Le Grand Paris: Not for the first time, the city of light is rebuilding its infrastructure to remake its soul

Think of a Parisian, what do you see? A sallow, penguin-suited waiter? A young, Chanel clad woman catwalking her tiny dog? A bespectacled older gent wrapped in a red scarf, cognac and copy of Le Monde?

Whatever it is, it’s unlikely to be far from how many Parisians see themselves. Few cities have a tighter branding. But with Paris now at the heart of the biggest urban development project in Europe, how long can, or indeed should, this image remain?

Le Grand Paris, the project launched in 2007 by then president Nicolas Sarkozy, is set to make its first tangible impacts next year with the extension of the line 14 metro to the northern suburb of St Ouen. And it has a more ambitious goal than merely altering the entire physical landscape of the city. It is an attempt to change what Paris is in people’s minds.

The promised 120 miles of new high-speed metro track, ringing and crisscrossing the capital, is directly designed to overcome a single manmade barrier: the Périphérique, Paris’s infamous ring road that currently divides the 2.2 million Parisians living within its bounds, from the almost 10 million who do not.

The new metro lines planned as part of Le Grand Paris project. Image: Hektor/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s difficult to emphasise, as someone who has lived ten years in this city, what a shift this would entail. For while the Paris centre has the semblance of a medieval citadel – primly regulated, the streets smug with excitement at their own importance – many of its suburbs retain the haphazard energy of a temporary encampment outside a city walls. Though each suburb has its own distinct vibrancy, bristling with unexpected architectural delights and fierce local pride, taken together as compared to the centre, they are another world.

In trying to expand beyond the Périphérique, the architects behind Grand Paris are fighting the city’s ghosts. There were once fortifications where the orbital now runs, themselves surrounded by a 250-metre-wide no-building rule. When the fortifications fell out of use in the 19th century, the area became a magnet for ad-hoc slum housing, which, until the Périphérique was built in the 1950s was referred to as the Zone. It is this semi-mythical sounding frontier that the planners need to cross.

Yet so profoundly has this ring road scarred the mental geography of Paris, it begs the question what will happen to the identity of the city if they succeed. And more broadly, how hard is it in general to shift are our perceptions of what any particular city is, what it means to the people who live there, and to the wider world? We’ll always have Paris, sure – but in thirty years’ time, if the Périphérique falls, what kind of Paris will we have?

 

Trying to answer these questions, it’s worth looking to history. After all, Grand Paris is just the latest in a number of large-scale rebrandings that Paris has had in the last couple of centuries. Back in the early 1800s, though still a centre of culture, the French capital had more of reputation for slums than boulevards. Back then, the capital was, according to social reformer Victor Considerant, “an immense workshop of putrefaction, where misery, pestilence and sickness work in concert, where sunlight and air rarely penetrate”. So much for honeymooning down by the Seine.

The renovations of Baron Haussmann, begun in the 1850s, utterly transformed Paris’s physical appearance, and character, at least in the sense that it was made easier to travel between city districts. This started with the building of several boulevards that were to make up the grande croisée de Paris, the great cross of Paris, opening two channels of communication on a north to south and east to west axis. The boulevard cafés and the boulevardiers followed. Eternal as it now seems, perhaps it was only then our modern concept of Paris and Parisians was born.

The boulevards and streets built by Napoléon III and Haussmann during the Second Empire are shown in red. Note the cross at the centre. Image: Dimitri Destugues/Wikimedia Commons.

Regarding the changes we can expect today, there are already profiteering rumbles that, in the shadow of Brexit, Paris can benefit from London’s anticipated decline. In so doing, it will perhaps become more like London itself: dissolving the Périphérique will let turn Paris into archipelago city of connecting hubs, rather than one where the gravitational mass of the centre has all the pull. Districts such as La Défense, Gennevilliers, and Saint-Denis are all already getting more investment to coincide with the improved transport links, which will allow this vision to take form.  

Perhaps too, Paris will become more renowned for its multiculturalism: already more than 40 per cent of central Parisians have at least one foreign parent, but in its northern suburbs, this number is over 60 per cent. With these suburbs more integrated into the whole, surely also their burgeoning reputation as an incubator of football talent will become an essential aspect of Paris’s global reputation. More world class footballers have come from Saint Denis’ quatrevingt-treize postcode in recent years than almost anywhere else on Earth. Grand Paris can be the town of Mbappé as much as Molière.

By the time the year 2030 comes around, when the Grand Paris project should be nearing completion, perhaps a Paris still defined by its ring road will feel as old fashioned as one defined by its old city walls. Ask to think of a Parisian then, while the waiters and the boulevardiers may remain, it is likely a more diverse picture will come to mind: the descendants of Algerian and Senegalese families; international business associates, footballers, and entrepreneurs. These people live in Paris now, of course, but are no so visible, not so “on brand”. The Grand Paris project at its best, could, along with further opening the city to the world, open it more to its own people as well.    

There is also another possibility, however: that the essence of Paris is more intractable than town planners want to believe. And for all the excited talk of synergies in the Grand Paris plans, it will prove easier to move bodies than minds. Indeed, despite the reported squalor and cramped streets of the 19th century, look at the contemporary sources: it’s clear Paris had some essential Paris-ness long before even Haussmann came along. This is not to do with a particular person-type or architecture, but something less tangible: an atmosphere, and certainty of its own value.

“Paris is the world,” once claimed the writer Pierre de Marivaux in 1734, “the rest of the earth is nothing but its suburbs.”

Perhaps. But in the future, let’s hope those suburbs will start a little further out. 

 
 
 
 

Outdoor dining is a lifeline for restaurants, but cities don’t always make it easy

(Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

In downtown Toronto, café owners Toula and Peter Bekiaris were recently granted something to help them through the Covid-19 pandemic: a piece of the street outside their doors.

They got this space for their pastry and coffee shop, Filosophy, through a city-led initiative called CaféTO, created in response to the pandemic. The programme helps clusters of neighbouring restaurants want to set up outdoor patios on streets or sidewalks. As part of the initiative, Filosophy was able to expand from a two-seater bench out front to an eight-seat curbside patio, allowing it to welcome back patrons to a plot of the street separated from traffic by orange and black pylons.

“To have that little slice of pre-Covid feeling is rejuvenating for sure,” Toula Bekiaris says.


As the pandemic brings a generation of bars and restaurants to the brink of collapse, cities everywhere are seeing businesses spill out of their front doors and onto nearby sidewalks and streets. For many desperate small business owners, it’s their last best hope to claw back any business at all.

Bekiaris said the program brought her block back to life – but it also left her with a question. Toronto bylaws don’t normally make it easy for bars and restaurants to have sidewalk and curbside patios. She wondered, “My gosh, why are we not able to do this more regularly?”

Many cities have long had strict rules and steep fees that govern outdoor dining in public spaces. In places that were slow to adapt, or that haven’t adapted at all, this has caused tension for restaurant owners who are just trying to survive.

In Tel Aviv, for example, a schnitzel restaurant owner was filmed begging police to not issue him a ticket for having tables on the sidewalk outside of his shop. In New York City, businesses openly flouted rules that initially forbade outdoor eating and drinking. In the typically traffic-clogged Lima – the capital of Peru, one of the hardest-hit nations in the world for Covid – patios are scattered across sidewalks, but don’t have access to street space, which is still mainly centred around cars. “In the present-day context, the street has never been more important,” urban designer Mariana Alegre writes in a Peruvian newspaper.

As the terrasse aesthetic made famous by Paris and Montreal finds footing in cities that aren’t typically known for outdoor patronage, business owners and officials alike are finding that it’s not as simple as setting up some tables and chairs outside. The experiences of five different cities trying to embrace outdoor patios offer some useful lessons for understanding what can go wrong, and how it can be done right.

Vilnius


Vilnius was an early adopter of the outdoor dining trend. (Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images)

In April, the Lithuanian capital made global headlines for promising to allow bars and restaurants to use public space to set up a “giant outdoor café.”

“Plazas, squares, streets – nearby cafés will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season,” Vilnius’s mayor Remigijus Šimašius said at the time.

There were good intentions behind the plan, but a report by nightlife consultancy VibeLab suggests the city didn’t quite pull it off. The Vilnius case study in the report says physical distancing was hard to maintain on narrow streets. There was a lack of government planning and communication. The city didn’t measure the economic impact of the initiative. Locals complained about street noise.

Mark Adam Harold, Vilnius’s night mayor and the founder of Vilnius Night Alliance, said in the VibeLab report that the “appearance of vibrancy in the streets of Vilnius led to a decrease in public support for the still-struggling hospitality sector, as people assumed the economic crisis was over.”

Still, the political will to do something radical – even if it meant mistakes were made in the process – can be a foreign concept in some places. Vilnius showed that change, often so slow in municipal politics, can happen fast in extenuating circumstances.

In July, Vilnius took it a step further, closing down some central streets to car traffic as a way to lure different kinds of people to the Old Town. “Cars cannot dominate the most sensitive and beautiful part of our city. Vilnius is choosing to be a city of the future now,” said Šimašius.  

New York City


New York City plans to bring back outdoor dining again in the spring of 2021. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

As soon as it was warm enough to eat and drink outside, New Yorkers were doing it. The empty streets and desolate sidewalks made it easy to claim a piece of pavement – prompting some to jump the gun on Phase 2 reopening. “I need every dollar I can get,” a Little Italy restaurant owner said, explaining his guerrilla patio to Eater back in June. “I’m hanging on by a shoestring here.”

Since those early pandemic days, New York City has moved to formalise outdoor dining, launching its Open Restaurants and Open Streets programmes. They allow establishments to set up sidewalk and curbside patios for patrons, and in some cases, even extend their restaurant’s real estate right across the street. The city says more than 9,000 businesses have signed up for Open Restaurants since June. It’s been such a success that the mayor’s office said it would do it again in the spring of 2021.

"In just two months, Open Restaurants has helped re-imagine our public spaces – bringing New Yorkers together to safely enjoy outdoor dining and helping to rescue a critical industry at the same time," said DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg in a news release announcing the 2021 extension.

Kristin Vincent is an owner of Sel Rrose, Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 in New York City, as well as a Sel Rrose location in Montauk. She says she already had a sidewalk patio permit for Sel Rrose in Manhattan’s Lower East Side prior to the pandemic, for which she pays approximately $25,000 annually, usually paid in three-month installments. When the last installment came due, the city waived payment.

Vincent says the city’s also been more lax about monitoring the sidewalk, which she has warmly welcomed. “They used to police outdoor seating – if you went an inch outside the zone of where you’re supposed to be, you’d get a ticket. If you stayed open for 10 minutes past when you were supposed to [close], you’d get a ticket. If neighbours were complaining that you’re outside, they’d pull your outdoor seating away. It was such an ‘honour’ to have outdoor seating,” she says.

Vincent sincerely hopes the city reconsiders its entire approach to outdoor seating even after the pandemic has ended – but she isn’t sure that’s realistic. While Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 have remained closed because of lack of outdoor space, she has had to manage a never-ending list of changing rules for the two Sel Rrose locations. Most recently, she’s had to contend with New York City’s ban on selling alcoholic drinks without food.

“Why can’t it just be drinks?” she asks. If the goal is to prevent the spread of Covid-19, she wonders why they’re still enforcing Prohibition-style rules on to-go drinks. Those little details add up, Vincent says, making it challenging for bars and restaurants to make money. Right now, the Lower East Side location is earning around 30% of the sales it made this time last year.

The nitpicking isn’t unique to New York City. At the Montauk location, she built an outdoor patio in preparation for opening only to be told it was in the wrong place. That said, that location is doing better (about 65% of sales) because the area is a phase ahead of the city, allowing for 50% indoor seating capacity.

She says allowing indoor seating will be critical to New York City bars and restaurants as summer turns to fall, and fall turns to winter. “We have to open inside – have to. We’ll even take 50%,” she says.

Montreal


Montreal reduced its usual fee for terrasse permits. (Eric Thomas/AFP via Getty Images)

Sergio Da Silva’s Montreal bar and music venue, Turbo Haüs, has been skating by on the thinnest of margins. The Latin Quarter business was closed for months, finally reopening as a terrasse-only bar in the second week of July. 

In terms of Covid measures, Montreal has pedestrianised key streets including St-Denis, where Turbo Haüs is located (for what it’s worth, it normally pedestrianises St-Denis during the summer). It also reduced the terrasse permit fee, and in Turbo Haüs’s case waived the $3,000–$4,000 it would have owed the city as reimbursement for the three metered parking spaces taken over by its mega-terrasse. But Da Silva still paid $2,000 to comply with the rest of the permitting process, including the $500 in permit fees he paid prior to the Covid discount.

Anecdotally, he says, it seems the city’s invitation to businesses to set up terrasses hasn’t been met with the kind of speed some businesses were hoping for. His neighbour across the street applied for a permit, and was still waiting even after Turbo Haüs opened. “The entire process just seemed more difficult than it was before,” he says.

It’s been a frustrating summer. It was supposed to be the bar’s time to squirrel away money for the quieter winter season. Instead, Da Silva says, he’s mostly just making enough to stay open right now. “This would have been a really, really good summer for us. We had everything in place to put a giant dent in all our debts, and we were looking forward to actually paying ourselves a livable sum. And then this kind of thing happened,” he says. He predicts this winter is when the thread that so many bars and restaurants are holding onto will finally snap.

“You should wait to see what it looks like in the winter slow season,” he says. “That's when a lot of places are actually going to be shutting down.”

Assuming most bars and restaurants won’t be able to operate at 50% or greater capacity in the winter, a small business rent forgiveness programme that gives money to tenants (rather than directly to landlords) may be the only way governments can prevent mass closures.

Tel Aviv


Tel Aviv's approach to outdoor dining left many restaurants wondering if they would be able to survive. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Tel Aviv’s outdoor patio story has emerged in fits and starts. In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told people to “Go out and have a good time”.

In early July, The Times of Israel published the video of the schnitzel restaurateur pleading with police not to fine him for having a couple of tables and chairs out on the sidewalk. “Business owners give this city culture, entertainment. There’s no work and I’m even fined! I have three kids to feed, where will I get the money from?” he cried.

Three days later, the Israeli metropolis published a news release saying it was sacrificing road space for on-street dining platforms in its trendy restaurant district, on Chayim Vital Street. The city also pedestrianised 11 streets, placing chairs and umbrellas in the new car-free zones to encourage people to use their new public space. The following day, the city gave restaurants only a few hours’ warning about an open-ended closure order, which many restaurateurs vowed to disobey. They won, but within the same month, 34 restaurants were fined for serving unmasked patrons.

The backlash Tel Aviv has received from the bar and restaurant industry has been deserved. The lack of clear guidelines, ever-changing rules and unavailability of aid and support has left many businesses in the lurch, wondering if they’ll ever be able to come back from Covid.

Toronto

In pre-Covid times, Harsh Chawla says his popular Indian restaurant Pukka would routinely turn around 250 seats on a normal Saturday. Now, in a summer without tourism, nor Toronto’s Summerlicious restaurant festival, nor indoor dining, his 24-seat curbside patio has been a saving grace. “I always say, anything better than zero is a win for us,” he says.

Chawla says he helped rally his neighbours around CaféTO’s proposal of shutting down on-street parking spaces in favor of dining nooks. He came up against worries that reduced parking would mean reduced business for them – a common concern that a growing body of research demonstrates is not actually true. Eventually his stretch of St. Clair Street West came to a compromise allowing for the conversion of some parking spots.

Trevor McIntyre, global director of placemaking at IBI Group, is a consultant on the CaféTO programme. He sees the lane and parking spot closures as big wins in a city that allocates an incredible amount of space to cars, even with mounting pedestrian and cyclist deaths. “We've slowed down traffic considerably – cars slow down, the whole pace slows down. You take away the on-street parking, and it encourages people to get out and walk. You start seeing higher volumes of people,” says McIntyre.

In this experiment, curbside patios and more heavily pedestrianised areas are driving more business to areas than parking does. Chawla likes the results.

“Hopefully we do this next year, and the year after, and the year after, because I think it gives us character to the street, it gives character to the neighbourhood,” says the restaurateur. “Our summers are so short-lived in Canada, in Toronto – so why not have more spaces outside so people can enjoy it?”

Tracey Lindeman is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.