The future of Paris was born last week.
After several years of gestation, the French government has announced concrete measures that will transform the institutional structure of Greater Paris and massively expand the public transportation network to tie together the whole urban region.
President Sarkozy announced a grand vision for Paris’s metropolitan future in 2007. But implementation turned out to be more complicated, as I chronicled in a series of pieces.
During his term in office, Sarkozy ignored the results of the international consultation of architects and urban planners that he himself had organized. He refused to touch the politically thorny issue of Paris’s governance altogether. But he did press ahead with an ambitious and expensive plan for a new regional high-speed transit system.
When Sarkozy failed in his bid for reelection in the spring of 2012, it was unclear whether the Grand Paris vision would continue.
Incoming president François Hollande made typically non-committal pronouncements. There were questions about whether the minister in charge of Grand Paris, Cécile Duflot of the Green Party, was herself supportive of a new high-speed transit system as opposed to more investments in the existing network.
In the fall of 2012, commentators noted that no amount of press releases and RFPs could hide the fact that actual funds had yet to be allocated to Grand Paris. It also became increasingly hard to disguise that the public estimates of the previous administration did not stack up.
Rumblings were heard that the whole thing might be called off. Worried local officials began publishing statements and petitions about the economic damage their communities would experience if the promised Grand Paris investments were not made.
In December 2012 a report commissioned by the incoming government was made public. The report revisited the financial assumptions of the Grand Paris transportation system, explaining that even with scaled back ambitions the network would cost 10 billion euros more than had hitherto been claimed. This report could have been used to bury the project, but in the end it served the purpose of redefining it and putting it on firmer footing.
In the mean time, Bertrand Delanoë, Mayor of Paris, kept the governance debate alive, hammering away at the idea that Paris Métropole, the existing voluntary association of municipalities, should form the foundation of a future metropolitan entity for Paris.
It was not before the new year that Grand Paris began to regain its momentum.
In January 2013, President François Hollande addressed members of Parliament and of the Paris City Council. He declared: “Paris must become bigger than Paris. We must give the metropolitan area the means to act at the right scale. It is a national issue.” The rhetoric was there, but what he actually intended to do remained clear as mud.
Things became clearer a little more than a month later. On February 28th, 2013, the State Council validated an early draft of a law on decentralisation under preparation by the government. Thus we learned the details of measures that would fundamentally change the governance of greater Paris.
First, the new law would establish the name and limits of a new metropolitan entity: “Métropole de Paris”.
Métropole de Paris would cover 400 municipalities which together account for 10 million inhabitants. It would therefore cover Paris’s urban area while leaving aside the remaining 1,280 municipalities in rural part of the region.
Second, the new law defines a new local government entity that would go into effect on January 1, 2016.
The government’s blueprint would mark the end of a situation where the lone big fish of the Paris swims alongside an immense school of minnows formed by the hundreds of surrounding municipalities.
This would be accomplished by stipulating that only entities representing 300,000 or more inhabitants would have a right to vote at the metropolitan council, creating a very strong incentive for municipalities to band together into viable entities. Some have in fact already started to do so, with three groups of municipalities having in fact passed the 300,000 person threshold: Est Ensemble in the east, Plaine-Commune in the north, Grand Paris Seine Ouest in the west.
Métropole de Paris would not initially assume the responsibilities of the municipalities. It would at first simply be a forum for metropolitan-level issues, with actual prerogatives only in one area: housing. Nevertheless, Métropole de Paris would form the institutional foundation for a future metropolitan government.
On March 6, 2013, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault convened the media to Champs-sur-Marne in Paris’s eastern suburbs for a full-scale relaunch of Grand Paris.
To differentiate it from the efforts of the previous administration, he gave the undertaking the new moniker of “Nouveau Grand Paris”. Of the work of his predecessors, he said: “much had been promised, much announced, but nothing was funded, nothing had been finalized”. “Now,” he proclaimed, “we are into action for the new Grand Paris”.
The core of Nouveau Grand Paris remains the public transportation network of the Sarkozy administration. But the plan is now more precise, with exact routes and a detailed roll-out plan. And while the lines may at first appear to be the same, the new government has made some major modifications.
Some of the new lines have been scaled down. The network will be less of an innovative, high-speed network and more of a classic subway system — parts of it will even be a form of tramway. The end date has been pushed out, from 2025 to 2030. A portion of the funds have been earmarked for improvements and extensions to the existing network.
There is another novelty – something more symbolic. The new network will no longer be approached as a distinct network but as new lines of the Paris metro. The new lines have in fact been renamed as lines 15, 16, 17, and 18, in continuation of the 14 existing lines of the Paris metro.
The presence of the metro has for a century distinguished Paris from its suburbs. With the new measure, the single biggest theme of Grand Paris — to erase the artificial limit formed by Paris’s municipal boundaries — will now be embodied in the public transportation network.
These latest developments will certainly have a major impact on the future of Paris. But in reality it is on the ground, through countless projects across the urban region, that Grand Paris is already taking form.
The city of Paris is leading projects in a number of emblematic locations, such as Les Halles, Place de la République and the banks of the Seine. New landmarks are being built at the Philharmonie de Paris, the Jean-Bouin Stadium and the Fondation Louis Vuitton. Private interests are developing projects that will mark the urban lanscape at Beaugrenelle and La Samaritaine. Big chunks of Paris are in the midst of large-scale development at Paris Rive Gauche, Clichy-Batignolles, Paris Nord-Est, Porte de Bercy, Eco-Quartier Boucicaut and more.
The dynamic is not in the least limited to Paris proper — on the contrary. A large part of Aubervillliers is being rebuilt, in conjunction with the neighboring sectors of Paris and Saint-Denis — a project that includes the creation of a major new university campus. Saint-Denis is continuing its development in the zone stretching from the Stade de France to the Carrefour Pleyel. Ambitious new plans are being rolled out for Nanterre, beyond La Défense, including an arena and a new transportation hub. Boulogne has settled on its plan for the island where Renault used to have its flagship factory. Further afield, Saclay is trying to mould itself into a first-rate research and innovation cluster. In the south-east, Les Ardoines is turning into a major development area. These are only some examples of the many projects in development.
Whatever can be said, Sarkozy’s 2007 proclamations about the need for Paris to step up in order to continue to play a role as a world metropolis captured a spirit of the times. The path to realization is turning out to be as full of twists and turns as the last great era for Paris’s development, in the Second Empire years. But it seems that the idea of a bigger and more dynamic Paris for the twenty-first century has tapped into a collective ambition and is now beginning to germinate.