A marriage between different sectors
L’Autre Soie, this experiment taking place in the former silk factory of Villeurbanne, was at the heart of the UIA-funded project Home Silk Road. L’Autre Soie was born from the marriage of two projects: while the GIE La Ville Autrement was looking for a site to build a new emergency shelter, the cultural and social innovation laboratory CCO, with a history of half a century in Villeurbanne, was seeking for a new location and a bigger concert hall. This unlikely association between a housing provider and a cultural centre was brought into being by the Municipality of Villeurbanne which was exploring the regeneration of the Carré de Soie area, with support from the Lyon Metropolitan Authority.
Culture and the activities brought to L’Autre Soie by the social economy initiatives hosted in the frame of the “temporary occupation” of the heritage site are by no means ornaments in an otherwise mainstream development project. “Structures like the CCO or the social inclusion association Alynea are not used here as cultural or social washing at the end of the project,” underlines CCO director Harout Mekhsian. On the contrary, they act as links to connect a diversity of people and organisations. “Culture, for us, constitutes the fourth pillar of sustainability, with the economy, ecology and social services,” concludes Mekhsian.
More precisely, culture here was used to build heterogeneity in the midst of a housing project, turning the coexistence of residents and people from the neighbourhood into lively connections. CCO’s cultural activities and the organisation’s involvement in citizen participation and various forms of emancipatory actions serve to build a collective imaginary, a shared narrative about the neighbourhood.
At the same table: co-governing L’Autre Soie
Home Silk Road is a complex cooperation between partners from different sectors, with different professional languages and working cultures. Besides the complementary multi-level relationship between the Lyon Metropole and the Villeurbanne Municipality that facilitates the project, it was also important to find means to connect all non-public actors as well. To facilitate dialogue and cooperation among them, a transparent governance structure was created in the form of a Société par Actions Simplifiée, an umbrella organisation to bring together all partners except for the public administrations. The Société par Actions Simplifiée or SAS format is widely used in civil society and social and solidarity economy due to its legal qualities that promote cooperation.
For many partners, regularly meeting to make joint decisions played an important role in creating a horizontal mode of co-governance. “The fact that CCO is at the same table with much larger players allowed us to set more precise, concrete and attainable objectives,” recognises Mekhsian. The SAS is also a helpful tool for the public administrations to work with: “It gives partners the space and time to get to know each other and work better together,” underlines Mathieu Fortin, responsible for economic management at the Villeurbanne Municipality.
However, the SAS does not eliminate the individual interests of partner organisations: they keep on maintaining their dialogues with the Municipality and the Metropolitan Authority. The idea was not to create a single dialogue between public administrations and cultural and social actors through a single channel of interaction but to explore how to “keep this wealth of dialogues with the public sector, this diversity of issues and actions by means of coordination within the project,” explains Mekhsian.
“It is important to involve people who do not necessarily have the habit of participating in the life of the area. To allow a heterogeneity of inhabitants to participate and shape the narrative of this neighbourhood.” Harout Mekhsian
Participation through confidence and competences
Besides the horizontal co-governance of the official project consortium, Home Silk Road also relies on a great diversity of partners and contributors. A real diversity of ideas and contributions are brought into the project through a variety of partners and activities. The events of CCO, a cultural organisation active in Villeurbanne for decades, opened the L’Autre Soie complex for the broader neighbourhood and even to the metropolitan region. The temporary occupation of the building by a variety or cultural, social and emergency initiatives, coordinated by CCO in collaboration with GIE La Ville Autrement, did not only allow L’Autre Soie to experiment with different future uses of the premises, but also helped integrate the site into the existing cultural and social dynamics of the area. All these activities brought over 18,000 people to L’Autre Soie between 2018-2020.
Inviting the broader community to use its services is not the only means with which L’Autre Soie engaged with Villeurbanne and the Lyon Métropole. Originally conceived as a “meeting place and a space of freedom” to help encounters between different social groups and support citizen initiatives, Mekhsian recalls that the CCO has been actively involved “in the citizen life of the neighbourhood by developing a capacity for participation with entities as the neighbourhood council and the citizens’ council.” Building on these capacities and connections, an “Atelier permanent” was established, offering a formal participation platform inviting residents to co-design the future of the site and the neighbourhood and to shape the narratives of the area.
The Atelier permanent and the other activities involving the broader community of L’Autre Soie are not finished with the end of the UIA project. On the contrary: many of the issues will remain open after the construction works as well. The Atelier permanent is working on consolidating its achievements: one of its objectives is to create confidence in the broader community to participate in the definition of uses and the future co-management of the park surrounding the industrial heritage building at the core of L’Autre Soie. Established and adjusted participation channels and more capacity on the side of citizens will help generate meaningful participation also in the next phases of the project.
The power of place: a heritage site and the dignity of everyday life
At the heart of Home Silk Road lies L’Autre Soie, a heritage building, erected in 1926 to serve as the girls’ residence for the silk factory. The architectural project for the site respects this history. After its transformation, the building combines a student residence with various social services and incubators. Until then, a series of temporary uses helps position the site in the area’s cultural and social life. These temporary uses “invited people to enter the site, giving visibility to the project and the issues addressed here,” recalls Lafond. They also created continuity between different phases of the project.
While the building’s “historical layer is a leverage for the integration of people who are usually put in soulless city areas,” as Lafond suggests, it is located in a broader territory with many layers of heritage. Besides the industrial past, the Carré de Soie area is also at the junction of three municipalities and four priority intervention neighbourhoods, with different histories of immigration, changing land use and gentrification.
Focusing on the L’Autre Soie building as a new anchor point, the goal of Home Silk Road is also the place-based regeneration of the broader neighbourhood. One of the key questions asked by the project is, as Harout Mekhsian recalls: “How can we, in these areas that were for a long time considered marginal, create a centrality, a place where people can find resources?”