The ‘Grand Paris’ era begins

Editors note: This article first appeared in Citiscope.org and is reprinted with permission.

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PARIS, France — After the recent terrorist attacks here, followed by a whirlwind climate-change summit, it would be easy to miss an important administrative change that took effect this week aiming to change how Greater Paris is governed.

On January 1, the Métropole du Grand Paris (Greater Paris Metropolitan Authority) was born. It was the result of a contentious process spanning two presidential administrations. In the dreams of France’s leading urban experts, this was to represent a triumphant new beginning. They had envisioned vastly expanding Paris’ urban boundary, merging the old city of broad boulevards and monuments with the constellation of immigrant and working-class suburban communities long cut off from Paris’ riches.

What ultimately came to pass was not nearly so ambitious. Nevertheless, it represents a noteworthy step for the many jurisdictions that make up the Paris metropolitan area to begin thinking, planning and acting as one. As a governing body, the Métropole du Grand Paris has a budget of €65 million (US$71 million) that will grow over time. In two weeks, local elections will produce a metropolitan assembly of 209 councilors and a president who will gradually assume responsibility on issues such as housing, environmental protection and local planning.

Meanwhile, a massive expansion of the Paris Métro subway system is rolling out over the next ten to 15 years. While that’s not directly related to the new governance structure, it’s arguably more important — the new transit links will bind suburbs into the urban core in a way that millions of people will feel every day in terms of faster commutes.

What’s happening in Paris is part of a global movement for cities to recognize that they need to coordinate more closely with their suburbs. This has become an integral theme in the negotiations leading to Habitat III, the United Nations’ once-every-20-years conference on urban policy coming in October.

Negotiators recently met in Montréal — the home of another prominent experiment in metropolitan thinking — to discuss how regional governance models can help urban areas grow more equitably while making them more economically competitive on the global stage. Meanwhile, the newly launched Network of Metropolitan Areas of the Americas is sharing ideas from Montréal, São Paulo, Bucaramanga, Colombia, and Guadalajara, Mexico, among other metros.

Paris is a case study in this global quest. So far, what it can show the world is how very difficult it is for an urban region to move toward a meaningful form of metropolitan government. Most observers of the new Métropole du Grand Paris are skeptical that it will have enough power to amount to much. Many worry that it will only produce another layer of sub-national government in a French political structure that is already crowded with them.

Still, it is early days for this experiment. Whether it succeeds will depend on the types of people who take the reins of the new metropolitan governing body — and how they choose to define their role. As Patrick Braouzec, a local official from the northern suburbs of Paris, told me last month: “It will be born on January 1, but everything else remains to be seen.”

Petite footprint

For all its international prominence, Paris proper is relatively small.

Hemmed in by Le Périphérique, a ring road that follows the contours of the old city walls, Paris is home to only 2.2 million people. They’re packed into a relatively compact land area of about 100 square kilometers, or 40 square miles. By contrast, New York City is 7.5 times larger in land area and London is 15 times larger; each has about four times as many residents as Paris. As a result, both of Paris’ major airports and its financial district are banished to the suburbs, as is nearly all of the region’s social housing.

Both New York and London also have suburbs beyond their political influence. However, those cities reach across vast areas where they can make unified decisions under a single mayor and council. On January 1, 1898, the five boroughs of New York consolidated to form the city as it is known today. Greater London came into existence on April 1, 1965, although metropolitan planning, transportation, and policing had been taking place since the turn of the century.

In some ways, Paris had shown them the way. In 1860, Emperor Napoleon III annexed several then-outlying suburbs to form the boundaries of modern-day Paris. Baron Haussmann, the city’s famed 19th-century planner, promptly stitched them to the core of the city with a series of boulevards that built what most people today think of as Paris: wide promenades with monumental views. But Haussmann’s extreme makeover generated critics; he was dismissed in 1870 and the Paris city limits haven’t changed since.

Owing to the city’s surfeit of historic landmarks and strict building-height limits, major new developments in Paris tend to happen outside the city limits. In the 1960s, a business district blossomed in La Défense, to the west of Paris, eventually sprouting a modest skyline of office buildings. Elsewhere, a housing crisis resulted in the construction of massive cités, public housing complexes that were mandated by the national government and foisted upon the unsuspecting small towns that ring Paris.

While New York and London built subway service to the most distant corners of their broad city limits, the famed Paris Métro barely made it past the Périphérique. Instead, a much-maligned regional rail network known as the RER created a two-tiered transit system. Among locals, living near a Métro line signifies Parisian cosmopolitanism; an address off the RER a symbol of suburban poverty.

Competing visions

As is customary among French presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy — who led the country from 2007 to 2012 — wanted to leave his mark on Paris. But rather than building a big museum or library, as his predecessors had done, Sarkozy wanted to think big. As he saw it, a Paris that was cloistered from its suburbs rather than integrated with them made the region less economically competitive.

In 2007, Sarkozy articulated a vision for a 21st-century metropolis called “Grand Paris” and launched a worldwide planning and design competition. Two years later, he proudly showed off ten proposals from the world’s leading architects and designers that reflected, in Sarkozy’s words, “truth, beauty and grandeur.”

The proposals envisioned radical changes: a monorail along La Périphérique; a massive park replacing decrepit public housing; high-speed driverless trains crisscrossing the region; decked-over rail yards transformed into green space; and dense new housing in lieu of the tower-in-the-park model common in the suburbs.

Les Dix (“The Ten”), as the design proposals were known, sparkled on display at a local architecture museum. But the pictures and models didn’t come with any sort of political consensus that would easily make them come to life. Advocates instead had to tango with the convoluted layers of government that exist in the French political system, which led to calls for Grand Paris to consist of administrative reform.

Those existing layers of local administration are many. At the smallest level of French government are communes, or municipalities. These fall under départements, administrative units created during the French Revolution. At the next level up, there are bigger units called regions. (On January 1, the 22 regions of mainland France were reduced to 13.)

That’s not all. Like-minded communes can also join forces into agglomerations, or agglos are they are known here. This allows smaller towns to join together to provide common services such as trash collection or housing in order to achieve economies of scale. The model agglo is the Plaine Commune,which brings together nine similar municipalities immediately north of Paris.

There have been competing visions as to how to coordinate the work of all these entities. Around the same time Sarkozy held his design competition, the Île de France regional government surrounding Paris embarked on its first master plan since 1965. And in 2006, Bernard Delanoë, then the mayor of Paris, convened a Mayors Forum that ultimately led to an advisory council known as Paris Métropole, which became more of a discussion forum than a decision-making body.

‘Too revolutionary’

In 2010, the National Assembly considered a plan that would push a stronger metropolitan governance body. That plan was opposed by both Île de France and the City of Paris, the two entities with the most to lose in terms of political power. However, the next year, all the major players involved agreed on one of the key components, dubbed the Grand Paris Express: an expanded transit network that would double the Paris Métro’s existing 214 kilometers (133 miles). Over time, Sarkozy’s initial concept of “Grand Paris” came to mean different things to different people — administrative reform, transit infrastructure, and bold new urban designs.

Then came the 2012 elections, which brought center-left François Hollande to power as president of France. Sarkozy’s talk of competitiveness in the global economy was suddenly replaced by Hollande’s focus on equity. Although politicians from rival parties are often loathe to continue their predecessor’s projects, last year Hollande called the Métro expansion “one of the grandest [projects] in the European Union” — one of his few pronouncements on the subject.

As the legislature debated these issues in 2013 and 2014, the president of the National Assembly argued for a strong metropolitan government in Paris with decision-making authority and a budget. But all of the other local levels of government pushed back. He even floated the idea of expanding Paris’ city limits through annexation of the suburbs. “That was too revolutionary, even for a revolutionary country,” says Nicolas Buchoud, co-founder of the Grand Paris Alliance and a close observer of the debate since the beginning.

The final compromise created the Métropole du Grand Paris, which encompasses Paris proper plus 130 surrounding communes. Building on the Plaine Commune model, all of this area, home to some 7 million people, will be reorganized into agglomerations of at least 300,000 each. (The structure is essentially an agglomeration of agglomerations.) Gradually, these groupings will assume responsibility as the public co-signer for housing projects, the main force behind local planning, the coordinator of local utilities and climate action and even the custodian of major sports venues — an important consideration if Paris wins its bid for the 2024 Olympics.

Braouzec, who serves as president of Plaine Commune, sees this as an opportunity to build on the good will his organization has built over the 15 years since its founding. “There is no need to demolish everything with the arrival of the Métropole du Grand Paris,” he says. “We have a model agglomeration right here, with many responsibilities, built on the basis of cooperation between communes — we never denied the importance of communes.”

Most important, the law says the new metropolitan entities will be the main recipient of tax revenues and federal funds. Exactly how this will be done is still an open question. “It’s a very complicated financial mechanism,” says Braouzec. “That’s where there could be some difficulties.” In its first year of operation the Métropole du Grand Paris must ensure no municipal budgets are cut. So the new body will only keep €65 million of the €3.8 billion (US$4.1 billion) that will pass through its coffers.

Paris isn’t the only region in France learning a new set of rules. The National Assembly also required 11 other city regions to create metropolitan authorities. This law came into force a year ago in cities such as Lyon and Marseilles. Buchoud says the smaller scale of those efforts, and a more cordial history among local officials, makes them much different from the Paris situation. In the secondary cities, Buchoud says, “cooperative attitudes go back longer and there are more shared interests.”

Ready or not

By contrast, there are some in the Paris region who would be perfectly happy to see the new Métropole du Grand Paris fail. First among them is Valérie Pécresse, the recently elected president of the Île-de-France region. In her acceptance speech, Pécresse called the metropolitan project “an historical error and an administrative and economic aberration.”

Her concerns partly reflect geographical realities. While Île-de-France includes all of the Grand Paris area it also includes five million residents outside it. Those people, Pécresse says, are being ignored.

Meanwhile, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo — a leftist — has been largely quiet on the subject of Grand Paris. For example, she has not yet endorsed a candidate for metropolitan president. Without her support, it’s not clear how much a metropolitan government could expect to achieve.

Each of these leaders “has her own plan and strategy,” Buchoud cautions. Presidential elections next year could change the outlook for Grand Paris; so could the next round of regional elections in 2020.

Whatever the politicians do, their impact is likely to be eclipsed by that of the coming subway expansion. In Paris last month to cover the climate talks, I slipped away for an afternoon to visit the barely noticed SIMI real estate conference across town. Here, 26,000 developers, bankers, engineers and construction executives were busy making development deals — but nobody was talking about doing business in Paris proper.

Instead, they were craning their necks to hear the latest pitches from small towns just beyond the city limits, such as La Courneuve and Villejuif. When the new Métro lines arrive, these municipalities are poised to boom with transit-oriented development. They’ll be the newest suburban neighborhoods in an ever-expanding Greater Paris — but this time, connected to the center.

“Of all economic sectors, the real estate industry is an active metropolitan driver,” says Buchoud. “Grand Paris already works as a melting pot of investments.”

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