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Lausanne goes back to nature

Lausanne has been celebrating the completion of the biggest urban environment project in Switzerland. Divertissimo, as it is known, is aimed at bringing nature back to the city - and educating people about the animals and plants that live alongside them.

The idea was born in 1995, to coincide with the second European Year of Nature Conservation. Its 40 individual projects, which now form a green corridor running through the city, have been funded by the city of Lausanne, canton Vaud and the Federal Environmental Agency.

"The experience is that people prefer a living town," says Francis Cordillot, of the agency. "They like to see plants in flower. They like to see animals. People feel better. If it's hot, it's much more pleasant if you have plenty of trees and shrubs giving shade."

The main aims of Divertissimo were to create an environment in which nature could thrive in the city, and to inform people about the creatures and plants with which they share their city, and to perhaps get them to participate in the projects.

These include: turning neatly manicured lawns into wildflower meadows where local flowers and insects can thrive again, the creation of ponds which allow the water that runs off roofs to be used more effectively and provide homes for newts and frogs, the replacement of concrete and asphalt paths and carparks with permeable materials, encouraging vegetation to grow on roofs and the creation of orchards.

"We're not interested in how many kilos of fruit we get per square metre," says Pierre Sterchi, Lausanne's chief landscape gardener. "The idea is simply to give people the pleasure of watching the fruit grow and picking it themselves."

All the sites are connected - making it easier for animals and the plant seeds to move from one site to another and even colonise new areas, making it more likely that they will survive.

"I think that many people aren't aware of the natural riches around them. When we had the festival, that was one of the driving ideas - not to convince ecologists or people who love nature - they need no convincing. It was to attract families to show them what nature really is."

To that end, information boards have been put up at each site, telling people about each habitat and what creatures live there: "We are not trying to moralise, we just want to explain what's happening. There are no long texts, because people won't read them. There are just a couple of simple phrases."

Wherever possible, indigenous trees and shrubs have been used, because it has been shown that they can sustain many more species, as the animals have adapted to them over the years. It means that the new sites are more likely to be colonised.

"We haven't needed to reintroduce animals. If you make the conditions right, they come back of their own accord. We've seen species returning that haven't been seen in Lausanne for several years. It's better if you don't introduce the animals, because if they return on their own, it shows that we've done a good job in creating the right environment," Sterchi explained to Swissinfo.

The Divertissimo project has brought other benefits: "Virtually all of these sites require much less maintenance than they needed before. A lawn will need cutting perhaps twenty times a year, and will be treated with chemicals. We cut a wildflower meadow just twice a year, and leave it more or less in its natural state," Sterchi said.

It is estimated that the budget for maintaining the city's green spaces will be cut by up to 40 per cent. Lausanne's best-known formal gardens like the ones in the Quai d'Ouchy or at the Olympic Museum, will continue to exist and attract thousands of visitors. But the Divertissimo areas are intended more for the people of Lausanne.

The long-term success of the project will be a matter of educating them about the importance of nature: "Of course, the task is to keep what's been achieved in people's minds. There are 10 schools in the Divertissimo area and I think teachers have a responsibility to show children what has been done," Francis Cordillot of the Federal Environment Agency said.

by Roy Probert

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