The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Paris: city of suburbs? Restructuring the little city-museum

Last week the 200-odd local governments that constitute the Paris Métropole syndicate concluded their public consultation on restructuring the administration of the metropolitan area. Kerwin Datu reflects on the available options for reuniting la petite ville-musée with its extensive suburbs.

Kerwin Datu

Kerwin Datu

Cities: Paris

Topics: Regional governance, City politics, Poverty and inequality, Global cities

In May this year Paris Métropole, an intergovernmental cooperative agency established in 2009 by several governments at various levels (communal, intercommunal, departmental and regional) in the metropolitan area to study the administrative structure that governs them, published its Livre (Ou)vert (Green/Open Book) asking how this complex hierarchy might be reformed.

Unlike metropolitan Paris' very similar neighbour Greater London, whose 8.2 million inhabitants are gathered under a central urban government in place since 1965, the 10.3 million inhabitants of Paris' unité urbaine (urban unit or agglomeration) are divided at several levels of administration: the department-level city of Paris and its 20 arrondissements (districts) housing 2.2 million people, surrounded by a petite couronne (little crown) of three departments home to a further 4.3 million, then by the 3.8 million residing in the urbanised areas of the four departments comprising the grande couronne (big crown) that completes the Île-de-France region.

Dividing the urbanised areas of these departments even further are 412 communes or local governments, one for Paris and every one of its contiguous suburbs, each with its own mayor and council, but which have since 1999 been clumping together into communautés d'agglomération (agglomeration communities or intercommunalities) to pool their resources and obtain economies of scale in the delivery of local services, though without ceding their own sovereignty over local matters.

Why bother with all of this? Firstly, there are strong socioeconomic inequalities emerging in the metropolis that a fragmented governance structure has great difficulty perceiving and addressing adequately...

Over all this weighs the national government, which has intervened more forcefully in the planning of the region since the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, especially with the creation of the nationally-controlled Société de Grand Paris (Company of Greater Paris) in 2009 to take over the planning of the Grand Paris Express, a new metro line girdling the outer suburbs, and of a number of suburban "centres of excellence" in enterprise, education and research the new line will pass through.

Into this administrative melee Paris Métropole has thrown three "grands paris" ("big bets"). One pari is the métropole concertée (cooperative metropolis), a business-as-usual model argued for by socialist Jean-Paul Huchon, president of the Île-de-France region which would stand to lose from any change. Intergovernmental coordination would continue to rest on the good faith of the communes, and the further creation of various coordinating offices like Paris Métropole. Another is the métropole confédérée (confederate metropolis), desired by socialist Bertrand Delanoë, current mayor of Paris, which would bring the communes together into one expansive intercommunality, and which would have statutory coordinating capacities but would preserve the sovereignty of the individual communes. But the big bet that communist Patrick Braouezec, president of Communauté d'Agglomération Plaine-Commune north of Paris and president of Paris Métropole itself, wants the region to put its money on is the métropole intégrée (integrated metropolis) which goes so far as to merge Paris and the 123 suburban communes of the petite couronne  into a single city.

Enticing as that is, it might be strange to stop just there however. A Grand Paris could be extended to all 412 communes of the urban unit or even further into the immediate countryside, creating a local administration equal to the physical extent of the agglomeration, just as was done in London in 1965.

Such a Paris could also be subdivided in various ways. The existing departmental boundaries could be preserved inside it, becoming boroughs of one to two million people each, similar to the structure of New York and its five boroughs. Alternatively, one could argue that the popularity of the existing intercommunalities in the region demonstrates that these are the ideal geographic units for local service delivery and that they should become the main subunit of any Greater Paris. This would give the city a little over forty boroughs of 100,000 to 400,000 people each, similar to London and its 32 boroughs.

The efficiencies of a metropolis

Why bother with all of this? Firstly, there are strong socioeconomic inequalities emerging in the metropolis that a fragmented governance structure has great difficulty perceiving and addressing adequately. Rather than willingly work together to reduce inequalities, the elected officials of Paris and other wealthy areas have complained about how far each department must go to subsidise the poorer areas of the region.

The second argument is macroeconomic. As econometric models of cities suggest, the opportunities for interaction and thence for economic exchange and innovation increases exponentially as an agglomeration's population increases, but so do opportunities for antagonism and the "evils" of the city: crime, violence, traffic, pollution, degradation, anomie. A city in which social mobility is fragmented by a poorly distributed transport system and hindered by a compartmentalised mentality is one in which the possibility for positive interactions with others from across the metropolis is reduced, for example reducing the effective labour pool available to every organisation in the metropolis or reducing the number of commercial centres within which one is willing to shop, while allowing the evils of the city to emerge through the cracks unchecked.

It could also be said that authorities are placing too much faith in the idea that reforming the administrative hierarchy or symbolically erasing the Boulevard Périphérique will inevitably erode the economic barriers between inhabitants.

Thirdly there is a democratic argument for integrating Paris into a single city. Whether the communes like it or not, certain issues must be coordinated at the scale of the agglomeration, which for a metropolis of such size requires that this be done in an especially transparent system to prevent vested interests from intervening. A Greater Paris coordinated behind closed doors or by an indirectly elected "assembly of mayors" as has been proposed could attract more aggressive private sector lobbying, especially from the infrastructure and real estate sectors, weakening accountability within the city. Whereas in a grand commune headed by a directly elected mayor and assembly, a great deal more of this coordination would have to be constructed on the back of a strong public mandate, forged in the crucible of popular elections. Apart from transparency, the electoral process would also force more issues of metropolitan importance to be discussed more widely at all levels of Parisian society, from its politicians to its media, its businesses, associations and unions, through to individual communities and families, creating a far more mature democratic governance. The health of the democracies in New York City and Greater London demonstrate the value of this process, whatever one thinks individually of Bloomberg, Boris or Ken.

There is a deep psychological boundary separating Paris and its suburbs created by the Boulevard Périphérique, the space-eating circular freeway girdling the 20 arrondissements. If this boundary could be erased both physically and administratively, by building over the freeway and changing political boundaries, and if electoral campaigns were then conducted at the metropolitan scale, then the common perception of the major cleavage in the metropolis would no longer be that between Paris "city of light" and its suburbs, a division more symbolic and mythological than pragmatic and socioeconomic, but the more serious gulf between the wealthy west and south and the poor north and east. Direct elections on a metropolitan scale would focus more naturally on this far more important issue and would cause all levels of society to confront and seek to repair this division.

A big distraction?

Nevertheless there are many reasons why little of this is likely to happen. The president of the Île-de-France region, which would lose a lot of power to any form of Grand Paris, has made strong arguments that his regional council is the right place for any issues at the scale of the metropolis, being able to balance not only between departments and communes in the urban area, but also between the urban and rural zones of the region.

The only person in a position to champion the creation of a Grand Paris, that is to say the only popular politician who could realistically gain enormously from such an event and could coordinate backing from the national and regional governments to make it happen, is Bertrand Delanoë, the socialist mayor of Paris today, who has repeatedly stated his preference for the métropole confédérée , wary of seeming avaricious, but also wanting a governance structure that can hold sway over the communes, especially on the issue of social and affordable housing.

The new socialist presidency, for its part, is more interested in decentralising economic responsibilities from the heavily indebted national government to the regions, and consolidating the trend of empowering intercommunalities to manage local services. It is seeking to reinforce Lille, Lyon and Marseille, the next three largest agglomerations, but kicking the subject of Grand Paris down the road.

There is also little popular interest in administrative reform, especially compared to the painful problems of economic recession, unemployment and the threat of a shrinking welfare state. Whereas there is still very strong popular attachment to the ideal of the commune, the main forum for democratic involvement, a major source of republican sentiment and a symbol of fraternity throughout French history, all of which is even more true for the commune of Paris. Few are comfortable with discarding generations-old communal boundaries, or with dilating the name of Paris and its institutions across the metropolitan area.

It could also be said that authorities are placing too much faith in the idea that reforming the administrative hierarchy or symbolically erasing the Boulevard Périphérique will inevitably erode the economic barriers between inhabitants. These questions have arguably taken too much time away from the difficult task of renovating the metropolis' economy and its infrastructure, expanding its imbalanced transport system or addressing the housing deficit. No administrative structure, no matter how democratically representative, will somehow spontaneously generate the ideas and the public goodwill needed to make these things happen.

is Editor-in-chief of The Global Urbanist.