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Paris grapples with this largest of grands projets

Ellis Woodman
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There can be no quick fix for the social damage caused to Paris by decades of misdirected planning policy, says Ellis Woodman

Still coming to terms with the massacre of 130 of their fellow citizens a month previously, Parisians could be forgiven for approaching the New Year with a sense of trepidation about their city’s future. Yet it is no exaggeration to claim that the stroke of midnight ushered in a new era in Paris’s history. On 1 January, what had been a city of 2.2 million residents ranged over 105km², was officially reconstituted as one housing 6.7 million people over 762m². Representing the realisation of a project initiated by the former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, the age of the Métropole du Grand Paris had commenced.

Prior to this moment, Paris’s administrative boundaries had remained static since the 1860s, finding physical embodiment in the creation of the Périphérique – the ring road that follows the contours of the old city walls – between 1958 and 1973. Beyond, the outer suburbs, or banlieues, developed a landscape dominated by high-rise social housing, much of it populated by disenfranchised immigrant communities. Anxiety about the social divisions exemplified by the 2005 riots represented a key motivating factor behind the Grand Paris project. The threat now posed by home-grown militant Islamists has only confirmed the urgency of achieving a more integrated city.

What Sarkozy  envisaged as a £31 billion capital project is, to date, no more than an additional layer of administration

Sarkozy initiated the project in 2008 with a competition aimed at finding an urban planning vision for the expanded Paris. Architects, including Jean Nouvel, MVRDV and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners duly submitted plans but, perhaps inevitably given the scale of the undertaking, none have gone on to inform the current proposals. What Sarkozy had envisaged as a £31 billion capital project is, to date, no more than an additional layer of administration. Its limited tax-raising powers will, in time, be expanded but it is fair to say that its capabilities remain to be tested.

However, independent of the creation of Le Grand Paris, work is already under way on one major physical intervention in the periphery – the improvement of its public transport infrastructure. At present, the Paris Métro barely extends beyond the Périphérique, requiring outlying residents to revert to the widely disdained regional rail network, the RER. Over the next 10 to 15 years, the Métro is being extended to double its current 218km route length. While reducing journey times to the centre, the new routes also critically enable transit around the periphery. The ambition is to support a polycentric development, not merely to provide fast commuter connections to ‘Paris proper’.

Government money is also supporting the development of a French ‘Silicon Valley’ in the south of the city and if Paris’s bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games is successful, a further wave of investment is guaranteed. But the task of remedying the social damage caused by decades of misdirected planning policy will not be resolved speedily. We should therefore be thankful that this stark contrast between rich centre and impoverished periphery remains essentially alien to the British experience. In the main, our suburbs can still be claimed as places of safe, middle-class conformity while, until their recent gentrification, it was our inner cities that were commonly associated with social deprivation and crime.

When our capital suffered its own riots, in 2011, it was therefore particularly disconcerting to find that picture inverted. London suddenly looked a lot like Paris: its centre populated exclusively by the wealthy, its periphery by an angry and alienated underclass. The violence may not have returned but that can hardly be credited to the fact that London has become a more socially equitable city in the interim. As Paris grapples with this largest of grands projets, its experience offers a warning of the costs a city can incur when it fails to address the needs of all its citizens, not just those who live in its centre.

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