Nantes’ past, present and future are built on water. Located on the Loire River roughly 30 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, Nantes was historically a harbor city. But in the 1980s, shipbuilding and many other port-related industries began moving away, forcing Nantes to reinvent itself. This renaissance is being successfully accomplished by curbing sprawl and concentrating new growth in the city center, often in ecodistricts that showcase energy conservation and resource efficiency. While increasing density, Nantes is simultaneously growing a livable environment for humans and other species using a green and blue network that provides habitat, open space, waterside walks and non-motorized transportation routes largely alongside the City’s numerous streams and rivers (European Commission, 2016).
Nantes’ green roots predate the French Revolution. During the reign of King Louis XIV, ship captains brought plants from around the world to Nantes, where they were cultivated before moving to the Royal Gardens in Paris. This practice nurtured horticultural expertise that is still evident today in Nantes’ many gardens, including the Jardin des Plantes, established in 1806 and now home to 11,000 species and varieties (Nantes, 2010). Today, Nantes maintains an urban forest of 100,000 trees as well as a network of parks, gardens and other open space that places every resident within 300 meters of greenspace (Nantes, 2014; Nantes, O’Neill & Rudden, 2010).
The Loire and several other rivers and streams meander through Nantes, forming over 250 kilometers of major watercourses and 9,500 hectares of wetlands (O’Neill & Rudden, 2010). Almost 13 percent of Nantes is protected within four Natura 2000 sites including the banks of the Loire and Sevre rivers. The City and 23 surrounding communities, known as Nantes Metropole, are restoring these areas and revitalizing habitat for endangered species. Within its network of protected land and water, known as the green and blue framework, Nantes offers 210 kilometers of “waterside walks” aimed at using “multimodal green transport” to connect the public with nature (Nantes, 2010; European Commission, 2016).
In addition to waterside walks, Nantes’ “Soft Mobility Plan” aims to significantly increase the percentage of trips taken by bicycle (European Commission, 2016). In response, Nantes expanded its bikeway system to 470 kilometers of cycle paths or tracks and established a bikeshare system offering almost 800 bicycles at 89 stations (Nantes, 2014). Bike commuters and recreational cyclists can also use a 365-km trail that largely follows the tow path of the Nantes-Brest Canal. Another bike path on the banks of the Loire River is part of the 3,653-km EuroVelo Rivers Route connecting Nantes with Romania by way of nine separate countries (Nantes, 2010). In 2009, Nantes won the Civitas City of the Year Award for cycle and public transportation improvements as well as pedestrianizing streets within the city center (O’Neill and Rudden, 2010).
Nantes has also been a leader in public transportation. In 1985, Nantes became the first city in France to successfully reintroduce a modern tram line. By 2014, that tram line was carrying 120,000 passengers daily, making it the third busiest line in the country, and Nantes now has three additional tram lines, commuter rail, water buses and a busway. By 2009, 95 percent of Nantes’ population lived within 300 meters of public transportation with hourly or better service (European Commission, 2010; Nantes, 2010; Nantes, 2014). These ecomobility strategies are a key component of Nantes’ Climate Action Plan, which aims to reduce CO2 emissions by 25 percent between 1990 and 2025.
Roughly 61 percent of Nantes Metropole is in nature or agriculture and the population is projected to grow by almost 17 percent to 700,000 in 2030 (European Commission, 2016). There are few physical barriers to keep growth from spilling into the picturesque countryside. But Nantes’ land use plan aims to block sprawl by concentrating growth within currently developed areas, particularly within the transportation-rich central city and on brownfield sites. Nantes also wants these redevelopment areas to be models of sustainability and nature-friendliness (Nantes, 2010).
Ecodistrict Ile de Nantes is a five-kilometer-long island in the Loire River that formerly housed a foundry, ship building yard and other port-related industries. A 20-year redevelopment project is transforming this island into a model mixed-use neighborhood with worksites, retail and civic space as well as residences. Its renewable energy credentials include a district heating network fueled by waste and wood, solar thermal installations, photovoltaics and an aerothermal heat pump (Hure, 2013). Some of the former industrial structures here have been repurposed as landscape architecture, including the Foundries Garden, which houses 200 trees and 100 plant varieties within the girders and furnaces once used to forge propellers. The former shipyards are now the home of Island Machines, a truly unique enterprise that builds whimsical animated artworks including a mechanical elephant that lumbers around the island carrying more than a dozen passengers on its back (Nantes, 2010).
Nantes is also justifiably proud of its Bottiere-Chenaie Eco-Neighborhood, a pedestrian-friendly development that achieves densities of up to 120 units per hectare yet incorporates open space elements that allow close contact with nature and, of course, water. Nantes employs pesticide-free management of greenspace in Bottiere-Chenaie and throughout the city in order to generally improve environmental health and, more specifically, to sustain the bee populations that that are critical to the City’s beloved trees and gardens. In fact, Nantes uses bee vitality as a measure of overall ecosystem quality. The City is home to almost 90 beekeepers and apiaries are located in parks and atop buildings throughout the city center, including the roof of the Opera House (Nantes, 2010).
Nantes’ accomplishments have not gone unnoticed. In 2009, Nantes won the Eco-cities prize from the French Ministry of Sustainable Development using the submission theme: “To build the city around the River”. France also awarded the eco-neighborhood title to three projects in Nantes out of a total of 28 eco-neighborhoods in the entire country (Nantes, 2010).
At the international level, the European Commission named Nantes the 2013 European Green Capital. In addition to the physical achievements mentioned above, the European Green Capital jurors were impressed with Nantes’ understanding of the need to mold the behavior of individual citizens. The Nantes Exhibition Centre hosts learning experiences like “my life – my town – my planet” which motivates school-age children to make the connection between their actions and the health of Mother Earth. But Nantes also takes its sustainability message on the road, using impossible-to-ignore attractions like the Flying Greenhouse, Island Machine’s fanciful 53-foot tall spaceship powered by on-board composting.
Green is also good for Nantes economy. In 2013 alone, Nantes hosted 8,400 delegates to over 20 international events on sustainability issues including the World Mayor’s Summit on Climate Change and the Ecocity World Summit. During the Ecocity Summit, the Feeding of the 5,000 offered a culinary protest against food waste with a feast prepared from “ugly” fruits and vegetables that ordinarily are thrown out because of harmless imperfections (Nantes, 2014). In the process of sharing its experiences, Nantes is clearly building its international reputation while pursuing its economic development and eco-tourism strategies.
Chapter 5: Nantes, France: City of eco-neighborhoods
European Commission. 2010. The Experts Panel’s Evaluation Work & Final Recommendations for the European Green Capital Award of 2012 and 2013. Brussels: European Commission.
European Commission. 2016. Nantes – Winner 2013 – European Green Capital. Retrieved on May 19, 2016 from
Hure, Vincent. 2013. Concerto – act2 project: action of cities to mainstream energy efficient building and renewable energy systems across Europe. Nantes: European Commission.
Nantes. 2010. Application: European Green Capital Award Nantes 2012 – 2013.
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Nantes. 2014. A review of 2013, Nantes European Green Capital. Nantes: Nantes Metropole.
O’Neill, Katie & Rudden, PJ. 2010. Environmental Best Practice & Benchmarking Report: European Green Capital Award 2012 and 2013. Brussels: European Commission.