social tension. This brought significant visibility and legitimacy to Nicolas’ work, thus strategically positioning him in a leading position to multiply his impact. Seeing the social dynamics value of such a temporary occupation, more private owners and municipalities are open to give their spaces out for free. Building on this success, Nicolas also works on other sites, such as parcs or waste lands, and different contexts, such as underprivileged neighborhoods or rural areas.
To make sure the temporary occupied places keep being vivid, attractive and “enabling”, it needs to be curated during the whole length of the occupation. This new role of curator is endorsed by the Yes We Camp team. Beyond carefully drafting a diverse arts and events programming to facilitate social interactions, as well as welcoming and organizing initiatives that are proposed by citizens, curating the place also covers dealing with the business model of such a temporary space occupation, that relies on the income generated by on-site commercial activities (accommodation, restaurants) and on the rent paid by the organizations (startups, non-profit organizations, ...) whose offices are based on the site.
Drawing from all this experience, Nicolas now works at getting more people to endorse this new role to design and curate “enabling” spaces. He thus started working with a set of actors through training, consulting and/or partnerships. Main targets are (1) architecture schools and groups of architects and designers, who are eager to learn about a new and impactful trend in their sector, (2) public city agents involved in urban space planning, who see in Yes We Camp’s methodology an opportunity to create attractiveness and fight against social tensions in their city, and (3) traditional players of the social sector who are willing to rethink the social integration process. Nicolas also ambitions to create a university degree, in collaboration with the Interdisciplinary Research Center led by the Ashoka Fellow François Taddéi, to broadly share his methodology and contribute to structure a recognized profession around the conception and management of enabling shared spaces. Looking to the future, Nicolas is also reflecting on creating an international network of enabling shared spaces that will require further adaptation of his methodology to other geographic, social, cultural, economic, demographic contexts.
The grand-son of an hospital director and a military, Nicolas grew up in a family where serving the general interest was significant. A brilliant student, he entered the renowned business school ESSEC where he specialized in urban economics while being actively engaged in student organizations supporting underprivileged youths. While doing his masters in Brazil, he pursued his citizen engagement with local associations and this brought him to discover the Brazilian slums, the favelas. In these slums, Nicolas was deeply marked by a still vivid “natural reciprocity” between inhabitants who exchange simple services, share and optimize resources. He realized this natural way to collaborate, which is a very simple but powerful way to connect people and build resiliency, had almost disappeared from the big cities he used to live in, and thus developed a strong will to bring this natural reciprocity back.
In 2007, at the age of 26, Nicolas became the director of the non-profit organization "Les Ateliers de Cergy", whose mission is to develop collaborative creativity workshops to define urban strategies with cities’ stakeholders. In many cities around the world, Nicolas witnessed how most citizens, especially the most vulnerable ones, were excluded from the city design process. For instance, while working in Bamako, Nicolas discovered a huge discrepancy between thousands of youngsters, who could hardly make their voices heard, and a handful of wealthy decision makers and real estate giants ruling the city. At that time, Nicolas identified the need of implanting “laboratories” within the cities where any citizen could go and freely experiment initiatives, with no pressure on the result. Throughout his five years working with Les Ateliers de Cergy, Nicolas also gained experience in bringing together groups of people with different backgrounds to make them collaborate. Beyond these discoveries and learnings, Nicolas is also surrounded and nurtured by artists, notably his sister, who is a graphic designer, and his wife, who is a choreographer.
In 2012, Nicolas met Eric, a creative architect and designer, with whom he discussed the idea of launching a temporary social, eco-friendly and artistic campsite in Marseille. They decided to join forces and, even though it has been a challenging implementation starting from scratch with a very thin budget, the project turned to be an exceptional success welcoming thousands of campers and 500 volunteers from all over Europe. Bringing all the pieces of his learning journey together, this experience has been a triggering point for Nicolas to further develop the idea of thinking urban space design differently. Nicolas indeed perceived that, as a group of engaged citizens, they owned the power to develop a truly new know-how to reinvent cities, turning them into more "generous" places where natural reciprocity is restored, citizen’s participation integrated and facilitated, and citizen agency fostered. He thus decided to multiply experimental rooms within cities with a core team of volunteers who had met during this initiatory experience in Marseille. Over the years, Nicholas' work has been increasingly recognized and in 2018 it received the governmental label “French Impact” that distinguishes pioneering, impactful and scalable social initiatives.