Paris by Design

By

DURING his massive rebuilding of Paris in mid-19th century, Emperor Louis Napoleon III complained that his planner was too concerned about visual effects. Why couldn't he just keep the traffic moving, like his counterparts in London? "Sire," replied the planner, whose name was Baron Georges Eugene Haussmann, "Parisians are not Englishmen. They need something more."

Parisians can be superior about the graces of their city. Yet with reason, Paris today may be marred by graffiti and somewhat long in tooth. Still, this summer American tourists will experience by the thousands a city where they feel good just for being there.

As these visitors stroll down the Boulevard Montparnasse, they may notice that Paris is not just a museum piece. It holds important lessons for American cities today. No, they don't have to try to imitate the grand boulevards or the Arc de Triomphe. Rather they need something that is distinctly out of fashion in Washington these days - to protect the old and plan the new.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

The Paris that tourists throng to see didn't come about through accident or "market forces." It was planned. Haussmann took an essentially medieval city, without major thoroughfares, and laid upon it the boulevards and squares that define the city we know today. He was taken to task for brutalizing the intimate old city; Napoleon's hidden motive, people said, was to break up the poorest neighborhoods where insurrection might breed.

Still, the plan worked, through a happy blending of old and new. Where American "urban renewal" of the '50s and '60s simply obliterated the past, Haussmann provided linkages, and an exuberant (if sometimes grandiose) sense of design. "Behind every boulevard, with its elegant facades and middle-class residents, lay intact an older, working-class Paris," the art historian Donald Olsen has written. From the grand avenues, "the 16th century is only a few steps away."

Paris has had the good sense to protect this legacy. Where American cities have allowed high-rise buildings to dominate their centers, Paris has put these in quarantine in a fringe district called La Defense (which has become a curiosity and tourist attraction). Tight restrictions on building - it's against the law to block a neighbor's light, for example - protect a city that is fun to walk through and live in.

The other thing that saved Haussmann's plan was street life. There is a tendency in America to regard the street with distaste and sometimes fear; mainly, city streets serve to park and move cars. In Paris, Haussmann designed the streets as promenades and parks for people. Sidewalks are broad, and there are shops and cafes on virtually all but the narrowest alleys. Paris planners didn't buy the notion, common in American zoning laws, of separating commercial districts and residential neighborhoods.

The benefits of such planning are not just aesthetic. It helps prevent some gritty problems that beset American cities. The safest streets, for example, are streets with shops and people.

One way to compensate for cramped, high-priced housing, moreover, is to provide a bit of luxury outside the apartment. For all its elegant and sometimes precious image, Paris makes its grandeur available to all. Haussmann made "public and generally available what had before been the privileges of the few," Olsen writes.

Paris is far from perfect. Poverty, for example, is dispersed on the periphery rather than packed in the center - less visible but still present. Still, American cities can learn a great deal from this city. Their challenge, though, is the opposite of the one Haussmann faced. Where he imposed grandeur upon a medieval city, Americans need to inject intimacy and human scale into urban centers dominated by monster towers and cars.

Some cities have taken a few steps - with outdoor markets, for example. But the commitment has to go deeper. Manhattan could promote the shops on its cluttered mid-town cross streets, for example, instead of permitting office towers to obliterate them. Washington could build housing along its monumentally boring Pennsylvania Avenue.

A bonus of good planning could be a boost to American democracy. Americans sit apart, in their homes; the words "privacy" and "privation" come from the same root. With more cities designed to bring people together in public places (like the old town commons) our public life might improve.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...