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.