Quick: Name a few cities that come to mind when you think of France…

Paris? Bien sûr, but you can do better than that. Cannes? Mais oui, you’ve been reading the entertainment pages. Marseille? Bordeaux? Lyon? Toulouse? C’est magnifique, you have passed your geography test.

Such a wealth of culture, and yet, the place most likely to resemble the city of the future is still left off most people’s must-know-and-visit list.

Nantes — City of Wonder

Located along the Loire River about 30 miles from the Atlantic coast in western France, Nantes is the country’s 6th-largest city with a population of 600,000. In the early 1990s, Nantes embarked on one of the largest urban redevelopment projects in Europe when it decided to transform its old shipyards into a culturally diverse, multiple-use neighborhood. Located on an island in the heart of the city, the 337-hectare Île de Nantes project soon became a bustling hub for creative industries — as more artists and startups began moving into the old factories, two creative visionaries were dreaming up a series of playful, interactive apparatuses designed to be part Jules Verne’s fantasy world and part Leonardo da Vinci’s mechanical universe.

Today, François Delarozière and Pierre Orefice’s Les Machines de l’île are at the heart of a generational work in progress, attracting visitors from near and far. Full of joy and wonder, this set of gigantic mechanical animals and exotic sea carriages could best be described as a free-range amusement park, an unfenced connection between the island’s past when ships sailed off into the great unknown and its current explorations into imaginative 21st-century urban living. Delarozière and Orefice’s Great Elephant, a 30ft-tall rider-operated creature that stomps, trumpets, and sprays water on frolicking masses, has become the best-known installation, but the recently launched Marine Worlds Carousel (pick from 27 rides on three levels through pirouetting giant crabs, sea snakes, and reverse-propulsion squids) and Heron Tree (fly over hanging tree gardens on the backs of two gargantuan birds) are further tributes to a city committed to dreaming the world into being.

Maquette de l'Arbre aux Hérons.

Maquette de l’Arbre aux Hérons. Photo: Jean-Dominique Billaud

The inspiring real-life version of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea has captured the imagination of travelers and locals alike, but it’s the city’s commitment to a healthy living environment and social equity that has turned heads among policymakers across Europe. While the creative instinct that informs the Urban Community of Nantes’ (Nantes Métropole) thinking no doubt has served as the foundation for the city’s development, it is Nantes’ strong commitment to sustainability — from citizen engagement to a focus on public transit and bicycles to its climate action plan — that put it on the urban renaissance map when it was awarded the 2013 European Green Capital title.

This September 25-27, Nantes will be hosting the 10th edition of the Ecocity World Summit, the preeminent conference on rebuilding our human habitat in balance with living systems. Ecocity 2013 will bring together speakers ranging from IPCC Vice-President Jean Jouzel to Transition Network co-founder Rob Hopkins, as well as over 500 contributors from 50 countries who will be collaborating with researchers, elected officials, and citizens on everything from funding mechanisms for the ecological transition to making the sustainable city spectacular. On the latter, I’ve been invited to talk about how my hometown San Francisco has used its residents’ creativity to turn car-dominated streets into vibrant cultural corridors.

Le Grand Éléphant machine

Le Grand Éléphant. Photo: Jean-Dominique Billaud

More on that in a minute, but first, let me explain why cities play such a pivotal role in the long-term well-being of our beautiful planet.

The largest things that humans build

The numbers tell the story: A hundred years ago, two out of every ten people lived in an urban area. Today, it’s more than half the world’s population, and by 2050, 70% of all people on the planet are expected to live in cities. According to UN-Habitat, cities are responsible for emitting 70% of the world’s greenhouse gases while occupying only 2% of the planet’s land cover. With atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide surpassing 400 parts per million this year for the first time since the Pliocene epoch three million years ago — causing climate chaos that is already wreaking havoc from the Arctic to Thailand to New York City — it’s obvious these extremely concentrated human settlements are a huge part of the problem.

The good news is that cities are also big pieces of the puzzle in the search for solutions. If 70% of global emissions come from urban areas, it’s clear that lowering the carbon footprint of cities presents the most consequential chance at global emissions reductions. Joan Clos, executive director of UN-Habitat and a keynote speaker at Ecocity 2013, says that local governments can play a vital role in the global effort to curb emissions, even when their national governments do not accept or acknowledge the challenges.

For Richard Register, the visionary artist who first coined the term “ecocity” in the 1970s and launched the conference series in 1990, ecological city design offers one of the few silver bullets in addressing climate change. After all, an urban organism that enables easy access by foot or bike, utilizes passive solar design in buildings, and integrates local organic agriculture not only reduces the demand for energy in the first place but builds the resilient communities needed to adapt to the environmental changes already set in motion by rising CO2 levels. “Cities are the largest systems that humans build,” Register reminds us. “We can build them to contribute to humanity’s creative and compassionate evolution on a healthy planet, in exciting and rewarding built communities from the village scale to the city scale.”

This begs the question: If the solution is right in front of us and a redesign of our urban spaces would significantly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, why haven’t we been able to do it on a large enough scale? Why, for example, is the number of cars in the world projected to triple to 2.5 billion by 2050 — a carbon emissions increase of 250% — when we could use all the materials and resources it takes to manufacture and fuel these cars to build cities where people don’t need them in the first place?

what if doing the right thing for the planet were also the right thing for us personally?

The answers, of course, are complex and vary from place to place. In Western countries, where most people have become accustomed to an ecological footprint that would require several planets to sustain, change is often associated with giving up comfort, even if that comfort means being stuck in traffic every day or eating unhealthy, mass-produced food. In emerging economies like China and India, where most of the growth in consumer goods and energy use is projected to take place over the next few decades, the allure of the fossil-fueled lifestyle and its perceived comfort is driving unsustainable development. “Who wants to ride a bike when you can drive a car?” may be the sentiment that best encapsulates both existing and aspiring convenience cultures.

Thus, one of the pivotal challenges in fundamentally redesigning urban infrastructure in alignment with the earth’s carrying capacity is to inspire a widespread, “Who wants to drive a car when you can ride a bike?”

Opening minds and building ecocity culture

There are a lot of smart people who have presented compelling cases for why we need to take action. Scientists have shown us the irrefutable evidence. Economists tell us the bubble is going to burst. The United Nations is wholeheartedly committed to sustainable development. No doubt, most people around the world are aware that we are collectively on the wrong path. And yet, too often the way our environmental predicament is presented to us is like that of a child who has done something wrong, so when asked to make changes in our lifestyles or built environments we get resentful because we perceive it as a sacrifice. We have locked ourselves into a mental zero-sum position, where a gain for the planet is tallied as a personal loss. “I have to give up my two-car garage because it’s killing the polar bears!” The best we can hope for in this paradigm is for those concerned about “The Environment” to make things a little less bad for our grandchildren.

But what if doing the right thing for the planet were also the right thing for us personally? What if redesigning our cities on a human scale were an uplifting activity instead of a nagging obligation? What if ecocity living were simply part of our cultural DNA?

This is where creativity comes into play. In Nantes, urban planners realized that desirable physical conditions like clean air or water don’t happen in a vacuum but are connected to healthy human interactions. Having a melange of supernatural sea creatures populating your streets isn’t just a gimmick to attract tourists but a great reason for people to slow down, become aware of their surroundings, and engage with fellow citizens. It’s a reminder that life isn’t just about getting from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, but about being present for the magical moments in between. A citizenry that derives meaning from soulful experience is not only more likely to forgo the fossil-fueled materialism that pollutes air and water, but to experiment with changes to their physical environment.

If you’re going to San Francisco

This power of creative experimentation in shifting common perception has been on full display in San Francisco. Like any other major American city, the default position among most stakeholders used to be that streets could not be “successful” without cars. Merchants used to scoff at the idea of giving up parking space as “bad for business,” and residents could not imagine how to take care of their daily needs without driving door-to-door to their various destinations. It all changed in 2005, when a group of local artists converted a single metered parking space into a temporary public park in downtown San Francisco, until the parking meter expired after two hours. Once people saw how much more you could do with a parking space than fill it up with 4,000 pounds of plastic and steel, the idea quickly caught fire.

In cities across the world, the movement evolved into an annual PARK(ing) Day, where individuals and groups transform their drab pavement into beautiful imaginative “parklets” for people to hang out and play. In San Francisco, people liked the parklets so much that they started wondering why they couldn’t have them all the time. Merchants realized how much better it was for their business to have dozens of people “parked” in front of their businesses than just a single vehicle. So the city responded with a Parklet Program that allows merchants, community organizations, and individuals to convert car spaces into beautiful people spaces of their own design.

A ballet flash mob

Photo: Author

Parklets are just one small part of San Francisco’s growing street theater. Whether it’s a game of street Jenga, a ballet flash mob, a bicycle rickshaw band at the hugely popular car-free Sunday Streets events, or off-the-ground dances and window meditations in unexpected places, the power of creative expression has fostered a culture that cherishes human connection and embraces new ideas. It’s a culture that chooses to take the long way home because of the things you might see and the people you might meet along the way. A culture that likes to share things because of what we might learn from each other. A culture whose idea of expansion is generosity. An ecocity culture.

This September at Ecocity 2013, some of the greatest minds in the world will gather to come up with solutions to the most complex problems humanity has ever faced. European Commissioners will announce a number of policy priorities for sustainable cities. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) will present a new global environmental governance. The World Mayors Summit will formulate the sustainable city road map in preparation for the next UNFCCC climate negotiation (COP 19) in Warsaw, Poland.

Through it all, it is my hope that whenever these thinkers get weighed down by heavy bureaucracy and thick policy talk, they will remember the nearby island where wondrous creatures make the impossible possible. As Richard Register, the man who has been envisioning ecocities for nearly 40 years, told me recently, “If you try to figure out what it means to evolve into a more fulfilling human future, individually, as a society, and as a species, the best I know how to do that is through compassion and creativity.”