Through the scope of a sustainability professional, the city of Paris is emblematic of the global climate accord signed by nations back in 2015. For everyone else, minds race to Disneyland Paris. Just 6km down the road from where ‘the magic happens’, hectares of arable land have been converted into one of Europe’s largest waterparks.

Villages Nature Paris (VNP) is a £435m joint venture between Disneyland Paris and Groupe Pierre & Vacances Center Parcs that aims to reconnect visitors to nature through an array of sustainability measures that never once encroach on the park’s primary service of providing fun and relaxation.

For visitors seeking a well-earnt break, being bombarded with sustainability concepts such as “recycle more” and “waste less food” is likely to be as well received as a child reciting “Let it Go” for the umpteenth time. Fortunately, sustainability at VNP has been thoroughly embedded to the point where it isn’t an add-on or a selling point. Rather, it acts as the bridge to connect humanity back to nature.

The once disused farmland has been transformed into a 300-acre resort that champions the natural environment, and uses it to its full extent to create a resort that is the polar opposite in appearance to Disneyland Paris, despite being a stone’s throw away.

More than 900 cottages and apartments are dotted around the resort, constructed from timber from sustainably managed forests in Europe. Nearly 100% of timber felled onsite was reused, either for the accommodation, or for more decorative purposes such as restaurant door handles. In fact, only 3% of the waste arising from construction of VNP was sent to landfill – the rest was either reused, recycled or used for energy recovery.

The accommodation latches to the nearby 5.5km of green space, known as an ecological corridor, that connects two local forests to allow wildlife to roam more freely, or near 4000m2 of wetland that supports local wildlife, prevents local flooding and helps maintain water quality.

Residents are encouraged to explore these ecological corridors, either through walks or by composting food in allocated areas. For VNP, sustainability is less about a story to tell or a badge to where, but instead its an activity, something that consumers should be, and staff are, involved in.

Speaking to edie, VNP’s corporate and social responsibility manager Emilie Riess explains that talking to visitors about sustainability is unlikely to engage them. Instead, the park is focusing on experiences to connect those at the resort to its key sustainability ambitions.

“We have to learn to be patient, the challenges won’t change overnight, but when two companies are committed to sustainability you need a place to try sustainable things, and if it doesn’t work you can try something else to make yourself the best in your own area,” Riess says.

“I’m aware that we should not talk about sustainability at all, we should talk about client benefits, and unique selling propositions. Hopefully we can prove that a sustainable tourist destination is possible by focusing on the relationship and experiences between nature and the human hand.”

Geothermal opportunity

Plans were in place to install onsite solar, through various rooftop arrays, but the park soon found that the arrays would be shaded by the 28,800 trees planted onsite. Instead of wasting capital on technology that visually demonstrates the park’s commitment to sustainability – but delivers very little impact – Riess and her team turned to ground they were building on to lower emissions.

There’s something refreshingly open about the whole park. Riess’s willingness to share and learn from the resort’s failings is as transparent and noticeable as the huge glass façade the makes up the emblematic Aqualagon –  a 9,000m2 covered aquatic park that sits alongside 2,500m2 of lagoons.

One of the key sustainability commitments is to “radically reduce emissions” at the resort. VNP achieved this by using a local source of geothermal heat, more than one mile deep, to provide all the heating and hot water in holiday homes and other buildings. This includes naturally heating the water for the Aqualagon to 30C, all year round.

The Dogger aquifer has supplied geothermal water for heating networks in the Paris region since the 1970s and VNP is one of more than 30 plants currently sourcing from it. An onsite well can source up to 13.5MW of geothermal capacity, with 75C water passed through a heating network at the park, that also accounts for 30% of Disneyland Paris’ heated water as a result.

The low-carbon energy source is estimated to deliver emissions savings of 4,000 tonnes in the first year. These carbon savings also extend into the construction of the infrastructure and accommodation, with low-carbon concrete reducing embodied carbon emissions by 25% compared to a comparable construction project of the same size. 100% of the one million m3 of soil excavated onsite was also reused – enough to fill 400 Olympic swimming pools.

“The main thing is you can come here all year round,” Riess adds. “It is totally heated with geothermal energy. This was one of the targets we set up with the OPL. We thought we could produce some renewable energy onsite, but it was a choice we had to make. It was tricky to develop some rooftop solar because of the vegetation, which is a huge driver for us, so we focused on the geothermal well.

“We built on former intensive farmed arable fields and it’s quite important for biodiversity. One of the main goals of the programme set up for the construction phase was not only to protect biodiversity but to protect, foster and enhance it on site.”

Never-ending story

The park contains a deliberate sense of fantasy more commonly associated with its neighbouring attraction. Every element of VNP has been overseen by artistic co-directors Joe Rohde, the senior vice president of Walt Disney “Imagineering”. The park acts as a testing ground for the vision of the Center Parc’s chief executive Gérard Brémond and Dominique Cocquet, managing director for Villages Nature, born in 1947, that has been working at Euro Disney since 1989.

Both Brémond and Cocquet have vested interest in sustainability, with the former also running a dedicated environmental forum, Foundation Ensemble. In fact, it was Brémond’s trip to BedZed – the UK’s first large-scale, mixed use sustainable community with 100 homes – that finally put the “imagineered” vision of VNP and coupled it with a robust sustainability framework.

BedZed was developed by consultants Bioregional – the company that has since created the One Planet Living (OPL) framework. The framework lists ten intuitive principles that embed aims around aspects such as water, energy and carbon, waste, wildlife, contribution to the local economy and the health and happiness of visitors and workers into the design phase, construction and operation of a project.

Unlike Disneyland, the park is firmly embedded in reality, with the realisation that an all-encompassing sustainability strategy that targets zero everything may be as realistic as a talking mouse.

According to Riess, OPL enabled VNP to place an achievable sustainability strategy at the front and centre of staff mindsets, including external contractors. However, the job prospects in the tourism industry is a “never-ending story” of high turnover, which is at odds with the training aspects of the OPL goals.

“OPL will continue over the operation phase,” Riess says. “Our main challenge now, is that it’s hard enough to design and build a site with those objectives, but it’s even harder to keep this pace up for those ambitious principles on the operational phase because there are 400 people onsite.

“As with any tourism resort, there was a high turnover, we trained staff a lot on OPL through things like workshops. But, one third of staff left the site after a month, it’s a never-ending story. You shouldn’t get used to how things are, but be willing to explain it to new teams. I think that staff is an area of improvement.”

The park is car-free, with visitors instead encouraged to park outside the premises or, more desirably, use public transport. In fact, a select number of electric vehicles (EVs) are located onsite to shuttle people from the gates to the heart of the park. When edie travelled to the park during a train strike, VNP arranged for electric Tesla’s to act as transportation, as explained in the latest Sustainable Business Covered podcast.

Riess’ understanding that sustainability isn’t a motivating factor for all staff and consumers allows her and the park to blend sustainability into every decision, without the green credentials being forced down anyone’s throat. In the same way that the outdoor infinity pools blend seamlessly with the lagoons home to ducks, swans and other wildlife, the holistic approach to waste, carbon and travel rarely imposes itself on the resort’s main function as a tourist attraction of relaxation and recreation.

The park, a 15-year project, brings Center Parcs outdoor experience and combines it with an underlying sense of mystique that Disney is famed for. To a visitor, heating the park using the ground its located on is like something out of a fantasy, for those in the sustainability sphere, it’s a best-practice example of low-carbon ingenuity.

Matt Mace

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