“From bleak to bustling: how one French town solved its high street crisis”

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Photograph: Stefan Pangritz/The Guardian

Mulhouse, once considered eastern France’s grimmest town, has been transformed over the last decade, with a new tram system and improved public spaces. It has turned around its image and now boasts more shops opening than closing, thanks to smart planning, investment and community efforts. This article by The Guardian explores why Mulhouse is known for the staggering transformation of its thriving centre, bucking the national trend for high street closures…

Here is an excerpt from this interesting and inspiring article: 

On a lane in what was once considered eastern France’s grimmest town, a street artist is up a ladder finishing a mural, the independent bookshop has a queue at the till, the organic cooperative is full of customers and Séverine Liebold’s arty independent tea shop is doing a brisk trade.

When Liebold opened Tilvist in Mulhouse three years ago, in a space that had been vacant for years, friends tried to persuade her against it. “They said: ‘Not Mulhouse, look elsewhere,’” she recalls. “But I stuck with my instinct, and I was right.”

Just over a decade ago, Mulhouse, a town of 110,000 people near the German and Swiss borders, was a symbol of the death of the European high street. One of the poorest towns of its size in France, this former hub of the textile industry had long ago been clobbered by factory closures and industrial decline. It had high rates of poverty and youth unemployment, a shrinking population, and more than 100 shops empty or boarded up. The centre had become associated with gangs.

“We had every possible cliche thrown at us: grey, grim, austere and unsafe,” one local official says.

Today, Mulhouse is known for the staggering transformation of its thriving centre, bucking the national trend for high street closures.

In the past eight years, more than 470 shops and businesses have opened here. Mulhouse is unique in that 75% of new openings are independents, from comic book stores to microbreweries and organic grocers. It is one of the only places in France with as many independents as franchises. And it is one of very few places in France where more shops are opening than closing.

The town’s blue-collar history, its old factory buildings, the 136 nationalities living here and its very young population are now seen as desirable. Once overshadowed by its more famous Alsace neighbours, the city of Strasbourg or chocolate-box pretty Colmar, Mulhouse is now sought after by brands seeking retail premises.

“People say, ‘Wow, this place has changed,’” says Sabine Muck, a high school teacher. “The independents make the place a joy, culture is booming.”

Leaders only recently turned to the issue, fearing boarded up shopfronts and vanishing services could help usher in Donald Trump-style populists. Polls showed that in small French towns, the fewer the services on offer – notably post offices – the higher the vote for the far right.

Mulhouse has shown it takes at least a decade to turn things around. The town, under its former rightwing mayor Jean Rottner, decided boarded up shops were just the most visible symptom of deeper rooted problems. The city’s €36m (£31.5m) investment plan over six years tackled several issues at once, including housing. Town centre residents were among the poorest as higher earners moved to houses on the outskirts, leaving properties vacant and run down.

Mulhouse set out to rebalance the housing mix. Generous subsidies for the renovation of building fronts expedited a facelift of more than 170 buildings. Security and community policing were stepped up. Transport was key – with a new tram system, bike schemes, shuttle buses and cheap parking.

You can read the full article, written by Angelique Chrisafis here on The Guardian’s website: www.theguardian.com/from-bleak-to-bustling-how-one-french-town-beat-the-high-street-blues-mulhouse