Imagining a New City of Lights

In an attempt to mend tenions between city and suburb, the president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, unveiled his massive urban planning effort last week. Will "Grand Paris" serve as a blueprint for cities of the future?

For many Parisians, the les banlieues evoke a grimace or at best a shrug of apathy. The maligned suburbs encircling Paris consist primarily of working class, poor and immigrant communities and the social divide between the city and the suburbs has created a host of problems for the region.

Sarkozy solicited 10 renowned architects to research and plan what he has modestly dubbed “Grand Paris,” and each returned with ideas more grand than the last. Still in the fantasy stages, the makeover would potentially demolish the city’s two largest train stations, construct an elevated high-speed Metro line along the capital’s periphery and establish vast new hectares of parkland. The price tag is in the billions, and it would take 30 years to complete.

Sarkozy’s plan would mark the city’s first redesign since Haussmann was hired by Napoleon III in 1852, and, like Haussmann’s modernization, Sarkozy’s plan could have an enormous ripple effect on les banlieues.

Suburban renewal is rumored to be Sarkozy’s attempt to make up for his aggressive reaction to the 2005 immigrant riots. At the time, Interior Minister Sarkozy responded to the unrest calling the young participants “scum." He maintained the problems were not born out of social ills but a “thugogracy.” The unrest left the nation questioning whether poor immigrant communities could ever be successfully integrated into the metropolis.

Some Grand Paris architects have consulted economists, sociologists, and philosophers to gain a better idea of how to use architecture to unite social groups. Richard Rogers, a London architect working on the project, said Paris's ethnic makeup must be considered if the plan is to be successful.

“The great unwritten and unsaid is that residents tend to be of similar ethnic origin. It’s not a mixed system. Monoculture is one of Paris’s biggest problems,” Rogers said, explaining that his plan will bring mixed populations to the outlying regions.

Jonathan Glancey, architecture critic for the Guardian, wrote "what is needed is a way not just of improving the look of the poorer parts of the city, and linking them to the centre with parks and green avenues, but also of creating and nurturing the education, the jobs, the businesses and the way of life that will allow Paris to develop humanely."

One of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of Grand Paris is the fragmented nature of Parisian government. Broken into 20 city districts and seven suburban regions, the capital region will have difficulty reaching a consensus on any redesign. The Socialist Party is already suggesting that Grand Paris is a political move from Sarkozy's conservative camp to blunt power on the left.

Billions of euros, a massive planning effort and political fragmentation---perhaps France will need a bit more than 30 years to bring Grand Paris to fruition.

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