SYSTÈMES K event on the Home Silk Road site May 2021, photograph by Lionel Rault
An interview with Mathieu Fortin, Social and Solidarity Economy & Entrepreneurship Officer at the City of Villeurbanne.

In this interview, we dive into how the project has promoted the Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE). SSE designates a diverse set of economic actors operating on the principle of solidarity and social utility, as defined under French legislation. Whilst housing and culture have been the “flagship” dimensions of Home Silk Road, economic activity and particularly the SSE is an important priority and will remain significant in the future life of the site. This interview was conducted online in order to put a spotlight on SSE in the final phase of the project.

The Home Silk Road project is a partnership between the Metropole of Lyon, Alynea (an NGO supporting vulnerable people), Est Métropole Habitat (a social housing company), the Centre Culturel Œcuménique (a social and cultural innovation lab) and the City of Villeurbanne. The aim is to experiment an inclusive city by combining innovative temporary housing solutions with cultural and economic activities in the context of a multi-phase transitionary occupation. The project is happening in the Carré de Soie district, astride the municipalities of Vaulx-en-Velin and Villeurbanne in the East of the Metropole of Lyon. The whole area is undergoing major redevelopment. Specifically, Home Silk Road involves the site of l’Autre Soie project in Villeurbanne where 23,500m² of brownfield land is being transformed into a new residential neighbourhood containing social and affordable housing, a concert hall and other amenities. Home Silk Road was launched in 2019 and will end in Autumn 2022. It has turned an ongoing urban development project into a hub for inclusion, culture and economic activity. 

It depends on what you mean by project! Home Silk Road is a kind of mini project within a bigger urban project, l’Autre Soie. The main foci of Home Silk Road are housing and culture. But from the beginning, we were clear that we also wanted to develop SSE. The aim was to co-construct and pre-figure the final configuration of l’Autre Soie site. We defined a series of big themes and invited SSE actors working on them to participate and operate on the site. From their point of view, this was an exciting real estate opportunity.  We had a great diversity of actors: culture, artisans, makers, food, social, health, education etc. There were tens based on the site during the initial phase of occupation of the heritage building. Bringing them to the site and creating synergies between them was a real success.  

The project has really benefited from the know-how of the Centre Culturel Œcuménique (CCO). At the same time, the project allowed CCO to develop new skills. They are a well-established actor in the culture and associative sphere but had no prior experience managing a temporary or transitionary occupation. They were able to gain that experience with this project. CCO played a critical role in creating synergies between economic actors and the site’s temporary residents. They really brought people together and animated the site daily. I think the project was a total success from that perspective. 

The most important phase of the project in terms of the SSE was the initial occupation of the heritage building. The economic actors were enriched by the project and vice versa. There were no problems at the end of the temporary occupation, which is quite unusual. For example, some of the economic actors used the first phase to get started. One artisan used the temporary occupation to launch a successful business and is now operating on a market-rent site in Lyon. Other actors formed new cooperations that helped them develop. For three, we were able to find a new place for them in Villeurbanne. I think that’s part of the success of the project – there was plenty of dialogue, monitoring, support, so that we could always find solutions. The CCO was engaging with the actors daily. There is a confidence and trust between the different partners, which allows us to anticipate issues and find solutions. For example, we are currently all looking for ways to keep the catering AVAA (Workshop for Adapting to Active Life (Atelier d’Adaptation à la Vie Active)) onsite because it is working well, despite the difficulties that implies from a construction point of view.

The CCO will be permanently based on the project site. That’s important because they are a major actor, in the culture sphere but also as an incubator of social initiatives. One aim for their new premises, CCO La Rayonne, is to become a veritable incubator for the social economy. They would make space available to social economy actors and accompany them in their development. Villeurbanne wants l’Autre Soie to become an example of how to develop the SSE. The current municipal government has the ambition of developing an SSE incubator in the city, so that might come together with CCO’s project in the future.  

Home Silk Road has demonstrated that we can bring together economic development and housing in an urban development project and that culture can be a lever for economic development. L’Autre Soie is a flagship project for Villeurbanne in terms of economic development. 

Securing the site was the first big challenge – it involved a lot of different actors – the State, the city, the Metropole, and complicated negotiations. With the temporary occupation, the conditions for working were not always optimal. It was very cold in the winter! 

It also took some work to manage the relationships between economic actors and the residents. There was a bit of distance and mistrust at the outset. But CCO and Alynea were able to sort it out and develop trust and common ground. Of course, it’s not a picnic every day – there are some conflicts. But it works well. As always, it took a bit of time to get the partnership in the project working. Everyone needs to find their place. 

I think it’s more of a strength than a weakness, but many things haven’t gone as planned! For example, we initially wanted to set up a concierge service. We realised it wouldn’t work and we did other things instead. There was flexibility. 

Of course, COVID was also a huge challenge too. But I think the project coordination saved us from losing too much due to it. We were able to keep meeting by video conference, for example, and it kept the dynamic going. 

That’s the ambition. In the end, the objective is to have a mix of housing. There are some families who have left but I don’t know how many. The question is how we find a definitive place for these people in our city. Even if they aren’t living there, how will they experience the site? Maybe some of them could work there in the future. The wider neighbourhood is in a period of great change. We need to be asking this question of our politicians. The question is can vulnerable people stay and find their place in the Metropole?  

We’re going to have to move the modular housing to make way for the new buildings being constructed. Looking forward, we need to design the economic activity on the site. This must be integrated with the rest of the territory. We’re about to start a new study on economic development of the bigger Carré de Soie area. This is going to be a big step for the life of the site after the project. We’re at the beginning of planning the longer-term economic development and that process will be much longer than this mini project. 

The site could become a place that fosters economic development in the field of culture - through training relating to music and the technical side. This would build on the competence of the CCO. We might develop new AVAA, for example in the culture sector. That would pretty innovative. 

A real difficulty is that the people who currently live on the site don’t have the right to work in France unless they are regularised. In the future, there will be other residents too. We want to develop employment – of residents on the site but also people from the neighbourhood generally. We want to link the site to other initiatives. We hope that the nearby Les Brosses neighbourhood will become a “zero unemployment territory” in 2023. Employment is a horizontal priority in all our urban development projects. That’s why we made work insertion such a priority in this project. However, most of that is not relevant for people residing irregularly, like the current residents, who can only be involved in very specific training initiatives like AVAA.

Phase one of the temporary occupation. It reconciled people living on the site, people who work there, and leisure and culture. The first objective was to occupy the site so that it didn’t get degraded. Then came the idea that we could use the temporary occupation to imagine and pre-figure what the final site could be. In my view, that was a total success. It demonstrated the potential - showed what the site could become. 

Many of the things currently planned for the site emerged from the temporary occupation and wouldn’t have been possible in a more classical top-down urban project. For example, the park was initially planned as a municipal park but now it will be user-managed. That only became conceivable during the temporary occupation. If we had just brought all the users together and decided to have a user-managed park ex nihilo it wouldn’t have worked. Initially, the plan was to close the park at night. However, the temporary occupation showed that things could be organised differently. The project created space and time for co-construction of the site – it was much more inclusive than a typical urban project. 

Yes, I think so. There’s another urban development project in Villeurbanne, which has been paused for two years for diverse reasons. Now that we’ve done l’Autre Soie, I think we could imagine starting that project again with a transitionary occupation like this one. 

I think this is a really key period now and we need to be vigilant. The project coordination that the UIA funding has enabled will end. We have some changes in key personnel coming up. Some inhabitants are leaving the site. We really need to be careful about how we continue from here to ensure the long term of an inclusive city.  

The project has confirmed that cooperation cannot be top down but needs to be co-constructed. We need to work together. The CCO has also shown me that you can do a successful temporary occupation that ends well for all the actors. That has not been the case in other temporary occupations that I’m aware of. I’m not saying that it’s reproducible in every case. I think that our partnership should fully capitalise on and share the know-how of the CCO. It’s a fine art to coordinate, support and facilitate all the different actors in such an occupation on a daily basis and I think it’s been key to our success.  


About this resource

Ruth Owen UIA Expert
Lyon Metropole, France
About UIA
Urban Innovative Actions

The Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) is a European Union initiative that provided funding to urban areas across Europe to test new and unproven solutions to urban challenges. The initiative had a total ERDF budget of €372 million for 2014-2020.

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