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. 


Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.

The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.