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. 


The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.

Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

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