Feature Report: Greater Paris: History and Vision of the Future

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A Long History of Expansion

Paris was built around an historic core comprised of Île de la Cité, the Louvre and the Latin Quarter. Over time, to meet the needs of economic development, the capital expanded beyond the successive rings of fortifications that were built to defend the city. Later, due to the impact of the different industrial revolutions and the 1946-1975 post-war boom (Les Trente Glorieuses), the city burst through its walls. The Grand Paris project that is currently underway is the latest step in this ongoing expansion.

Image of a map of Paris at the end of the 19th century.
Paris has expanded outward in a series of concentric circles. Shown here is a map of the city in 1889. ©SHUTTERSTOCK

The Seven Walls of Paris

No fewer than seven walls have encircled Paris since the start of the Christian era.1 Following the example of the Gallo-Roman and Carolingian enclosures, Philippe Auguste, the first French monarch to consolidate royal powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... in the face of the regional rulers, erected a wall in the 13th century, a few sections of which still survive today. Charles V and Louis XIII, in the 14th and 17th centuries, respectively, then enlarged the city’s perimeter to include the adjacent faubourgs that had gradually developed around the fortifications. The city line at that time was delimited by the Bastille fortress, today’s grands boulevards, or major arteries, and Place de la Concorde.

The implementation of new financial and economic policies at the end of the Ancien Regime, just prior to the French Revolution in 1789, led to the construction of a new enclosure, the Farmers-General wall, which was designed to allow tax collectors (or tax “farmers”) to collect customs duties on goods entering the city. A few of the gates, essentially toll houses built along the wall, still exist today, notably at Place Denfert-Rochereau and Place de la Nation.

In 1845, at the end of Louis Philippe’s reign, a line of fortifications was erected by the then prime minister Adolphe Thiers. The wall took in the surrounding villages, comprised mainly of farmland, which today sport the names of well-known Parisian neighborhoods such as Montmartre, La Villette, Belleville, Bercy and Auteuil. These neighborhoods experienced rapid urbanization during the period of economic development under Napoleon III. They now form part of Paris proper as we know it today, an area of just 100 square kilometers.

The city started to become even more compact in 1900, when civil engineer Fulgence Bienvenüe began constructing the metro. The underground network, which lay within the Thiers enclosure, was the densest in the world. The fortifications remained in place until the 1920s, serving to physically isolate the city from the suburbs. Concentrations of slums sprang up in the “zone” around the capital.

The Paris-Saclay cluster situated 20 kilometers from the French capital groups together 19 higher education institutions and the research centers of approximately 50 companies.

1960 – An Urban Planning Overhaul

The idea of a coordinated economic growth strategy encompassing the city and its suburbs took root in 1960, when the fledgling Fifth Republic adopted a policy of strong economic interventionism, giving the state an important role in industrial and urban planning.

Over the next 20 years, a series of major projects were initiated:

  • The construction of nine “new cities” (Sénart-Évry, Cergy-Pontoise, Marne-la-Vallée, Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, etc.) in the outlying areas to reduce the concentration of the population in Paris.
  • The development of a five-line, 587-kilometer, 250-stop commuter rail system (RER) as well as a motorway network to connect large numbers of suburban workers to businesses in the city center.
  • The creation of La Défense, a business district near Paris that is today Europe’s largest office complex.
  • The extension of many metro lines to serve peripheral districts undergoing revitalization.

The Rapid Expansion of Île-de-France

In the early 1980s, decentralization laws gave powerful impetus to France’s administrative regions, particularly Île-de-France. Major infrastructure projects were launched, including the Disneyland entertainment resort in Marne-la-Vallée, conceived on a European scale, and the Stade de France stadium in the working-class district of Saint-Denis.

The public authorities realized that the Île-de-France region was one of the world’s largest economic centers and that its development needed to be tackled in a comprehensive, integrated manner. Leading academic institutions began to migrate to the suburbs, followed by research laboratories. In 2005, the government decided to create eight “competitiveness clusters” in a bid to make these areas more economically attractive. For example, Paris-Saclay, a plateau spanning 27 towns, located 20 kilometers south of Paris, was established as a center of scientific and technical excellence to rival SiliconSilicon crystals come from silica, the main compound in quartz and sand. Silicon is a semi-conducting material. Valley in California and the region around Cambridge in the United Kingdom. It groups together 19 higher education institutions (two universities, ten prestigious Grand École academic institutions and seven research organizations) and the research and development (R&D) centers of approximately 50 companies. As a result, the campus accounts for some 15% of the nation’s scientific research capacity, a figure that is expected to eventually reach 20% to 25%.2

Despite all these initiatives, the Paris-Saclay cluster continues to suffer from the hub-and-spoke model that makes it difficult to travel from one area to another without first passing through the center of Paris. One of the key objectives of the Grand Paris project, conceived in 2008 and launched in 2013, is to address this problem and eliminate the notion of the suburb depending on the city center (see Close-Up: “The Grand Paris Project”).