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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Des propositions singulières pour que Paris soit réellement grand

by Paul Chémétov, architect and town-planner

Specific Proposals For a Truly "Greater" Paris

Translated Monday 4 January 2010, by Isabelle Métral and reviewed by Henry Crapo

The definition of any metropolis is not given by its boundaries, its perimeter. What defines it is the intensity of the inter-relations that sustain its life and growth. The formula might serve as a parable for what the Paris metropolis should become if it is to remain one of the few global cities – on a par with Tokyo and New York, even though the population of France only makes up one hundredth part of the population of the globe.

In a provincial metropolis daily life is contained within an area that can be crossed in half an hour at most; but whether in respect of housing, jobs, schools, shops, or places of leisure, the tendency in the Ile de France region, of which Paris is the centre, has been the reverse. The centre city has lost inhabitants, even though it boasts a proven and dense network of public transport, whereas in the out-lying suburbs, which are now more densely populated than the centre, and have more life in them, public transport and public facilities are inadequate.

The same questions were tackled in the Delouvrier plan [1] in the post-war years. The new towns, the business hub of La Défense, the RER lines connecting the out-lying suburbs to the capital, the new airport at Roissy - such were the answers brought to these questions, and they ignored the suburbs, dismembered the Seine département which until then, administratively, had been the most evident metropolitan area. But although they allowed the metropolitan area to develop, the positive dispositions of this pre-metropolitan scheme are now exhausted and it is much to be feared that the “rollercoaster plan” of the secretary of state for the Ile de France region [2] will also be, to some extent, a post-metropolitan, post-modern choice.

Indeed, the lay-out of the rail line proposed leaves out or behind most of the existing dynamic hubs of the metropolitan area (not all of them, for that would have been a signal blunder) and serves future areas of (mainly tertiary) activity, in the hope of making of Paris a first-rank financial market, imitating London, which is now declining.

The key to success for a metropolis in the global competition is its specificity. The identity of Paris lies in its singularity: the word is sometimes misused, but the meaning in this case is crystal clear. So what does its identity consist of? The great density of the population, the concentration of central functions, the academic and vocational clusters, the survival (despite its alarming decline) of material, industrial production, the natural and architectural heritage, the rich cultural life and the leisure activities and entertainments available, which attract tourists. But these specific assets are not to be found in the sprawling area that the age of the automobile has spawned.

These assets should therefore be developed in the hubs that structure the existing periphery. Statistics are deceptively flattering: with just 20% of the French population, the Ile de France produces 30% of the national wealth. But at what cost? (a high incidence of exhaustion and heavy consumption of neuroleptic drugs.) And for how long? The basic reason for the 2005 Clichy-sous-Bois riots has not been fully fathomed: the pre-eminent factor of inequality between the various areas, which is now the main and growing handicap for the metropolis today, so much so that it tarnishes its traditional glamorous image, cannot be remedied by multiplying surveillance cameras but by supplying fast public transport and connections so that Clichy-sous-Bois and the scores of its likes, which are now more than an hour away from the centre city, enjoy equal accessibility with the dynamic hubs that provide jobs and facilities. This today is the main, and increasingly severe, handicap placed on the metropole, to such a degree that it is injurious to its inherited image.

The gap will not be bridged without the rapid deployment of considerable resources, the urgent needs being

- 1. to build housing as near as possible to the existing lines of transport, and in such a way as to bridge the gap between the dense, collective housing and the varied and spaced out forms of individual housing, in order to stop the urban sprawl,

- 2. to interconnect the existing lines with new links - whether train, metro, tram or bus lines, depending on the density and flows extant or required,

- 3. to provide jobs not only for the brainy and university-trained,

- 4. to build schools and to train teachers, for our educational system just cannot meet this age’s needs,

- 5. to provide good local shops and top-quality entertainment,

- 6. to stop encroaching upon farming land – especially as this land is one of the most fertile in the world. In the Seine et Marne départment alone a thousand hectares are sterilized every year. Let us bear in mind the fact that one sixth of the global population goes hungry,

- 7. to promote local subsistence farming, reforest the strips that cannot be built up. When the town sprawls, keeping nature close is good for the climate too.

- 8. to make the most of the valleys: the Seine, Oise, and Marne, and their tributaries. And stop mixing rain water with the polluted water of the great city in the sewage system.

- 9. lastly, let us remember that a global city cannot do without symbols and landmarks that can provide a common meaning for our lives and destinies, as
Notre-Dame, the Eiffel tower, the Beaubourg museum [3], the Stade de France [4] served that function, each in its time. A fresh impetus is needed so as to give the metropolis a shared vision of its urban future.

To achieve these goals, Sarkozy’s cherished plan for a “Société anonyme du Grand Paris” (limited company for Greater Paris) will not do, for it will never raise popular support, nor will it be actively supported by all the constituent areas of the metropolis, nor generate the selfless energies needed to prop it up.

[1A distinguished civil servant, Paul Delouvrier was appointed General Delegate for the district of the region of Paris between 1961 and 1969. He is considered as the inventor of the "new towns"

[2The president and his government are determined to ride rough-shod over the regional plan of development drafted by the regional left-wing executive and voted by the regional assembly. They have, for that purpose, drafted another diminutive plan which they intend to force down through a non-elected body of their own making

[4The largest of all French stadiums, France’s national stadium is symbolically located in one of the popular suburbs to the North of Paris. It was built for the 1998 FIFA World Cup. It hosted one of France’s greatest sporting triumphs to date—the 3-0 victory over Brazil in the World Cup final on July 12, 1998, by a team whose ethnic variety was foregrounded as a symbol of the republican principles of fraternity and equality. This was the first time that France had won the World Cup, as well as the first time in twenty years that a host nation had captured the title. Previously played at Parc des Princes, the Top 16 (French rugby championship, now the Top 14) final was moved permanently to Stade de France that year.

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