For those that don’t really follow urban spatial arrangements the same way I do, you might not know that metropolitan Europe has an entirely different spatial pattern than metropolitan America. In the United States, most suburban development occurred as a result of middle-class exodus from central cities. The general pattern in Europe is almost exactly the opposite; the poor live in the ‘burbs, while the central city typically houses the bourgeois class. Paris, for example, is like the anti-Detroit: Imagine Bloomfield Hills as a sprawling slum, and downtown Detroit as home to Michigan’s most wealthy.
In Europe, like America, poverty tends to be isolated from areas of employment, role models of behavior, social services, and other rudimentary, daily needs. This social and physical isolation may change in Paris in the next few years, however. Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France, has recently employed the services of an international team of urban planners and architects in the hopes of fundamentally changing metropolitan Paris. There are plenty of ideas being thrown around, most captured in this excellent New York Times piece. The most genius idea being discussed, however, involves a metropolitan transit system connecting the city of Paris to its poor suburbs.
I recently wrote about the failures of the American public transit system, far too often focusing on levels of density than on the needs of poor folks without access to other means of transportation. I mean, this whole idea that our transportation system needs to be environmentally sound is great, but we can’t forget why we have public transportation: to transport the public. More importantly, a focus on alleviating density ignores the great social need for sound transit in isolated urban and suburban communities with already low levels of traffic. Our transit system should respond to the needs of our most marginalized citizens.
The plan in Paris takes both of these considerations into account. With one carefully planned transit system, Paris’s poor suburbs could become “greener” and less isolated:
Isolated neighborhoods, which now have little green space, would be intimately woven into the city’s fabric. And the parks would link to a vast new greenbelt defining the city’s edge.In a phrase, this is urban policy at its finest. Sarkozy and his architects are cognizant of the social, ecological and environmental concerns of metropolitan Paris—and they’re actually going to respond to these needs. Novel idea, I know. If Sarkozy is able to implement his plan, it will be the most ambitious reinvention of an urban metropolis in our generation—an innovative plan that may serve as a model for re-envisioning urban America.