Some of the participants were close friends and acquaintances, while others had seen each other on a few occasions. Some attendees had never met before, while others were bringing cheese to the event. Yet all had fulfilled their entry requirement: to bring cheese.
“I took a wheel of Epoisses
because my wife is from that region,” one attendee, Benjamin Dard, said in reference to a famously pungent and unctuous cow’s milk variety from Burgundy.
“Everyone bought something else that related to them, in a way paying homage to the diversity of France,” Mr. Dard said. He said, “It is like de Gaulle asked: How can you govern in a country with 300 different types of cheese?” The group also hosts weekly brunches and post-work drinks, where older residents can share their memories with younger generations. To much fanfare, the group also hosts an annual banquet — La Table d’Aude — for the residents on a table 400 meters long, about 440 yards, running through the middle of a street.
Started in 2017, the hyperlocal experiment is the brainchild of Patrick Bernard, a local resident and former journalist, who argues that the functioning of cities can be radically improved if urban policy drills down to “the most local entity in a city.” “Urban strategy must focus on these microneighborhoods, or three-minute villages, as I like to call them,” said Mr. Bernard, who estimates that Paris could house 150 of these urban villages based on its population and geography. “Conviviality” is a wealth that has been sleeping. When we awaken the sense of place and community, the citizens and urban fabric are transformed.”
The Parisian project, whose motto is to transform neighbors who interact five times daily into those who do so 50 times a day, is at the forefront of what urban planners say is a rapidly expanding movement to reclaim cities from the ground up and to recast urban living through a hyperlocal prism of close interaction, mutual support and a sense of neighborliness.
Our immediate neighborhoods, proponents argue, are the most effective platforms by which people can create resilience to and potentially mitigate the growing number of crises that urban populations face, including loneliness, food insecurity, extreme heat and social unrest linked to inequality — as witnessed in the riots that shook Paris and other French cities this summer. In other words, they say, cities of the future must be cities of villages, public spaces and neighborhoods.
In Paris, where minority residents often say they are pushed to the margins, socially and geographically, Mr. Bernard said his intent is to leave nobody out. The Super Neighbors includes Black, Muslim, and East Asian residents. The participation is free. In the past, the neighbors pooled together to pay the rent of a Malian refugee who joined them.
“Community has to be at the center of urban development,” said Ramon Marrades, the director of Placemaking Europe, a network of European organizations aiming to revitalize public spaces. “Properly inclusive policy allows residents to be actors in the community, to have a sense of anchorage and to invest emotionally.”
Much has been made of the 15-minute city, a hugely popular urban design concept centered on providing residents with all their fundamental needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. The challenge is how to implement this vision locally. While the 15-minute city provides critical physical infrastructure, the three-minute city is about shaping it to the needs and characteristics of the community.
“We need to develop a process to link the two,” said Mr. Marrades, who is in the middle of a two-year collaboration with 15 European cities including Helsinki, Finland, and Cork, Ireland, to embed hyperlocality and community-building in the core of urban policies.
Many cities around the world are riffing on this theme of hyperlocality. Barcelona will create 503 Superblocks, 400-by-4-meter microneighborhoods that are focused on green space, mobility and community projects. In Sweden, the One-Minute Cities plan aims to make streets “healthy and sustainable” by 2030. This includes deploying street furniture that can be moved. In pilot stages, this led to people in cities, including Stockholm, spending 400 percent more time outside.
Other cities, like Vancouver, which was built around a streetcar grid from 1886, already have an ideal canvas for promoting neighborliness. Scot Hein is a professor of urban planning at the University of British Columbia, and former planner of Vancouver City Hall. Mr. Hein envisions the city as made of 120 “community catchments,” areas that each contain a school, mixed housing and a commercial zone for shops and jobs.
Policymakers around the world are increasingly backing the hyperlocal approach. U.N. Habitat’s Global Observatory of Sustainable Proximities was launched in June to promote the hyperlocal approach. It describes this model as “a key facilitator capable of fostering effective climate action and human well-being.” The city’s Resilience Strategy report last year said that encouraging “neighbors to occupy and animate public spaces” could help turn “challenges of the century into opportunities.”
“Paris has made proximity the norm, even if there’s a change in mayor,” said Carlos Moreno, the Paris-based professor behind the concept of the 15-minute city, who has advised cities as diverse as Medellin, Colombia, and Dakar, Senegal. This will allow the city to be rejuvenated on three different levels: ecologically, economically and socially.” At one event, Mr. Dard, a French TV channel TF1 fact-checking expert, spoke about fake news. A neighbor had previously spoken about her experience as a magistrate at a criminal court. “It’s wonderful here,” said Dard, who had his neighbors look after his cats and water his plants while he went on vacation. “The ambience is unique.”
Marie-Benedicte Loze, 37, a charity worker who moved to the area last year, lost her purse a few months ago — but it was returned by a neighbor fully intact. She said, “The sense of community in this area is wonderful.” The group’s goals are loftier, however, and include health, mobility, and climate. By encouraging residents to become emotionally and physically invested in public spaces they live in, Mr. Bernard argues, they will be less likely to drop trash or cigarette butts, cutting cleaning costs.
“Conviviality is an economic actor,” he said.
Collaborating with the nonprofit Les Alchimistes, the group has installed several compost bins across the neighborhood. They are used by 800 Super Neighbors to process 60 tons organic waste per year. An abnormally high 98% of the waste is correctly deposited. The project has been so successful that City Hall agreed to spend an additional 31,000 euros (about $34,000) to install eight new ones. In the future, the group hopes to open up a medical center geared toward local needs.
Looking further afield, the group is exploring ways in which its
vision of cities carved in the image of, and powered by the bonds between, their inhabitants can be replicated and scaled up. It believes the answer is the creation of trained and paid roles — so-called Friends of the Neighborhood — to coordinate each district. “People have begun to listen,” Mr. Bernard said. Everyone wants their neighborhood like ours. We need to figure out how we can make our approach systemic, and adapt it to different challenges and contexts in every city.