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'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 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.
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 Vernon, Bell, and Industry into personal piggybanks, twisting city codes to take local residents and businesses for all they’re worth.
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.
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.