Reinventing Paris

Every city is confronted with the challenge of producing urban projects that contribute to a high quality, dynamic and sustainable urban future.

The City of Paris has taken the lead on an innovative approach to meeting that challenge. With this approach, the city hopes to usher in a new wave of innovation and to generate audacious urban projects commensurate with the ambition of a city known for its world leadership in the quality of its urban environment.

In 2014, newly-elected Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s team realized that France’s very tightly government-controlled model of urban development had lost its ability to produce fresh solutions to meet the needs of city dwellers.
Traditionally, local governments secure ownership of land and set the programmatic characteristics of what will be built. Architects and developers are then selected to execute the individual buildings.

The City of Paris was not satisfied with this approach and decided to experiment with something radically different.

The City identified 23 plots of land it owned that for one reason or another had been difficult to develop and therefore monetize. Instead of establishing a program and commissioning architects to give the buildings an architectural form, the City launched a new type of competition. It invited multidisciplinary teams to come forward and make proposals with no ex ante programmatic requirements, with as few constraints and as wide a remit as possible.

The City hoped that the competition, named “Reinventing Paris”, would yield unexpected ideas for each site, responding in novel ways to changing urban challenges and expectations. It made it clear that the proposals would be selected within a global view of their social, environmental and economic impact. The City wanted to show that soliciting ideas from as broad a base as possible with as few imposed rules as possible could change the face of Paris.

The response was overwhelming—372 proposals came in from teams around the world. The City shortlisted the best proposals, assessed the finalists, and finally chose a winner for each site.

The projects are diverse in size and content. Some will be striking additions to the cityscape with audacious programs, others will re-appropriate existing buildings or provide neighborhoods with innovative amenities. Collectively they promise to have a significant impact Paris.

But even before the results of Reinventing Paris are visible in the urban landscape, the method has caught on. Governments have changed their way of thinking about developing urban sites and have adopted the “Reinventing” approach.

In 2016, several local governments and the regional port authority joined forces to launch “Reinventing the Seine” on sites up and down the river Seine, from Paris to Le Havre. Thirteen projects were selected and are now moving their way toward implementation.

The new Greater Paris metropolitan government (MGP) launched its own competition, “Inventing the Metropolis”, on 63 sites all over Greater Paris. It is the world’s largest urban and architectural competition. Projects have recently been submitted and the jury will soon convene to determine the winners.

The City of Paris itself has launched the second edition of Reinventing Paris, going even further in challenging respondents to find innovative uses for surprising sites, many of them underground. The teams are hard at work preparing their submissions for the November deadline.

All the projects to come out of this bubbling of initiatives are sure to have an impact on the city. But even more important is the change in approach and the change in mindset among city leadership that it signifies. Governments have shown open-mindedness and a willingness to challenge the status quo in order to achieve it, and at the same time have set the bar in terms of level of ambition. The results are a fundamental change in how the community of designers, developers and operators can contribute to transforming the built environment.

This evolution has not escaped the world’s notice. Leaders from many other cities have come to Paris to learn about the approach. The Mayor of Paris, in her capacity as president of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, has announced the launch of a worldwide competition under the name “Reinventing Cities”, with the objective to “transform underutilized sites into beacons of sustainability and resiliency.” This fall we will learn more about the Paris approach applied at the global level and I am personally greatly looking forward to it.

Arcadis has been very involved in these initiatives and in some of the most emblematic projects to come out of it, and sees this dynamic approach to urban projects as a wonderful opportunity to contribute to improving quality of life in our cities.

This post first appeared on the Arcadis Cities Blog