I’d promised myself I’d only go to new bits of Paris on this trip. There is a danger, in returning to a city you know a little, that you return to the places you already know: that you latch onto that which already feels familiar. This, at least, is the only way I can rationalise the fact I’ve been to La Défense – which is, whatever one says about its innovative architecture, fundamentally a suburban office park – three times now.
And Paris is, on any reasonable definition, big: though I’ve been enough times to have lost count, there are huge parts of it that I’ve never seen. So this time, I told myself, in the hours I had free to explore between meetings, I would go to new places.
But then, on an undistinguished boulevard somewhere in the 19th, I noticed something: the buildings were taller than the trees. And I knew I had to go back to Sacré-Cœur.
* * *
I spend a lot of time wandering aimlessly around cities – so much so that finding interesting new walks in London, at least ones easily joined from anywhere near my flat, is becoming increasingly difficult to do. I’ve long ticked off most of the obvious ones: the riverside paths, the greenways, the London Loop, a 150 mile look of largely dull suburban streets, interspersed with stretches of greenery and the occasional airport.
More promising is the Capital Ring, which orbits central London at roughly the point the inner city turns to suburbia, and which I love so much I’ve done much of it three times. On my last time round, I noticed something odd: whenever you’re on relatively high ground, and have a viewpoint from which to look down on the city around you, it’s remarkably hard to find it.
Looking out from Horsendon Hill, near Wembley, or from the stretch of the New River behind Manor House which looks north down towards Harringay, a large chunk of the view is taken up by trees. There are buildings, sure – but they often seem to be separated by vast stretches of greenery. If you didn’t know you were looking at a city, you’d be hard pressed to identify it as such.
The view west from Horsendon Hill, near Wembley. That's suburbia down there. Image: Jonn Elledge.
It isn’t all trees, of course: from both these places you’re actually looking out over a network of suburban streets. Even looking west from Richmond Hill, where you really are looking out towards some of the greenest, plushest suburbs on the borders of Surrey, there are still homes for a few hundred thousands of people down there hidden beneath the trees.
From high ground, though, you can’t necessarily see that. It’s not that the trees are all there is: they’re just taller than most of the houses. So looking down at distant suburbs from a slight elevation, what you’ll often see is a landscape of trees and parks and playing fields with occasional high rises or office blocks poking above the treeline. The endless repeated streetscape that characterises most of London is invisible.
These are all views of the suburbs, of course: the same trend is much less pronounced if you look down from any of the viewpoints in inner London (Primrose Hill, say, or the viewing gallery of the new Tate Modern). There are more taller buildings; there are fewer obvious trees.
But what you still won’t see, by and large, are the sort of private homes many Londoners actually live in. If for some reason you find yourself wanting an idea of what London looks like from above, your best bet is to look out of an aeroplane on its final approach to Heathrow.
So I went back to Sacré-Cœur because of a sneaking suspicion that in Paris – a comparable European city, of roughly the same size and roughly the same age – this wasn’t actually true.
* * *
Montmatre, if you’ve never done the rounds of tourist Paris, has seen edgier days. A century ago, it was the home of the Parisian avant-garde, and provided homes for artists including Monet, Picasso and Van Gogh. Nowadays, it’s mostly dominated by foreigners paying through the nose for a small drink.
But it does also have the huge white Basilica of Sacré-Cœur, which stands 80m tall on a 130m hill. It’s a stunning sight in itself, a great white church whose spires reach as high of the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, but it’s not nearly as stunning as the view from its steps. You can see the whole of the city centre, two miles south, in one glance, and mile upon mile of pale stone mansion blocks beyond it. It’s worth the climb, is what I’m saying here.
The view from Sacré-Cœur, looking towards the eastern suburbs of Paris. Image: Jonn Elledge.
The reason I decided to make that climb again, despite the fact I’ve done it perhaps half a dozen times already, is because I wanted to check I was remembering the view right. And I was: the dominant colour of the world viewed from the steps of Sacré-Cœur is not green, but white. It’s a landscape not of trees, but of buildings.
Human architecture dominates the view because Paris is dense enough that the buildings tower above its trees. And unlike in London, where most high rises are office blocks or social housing of the sort the state has let rot for too many decades now, these are the places where most Parisians live.
* * *
London, as I may have mentioned before, has a housing crisis. There are all sorts of reasons for that – the boom of the last two decades, the financialisation of housing in fashionable cities worldwide, capital’s flight to safety in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, the strict limits the city’s authorities place on what we can build and where.
But one of the reasons is that London is so low. Most of suburbia is made up of two storey 1930s houses; there are parts of zone 1 where the streets still stand two storeys high. Last year I walked from Upminster, on the city’s eastern fringes, back to central London. That walk took me on the fringes of Docklands, where London has been sprouting skyscrapers for three decades now, and except for a couple of miles of parkland between Hornchurch and Dagenham, I largely stuck to main roads. All the same, it was only at Aldgate, as I reached the City, that the buildings started to get above four storeys with any regularity.
This may not be sustainable. London’s housing crisis is ultimately part of a bigger space crisis: the shortage of offices or industrial space get talked about rather less regularly, but are, nonetheless, real. And the reason for all that is because the physical floorspace of the city is constrained not just by policies like the green belt but by the height of the buildings. In some places, and to some extent, fixing London’s problems will mean reaching for the sky.
Paris has its own problems – the stench of urine that greets you on leaving Gare du Nord is not the most important, but it does tend to be the first to leap to mind – but something it does well is to house a lot of people in a very small area. Paris proper – the bit run by the mayor, roughly equivalent in size to London’s zones 1 & 2 – has a population of 2.2m. That gives it a population density of 21,500 per km2, significantly higher than even the densest London borough, Islington, which manages 16,000. (Inner London as a whole manages just 10,000.)
A map of Paris proper super-imposed on London. The former is around twice as densely populated as the latter. Image: CityMetric.
Yet Paris, it hardly needs saying, is not a Bladerunner-style highrise hellscape: another thing you can see from Montmatre is quite how few proper skyscrapers it has, far fewer than London these days. Wandering the streets you rarely notice quite how tall the buildings around you are. But they are: six or seven storey mansion blocks, filled with apartments that, while having a coffee or a glass of wine at the place on the corner you might have caught yourself coveting.
This, incidentally, is something else that’s worth hammering home here. The density of Paris makes Paris better. Every corner will have its bars and cafes and restaurants and corner shops. There’s a level of street life that is absent from the back streets of London, where there are pubs and parades of corner shops but also huge stretches of nothing but houses. Go to another city, one built around the car – Birmingham, say, or one of the sprawling north American monstrosities – and you’ll be lucky even to get that, and amenities are so far apart that moving around on foot becomes not just difficult but pointless. Building a city at higher density can make a city more worth living in.
* * *
I’ve written a lot about the green belt, and the need to extend London’s footprint to solve its housing crisis. I stand by that, for all sorts of reasons I’m not going to bore you with here.
But something else we could and should be doing is to build higher in the city that already exists. Both the fragmentation of land ownership, and the infuriating power of the NIMBY lobby means that this won’t be easy. The frankly embarrassing quality of most new build apartment blocks, all tiny rooms and antiseptic beige corridors, like student halls but for 30 somethings, won’t help either.
But Paris is a reminder that it can be done, and be done well. A dense city doesn’t need to look like a dystopia; indeed, a streetscape of apartment blocks which sit atop cafes and bars and shops can often by a livelier, more interesting place than one where everyone jealously guards their own tiny castles.
There will always be a place for traditional British low rise housing. But a world city like London should not be afraid to outgrow its own trees.