Here are four innovative urban projects underway in Paris

Les Grands Voisins. Image: Centre for London.

Anne Hildalgo worked for 13 years as Deputy Mayor before becoming Mayor of Paris in 2014. One might be forgiven for thinking that her ideas would have been blunted by the time she arrived in office. Instead, she is showing that the French capital can be a thriving centre for civic and social innovation.

There is an urgency to promote civic innovation in Paris. Income, wealth and opportunity divides run deep in the region. France’s richest and poorest communes are only a few kilometres apart, and in the latter, youth unemployment is close to 40 per cent.

The city has also been shaken by fears of homegrown terrorism, and by the refugee crisis: in the year to March 2018, 60,000 refugees arrived at the Paris 18e Registration Centre. Despite this increasing need, the city’s charitable sector is eroding. The number of new associations created in the city has been declining for several years in a row.

Innovation policies designed to tackle these social problems are often hit-and-miss – but Paris offers up some interesting examples. Under Hildalgo’s leadership, the city has encouraged liveliness and nurtured enterprise in the city’s overlooked spaces. New spaces for innovation have been enabled and funded, as at Station F. Existing projects have been supported, as at Les Grands Voisins; and there has been effort to stimulate new ideas (Réinventer Paris, Budget Participatif).

Les Grands Voisins – a Moveable Feast

A public developer has opened up a disused hospital as temporary homeless accommodation, with 600 beds. Rather than gating the site to prevent interactions with neighbours, the associations managing it have turned the hospital into a lively neighbourhood with offices, shops and bars with a social purpose: providing employment for people returning to work or for refugees who haven’t yet secured the right to work. A programme of events draws in neighbours as well as visitors from all over Paris.

The public subsidy is no more than the cost of renting out temporary accommodation in the private sector, and the office space let out to 250 companies covers the project’s running costs. According to organisers, Les Grands Voisins experiment has become one of the most diverse spaces in inner Paris, and is boosting the morale of the city’s charitable sector.


Le Budget Participatif

Between 2014 and 2020, Parisians can decide how €500 million euros – 5 per cent of the city’s investment budget – should be spent. Citizens put forward propositions, which are vetted by City Hall according to their feasibility, and then voted upon.

As projects only come out of the investment budget, most are improvements to public spaces, for instance through greening and street redesign. Paris has spent much energy encouraging participation, and the large funding pot is gradually raising interest: the number of voters has risen to 200,000 in 2018, a third of them high school students.

Réinventer Paris

The City of Paris has pioneered a competition to revive disused sites and unloved public spaces. For its second edition in 2017, the City auctioned leases on 34 sites owned by public bodies in the capital – from power and metro stations to a 17th century mansion – in exchange for architectural, economic, cultural and social value. In a city that is short of space, Paris hopes to unleash creative energy by giving access to vacant sites rather than keeping hold of them.

Station F

Paris opened the world’s largest startup hub in 2017: 3,000 workplaces, support services for entrepreneurs, and several restaurants and bars. The City of Paris facilitated the project by making compulsory purchase of the site to sell to a developer who financed it with support from a public financial institution.

Nicolas Bosetti is research manager at the Centre for London.

This piece also appears in the second issue of the London ideas magazine, a journal on urban innovation.

Images courtesy of the Centre for London.

 
 
 
 

What’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.


“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.