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The sustainable spirit of Dunkirk

The sustainable spirit of Dunkirk
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Dunkirk, an industrial port in northern France, is reshaping its urban centre to cement the city firmly in the 21st century.

They are trying to reconcile the region’s economic, environmental and social interests, and bring jobs and a better quality of life for the 210,000 inhabitants of the Greater Dunkirk Urban District.

Dunkirk is inextricably linked with the events of 1940. In May of that year Nazi troops encircled French and British forces.

The British launched Operation Dynamo on May 26 to get the remains of its army off the beaches. The retreat lasted until the early hours of June 4 during which time more than 338,000 soldiers were transported to Britain under heavy fire.

The “Dunkirk Spirit” was born in British minds. But still on the battlefield 70,000 men, either dead, missing or prisoners of war were left. Dunkirk was not liberated until the day after Berlin fell. The city was in ruins.

Today, Dunkirk has embarked on a re-vitalising project of the town centre that aims to re-urbanize an area that has 5,000 inhabitants, to breathe new life into the harbour, and to take traffic away from the town centre.

Jean-Louis Muller, projects manager for the Greater Dunkirk Urban District Council, told euronews: “The Dunkirk project has been running for two decades now. This is what we call the Neptune territories, around the town centre, characterised by the Jean Bart Square, which is Dunkirk’s central square.

“Dunkirk is a 1950s town, it is a car town, with big boulevards that enter the centre, and in the town centre, at least 30 percent of the cars don’t stop, 30 percent of the cars cross the town centre from east to west, and from south to north. So, our aim, and our thinking is, because we have already these big boulevards, we are going to complete them and make a ring-road far away from the town centre.”

The Grand Large neighbourhood is one of the programmes of the Neptune project. It is in the area once occupied by a shipyard closed in 1987. Buildings comply with the most recent environmental rules, among them, some of the most energy efficient buildings anywhere.

There is less space allocated to cars too, to promote more eco-friendly transport.

Local authorities want to create a mix of ages and social backgrounds in the are. One thousand homes are going to be built here, 40 percent will be for social housing; 250 have already been built.

Daniel and Edith David moved in last May. They love being close to the town centre and the beach of Malo-les-Bains. They visited one flat where they realised that the temperature was 16°C with the heating off – and that was in January. But the couple are now worried about the future of Grand Large.

Daniel David told us: “There are two projects that separately would be great, the eco-neighbourhood here and the town centre ring-road to remove traffic from the centre. The problem is that they cross each other here: we have the ring-road that is going to cross the eco-neighbourhood.”

Energy efficiency is at the heart of the concerns of the Greater Dunkirk Urban District. They started building the two decades ago with the launch of an urban heating network capturing surplus heat from a steel plant to feed a warm water system circulating in 12,000 homes and several public buildings. Local authorities want to extend the system and explore new sources of energy.

Dunkirk’s deputy major, Daniel Lemang, explained: “This heating network was an opportunity at the time; 25 years ago it was an opportunity. Innovators asked themselves then: ‘Why lose this heat?’ It made sense. Now we are going to look at — in technological research with the university — how we can exploit other sources of energy that aren’t recovered nowadays. I’m thinking, for instance, about the rubbish incinerator.”

Dunkirk is a major European energy hub. Around and about there is a nuclear plant, a gas-pipeline terminal, one operational oil refinery and a sea port that in 2011 registered more than 47-million tonnes of cargo, with 16 percent of that being coal. Dunkirk is the seventh biggest port on the European coastline between Le Havre and Hamburg.

Five years ago the port administration decided to bet on Liquefied Natural Gas, and last month the work to build a methane terminal began. The project is a partnership with two French energy operators, EDF and GRT Gaz. The overall cost is about 2.5 billion euros, 150 million euros of that paid by the port of Dunkirk, and it is due to be finished in 2015.

It is hoped the terminal will create 70 jobs directly and several hundred more indirectly. This project was not driven solely by economics. Two protected species, the Little Tern and the Glasswort forced changes to the original drawings.

Stéphane Raison, the CEO of Dunkirk Port said: “There are two things about the Dunkirk region that we must underline. Firstly, it is a region where social acceptability in terms of industrial development still exists, and that’s not the case in other European territories.

“Secondly, at the beginning of this methane terminal project, local associations didn’t want it to go ahead simply because it was going to be built where there were two emblematic species that are protected at a European level.

“And that’s a valid point. So we held public consultations in 2007 and 2008 that ended with a positive note by the French Commission for Public Debate, but that made us, Dunkirk Port, change our project to make one that takes these environmental constraints into account.”

Dunkirk is proud of its sustainable city prize awarded for the first time in 1996 by ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability. But is not there a contradiction between the industrialisation of an area and the wish for a more sustainable world?

Sociologist Christophe Gibout from Dunkirk’s Université du Littoral-Côte d’Opale told us: “Sustainable development is an innovation of growth, not a break with the past. That means that, firstly it is about economical development to which we add extra dimensions. On one hand a dimension of sustainability – we need to preserve resources and the environment for future generations, and a dimension of participative democracy.”

In an area where the jobless rate is above 12 percent, keeping its industries remains a primary goal for local authorities, an aim shared by at least half of the population. But they say it should not be done at any price. Improvement of environmental quality is the other side of the coin.