The view from Sacré-Cœur: on Paris, London and the case for urban density

Sacre-Cœur, seen from the Arc de Triomphe. Image: Aarya0141/Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.


Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.


But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.


A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.