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Integrating cultural and natural heritage values in urban development processes in Lyon (France)

The 2019 urban plan for Lyon aims to protect cultural and natural heritage values and their attributes through specific planning tools, such as green and blue infrastructure planning and the development of heritage precincts. In doing so, the city aims to enhance its liveability, taking the historic centre as a departing point and a model for its contemporary development. 

About Lyon

Lyon is a city of 520,000 inhabitants, with an area of approximately 48 km2, the heart of a metropolis of 1.4 million inhabitants, with an area of 534 km2. The Historic Site of Lyon was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1998, under criteria (ii) and (iv).

The long history of Lyon, which was founded by the Romans in the 1st century B.C. as the capital of the Three Gauls and has continued to play a major role in Europe's political, cultural and economic development ever since, is vividly illustrated by its urban fabric and the many fine historic buildings from all periods.

Lyon bears exceptional testimony to the continuity of urban settlement over more than two millennia on a site of great commercial and strategic significance, where cultural traditions from many parts of Europe have come together to create a coherent and vigorous continuing community.

By virtue of the particular manner in which it has developed spatially, Lyon illustrates in an exceptional way the progress and evolution of architectural design and town planning over many centuries.

The historic centre of the city comprises an area of 423 hectares, corresponding to the settlement founded in 43 BC by the Roman proconsul Munatius Plancus. The city of Lyon remained concentrated within this perimeter until the end of the 18th century, before spreading continuously outside the initial enclosure.

Author: Geoff Steven © OUR PLACE The World Heritage Collection
© Muriel Chaulet 

The site retains a strong authenticity, with emblematic buildings and urban fabric from each of the periods of city development. The urban fabric is based on the typology of the multi-dwelling rental building, which led to a dense development defined by strong architectural constant with an infinite number of design variations. More than 5,000 characteristic buildings constitute the flesh and blood of Lyon. Today, the city presents a harmonious mosaic of districts from the Renaissance to the 19th century, incorporating important Roman remains and buildings from the Middle Ages. The historic centre has also maintained its central role within the metropolitan area, hosting economic activities, major public services and residential uses.

Author: Jean-Jacques Gelbart © Editions Gelbart
Saint Paul district and Basilica Notre-Dame de Fourvière in the Vieux-Lyon district © M & G Therin-Weise

Located at the confluence of two rivers and overlooked by two hills, the historic city of Lyon has a particular morphology which strongly contributes to the identity and quality of its territory. It also corresponds to a meeting point of several geographical regions, each of which bring a different landscape character, culture and architectural styles.

Climate change-related impacts

The mean temperature in Lyon has increased in the past 60 years, with a sharp increase from the mid-1980s (Observatoire régional climat, air et énergie, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes). The city is also affected by the urban heat island effect, whose effects are worsened by climate change.  

"In Lyon, one of the major impacts will clearly be the extreme heat waves. This is already a big problem, it is already the region in France that suffers the most from extreme heat waves. There are three effects that mean that these heat waves will increase even more in Lyon than elsewhere: urbanization, the Mediterranean influence and the relatively continental position."

Integrating cultural and natural heritage values in urban development processes

During the major revision of the Local Urban Plan in 2019, the Metropolis of Lyon reinforced the inclusion of its natural and cultural heritage in this planning tool. With this revision, the city aims to be better prepared to manage its heritage and find a balance between urban development and conservation.


The revision of the plan responds to 4 directions:

  • The metropolitan challenge: make the city centre the heart of the metropolis, preparing the conditions for the large-scale projects of tomorrow
  • The economic challenge: guarantee a diversified development and activities at the service of the city and its inhabitants
  • The challenge of solidarity and housing: provide a substantial, balanced and united supply of new and rehabilitated housing, intended for all audiences, and organise mixed and residential urban development around public transport
  • The challenge of the environment and way of life: improve the habitability of the historic centre, respecting the unique character of the different neighbourhoods, enhancing its accessibility and offering natural spaces for all.
Synthesis © Agence d'Urbanisme de Lyon


1. Urban heritage as a vector of attractiveness

The aim is to amplify the area of influence of the city centre by promoting and enhancing its cultural heritage, by pursuing creative reuse projects such as the old Lyon prisons or the Hôtel Dieu, and giving new life to the public spaces of the Presqu'île.

2. Urban heritage as a tool for development and qualitative adaptation of the living environment

To improve the habitability of the city and enhance the unique character of the neighbourhoods, new developments will be based on their existing qualities, while respecting their diversity and identities: elements of built and landscape heritage, vegetation, particular characteristics depending on the periods and the building typologies of the neighbourhoods.

3. The natural spaces are the basis of the territorial identity and an asset for its development and adaptation

In the metropolitan area of Lyon, green and blue infrastructure networks have been developed since the 1990s. Covering nearly half of the territory of the “Grand Lyon”, the green spaces form a network that reaches the heart of the dense city. This network includes agricultural land, forests, woodlands, meadows, wetlands, urban parks, as well as large estates surrounded by landscaped grounds, spaces preserved by urban policies, and areas presenting natural risks.

The common element of all these sites, of very different qualities, is their dominant blue and green character. These natural areas are a heritage to be preserved, and also the result of ongoing efforts to maintain a healthy living environment and access to natural resources, such as water, biodiversity or food. 

"Urban green spaces are considered an appropriate way to reduce urban heat island effects and provide comfort to the nearby occupants. In addition to cooling the actual space, urban green spaces are also able to influence the surrounding area, and this phenomenon is called the urban green space cooling effect. "

Tools developed

To integrate these values and make them operational, the town planning document is based on thematic elements. The mechanisms and tools developed are:

1. The blue and green plans for the Metropolis

In recent years, the approach towards green and blue infrastructure has evolved in two ways. On the one hand, the growing attention to biodiversity has led to a progressive recognition of the role of green networks. On the other hand, the importance of water in the city is better understood. These developments have helped to consolidate the fundamental role that this green and blue framework plays in the organisation and life of the territories, both for its landscape and recreational qualities as well as for its ecological and food production values.

The “green plan” is based in particular on the preservation of forested and natural areas, the creation of green networks which provide a continuity between different natural areas, the opening of green paths, determining the requirements for green areas in new developments, etc. More detailed knowledge has improved the protection, management and development of green and blue infrastructure networks, going beyond administrative boundaries to form part of the extension of large natural entities.

"Human thermal comfort depends primarily upon the ambient temperature, relative humidity and extent of exposure to solar radiation. The evidence indicates that tree shade provides improved thermal comfort in urban areas thus access to treed areas, including parks and gardens with trees, could help reduce thermal stress where [the urban heat island effect] during the day is a public health risk. "

Green networks © Agence d'Urbanisme de Lyon
2. Urban forms based on a typo-morphological analysis of the existing buildings

To meet its economic objectives in terms of housing and sustainable development, the Metropolis of Lyon has carried out a thorough study of the quality of existing urban fabric, to help adapt the city to contemporary challenges. This approach, based on a typo-morphological analysis of urban fabric and on its landscape and heritage qualities, has enabled the city to find and integrate different spaces and densification strategies, allowing it to respond to its expansion needs. In this context, the landscape, architectural and urban qualities identified have become the benchmarks and drivers for the future development of the city.

3. Protection of built heritage and areas of heritage interest

The urban ensemble of historical buildings in a city bears witness to the history of a territory, its development and its transformations. Everyday buildings, or “background architecture”, must be protected for its cultural values, especially considering its great fragility to the urban development pressures.

In order to tackle their preservation, the Local Urban Plan of the Metropolis of Lyon determines areas of heritage interest, which serve both a regulatory and educational function.

Within these perimeters, the local government wishes to raise awareness and promote interventions that respect the identity of the neighbourhoods, promoting the stratification of the urban landscape while reconciling innovation, creativity and respect for the existing building stock. Each of these special areas is the subject of an identification form. The form specifies the essential characteristics which form the basis of the heritage interest of each area. It also includes design guidelines to enhance and preserve the character of the ensemble.

Map of historic neighbourhoods © Agence d'Urbanisme de Lyon

4. Orienting the development and programming of the perimeter of the World Heritage site

The new revision aims to protect and enhance the Outstanding Universal Value of the World Heritage site. This consideration focused on the property itself as well as its buffer zone, which represent a total area of 750 hectares. The function of this tool is to have an urban and landscape approach at the scale of the entire perimeter. Previously, this was addressed at the level of each of the six local districts with specific tools.

The new plan aims to coordinate and align the measures in the different local districts. It establishes a number of heritage precincts defined by common characteristics.

5. Understanding the historic cityscape of Lyon

In addition to these planning and regulatory actions, a historical atlas has been developed by the City in collaboration with the Metropolis, Prof. Bernard Gauthiez from Lumière University, the metropolitan town planning agency and the archaeological service. This educational and awareness-raising document analyses in detail the historic urban landscape of the city, through diachronic and synchronic approaches. The publication showed the value of this approach for studying the territory, recognising its qualities and implementing adapted management and development procedures. The tool should be integrated into the urban planning process, at the same time enriching the perception and knowledge of its inhabitants and users.

By including cultural and natural heritage values in its urban planning tools, the city of Lyon aims to enhance the liveability and heritage character of the city. At the same time, the new urban plan considers the historic city as a model from which to learn and an influence for the modern development of the metropolis, based on a thorough study of the characteristics of the historic urban landscape.

Source: Mr Philippe Lamy, Heritage and renovation centre, Municipality of Lyon, 2021; UNESCO-UfM online conference “Living with World Heritage: Adaptive Reuse and Regeneration in the Euro-Mediterranean region” (17-18 May 2021)

Contribution towards global goals

How does this case study contribute to the global commitments of sustainable development, climate change action and heritage conservation?

© Editions Gelbart

Contribution towards the implementation of the 2011 Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape

The project aims to contribute to the implementation of the Historic Urban Landscape approach by integrating conservation and spatial planning tools, developing a geographical and landscape approach towards the territory, linked to its particular characteristics, and at the same time considering the historic centre as a laboratory for the development of tools for the adaptation and development of the modern city.

Historic Urban Landscape Tools

Knowledge and Planning tools Financial tools

Contribution towards Sustainable Development

If fully implemented in accordance with the described plans, the initiative could contribute towards Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

  • Target 11.3: the initiative aims to enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanisation 
  • Target 11.4: the initiative aims to strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage

Note: the described potential impacts of the projects are only indicative and based on submitted and available information. UNESCO does not endorse the specific initiatives nor ratifies their positive impact.

Learn more

Discover more about the details of the case study and the stakeholders involved.

© M & G Therin-Weise
To learn more

Heritage and renovation department, Municipality of Lyon

  • Website: www.lyon.fr
  • Email: philippe.lamy@mairie-lyon.fr
© UNESCO, 2022. Project team: Jyoti Hosagrahar, Alba Zamarbide, Carlota Marijuán Rodríguez, Federico Rudari.
Cover image: Aerial view of Lyon © Muriel Chaulet

Note: The cases shared in this platform address heritage protection practices in World Heritage sites and beyond. Items being showcased in this website do not entail any type of recognition or inclusion in the World Heritage list or any of its thematic programmes. The practices shared are not assessed in any way by the World Heritage Centre or presented here as model practices nor do they represent complete solutions to heritage management problems. The views expressed by experts and site managers are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Heritage Centre. The practices and views shared here are included as a way to provide insights and expand the dialogue on heritage conservation with a view to further urban heritage management practice in general.