🗞 Bringing a town back to life

People have lived in towns for thousands of years. Meeting each other in the centre is something we enjoy and makes us feel connected to our community.

But now that families have cars and shop at big supermarkets or online, small shops and cafes where people meet are closing. That makes town centres dreary and people stay away and lose touch.

One town in France got a bad reputation for being bleaker than most. But Mulhouse has made a stunning comeback. The journalist Angelique Chrisafis explained in this article in The Guardian how it did that and how happy that makes people.

People have lived in towns for thousands of years. Meeting each other in the centre is something we enjoy and makes us feel connected to our community.

But now that families have cars and shop at big supermarkets or online, small shops and cafes where people meet are closing. That makes town centres dreary and people stay away and lose touch.

A bustling town centre represents life.

Geneviève Pilnard, 89, Mulhouse

Mulhouse got rich making cloth but its factories closed years ago. Many people had no job. Many shops were empty and boarded up. Young people hung around in gangs. Mulhouse was a symbol of what experts called “the death of the European high street”.

Mulhouse had some advantages to help it get back on its feet. It is close to areas, including in Germany and Switzerland, where people have more money to spend if they come to the town. And it has a very young and diverse population, from 136 different nationalities.

But Mulhouse also spent a lot of money. Politicians saw people in poor, ugly towns start voting for other leaders who wanted violent changes.

In six years, the local authority spent 36 million euros – more than 300 euros for every one of the 110,000 Mulhousiens. They improved transport – a new tram, buses and rental bikes; they renovated houses and employed more police; and they created gardens and planted trees. Lots of trees.

Today, Mulhouse is blooming and booming. Nearly 500 shops and businesses have opened. Most of these are people working for themselves, not big national chains.

They include comic book stores, microbreweries, bookshops, organic grocers and the little tea shop that Séverine Liebold started three years ago. She used to work for a supermarket chain and saw that people wanted to shop somewhere smaller – and nicer.

She describes the new feel in Mulhouse as an agora, the Greek word for the market place where people would meet, trade and talk in the ancient towns where Europeans first began to live together.

“The idea was to create somewhere where people feel good,” says Liebold. “To re-appropriate our town centre as a kind of agora, the place where everyone can meet.”

That matters to Geneviève Pilnard. She is 89 and lives alone in a village outside town. On Fridays, she takes a taxi into Mulhouse, has her hair done and visits the market, the cheesemonger and the bookshop.

She told the Guardian: “A bustling town centre represents life.”

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