Paris in the Twenty-First Century

This is an exceptionally exciting time for Paris. Through a raft of bold projects, the city is regaining the ambition and vision that propelled it to the forefront of modernity nearly two centuries ago. Paris is again on a quest to project itself as a leader on the global stage.

Mille Arbres by Sou Fujimoto Architects, Manal Rashdi OXO Architectes, Compagnie de Phalsbourg, Ogic, Morph

The Weight of an Exceptional Legacy

Thanks to the vision of Napoleon III and the diligence and capability of many of his contemporaries, nineteenth-century Paris achieved a position of global exemplar among cities.

In the twentieth century, however, Paris struggled to find its path. Hamstrung between inappropriate visions of modernity and the awesome responsibility for the stewardship of its urban heritage, the city never truly found a compelling way forward.

Paris continued to have a huge power of attraction, whether for tourism or corporations. But, as the twentieth century came to a close, it was no longer at the forefront in terms of dynamism, vision and innovation.

The focus was on picturesque preservation of the historic center, while the periphery was mired in deeply conservative urban policy and, in some places, intractable social problems.

By the final decade of the century, a gulf had developed between the ambition of global competitors from London to Shenzhen and the business-as-usual attitude of a Paris reliant on the strength of the legacy it had inherited.

Today, things have changed. A new spirit presides over Paris. There is ambition and boldness, a willingness to embrace innovation, a newfound comfort with the idea that inventing our own future is not a form of disrespect or disregard for the past, bien au contraire…

This time it is not through the will of an autocrat, but through  the multiple undertakings of many that we are rising to the challenge articulated by Victor Hugo at the occasion of the 1867 World Fair: “At this time of reaction against the forces of progress […] it is useful, it is necessary, it is just to bear witness in Paris. To do so it to affirm, despite all the apparent obviousness accepted by vulgarity, the continuation of the vast evolution of humanity toward universal liberation.”1

A New Mindset

The mindset overseeing Paris’s destiny changed shortly after the turn of the century through an interesting convergence at the local and national levels.

Bertrand Delanoë became the first Socialist Mayor of the modern era in Paris in 2001. His vision of social inclusion and environmental stewardship was not articulated around conservatism, but around ambition. He initiated important investments, like the tramway and the pedestrian-friendly redesign of important urban spaces like the Place de la République. Paris became one of the first major cities to have a bike-share program and to convert a highway to a place for walking and exercise. And Delanoë promoted vast new developments in order to increase the housing stock, to better distribute the supply of high-quality office and retail space, and to create attractive neighborhoods.

Nicolas Sarkozy became President of France in 2007 and rapidly put forward his own vision for Greater Paris. “Paris’s vocation is to be a leader in the world civilization and in the world economy,” he said. “But if we are not careful, Paris can lose this role.”2  Breaking with the traditional view, Sarkozy asserted that the development of Paris was in fact beneficial, not detrimental to the rest of France.  But to succeed, the level of ambition had to change. The scope of vision had to change from the individual municipalities to the whole metropolitan area. And the temporal scope of the vision had to be “not to think about the six months to come but about the century that is beginning”.3

So in the first decade of the new century politicians at the national and local levels, from opposite sides of type political spectrum, converged.

What laid beneath this was a profound change in mindset about Paris, in which the more clairvoyant leaders saw the city within a global context and not just within a French context. This shift was at the root of the resurgence we are seeing in Paris today.

Métropole du Grand Paris

One of the secrets of the change of paradigm was the discovery that what everyone was thinking of as Paris was just too small. The collective mind map had Paris as a city of two and a half million people, surrounded by a vast suburb. But the realization began to set in that antiquated municipal boundaries had no relevance in a globally competitive and connected world. Paris was a single metropolitan entity, whatever the political map said.

Framing Paris’s fortune in the context of a global competition between cities sharply brought out the issue of Paris’s failing governance. Paris, with its hyper-fragmented political organisation with multiple levels of authority, had a form of governance gridlock that prevented the urban entity from having any strategy at all. The hodgepodge of entities with conflicting interests could no longer be allowed to continue.

A long and contentious legislative process finally reached fruition in 2013. A law was voted calling for the creation of a new governance entity, the first to lead Greater Paris as an urban entity. Its name was to be Métropole du Grand Paris.


Métropole Grand Paris became effective on January 2016, with a small team, a limited budget, and very few areas of authority that did not overlap with some other local government entity. Nevertheless, it is a start, and the direction of history can only be to give this entity a true leadership role in articulating and implementing an urban strategy for Paris.

Most importantly, “Grand Paris” now has an identity. Mentalities and ways of speaking are changing. It is now obvious to everyone that when we speak of Paris it can no longer be just the small municipality behind the 1840s fortifications, to the exclusion of the great majority of the actual physical city of Paris.

This change in language itself has generated a new ambition because it compels all the stakeholders to think at the metropolitan scale. Everyone has understood that the people throughout the urban area are all Parisians and their common interests are greater than their conflicts. There is finally a mental construct of Paris that is conducive to an ambition in line with the city’s position.

Grand Paris Express

While the governance issue slowly progressed, the national government pursued a more concrete project to give Paris a metropolitan identity: a massive public transportation investment project.

The new project was not just a new metro line, but a whole new network at the scale of Greater Paris.

The design of the network reflects its core intent: it would not center around old Paris in a hub and spoke system as previous networks had done. Instead, the new network would circle around the city as defined by Haussmann in 1860, connecting hubs that until now had been reliant on their radial connection to the center.

These new hubs, well within the urban area, are close to the center and well connected to it, but have much lower density than the city inside the périphérique highway. They therefore represent extraordinary opportunities to densify and consolidate the city, to create neighborhoods, homes and offices that correspond to a new collective ideal, just as the ones created by our forefathers of the Second Empire.

Today the first line of the Grand Paris Express is under construction, and the rest is in design. When completed, it will consist of 200 kilometers of new high speed metro lines with 68 new stations, carrying 2 million passengers a day at an average speed of 55 to 60 kilometers per hour. It will have a huge impact not only on the everyday lives of Parisians, but also on the development opportunities and economic fortunes of the metropolis.

Gare Saint-Denis Pleyel by Kengo Kuma  and Associates © Société du Grand Paris

Innovative Urban Projects

When President Sarkozy first kicked off the reflection on Paris’s new and greater ambition, he did so through a competition bringing together ten teams of urban planners, designers and other professionals.

The teams spawned an impressive number of projects, and although these were highly diverse, there were some very strong common themes. The most notable was the idea of densification, of containing suburban sprawl and instead seeking more opportunities to build within the already urbanized area. As I have chronicled elsewhere (Densifying Paris), this launched a quest for architectural ingenuity to build above, around, and between existing structures.

The question of urban and architectural innovation took a new turn in 2014, when the City of Paris launched Reinventing Paris. Instead of defining the requirements for each site and tendering the lots out, as would usually have been done, the city issued a call for ideas for 23 sites in an effort to spawn ingenuity and innovation in urban development.

As part of this program named Reinventing Paris, 372 teams made proposals. 75 of these were developed further and winners were selected. Today, 22 of the sites have been awarded and are under development.

The competition has allowed for a degree of creativity not just in architectural form, but more importantly in programmatic content, that would not have otherwise been possible. The buildings that will come out of the competition — which range immensely in size, type and location — will have a significant impact on the Paris landscape.

In Vivo by X-TU Architects, MU Architecture, BPD Marignan, Groupe SNI, EFIDIS 

Réalimenter Masséna by Lina Gotmeh/DGT Architects, Hertel

The spirit of Reinventing Paris has caught on in a big way. A consortium of local governments has launched a similar competition on 41 sites along the Seine River named Réinventer la Seine. And the City of Paris has announced that the second edition of Réinventer Paris will take place in 2017.

Métropole du Grand Paris and Société Grand Paris have launched their own competition called Réinventons la Métropole du Grand Paris. Covering 59 sites across Greater Paris, it is billed as the world’s biggest urban competition. Many of these sites are located at the hubs to be catalyzed by the Grand Paris Express and therefore directly play into the broader planning agenda of the metropolitan region.

Overall, this spirit of openness to different ways of doing things, whether social, sustainable or spatial solutions, has acted as an important catalyst for the design and development community.

A New Leadership Role Among the World’s Cities

Paris’s new sense of dynamism and ambition is expressed through the new governance entity of Métropole du Grand Paris, the Grand Paris Express high speed metro network, and the new ways that governments are stimulating and harnessing innovation and creativity to model our physical environment.

But there is much more, including — far from exhaustively— whole new neighborhoods such as Clichy-Batignolles where the new Courts building designed by Renzo Piano has gone up; the ongoing large-scale development of La Défense; Paris’s vibrant entrepreneurial culture symbolized by the world’s biggest incubator, Station F; further plans to pedestrianize and improve the historic center; and, if Paris’s bid is successful, the hosting of the 2024 Olympic Games.

Paris has tremendous heritage and has a duty to be an excellent steward of that heritage. But that does not mean that Paris cannot and should not have an ambition of its own to invent a city consistent with our own vision and ideals and that will again set an example among the cities of the world.

This city must of course cohabitate with and be sensitive to the historical city we have inherited. But failing to rise to our highest level of realization would be a failure to understand and perpetuate the spirit of those who built Notre Dame, the Opéra and the Eiffel Tower before us and thereby made this city we all love and admire.

Today, a whole new generation has taken up the challenge to use their energy and ingenuity to maintain and carry forward the spirit that made Paris.


  1. Victor Hugo writing in the Introduction to Paris-Guide (Paris: A. Lacroix, Verboeckhoven et Cie Éditeurs, 1867), p. xxxiv.
  2. Nicolas Sarkozy speaking at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine on April 29th, 2009.
  3. Ibid.