Angus Grieve-Smith has posted a translation of an intriguing Le Monde interview of architect Roland Castro, one of the leading architects on a project for re-envisioning the suburban belt around Paris.
Even more than most European cities, Paris has a reputation for concentrating its wonderfulness in a very small core and ignoring its huge suburban ring, and the Greater Paris project is trying to change that perception. Key quote:
The urban question has never been seen by intellectuals as central
because this marvelous Paris, the Paris of Baudelaire, it’s their
Paris. Annie Ernaux lives in Cergy-Pontoise, but she’s an exception
among writers and it baffles some people. They never leave their Paris,
and they’re completely unaware of all these magnificent neighborhoods,
like in Montfermeil for example, or in Gennevilliers. All these garden
cities have something magical about them.
(This image, from the inside front cover of Edmund White’s The Flâneur, is a reasonably good map of the “intellectuals’ Paris” in Castro’s formulation.)
Castro’s praise doesn’t apply to all suburbia. The “garden cities” he mentions mostly date from before the car became king; they often are magical in ways that car-era suburbs aren’t. Still, there’s an important caution here for urban and sustainable transport advocates generally, which connects to my post about the need to consider urban freeway corridors as rapid transit possibilities. As someone who loves rich urban textures, I too am tempted never to venture beyond the Paris city limits, but I should, as I should in whatever city I’m in.
That doesn’t mean I have to like everything I see in suburban belts, but to be credible when talking with people in a suburban community, I have to be able to point to what’s already working right there or nearby — not just what’s being achieved in a core city with centuries of history and momentum. So long as we stay inside our urbane inner-city enclaves, and dismiss all of suburbia with the same gesture, we won’t be able to engage such conversations. There’s just too much suburbia to ignore.
Photo: Dan Hill of City of Sound
The issue is more class than urban design. Since the late 19th century Paris has been a rich enclave surrounded by low-income suburbs. This discourages Paris from annexing suburbs the way London and New York did – in fact, the post-WW2 French government deliberately kept the city and the suburbs separate in order to prevent the pro-communist working class from being able to elect a communist mayor of Paris. In addition, all the destructive urban renewal that Britain and the US did in central cities, France did in the suburbs, building single-use project towers for the poor using Le Corbusier’s designs.
I’m glad you found the interview as interesting as I did! In response to your post, I wrote another post describing some of what I love about the Paris suburbs.