Lyon and Düsseldorf

Urban trajectories

  • City
  • CSR


  • Emmanuel Jalbert

    CEO of Lyon-based urban planning studio In-Situ

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  • Jörg Lesser

    Professor of urban planning at Düsseldorf University of Applied Sciences

Paris, Milan, Berlin, Lyon, Barcelona, Düsseldorf… for 20 years Covivio has operated at the heart of Europe’s foremost cities. How do they differ? What do they have in common? What challenges will they face over the coming years? What are their urban trajectories? Through a series of dual urban portraits, we invite you to discover these cities whose common denominators are Covivio and Europe.

Lyon-Düsseldorf: a river runs throught it

Sitting respectively at the confluence of the Rhône and the Saône, and the Dussel and Rhine, Lyon and Düsseldorf are two cities intimately bound to the rivers that shape them. These waterways are the reason these centuries-old cities exist. But over time, through urban and industrial revolutions, both cities gradually lost their close connection with water. Now though they are gradually re-embracing their riverine origins.

River towns

Both Lyon and Düsseldorf are geographical, commercial, industrial and demographic crossroads. They inhabit spaces which have always been defined by their ability to connect people and bring them together.

Lyon was born of the rivers. It was built around these great founding voids, looking two ways, to the intimate Saône and the imposing Rhône, like two parents whose blood runs through the city.

CEO of Lyon-based urban planning studio In-Situ

The same genealogy can be found across the German border, where Düsseldorf owes its existence to the confluence of the Dussel and Rhine at four points, shaping the city’s geography.

Düsseldorf has been a place of exchange since the day it was founded. Its history tracks the region’s trade routes and industrial development, shaping its geography as priorities shift and change over time.

Professor of urban planning at Düsseldorf University of Applied Sciences

Both have followed the twists and turns of history as it flowed through their countries and regions, especially industrial history, becoming nerve centres for logistics and production in their spheres of influence. While both cities have naturally taken different courses in their use of rivers, reflecting the rise and then decline of their industry, they were both seriously scarred by the inexorable rise in road traffic in the second half of the 20th century.

Seeing or driving, the choice is yours

While urban motorways are a concept that send shivers down the spine today, they are a characteristic feature of modern post-war cities. In Düsseldorf and Lyon alike, the increasing ubiquity of the private car – the status symbol of a thriving middle class – and the shift of industrial river traffic to roads, gradually redefined both cities primarily as spaces for motorised traffic. And since there was no question of cutting through historic districts, traffic naturally followed the riverbanks, which formed a perfect through-road. The result is that both Lyon and Düsseldorf cut themselves off from their “founding voids”, erecting ear- and eye-level barriers of horns, traffic jams and slamming car doors. But old habits die hard…

“Düsseldorf began reacting from the mid-1980s” recalls Jörg Lesser, “with two colossal projects: burying the urban motorway in a tunnel and transforming part of the port. These two projects, completed in the early 1990s, radically changed the face of the city. A broad promenade was created over the tunnel to bring the river back into the city. This space, designed for cyclists and pedestrians, became a place for strolling and meeting and is now one of the city’s centres of gravity and top attractions. Further south, part of the docklands has been transformed into a business district dedicated to the media, where redeveloped industrial buildings rub shoulders with luxury apartment blocks. But this proximity to logistics activities is not without its problems.”

Lyon, too, has opted for reconciliation.“We could call it a reunion” suggests Emmanuel Jalbert. “Ultimately, the barren part of the history of the riverbanks, used for urban motorways and car parks, only lasted about 40 years – a blink of the eye in the city’s long history.” In 2007, the left bank of the Rhône was given back to the people of Lyon for their promenades. Over 5 kilometres, from the Tête d’Or to Gerland, it’s been goodbye to open-air car parks and hello to parks, bike paths and riverbanks landscaped for pedestrians. It will soon be the right bank’s turn to be restored as a breathing space for the city, with a major project to reduce traffic lanes and transform public space into a promenade announced by the municipal authority in early June 2023. “Rivers are once again becoming central, after years of being seen as obstacles” says Jalbert. “Reconnecting with the river means reopening the horizon to an imagined world beyond the city’s boundaries. Above all, in a space where everything is programmed and commercialised, riverbanks offer free and accessible spaces, which is fundamental. They are public landscapes, with no restrictions on their use, ripe for imagination and appropriation.”

Flex and the city

Lyon’s successful transformation owes much to its cultivation of harmony.

Since the late 1990s, this is how the urban and architectural reconquest has made its mark.The transformation drew on founding values and fundamental questioning about how to make cities sustainable and walkable, adapted to today’s needs and challenges. A true public vision has developed, growing from demanding initial requirements for what we expect from the city of tomorrow.

CEO of Lyon Confluence

“The redevelopment of the 150 hectares that gave rise to the Confluence district still functions today as an urban incubator that pushes back boundaries and involves a great number of stakeholders. Complexity is addressed through iteration and openness. This keeps the project relevant over time, in an approach that urges us to keep questioning the issues and broadening the way we respond ” says Samuel Linzau.

In Düsseldorf, the burying of the urban motorway went smoothly, but reconfiguring the docklands remains a tricky game of tug-of-war where no-one wants to give an inch of ground. “It’s a real conflict of uses and visions” says Jörg Lesser. “On the one hand, you have the interests of the city, which sees these industrial quasi-wastelands as the only spaces where they can address housing and urban development issues, and on the other those of the port actors, which, even though their business is in freefall, overshadowed by the ports of Neusse and Düsborg, are trying to maintain their geographical influence. The result is complex areas that have to mix and match residential and industrial uses. The government has introduced a new type of zoning to facilitate the transformation of areas adjacent to industrial zones, as has been successfully done in Cologne and Hamburg.”