Spotlight on France

Grand Paris, or how Paris is trying to become a metropolis

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The idea of a Grand Paris, regrouping Paris with its suburbs into one metropolis has renewed momentum with the impending Olympic games in 2024. Its backbone is the Grand Paris Express, four new metro lines that will connect suburbs to each other and to the capital. But since then-President Nicolas Sarkozy formalised the Grand Paris in 2008 by launching an international architecture competition, the progress has not been smooth.  

Paris' suburb Issy-le-Moulineaux with the city of Paris in the background
Paris' suburb Issy-le-Moulineaux with the city of Paris in the background JOEL SAGET / AFP

Sciences Po urban studies professor Frederic Gilli sees the evolution of the Grand Paris in dramatic terms: “I usually say it's kind of a play. You have the set-up, in 2010, the introduction.”


In 2010, Parliament passed a law created the Société du Grand Paris, a company that would expand the region’s public transportation system by building the Grand Paris Express, with 200 kilometres of new tracks, connecting key sites around the Paris region with high-speed, automatic trains.

The Grand Paris Express is the backbone of the Grand Paris, says Gilli: “It begins with a metro, and then around the stations you have development processes.”

But organisation is perhaps even more important.

“If you look at all the big cities of the Western world, in the '90's or the early years of the 21st century, most of them have engaged in programs to reorganise their governance,”he says, pointing to Greater Toronto, Greater Montreal or the Greater London Authority

Paris, says Gilli, has been slow to do this, because of its history, notably during the mid-20th century: “In the early '60s there was an administrative distinction [made] between Paris ‘intramuros’ and the close periphery.”

The borders of present-day Paris are defined by the périphérique, a ring-road highway, completed in 1973, built on the site of 19th century fortification walls surrounding the city. The périphérique defines Paris’ borders physically but also symbolically, as around the time it was conceived, the Paris area was going through a reorganisation.

In 1968, Paris became its own department. Previously, it was part of the Seine department, which also included most of the cities in the close suburbs, or the inner ring.

Gilli says that this move “was a political measure, to keep Paris from turning red, or socialist,” a kind of gerrymandering, to concentrate the Communist- and Socialist-run cities in the northeast into one department, Seine Saint Denis.

The division, between Paris and its suburbs, or banlieus, created inequalities that remain today.

“You have the Haut de Seine, which is, with Paris, the most wealthy department in France. And you have the Seine Saint Denis, which is the poorest. So you have a massive social and economic segregation,” says Gilli.

After the split, the state developed the Paris region, but beyond the inner ring of banlieu. It built the RER commuter rail system to reach new cities it developed farther out, the ‘villes nouvelles’. And then, it stopped.

“For a long time people in Paris said, we've done the job already,” says Gilli. “It's only in the early years of the 21st century that a lot of people realised that the infrastructure, the political administration and organisation that had been decided on and invested in the 1970s, was not adapted to the way of life of people in the early 21st century.”

Paris changing

Economically, there has been a shift away from large, Paris-based companies, to small and medium-sized companies setting up shop throughout the region.

“In the past 40 years Paris has lost jobs, and the fastest-growing part of the Paris region is the outer ring, where you have Paris Saclay [scientific cluster], where you have Roissy [Charles de Gaulle airport], where you have Marne la Vallée and Eurodisney,” explains Gilli. “In all these places, about 1 million jobs were created in the past 40 years.”

As jobs shifted out of the city, so did people, and it has made clear the lack of viable public transportation: the RER and metro systems were built to get people to and from Paris, not between suburbs, or banlieus.

Another major change since the 1970s is administrative: In the early 2000s, as part of a decentralisation plan, France gave the Paris region, Île-de-France, control over its own urban development. Gilli says that gave the 1,200 cities in the region autonomy, each with “administrative, urbanistic, housing power over their buildings, their roads, their lightning- everything. 1,200 cities!”

Previously, the state would decide where things like public housing should be built, and cities had no choice but to agree. With power given to the cities, any plan becomes a suggestion, and Gilli says that “local communities say, well OK, yeah, we heard it, but now we are going to bargain.” With 1,200 cities, that’s a lot of bargaining, as each tries to strike deals with developers.

“The idea of Grand Paris, came out of the mind of the local mayors, saying, we have to do something, we have to organise ourselves,” says Gilli. “At the same time you have the state, with [President Nicolas] Sarkozy, saying we need a grand plan, a vision. That's the situation around 2006. And then, starting in 2010, we have the first solutions, in terms of land development, with a metro.”

And so, going back to his idea of this as a play, that’s the background and the introduction.

Act 1: the metro

“First act: design a metro. And the metro was first thought in a liberal way, connecting economic centres with a very fast transportation system, with only nine stations,” says Gilli.

But there was pushback, and public debates, and the plan changed.

“So, Act one, Scene two: local communities, local actions, public debates, and with the same lines, more than fifty metro stations,” he says.

This was in 2011, and it marked a shift of the Grand Paris idea, from a grand vision urban development plan, to a bottom-up approach, with input from local municipalities.

“The initial vision was really based on urban planning and architectural approach,” says Nicolas Ledoux, CEO of Algoé, a consulting company that helped to organise a competition, called Inventons la Metropole, to develop 55 sites around the future metro stations in the greater Paris area.

“This urban competition… the idea was to ask private developers to imagine innovative urban project in these areas,” he explains. Cities proposed the sites, and Ledoux says the competition asked for projects to include “public facilities, new public spaces, cultural and sport facilities. The idea was to involve the future users in the design process, from the beginning.”

The projects are currently on display at the Pavillon de l’Arsenal in Paris. They range from prominent sites, like the area around the new metro station in Saint Denis that will serve the 2024 Olympic village, to creative uses of a historical fort in Les Lilas northeast of Paris.

Ledoux says what is new about this kind of competition, and about the Grand Paris development in general, is the lack of central control. Cities have had to “let the private sector design and propose new projects, without trying to control it” as a way of sharing the final decision.

Because decision-making is what the Grand Paris is all about.

Act 2: governance

Going back to Grand Paris as a play, as conceived of by urban planning professor Frederic Gilli, Act 2 is about negotiations on how the region is to be organised.

In 2012, parliament created the Métropole du Grand Paris, grouping Paris with 131 cities of the inner ring into an entity that could make urban planning decisions. But it was assumed that would be temporary, because at issue today is scale: At what scale should the greater Paris area be governed?

That is still up for discussion: The regional council says it should be the Île-de-France region, though it raises questions about how much non-urban land should be included, as much of the region is farmland.

President Emmanuel Macron had brought up the idea of combining, or re-combining, the Paris department with those of the inner ring, to create solidarity, by unifying France’s poorest department, Seine Saint Denis, with the richest, Paris and Haut de Seine.

2024 Olympics

The decision, ultimately, is up to Macron. And whatever happens will take a while to manifest itself, though the 2024 Olympics are something of a deadline, as all the sites for the games will be outside Paris, in the greater Paris area.

Nicolas Ledoux says the Olympics will be a way to shine the light on the evolution of the greater Paris, as “a key moment to make people be more aware of the value of their territory.”

For Frederic Gilli, the Olympics are the “cherry on the cake” of the development of the greater Paris area. “Some people see the cake when they see the cherry. Everyone has in mind things are changing, but how? why? and for whom? And in 2024, I think we will have the beginning of an answer. I hope there will be a change in the way that people think about the banlieu, and the scale and the image of Paris will change.”

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