Paris is expanding its city limits to include its suburbs. Here are five other cities that should do the same

Grigny station: this'll be Paris, soon. Image: Poudou99, via Wikimedia Commons.

The French-speaking residents of Grigny, a suburb of Paris, may not be aware that, to English speakers, their city’s name evokes unpleasant words like “grungy” or “cringe-worthy” – but if an English-speaking tourist were to stray from the sights of central Paris and wind up there, such a description might well be on the tip of her tongue. The city is a far cry from the opulent landmarks of the City of Light – many here are struggling just to get by.


But now there’s a plan to make Grigny a bit more like Paris: that is, to literally make it part of Paris. The city is to become part of the Métropole du Grand Paris, a megacity that will include the current city of Paris and its inner ring of suburbs, with a population of over 7m. The plan for the future city, originally conceived in 2007, is scheduled to be officially implemented next year. In the words of the New York Times, “Paris Métropole promises a new regional council to coordinate housing, urban planning and transit for a greater Paris”.

One of the main goals of the plan is to alleviate the harsh divides within the urban area, described by French prime minister Manuel Valls as “territorial, social, ethnic apartheid”. But these problems are by no means unique to Paris. Around the world, municipal boundaries have become potent generators of inequality, and uniting central cities and suburbs may be an effective tool in fighting this trend.

To be sure, there are cases where city limits are too large, allowing centralised governments to run rampant (many cities in China seem to fit this bill). But these cities are far outnumbered by cities that, like Paris, are beset with perpetual turf wars between central cities and suburbs, making life miserable for everyone involved.

In addition, plans uniting cities and their suburbs have proved effective in the past: Budapest was once two separate cities, and modern New York City was created by merging the original city with four neighbouring counties.

Here’s a sampling of five cities from around the world which would might be a lot better off if they followed Paris’s example.

Detroit

Detroit's city limits. Image: Google.

Detroit is something like Paris in reverse. While Paris concentrates its wealth in the central city, Detroit pushes it out of the city proper and into the inner ring suburbs, its fabled blight mostly taking place within the city itself.

The city/suburb divide has reached the point where wealthy Detroit suburbs like Grosse Pointe are blocking off key thoroughfares that connect to Detroit (a grosse injustice, if you will).

Perhaps fuelled by the city’s status as a mecca for ruin porn, a small section of the city’s centre is starting to gentrify, but this is hardly consolation for those living in of the city’s many decimated neighbourhoods.

Lisbon

Lisbon is a picturesque seaside city with breathtaking medieval architecture. Outside the centre, though, the picture is not so pretty.

In Amadora, a Lisbon suburb, the Cova da Moura informal settlement provides one of the few housing options available for migrants from former Portuguese territories in Africa, and is frequently the site of violent showdowns between residents and police.

There are plenty of other settlements like this in the area, though few of them are in Lisbon proper.

Los Angeles

LA is a ridiculous shape. Image: Google. 

The expansion of LA’s city limits can be traced back to a long series of land grabs by the robber barons running city hall in the early 1900s, using the levers of municipal government to line their pockets and leaving the city with one of the most confusing set of boundaries in the world.

Today, it’s the smaller cities on the city’s borders that use municipal government to their advantage. Beverly Hills has used its status as an independent city to set back greater LA’s subway plans by at least three decades. Meanwhile, crafty (and horrendously corrupt) politicians have converted working class cities southeast of LA such as of VernonBell, and Industry into personal piggybanks, twisting city codes to take local residents and businesses for all they’re worth.

Johannesburg

Under the apartheid regime, urban segregation along racial lines was an ever-present reality within the city of Johannesburg. Neighbourhoods were designated as either black or white, and the separation was strictly enforced.

Though segregation within the city didn’t exactly end after apartheid, the city’s white population began to migrate to the municipalities surrounding the city, a phenomenon dubbed by researchers at the University of Whitwatersrand as “The Emergence of the Neo-Apartheid City”.

While widening municipal borders may not be enough to turn the tide on centuries of discrimination, it may be a step in the right direction.

Mumbai

Navi Mumbai; the city proper is across the bay to the west. Image: Google.

The largest city in India, Mumbai is facing a severe housing crunch – thanks in large part to arcane and prohibitive construction restrictions, which many accuse of being left in place for the benefit of a wealthy few who have figured out how to take advantage of the status quo. More than 50% of the city’s residents live in informal housing, often with poor access to basic services.

Meanwhile, across the bay in the city of Navi Mumbai, residential towers rise unchecked and are quickly snapped up by speculators. The city has recently proposed loosening the building restrictions, but the disparity between the two cities thanks to drastically different housing codes is likely to have long-lasting repercussions.

 
 
 
 

A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.


Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.