Here are four innovative urban projects underway in Paris

Les Grands Voisins. Image: Centre for London.

Anne Hildalgo worked for 13 years as Deputy Mayor before becoming Mayor of Paris in 2014. One might be forgiven for thinking that her ideas would have been blunted by the time she arrived in office. Instead, she is showing that the French capital can be a thriving centre for civic and social innovation.

There is an urgency to promote civic innovation in Paris. Income, wealth and opportunity divides run deep in the region. France’s richest and poorest communes are only a few kilometres apart, and in the latter, youth unemployment is close to 40 per cent.

The city has also been shaken by fears of homegrown terrorism, and by the refugee crisis: in the year to March 2018, 60,000 refugees arrived at the Paris 18e Registration Centre. Despite this increasing need, the city’s charitable sector is eroding. The number of new associations created in the city has been declining for several years in a row.

Innovation policies designed to tackle these social problems are often hit-and-miss – but Paris offers up some interesting examples. Under Hildalgo’s leadership, the city has encouraged liveliness and nurtured enterprise in the city’s overlooked spaces. New spaces for innovation have been enabled and funded, as at Station F. Existing projects have been supported, as at Les Grands Voisins; and there has been effort to stimulate new ideas (Réinventer Paris, Budget Participatif).

Les Grands Voisins – a Moveable Feast

A public developer has opened up a disused hospital as temporary homeless accommodation, with 600 beds. Rather than gating the site to prevent interactions with neighbours, the associations managing it have turned the hospital into a lively neighbourhood with offices, shops and bars with a social purpose: providing employment for people returning to work or for refugees who haven’t yet secured the right to work. A programme of events draws in neighbours as well as visitors from all over Paris.

The public subsidy is no more than the cost of renting out temporary accommodation in the private sector, and the office space let out to 250 companies covers the project’s running costs. According to organisers, Les Grands Voisins experiment has become one of the most diverse spaces in inner Paris, and is boosting the morale of the city’s charitable sector.


Le Budget Participatif

Between 2014 and 2020, Parisians can decide how €500 million euros – 5 per cent of the city’s investment budget – should be spent. Citizens put forward propositions, which are vetted by City Hall according to their feasibility, and then voted upon.

As projects only come out of the investment budget, most are improvements to public spaces, for instance through greening and street redesign. Paris has spent much energy encouraging participation, and the large funding pot is gradually raising interest: the number of voters has risen to 200,000 in 2018, a third of them high school students.

Réinventer Paris

The City of Paris has pioneered a competition to revive disused sites and unloved public spaces. For its second edition in 2017, the City auctioned leases on 34 sites owned by public bodies in the capital – from power and metro stations to a 17th century mansion – in exchange for architectural, economic, cultural and social value. In a city that is short of space, Paris hopes to unleash creative energy by giving access to vacant sites rather than keeping hold of them.

Station F

Paris opened the world’s largest startup hub in 2017: 3,000 workplaces, support services for entrepreneurs, and several restaurants and bars. The City of Paris facilitated the project by making compulsory purchase of the site to sell to a developer who financed it with support from a public financial institution.

Nicolas Bosetti is research manager at the Centre for London.

This piece also appears in the second issue of the London ideas magazine, a journal on urban innovation.

Images courtesy of the Centre for London.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.