Why the Expansion of Paris Is a Pretty Big Deal
Following a vote in Parliament earlier this month, the city of Paris looks set — after years and years of discussions — to join with its hinterland in 2016 and become part of a huge new urban authority, one with roughly three times its current population and four times its current land area. Dubbed the "Métropole du Grand Paris," this new city authority will break down the rigid barrier between the city of Paris and what are referred to as its suburbs, despite their often being more densely populated than many American downtowns.
Admittedly, tinkering with a few boundaries and pushing the tentacles of urban power a little farther out into the ‘burbs may not be the thing to set the non-specialist’s heart racing. But the Paris power map's redraw is likely to have a major effect on the city. For while it still has a beauty that blows other European megacity competitors out of the water (sorry London), Paris has for decades been hampered by a fiddly, fragmented administration that’s frankly something of a hot mess.
To understand why, look at the metropolis' current intricate political structure. What’s officially known as Paris is in fact a small part of the city’s wider metro area, a dense kernel within a huge nut. This area’s boundaries were fixed back in 1860 and run broadly along the lines of 19th century fortifications, hence the common name Paris Intra-muros – "Paris within the walls." While 2.2 million people live here, most of the Paris metro area’s 12 million inhabitants live further out in one of seven separate départements – not boroughs but fully independent units. These départements cooperate of course, but the many different authorities still make the planning of housing and transport intricate and time consuming. The city’s power mosaic also helps perpetuate a divide between "true" Parisians and suburbanites, with the former often resented by the latter because they’re believed to get the lion’s share of resources.
This is all set to change. The large area immediately surrounding Paris proper, known as the Petite Couronne ("Little Crown"), will now get its own power-wielding, tax-levying uber-council, or intercommunalité to give its long-winded French name. Managing housing, land use and the environment – and crucially deciding policy – it will help decentralize the city and help the départements toward more joined-up, strategic thinking. The Grand Paris area is now slated for a major rise in social housing construction, and will be served by a huge metro and transit expansion, with new lines connecting outer districts with each other independently rather than via central Paris alone.
The numbered central area of this map represents the extent of the new Metropole. If the plan goes well, it may be extended right to the edge of the Grande Couronne the limits of the Paris metro area, shown in purple here. (via Association Grand Paris)
For some, however, the current Grand Paris plan is anti-democratic, its ruling body a "technocratic monster." It’s not hard to see why these sorts of sentiments are bubbling up – residents were not given a vote on the plan, while the new body will be centrally appointed, not elected, until at least 2020. Equally, many detractors feel the plan is half-hearted, a watered-down version of proposals floated and shot down under President Sarkozy. Much of the metro area still remains outside the new boundaries, in the wider Paris region known as the Grande Couronne (though if the plan is successful this area might be joined up, too). In the meantime, some experts have expressed fears about the creation of a "two speed Paris" [French language link] where the poor are pushed yet farther out. Others have asked why the area couldn’t be enlarged to contain Paris’ airports, its many peripheral new towns or its key science park and tech university at Saclay.
As a modernizing move, the plan is still a major step forward. Over the past few decades, Paris has been gradually accruing a European reputation as a city somewhat left behind, divided and institutionally old-fashioned. With similar plans in the works for the Marseille and Lyon metro areas – and radical new laws shaking up the rental market – French urbanism is riding a wave of new ideas. Paris is being swept along too, becoming a laboratory to explore problems that many big cities face. At the very least, its future looks interesting.