Densifying Paris

For years, the urban agenda in Paris revolved around the preservation of the historical core, the expansion of the metropolis on its rural fringes, and the development of selected locations such as La Défense. But now the focus has shifted toward a more comprehensive development of the existing city, especially in the area outside the historical core, with a view to densifying the entire metropolitan footprint.

One of Paris's major development projects, Paris Nord-Est

Although much of the densification agenda is outside the Paris city limits, the building out of the center of the metropolis is a clear and explicit object of the current Paris city government.

Led by Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, a Socialist in a coalition that includes the Greens, the city has long taken the position that there needs to be more building in Paris. A major reason for this is the insufficient economic dynamism of Paris proper, which has seen jobs migrate toward the municipalities of the suburbs. Even more politically vivid is the issue of housing prices in Paris proper. As the First Deputy Mayor, Anne Hidalgo, who is in charge of urban and architectural matters, put it: “I will not be the elected official who will keep people from living in Paris.”

The City of Paris has for some time been pursuing a policy of aggressively trying to free areas for development. The City of Paris has been working for years on developing these, and has succeeded in bringing major developments to fruition in Bercy, Seine Rive Gauche, and Clichy-Batignolles.

But there remain significant tracts belonging to public or quasi-public entities that remain essentially fallow, either because of their ownership status or because of other practical or regulatory impediments. One of the consistent complaints of the municipality is of the national government’s desire to fully monetize these assets, rather than hand them over to the city at below-market rates to contribute to social, economic, and cultural objectives as part of comprehensive public sector-led development.

As pertains to the broader metropolis, the consultation for Le Grand Paris (see Le Grand Paris – Part 2: The International Consultation) was an important milestone. With the premise of envisioning Paris as a “post-Kyoto city,” density came up as a central issue, summarized in MVRDV’s assertion that to be greater, Le Grand Paris actually needs to become smaller. A number of the teams called attention to the density issue and advocated extremely aggressive measures to liberate the building potential of Greater Paris.

The Descartes team took a strong point of view: “We must stop saying that land is rare! We should instead say that the protagonists, at several different levels, have an incentive to make it seem rare”. They continued: “[Urban sprawl] is due to [the municipalities’] obsession of maintaining their ‘human scale,’ without ever assuming the consequences of their development choices at the scale of the metropolis”. [Livre chantier 1, p. 51 & 53]

The Descartes team performed an assessment that concluded that there are 268 square kilometers of land available for development in Greater Paris, or more than two and half time the surface area of Paris proper. To exploit it, they suggest that we need to think at three levels:

  • Individual lots that are underbuilt and that can be exploited with a simple change in local urban regulations;
  • Larger areas, on which programs of the order of 500 residential units can be built, that require mid-term development;
  • Large territories that can be opened up for large-scale developments over 15-20 years, for projects of “metropolitan ambition.”
Land availability analysis by the Descartes team

A number of the teams looked for concrete solutions to the issue. They found sites in places where it has not even occurred to anyone to build yet, often in strange interstices or unusual locations, for example along the Seine or highways. They also identified that there are many existing buildings with roof-terraces that structurally and architecturally could support additions, which in total would represent a large amount of square footage. The general theme is one of impatience with the current regulations, which seem to be biased against density, and in favor of allowing people to apply their creativity to find opportunities to build.

The Descartes team's example of the densification of the Seine-Marne confluence, an area exposed to flooding

An area some of the architects investigated in detail is land along the Seine and other rivers currently off-limit for construction due to the potential for floods. To better exploit these, they assert, there needs to be a better and more holistic consideration of the hydraulics of the river basins. But even in those areas genuinely at risk of flooding they suggest to find ways to build, most notably by managing the topography and the design of buildings and public spaces so that the floods that will occur will not be catastrophic. Another example of underappreciated places to build is to design highway interchanges in urban environments, which consume a great deal of high-value space, in order to make them compatible with building. A third example is to return to the tradition of inhabited bridges, as has been proposed at Les Ardoines. All of these are ideas that were completely off the radar screen of the authorities responsible for determining where and how it is possible to build.

The Nouvel team's illustration of how to densify large housing projects

There are two types of urban fabric found in Greater Paris in which the density issue is posed particularly starkly.

One is the large-scale housing projects which, despite having buildings that are relatively tall, have much lower density than the historical core of Paris. The team led by Jean Nouvel tackled this issue, proposing a very pragmatic and creative approach to the densification of these neighborhoods. This, he believes, would not only make them function better, but it would help with the mitigation of the social issues they often face.

The density issue is even greater in the “banlieue pavillonaire,” the surburban districts composed of detached single-family homes, where regulations and legal obstacles have kept much of the territory has locked into a totally static situation of extreme low density. As As Yves Lion has said, “These neighborhoods can’t change because they are awash in rules and regulations, there are people who consider their jobs to be to prevent others from doing things; you need to ask permission for everything you do… The country needs to accept that we need self-building.” For him, the problem is not that we are protecting places of architectural and urban value, it is that we have an enormous arsenal of regulations to protect places of no architectural or urban value from change. [Métropolitains, France Culture, 2/12/2012] His illustration of an ordinary suburban street in Athis-Mons in which construction is completely deregulated is a powerful vision of this different approach that has resonated with urbanists.

The Descartes team's illustration of how a street in Athis Mons would look if built up

Several teams of the Grand Paris consultation, including those led by Yves Lion, Roland Castro, Jean Nouvel, and Djamel Klouche, proposed aggressive measures to increase building rights. For example the Descartes team proposed that all owners of a detached single-family house should be allowed to build 100 square meters of additional space on their land and that all apartment buildings would be allowed to build an extra floor if structurally possible. This proposal was in stark contrast with the existing land use regulations, which strictly limit the amount of floor space that can be built on a given plot of land.

President Sarkozy has aligned himself with these ideas, although more for economic reasons rather than urban reasons. In January  2012, Sarkozy, explaining the importance of stimulating growth in the French economy through construction and the need for more housing to help limit rent prices, announced that “every lot, every house, every building will have the possibility to build 30% of extra floorspace,” [Le Figaro] The law instituting this measure was formalized in March, 2012, with immediate effect, for a period lasting for three years. Sarkozy also announced a major campaign to sell land in greater Paris belonging to the national government so that developers can build on it.

"Saturated Sprawl," MVRDV's concept for the single-family home suburb

It is hard to know what Parisians think of the idea of densification. One thing that is certain is that Parisians are extremely concerned about the almost uninterrupted rise in real estate prices, that has now touched many formerly middle-class neighborhoods. Many people seem comfortable with the idea that aggressively increasing supply is the only way to address the situation. And most people seem quite happy with the outcome in the areas that have been developed, like Bercy and Seine Rive Gauche.

Part of the recent evolution has been the increasing openness to construction of high-rise buildings around the edges of Paris proper. There are a number of these projects currently in the works, for which the City of Paris provides ad hoc approval. Again, it is hard to gauge where Parisians stand. There are certainly those who are staunchly against, and they are more than adequately represented by a few vocal organizations. But according to Anne Hidalgo, the First Deputy Mayor, mentalities are evolving and the questions people are asking about tall buildings are moving toward what kind and where, away from a blanket rejection.

The current economic difficulties in France has created an environment where there is great receptivity to arguments about economic growth and about increasing the supply of homes. At the same time, a number of high quality realizations have removed the stigma that contemporary real estate developments have had and have shown that it is possible to attain neighborhoods of real urban quality. The aspiration toward density seems to be gathering momentum, a development sure to leave a considerable mark on the Paris metropolis.

Related posts:

The Struggle for a Bigger Paris

Le Grand Paris – Part 4: Where Things Stand

Seine Rive Gauche

5 thoughts on “Densifying Paris”

  1. Stephane,

    Thank you for an informative presentation of proposals for increased density in and around Paris.

    I am puzzled, however, by your reference to the City Council’s projects on the periphery, in which you suggest that towers in those locations will add to density. As you know, there are no high-rise residential towers planned either at Clichy-Batignolles or at Paris Rive Gauche. The 50-story towers in those developments are for a courthouse in the one location, and for offices and possibly a hotel at the other. Deputy Mayor Hidalgo has stated as a matter of policy that there will be no residences in high-rise towers. And second, although the mid-level heights of apartment buildings in those projects slightly exceed the traditional heights of buildings in central Paris, the total residential density of those locations is less that the density of traditional Parisian neighborhoods.

  2. Thank you, Mary, for your comment.
    I did not want to focus on the height debate, as my point is precisely that the density issue is broader than that.
    But you bring up an interesting issue regarding the residential density of the new neighborhoods. I have not conducted a detailed analysis, but intuitively one can see that the residential density of these neighborhoods is not that high, and that this results from real urban planning choices. These new neighborhoods have a number of large public buildings (BNF, Université Paris-Diderot, TGI), in addition to significant park space and commercial and office space. As a result, when combined with the height limits, the residential density is not all that high, forming a very different kind of city to the so-called “Haussmannian” city. This is the heart of the issue the city is contending with – balancing between the need for jobs and economic activities, green spaces, and homes, and the reason why there is such pressure on the 37-meter height ceiling. The way the tension between these competing priorities is resolved is defining the form of the city that is being built today.

Leave a Reply