Le Grand Paris – Part 2: The International Consultation

[Note: this is part 2 of a series. If you have not yet read it, you might want to start with Part 1: The Launch]

After ten months of work, the output of the international consultation on Le Grand Paris was presented to President Sarkozy on March 13th, 2009.

A view of Paris used by the LIN team

The teams being led by architects, you might expect that it ended up being a superficial beauty contest. But that was not at all the case. The deliverables from the consultation were thick books containing analysis of all the aspects of the city, from hydrography to transportation to urban poverty to carbon emissions. I am sure there are people who consider that the very principle of a study concentrated over ten months is superficial compared to the ongoing work of a structure like the IAU-IDF, but overall the work was thoughtful, informed and certainly stimulating.

There is no way I can do justice to the work of all ten teams here, so I will give a very cursory account of my main impressions. If you want to go through the detail, the submissions of all ten teams are available on the Le Grand Pari web site.

The Nouvel team's proposal for a strong materialization of the edges of the urbanized region

There was a general theme of “building the city on the city,” of limiting the expansion of the built territory and better using the land that is already built-up. As the Portzamparc team said: “acting means transforming and bringing to life, not razing.” In this way the Grand Paris consultation marked a very strong opposition to the government policy of recent years, which has tended to want to fix the errors of the post-war years by demolishing and rebuilding, or indiscriminately expanding onto new land. In contrast, the ten submissions were all about densifying, reusing, repurposing.

All the teams, except for the Grumbach team, proposed limiting the Paris metropolitan region to its current footprint – or less. The Nouvel team even proposed to clearly define the edge of the urbanized area, giving the 1,000 kilometer-long edge of the city a valued status and allow for special treatments, some possibilities of which were investigated.

The Descartes team analysis of land use that identified 263 hectares of available urban land

The Descartes team, led by Yves Lion, found that the amount of available urban land in the Paris region is more than two and a half times the surface area of Paris proper. All the teams focused on making the most of these interstitial and underdeveloped areas, especially those used by railway tracks, along waterways, and on the edges of parks.

The Nouvel team's illustration of how to densify the public housing found in a number of Paris's suburbs

A number of teams explored how this proposed densification could take place in the existing urban fabric. The two types of fabric that attracted the most interest were the grands ensembles, the housing projects built from the 1950s to the early 1970s, and the low-density “banlieue pavillonaire” of single-family dwellings. The Nouvel team investigated the subject in some depth, promising a riot of creativity to provide both more square footage and a better quality of environment. In general, the architects pointed out that there is no correlation between density and the quality of urban space. They were eager to demonstrate how greater density can be made to go together with a better living environment.

There were forceful calls for a sea-change in urban planning regulations. Jean Nouvel stated: “What this is not about is redoing or fixing up the regional plan on the same basis. […] We need to change the mode of transformation of the whole territory to get out of an urbanism of zoning and single functions which only produces static and paralyzing urban conditions. The laws of evolution of the city need to change.” [AMC, p. 102]

The Castro team's proposal for a built-up island in Vitry-sur-Seine

The imperative of connecting Paris proper with the rest of the metropolitan region came up again and again. Richard Rogers said “I do not know any major city where the heart is so separated from the limbs.” His team proposed a model of “compact polycentrism,” very different to what has developed in Paris so far, and similar to the Portzamparc team’s concept of “rhizomes”. The team led by Atelier Castro worked in the same direction, suggesting the consolidation of high density hubs in what are now the suburbs. They distilled this into memorable images of what these hubs could look like, including a built-up island in Vitry-sur-Seine and of the transformation of La Courneuve Park into a a sort of Central Park, surrounded by high rise buildings.

Groupe Descartes, led by Yves Lion tackled the governance issue by pointing out the greater Paris is the equivalent of 20 mid-sized towns, and by proposing new, much more sensible, territorial divisions, similar to ideas suggested by the Castro team and others. The Rogers team also pointed out the inanity of the existing governance structure and suggested alternatives more likely to allow proper management of the metropolitan region.

The Nouvel team's proposal for a filling out of the existing regional rail system

By and large, the teams took a sensible and incremental approach to transportation, proposing to add lines to fill out the existing network rather than to build a large new system. They mostly worked from the existing subway, RER, tram, and bus networks to identify gaps and prioritize new connections. The Portzamparc team proposed the photogenic idea of an elevated high-speed subway system circling Paris above the périphérique, with the stations used as connections points between Paris proper and its suburbs.

The Portzamparc team's proposal for the extension of the Boulevard de Sebastopol to a new high speed rail station in Aubervilliers

The high-speed train network stimulated the teams’ thinking. Several groups recommended decommissioning Paris’s six major railway stations, which date from the middle of the nineteenth century, and to reuse the huge expanse of land used by their tracks for parks and to densify the city, as is already being done on the Gare d’Austerlitz tracks by covering them. The Portzamparc team suggested to create a northern rail hub to Aubervilliers. The Rogers team proposed a high-speed rail loop connecting several stations around Paris. And the MVRDV team suggested to build a new huge single high-speed rail terminal under the Place de la République.

The Rogers team image of a Paris with no visible separation between city proper and suburbs

Richard Rogers‘ comment about the separation between Paris proper and the suburbs led to what is for me the most emblematic image of the consultation. The vision of Paris in 2030 at left is a surprising image for anyone who knows Paris well, as the familiar shape of the city defined by the périphérique is simply not visible. At the same time, the near-suburb is much more densely built out, making the urban region a seamless whole. It conveys one of the central messages of the consultation: for the Paris of the future, there is no longer any sense to the distinction between “Paris intra-muros” and the rest of the region.

Now, to discover what was done with all these great ideas, go to Part 3: Moving to Implementation

Related posts:

Le Grand Paris – Part 1: The Launch

Le Grand Paris – Part 3: Moving to Implementation

Le Grand Paris – Part 4: Where Things Stand