After a period of spurning our cities, we are again becoming an urban nation.
For years, investments in highways, malls, and residential developments were focused on the suburbs. The infrastructure of America’s great historical cities, so often mired in fiscal difficulty, was left to decay.
Today we are seeing a resurgence of the urban spirit. We have woken again to the social benefits of city life. We appreciate the exchange and innovation, the cultural vibrancy, and the economic and environmental benefits of compact living. Large-scale development projects are underway in the city centers and city governments are again spending on urban infrastructure.
Eighty years after having been phased out, the tramway has made a triumphant return to Paris. This fall, three major extensions are being opened to the public. Construction is underway on several new lines. This once-forgotten form of transportation is again becoming part of the daily life of Parisians.
None of the tramway lines cross Paris proper, but they participate in the creation of a dense multi-modal network across the first ring of municipalities surrounding Paris. Even more importantly, these tramway lines are not being approached only as isolated pieces of transportation infrastructure. Instead, they are driving and accompanying major urban projects in the territories they cross. The urban role of the tramway in contemporary Paris is a story worth knowing.
This weekend I am in New York, speaking at Columbia University as part of the Urban History Association’s annual conference. I’ll be discussing the idea of cosmopolitanism as it relates to urban planning in the first years of the Second Empire (1852-1855). An excerpt of my talk appears below.
My piece on Seine Rive Gauche, billed as the largest urban project in Paris since Haussmann, generated a great deal of interest. This week I return to the area to check up on progress, and find development continuing along the whole length of the site.
This project is mobilizing considerable resources and is calling on France’s best architecture and urban design talents. Whatever one things of the design choices, it certainly represents a return to the spirit of urban ambition that made Paris what it is.
Ed Glaeser’s book Triumph of the City has launched a highly salutary discussion of the virtues of cities. But while it is full of excellent points, Triumph of the City goes off track in its prescriptions by giving the idea that the answer to the density issue is to build skyscrapers. In making that unwarranted leap, Glaeser has risked undermining the impact of his book as a whole. This is a pity, as the core message of Triumph of the City is one that needs to be well understood.
The Île de la Cité can appear to be just another timeless part of Paris, untouched for centuries, to be preserved as it is and has always been. In reality, it is a relatively recently remodeled space, one of the least successful of the undertakings of George-Eugène Haussmann while he was Prefect of the Seine. It is, I believe, one of Paris’s major twenty-first century urban planning challenges, one that will play a critical role in signaling what kind of city Paris is to become.
On April 29th, 2009, the day of the opening of the public display of the work of the ten teams of the international consultation, President Sarkozy gave a speech. His words were ambitious: “[The future city] may be the greatest political challenge of the twenty-first century. I want France to meet that challenge. I want France to give the example. That is the ambition of Le Grand Paris.“
Anyone could be forgiven for being confused about what is going on with Le Grand Paris, Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential ambition to reinvent Greater Paris for the future. This week, Sarkozy gave a speech at the Cité de l’Architecture marking four years since his initial speech, in the same venue, announcing Le Grand Paris. A perfect opportunity for a summary of where we stand. Continue reading →