Paris on foot

As I’ve travelled over the last few months I’ve hopped mainly from city to city and noticed a pattern…

If the city you’re in is well-laid out and somewhat nicely designed then chances are its recent history includes either a substantial fire, a dictator with a sizable ego or both.

If the city has somehow avoided those two forces then it’s likely to be a rabbit-warren of dense streets, dodgy plumbing and bizarre roundabouts. That’s because most cities have grown and evolved over centuries from little medieval outposts into big sprawling metropolises and, unless fate intervenes, they tend to get more and more dense and irrational as they grow. The longer the early layout stays in place the harder it is for government authorities to reorganise the city and make upgrades to its infrastructure.

Luckily despots and fires are a fairly common phenomenon. London was razed twice- once in 1666 and again during the blitz but, by all accounts, it’s still a bit of a mess. Chicago and Seattle, as mentioned previously, had fires around the turn of the 20th century which allowed city planners to create a much more orderly city from the ashes. The Brazilian city of Curitiba is internationally renowned as one of the most well-planned and sustainable cities in the world but it owes its prestigious reputation to Jaime Lerner -an urban planner who was installed as Governor by Brazil’s Military Junta in the 1970s. Likewise the model city of Singapore was established by British fiat and upgraded over the years by a government that has never been fully accountable to its citizens. Germany’s famous autobahns were commissioned by Adolf Hitler. The wider gridded streets of Melbourne city were uniformly and unilaterally laid-out by the official Assistant Surveyor-General Robert Hoddle with the authority of Governor Bourke in the early days of the settlement.

But perhaps the most ambitious urban planning program ever instituted took place in Paris. In 1853 Napoleon III, the grandson of the famous Emperor commissioned Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to modernise and improve not only the streets and transport of Paris but also the sewerage, parks, street trees, monuments, sanitation and housing conditions. If you don’t understand why it’s necessary to be backed by an autocrat when you undertake a project like that then imagine any current democratic politician asking voters to approve a plan to spend billions of dollars on public renovations that will take 20 years to complete and require many of those same citizens to forfeit their homes to the state so that they can be demolished to make way for prettier streets. That’s a hard sell.

Which is not to say that Houssmann was able to carry out the works without resistance. Critics at the time denounced the cost overruns, the ‘expropriation’ of property and the consequences of the new divisions in the city. To an extent Haussmann’s program concentrated the working poor in certain areas where in previous decades they had co-habitated with the more well-off citizenry (generally the poorer you were the higher the floor you lived on), The new Paris had regions of wealth and poverty and wide boulevards that would make it easier to restore order in the event of civil unrest. Authorities of the time had a fairly drastic definition of ‘restoring order’ though. As one military historian observed;

“the putative use of artillery in suppressing urban unrest could have determined the city’s characteristic acute angles at intersections. A right-angled grid plan would have resulted in guns shooting from side-streets onto boulevards hitting “friendly” forces. By contrast, artillery firing from subsidiary streets at acute angles would both direct an effective cross-fire onto insurgents on the boulevards and avoid the problem of friendly fire.”

Haussmann publicly acknowledged these sorts of advantages when discussing the plans with city officials. Those must be the good old days that people talk about; when you could sit down and have a meeting with the aristocrats and discuss how your proposed streetscape would make it easier to shoot the lower classes. Makes Mitt Romney’s comments in the lead up to the last US election seem pretty tame.

But Haussmann’s renovations are credited with improving the city considerably. According to Wikipedia;

“The Baron Haussmann’s transformations to Paris improved the quality of life in the capital. Disease epidemics (save tuberculosis) ceased, traffic circulation improved and new buildings were better-built and more functional than their predecessors.”

Today it’s hard to imagine Paris as it would have appeared before Hausmann. Cities all over the world still try to emulate the streetscapes and public plazas of Paris in their urban planning but democracy doesn’t always allow the latitude that Hausmann enjoyed. As more and more people migrate to urban centres it’s important to for any society to find a balance between the immediate demands of its citizens and the long-term health of its cities.

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