PARIS: Urban Museum Amidst a Suburban Sea


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

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.

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Re: PARIS: Urban Museum Amidst a Suburban Sea

The Paris Region is France's premier center of economic activity. While its population accounted for 18.8% of the total population of the metropolita France in the worl, almost as large as the Dutch economy. My Mobile Watchdog might not be popular among teens, but it's gaining popularity with parents. Turns out that My Mobile Watchdog is also admissible in court as evidence, which isn't good news for deviants who prey on underage teens. You won't need a personal loan to sign up either, since the subscription is only $10 a month. It monitors SMS messages, and so far only works for smart phone users. Teens are of course adamant that their privacy is being violated, but advocates have already pointed out that it aids with the arrest of sexual predators. It might be worth using the credit card to use My Mobile Watchdog, even if they protest.

I agree with the points

I agree with the points above about the differences between European and American suburbs. But I also have a problem with this statement:

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).

In looking at changes in population of the center cities over the last hundred years, you have to understand that people lived in incredibly crowded conditions, in tenement buildings comparable to Third World slums today. Today you have studio apartments inhabited by single professionals in what were once cold water flats with 8 people to a room. And a lot of tenements have been torn down and replaced by offices, hotels, universities, etc. (I'm thinking of New York, but I imagine the experience there has been similar to Paris.) Yes, there are fewer people living in the centers of major cities, but that hardly means they are less vital than they were 100 years ago. Most people live outside the city center and take the train to work. (At least that's how it works in New York, and I know Paris also has one of the largest metro systems in the world.)

Never explain


Never explain.
Force your reader to look up terms and educate themselves if they don't know the meaning of a word.
Write for the most educated reader, not the least.
Case in point: arrondissement.

Dave Barnes

The suburbs in Europe are

The suburbs in Europe are vastly different in form and function than typical low-density suburbs of the US. They are outside the historically "central core", yes, but very urban when compared to spread out suburbs of the US with three car garages, large offsets from the road, huge backyards, and absolute auto dependency. Is the aforementioned living arrangement necessarily bad? I can't say that, but it's definitely not the same typology as many European suburbs or even close to many traditional neighborhoods in the suburbs of every city in the US.

You can paint the picture that the suburbs in Paris are the same as the typical suburb in the US, but you're not fooling those who understand urban design and architecture.

As I mentioned, even the suburbs in the US can be vastly different from one another, and should not be compared in the same light. It is misleading that you continue to do so.

True, Paris' urban core

True, Paris' urban core (defined as the area enclosed by the Boulevard Peripherique) is small compared to its suburbs. But spending a few minutes using Google Maps to pan over the metro area reveals that Paris' "suburbs" actually look more urban than a lot of America's central cities. Multi-family and single family residences are densely lined along a classic street grid and commercial buildings are mixed in the neighborhoods, rather than isolated in single-use clusters off the highways. Nowhere can I find the loopy cul-de-sacs that are the American suburban hallmark. And from what my wife, who spent a year in Paris, tells me, the metro and bus access to and between the suburbs is excellent. My point is that New Urbanists and the various other groups you regularly disparage are not opposed to some generic thing called "suburbs". What they are opposed to is the particular form that suburbs take in America, with their egregious zoning and land use restrictions that decrease affordability and mandate automobile use. If American suburbs looked and functioned more like their Parisian counterparts, than the New Urbanists might very well be advocating for the same policies under the banner "New Suburbanism".