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Paris struggles with how to connect to suburbs

June 18th, 2009 · 7 Comments

When we think of European cities, we always think of their perfect old central cities that seem like models of urbanism.

What we forget is that they struggle with the same problems of sprawling suburbs and massive commuter congestion as much, or more, than North American cities do. That was brought home to me when I spent a summer living in suburban Paris, where I spent more time in freeways, chain grocery stores and malls than I like to admit.

I was also reminded of that the last couple of days as I drove around the Pays Basque area on the border of France and Spain, with San Sebastian 30 kilometres on one side of the border and Bayonne 20 kilometres on the other. Both Bayonne and San Sebastian are lovely, historic cities in very different ways. Both are surrounded by sprawl that goes on for miles.

The International Herald Tribune published this story recently (don’t know why it only appeared last week when it was in the Times much earlier, but anyway) about Sarkozy’s efforts to link Paris with the suburbs — more than just a problem of carbon footprints here. As you’ll recall from international headlines a few years ago, the suburbs are also a serious problem for many European cities because they house huge proportions of their immigrants populations where they are cut off geographically, along with other ways, from the native French population.

Sarkozy’s efforts are a reminder that the successful cities of the future are going to be those that figure out how to function efficiently and even pleasurably as grand metropolitan regions. I don’t know of a city yet that has mastered that dilemma, which was born in the 20th century and really coming of age in the 21st.

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  • Joe Just Joe

    Appreciate you talking about the lesser known side of Europe. I have family in the suburbs of Paris, in an area called Romanville, it’s not your typical N/A Suburb but it’s similar. It was orignally unowned land that was squatted on by immigrants looking for a better life in France, most of them from Romania hence the name. The government eventually turned over title of the land to those that had been there for years and could prove it. But even today it’s a dreadful place, divided by a highway, no place to shop (apparently even the chains didn’t want to set up in the area). It is truely a place that needs to be seen. The people themselves are great and it’s shocky how different it is from the city itself only minutes away on the freeway.

  • Rick

    I have a friend who live in La Rioja, close to San Sebastian. She was a high school exchange student at my suburban Ontario high school 20 yrs ago. At that time she couldn’t belive how we lived…the horrible food, the driving everywhere, etc…well I have visited her twice in the last 5 yrs and her small city is becoming more and more North American…she now shops on the edge of town in a huge Carrefour, drives her kids across the city to daycare, etc…life is easy in North American and even Europeans pick up our “bad habits”

  • Frances,

    I’m hesitant to engage your conversation on Paris. I’ve visited often, as recently as three years ago, and my opinion, for what it’s worth, of Sarkozy asking 10 architects
    to rejuvenate the city is ridiculous. There is one hell of a lot more to a city than out ward appearance for tourists: as Vancouver is about to learn the hard way . . .

    Note how “One of the first things Sarkozy did after he moved into the Elysée Palace was to convene a meeting of prominent architects and ask them to come up with a new blueprint for Paris. “Of course,” he said, “projects should be realistic, but for me true realism is the kind that consists in being very ambitious.” His job was to clean up the city’s working-class suburbs, and at the same time build a greener Paris, the first city to conform to the environmental goals laid out in the Kyoto treaty.”

    Why Sarkozy thinqxz 10 architects know anything other than four walls and a roof beats me!

    “. . . clean up the city’s working-class suburbs” is code for “gentrification” or “executive city” and Sarkozy, like us fails, to understand that the working class is the true generator of substantive wealth.

    Ten years ago I returned from living in Mexico City for two years. I was fortunate to teach post-grads at UNAM. There I met faculty and was privileged to be invited into their family homes.

    I came away with a modicum of wisdom to the effect that Ciudadanos are exactly like us except for one thing . . . they are totally different. Hence my hesitation . . .

    La Ciudad’s suburbs have Super Barrio to watch out for them . . .

  • PS

    10 Architects and Sarkozy design Paris! What on earth for?

    The military have been more influential on city design.

    No Communardes! No Haussmman!

    No WW1 German army’s right flank on the Meuse! No La Defense!

    No sappers at Sapperton! No Dudney Trunk Road.

    Etc . . . .

  • DMJ

    Just a note:

    Paris is also building a grand network of LRT/tram (streetcars) lines, about 100 km. when it is completed in about a decade.

  • not running for mayor

    Wow DMJ thanks for the post, can you tell me how you feel about LRT and how much you hate skytrain, we haven’t gotten the point yet.

  • I’ve been living in Paris for 2 months, plus 6 month last year. I love the city. It’s full of great squares and parks, little streets, and quirky characters (One legged over wieght motorcyclist who sings while he zooms by, a 70 year old Montmarte woman who never leaves home without her Parrot).
    However living in the 18th and relying on metro line 13 for transport is a nightmare. The lack of good connections to the suburbs leaves line 13 as the only means for thousands of working class people and immigrants to get into the heart of Paris. As a result the metro line heading towards Saint Denis University is busy, crowded, and unpleasant nearly all day. The line can even be packed at 12:30 am, and other off peak hours.
    Anyways, Sarkozy’s plans to help out these commuters would be great. I can say as a casual observer and urban enthusiast (and visitor to Paris) that the people who have no choice but to take metro line 13 everyday have every reason to be angry, and frustrated. I couldn’t imagine spending every day commuting this way without getting pissed off. Hopefully Sarkozy can help these people out because they don’t have much else in the way of options.