Bordeaux is a city known for its culture. Eighteenth century architectural gems line the boulevards. Museums abound. Wine and tapas are ubiquitous, and everywhere you look, you can find the Bordelaise out enjoying these simple aspects of life here. But there is one place unlike all the others. Across the river Garonne, just a short walk or ferry from the glamor of old Bordeaux, lies Darwin.

Welcome to Darwin!

Ostensibly, Darwin (also called the Darwin Ecosystem) is a co-working community, but even a first cursory glance reveals it to be more than that. There are shops. There is a restaurant, actually the largest organic restaurant in France as of this writing. There is a bike mechanic. There are performance spaces, and classrooms, and a skate park, and… and… and…

The architecture uses what was found on the property in an artistic manner.

Tanguy Le Marec is a coordinator with Darwin. He tells me that the physical space has gone through a number of evolutions. When the “neighborhood” was constructed, this was all abandoned property. Old military surplus habitation cubes and remains of wooden structures were around, so those were utilized in early construction. The skate park, for instance, is made of more than 70% recycled wood, he tells me.

The skate park is one of Darwin’s income sources.

In those earlier days of only a few years ago, the habitation cubes were used to allow refugees a place to live while permanent solutions were being found. Today, space is at a premium, not only due to natural growth of the community, but due to increased development of the properties surrounding it, thanks in no small part to the increased valuation Darwin brings.

Every wall space seems to be covered with art. Tanguy, one of about 100 employees of the community, tells me that Darwin invites local artists to come and gives them free reign over a space. This is not a community of censorship.

This was one of my favorite art corners.

Darwin has done so well that it has expanded its services immensely. Today, many – if not most – of the mostly young people working here have had their businesses invested in by the community, functioning in a venture capital capacity. As some of those budding entrepreneurs have children, Darwin operates a small school. And with refugee services no longer a regular part of communal activities, Darwin also hosts a huge festival focused on bringing awareness of climate change. This year will be their fifth.

More art, this one climate-appropriate.

A walk through the neighborhood is inspiring. For one thing, the street art is largely superb. But around each bend, in each empty space, something has been created. An old abandoned metro car has been turned into a small lounge. Couches line a small alleyway. An unused habitation cube is now the school’s faculty kitchen. Darwin is a masterpiece in human ingenuity when allowed complete freedom in working toward the common good.

What an awesome use of space and recycled materials!

It is a stark contrast to the stone palaces and monuments of the Bordeaux to which so many visitors confine themselves, to the planned parks, sharp corners, and evenly spaced trees. It feels far removed, easier to breathe. And it also feels very much a product of Bordeaux, of the slow-moving, laid-back lifestyle that so many come here to enjoy. Nobody seems in a hurry. There is always time for coffee, or for a skate.

Taking one more lap around to discover a few new murals, I feel grateful that a place like this can exist, and so happy to have spent a few hours basking in it. If Bordeaux is on your itinerary and you are looking for a short time experiencing something just a bit different, make a detour to Darwin.

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