Urban strategist Alice Cabaret: We need to engage everyone into the design process

Alice Cabaret left Paris for Johannesburg right after graduation. She worked on projects that helped improve the inclusivity and attractivity of urban spaces in this city with a high crime-rate. Later she founded the globally operating organisation The Street Society, based on a network of urban designers, neuroscientists as well as artists. Alice Cabaret uses a wide range of tools including emotion mapping during the design process and encourages engagement of a wide diversity of people, such as children or people with disabilities into the transformation of urban spaces.
Alice Cabaret je zakladatelkou The Street Society, kreativní městské strategické agentury se sídlem v Paříži. | © Lubomír Kotek

Urban planners often discuss safety of the environment. You moved to South Africa just after your graduation. Why did you choose Johannesburg, which is considered as one of the most unsafe cities in the world?

After graduating from Sciences Po university in Paris, I moved  to Johannesburg to work as an intern with the French Development Bank. We worked on the development of affordable housing and on urban infrastructure upgrades. I got quickly fascinated  by the complex dynamics of the city. I decided to stay longer and published research with the Witwatersrand University about walking practices in the city, which is a fascinating question in this urban context which is still affected by the past segregation. On the other hand, Johannesburg has an amazing creative energy and so much potential on many levels. I still love this city.

Did your family and friends believe that you could make some positive change?

They could because they saw positive changes, especially in the Maboneng Precinct. It was a mostly abandoned industrial area on the east side of Johannesburg. I joined the team that developed and transformed this neighbourhood into a new mixed-used, diverse district. We tried to activate the street and bring a more open model for urban development where people can feel safe, connected and inspired..

You are the founder of The Street Society. Can we describe it as an urban planning studio?

The Street Society is a creative urban strategy agency. We bring new life to underused and mostly unloved spaces. We do so through urban trends research, spatial analysis and recommendations, as well as creative installations. It is a platform to foster partnerships around positive space transformation with people from different backgrounds and with diverse perspectives like designers, artists and scientists.

What projects are you working on right now?

At the moment, we are working on a wide range of projects ranging from public spaces transformation (for which we have developed a specific tool) in the south of Paris, temporary activations of buildings (one is located in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris), street art installations (in the 12th arrondissement of Paris) to major adaptive reuse projects in France and Europe. 

For example,  we won the project of transformation of the major transport hub in Lyon jointly with Dietmar Feichtinger Architects. The challenge here was to bring love to the building, which is maybe the most unloved one in Lyon. We worked on the strategy to transform this project into a mix-used hub with new landscape spaces and 25 000 m2 of new programming inside the building. The building is designed to be as self-sufficient as possible and to give back to the neighbourhood.

Dopravní uzel v Lyonu je jedním z nejneoblíbenějších míst ve městě. Alice Cabaret a její tým se to snaží změnit (vizualizace vítězného projektu od Dietmar Feishtinger architects).

How do you start communication with municipalities or private investors? How do you present your added value for the project?

The Street Society pushes analysis of  spaces in a way that is more alternative, creative and collaborative. When designing, we collaborate for example with neuroscientists to deeply study senses and emotions around the space. We also bring creativity to the design process in a very collaborative way with artists, designers, environmental experts or landscapers.

Cities, property developers or cultural organisations see value in our contribution because they know it makes their projects more resilient on many levels and more connected to the neighbourhood.

A lot of architects lost their motivation for change. Where do you take your beliefs or self-confidence when things do not go according to plan?

That is a key question. We live at a time of extreme rapid change, especially with regards to climate change, and a lot of decisions must be taken quickly to improve and adapt our urban environment. It is important to take action: there is nothing worse than just sitting back and not doing anything. This is why I believe in local, targeted, community-driven action.

Prague citizens are afraid of gentrification. You often try to bring diversity into an area.

Regulations (for example regarding social housing) and awareness about the local dynamics are essential tools to creating thoughtfully diverse projects. We use the different stages of the project, from temporary use to long-term operation, to offer opportunities, involve different people and try a wide-range of activities that will bring diversity to an area. 

Umělecká interakce na Rue de Temple v Paříži vzdává hold ikonickým městským místům spojeným s komunitami LGBTQ+.

The integral part of your effort is the work with students. What is important about it?

That’s right - we should organize a workshop on FA CTU actually! We regularly share with  studentsour methodology and some of the tools that we developed. For exemple the emotional mapping or our Urban Design Thinking card game that allows you to invent new programs and new uses for any space.

I am interested in your workshop with students in Nantes, where you worked with an empty old concrete building. It is a big issue in Prague, where we have a lot of similar buildings from the 70s and 80s, moreover connected with communist era. What were the results of the workshop?

This particular workshop was realised with the Ecole Boulle design school. We worked on an office building from the 70s in Nantes, which has to be transformed and welcome new uses. We went on the site and taught the students how to actually listen to the building, using for example their senses and alternative urban analysis tools. We also encouraged them to connect with the local community. The students then designed a new program for the building in a very collaborative manner using our urban design thinking methodology.

How can advanced methods (such as datascience or neuroscience) help urbanism?

Neuroscience offer new opportunities to understand deeper spatial layers, through the analysis of senses or emotions. I love these tools because not only they allow tocollect data and information about a space,  but they also have an impact on the people you interact with, making them more conscious about their urban environment.

Alice Cabaret navštívila Fakultu architektury ČVUT v Praze v rámci přednáškového cyklu November Talks. | © Lubomír Kotek

What do you think about metaverse and virtual reality?

I'm interested, for example, in the collaboration and cooperation dynamics between users in the metaverse. One main question is how do you prevent inequalities and violence, which you can find in urban spaces of the real world, to be replicated in these spaces?

There is also the threat of escapism into this virtual world and the impact it could have in terms of investing energy in improving your real environment. And of course, major concerns  about data consumption and its environmental impact.

You talk about inherited norms that need to be changed. Could you give me some examples?

I mostly want to talk about the last years of urban development being driven by the idea of constant growth, and about the lack of diversity regarding decision-makers in the urbanism and property development spheres. This has an impact in terms of better taking into account the urban needs of people that are for example neurodiverse, older citizens, kids or people with disability.

One of your last works, the playful mural in Toronto, was designed with children.

We think that children are not enough taken into account in the urban planning process. Also, the stats about mental and physical health of children growing in cities are very worrying. This collaborative piece in Toronto, commissioned by the Bentway, represents a “Dream Street” imagined by children, at their scale. It serves as a perfect background for playing, and engaging about the future of their urban environment. 


The interview was led by Pavel Fuchs.

Nástěnná malba v Torontu vychází z dětských kreseb a je přizpůsobena měřítku malých obyvatel.

For the content of this site is responsible: Ing. arch. Kateřina Rottová, Ph.D.