I arrived in Paris on March 1 for my annual visiting professor assignment at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers. Again, I have taken a flat (apartment) in the 1st arrondissement (district) in the heart of the ville de Paris, one of the world’s great pedestrian expanses. It is also one of the great virtual experiences – a place oddly disembodied from its setting.
The flat is just a couple of doors to the right on the first perpendicular street in the picture below, which was taken at the entrance of the Chatalet-Les Halles Metro-RER station, less than 200 yards away.
It is 300 yards to the Pompideau Museum, a structure whose hideousness is compensated for only by the fact that because of its dense surroundings it cannot be seen from anywhere more than a block away. The Louvre and the Hotel de Ville (city hall) are each one-half mile away and Notre Dame is less than three-quarters of a mile away. This is probably the ultimate in urbanization outside of Hong Kong.
Sundays are very relaxing in Paris. There are people on the streets. The atmosphere is informal. Crowds are out examining the art works, books, maps and posters of the vendors that line both banks of the River Seine. I always like to attend Vepres (Vespers) at Notre Dame at 5:45 on Sunday evening. This is bit ecumenical for an Anglican, although not much of an ecumenical stretch to Roman Catholicism. I understand nothing, but the singing and the organ are inspirational nonetheless.
There are many advantages to living in central Paris. Nearly the entire ville de Paris is an outdoor museum of architecture. There is the dense, irregular urbanization of the ancient Marais, a relic of the pre-Hausmann city, as well as walks along the well planned Champs d’Elysee toward Etoile and the Arc de Triomphe on the newer 19th Century boulevards created by the master-planner.
Everything is so close that there is no need for either car or transit. The classroom is a 15 minute walk. This small section of Paris is a model for walkability. Yet this does not, however, necessarily translate into the social connections advocates of walkability suggest. I took a survey in Montorgueil, another busy pedestrian quarter, for a few days. Out of more than 5,000 people who had stopped to talk to someone or were on cell phones, 80 percent were on the phone. This illustrates how technology has made it possible for us to interact more with those we have common interest, wherever they are, instead of being limited to those who just happen to be in geographical proximity.
We also have to understand the ephemeral nature of the Parisian core. It is now more museum and place of “experience” than a thriving residential neighborhood. The center of the area – the 1st arrondissement (there are 20) – is a shadow of its former self in population. Today, the 1st arrondissement has 18,000 people, 80 percent below its 1861 figure of 90,000, and probably lower than the 1836 Paris core peak. The overall city has lost population as well, dropping from 2.95 million in 1921 to less than 2.2 million today, a decline on the order of some US central cities (such as Chicago).
One reason: living in central Paris has its disadvantages. One of them is shopping. Perhaps no city has more grocery markets per capita than Paris. But they are so small that probably no city has less grocery square footage than Paris. It is quite an adventure. Not all stores carry the same products, which makes it necessary to go to more than one grocery store to fill the larder. Not surprisingly, such small stores prices have much higher prices than the supercenters – Carrefour, Auchan and other Wal-Mart lookalikes (though often larger) – that have located just outside the Boulevard Peripherique, the six to eight lane freeway that surrounds the city.
Some of the Metro lines extend beyond the Boulevard Peripherique, allowing urban Parisians to take advantage of lower suburban supercenter prices. Suburbanites can also shop at supercenters on the second ring freeway (the A-86) and the third ring freeway (the “Franciliene”). It may not be as famous as Le Metro, but Paris possesses the best freeway system in Europe outside of the Dusseldorf-Essen (Rhine-Ruhr) area. But the stores are not permitted, by law, to be open on Sunday, which makes parking lots and adjacent streets so crowded on Saturdays that both employees and police are used to direct the traffic.
The biggest surprise to many Americans would be the extent of the Paris suburbs. Many, especially in the urban planning community, have long deluded themselves and others into believing that Europe, unlike America, has no suburbs. The core of Paris is very small, with most of the monuments and museums that are of interest being within a less than five square mile area. The ville de Paris itself covers approximately 40 square miles. The suburbs extend outward for more than another 1,000 square miles, 25 times the area of the ville de Paris.
So, yes Paris has suburbs, as does every big city in Europe. In fact, virtually all European urban growth in the last 40 years has occurred in the suburbs, while virtually all of the cores have either experience slow growth or lost population, much like the United States. The European suburbs continue to attract residents from the cities, and whatever gains are achieved by some core cities are the result of international migration, not domestic migration from suburbs to the cities.
Overall more than 80 percent of Parisians live in the suburbs and exurbs. The ville de Paris has less than 2.2 million people, while the rest of the urban area has nearly 8 million people, according to the French national statistical agency (INSEE). Another 2 million people are included in the rural and exurban portions of the metropolitan area (the “aire urbaine”) which are the French equivalent of exurbs.
There is also a perception – oft reported in the New York Times and other urban-centric media – that the suburbs of Paris are made up of poor people. Certainly, like many American cities, Paris has poor suburbs, particularly in the department of Seine-St. Denis, to the north of the city. This area has high rise public housing blocks that look every bit as decrepit as the mercifully demolished Robert Taylor Homes on the south side of Chicago. But most Paris suburbs are predominately middle class housing, just like in America. There are also some very wealthy areas, as we find in the periphery of our own metropolitan regions.
For two months, the ville de Paris is an absolutely delightful place to live. But once my Parisian sojourn is over, I, for one, will be very happy to return home to the suburbs of St. Louis which may be duller, less colorful and historic than Paris, but far more comfortable and affordable for the experience of everyday living.
For additional information, see the Paris Rental Car Tour at http://www.rentalcartours.net/rac-paris.pdf.
Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris. He was born in Los Angeles and was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission by Mayor Tom Bradley. He is the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.”