Reading Paul-Hervé Lavessière’s “The Paris Revolution”, published in February 2014 by the Wildproject, provides another vision of the Paris “banlieue” (suburbs).
We met the author of this poetic work, geographer and urbanist Paul-Hervé Lavessière, who also traced the Sentier Métropolitain. These three walks across Seine-Saint-Denis, Val-de-Marne and then Les Hauts-de-Seine can be completed in two days.
He walked with his editor, Baptiste Lanaspeze, to rediscover the Paris that exists beyond the périphérique ring road.
At the moment, the historic centre of Paris is set in opposition to its suburbs. However, you promote the idea of a “Greater Paris” that would also include the adjoining departments (92, 93 and 94) – this was, in fact, the original composition imagined when the department of Paris was created in 1790.
Which urban elements beyond the 20 arrondissements show that we are still in Paris and not in the suburbs?
All along the way we walked on pavements and crossed paths with other pedestrians. For me, this is the first element that places us in the city. When I walk in the suburbs of Toulon or Marseille, I often find myself in dead-end housing estates without pavements where onlookers might ask “what on earth is he doing here?” On the Paris Revolution Path, you always feel that you are in a city – you often find city maps and signs like those in the centre of Paris.
We also saw lots of different, heavily used, forms of public transport (trams, buses and RER trains). At the beginning I expected more “car aggressivity” as there are motorways and giant interchanges everywhere. Yet, this wasn’t the case and the roads were generally well-thought out for pedestrians.
Now, I don’t see that much difference in going from Goncourt to Porte des Lilas (inside ring road) by metro and Basilique de Saint-Denis to Bobigny (beyond ring road). In both cases, there is a reliable form of public transport and not just a bus every half hour. For me, this is a clear indication of urbanity. There are also a significant number of shops and services.
From then on, I accepted that I wasn’t in the suburbs (or a periurban area) but in the city, and that this city could only be Paris – I certainly wasn’t in Orléans or Strasbourg!
What would Paris be like today if, as originally intended, the old city fortifications had been replaced by a “green belt” combining excellent value housing and natural spaces rather than a ring road?
It is difficult to say. We would perhaps have built more densely just behind the belt, but parks can often also have an isolating effect. Take the example of the Parc de Forest, near my old address in Brussels. This giant park with vast lawns separates (rather than linking) the poorer area at the bottom and the richer area above. A green belt would not have automatically prevented the Paris-Suburbs opposition. There would still have been chic and less chic areas. Paris would not have been any less enclosed or dense than is currently the case. There would, however, undoubtedly have been less pollution.
The Grand Paris, which will come into existence on 1 January 2016, aims to reduce differences between the municipalities you walked through. Doesn’t the ring road represent a huge obstacle to this reunification?
Like all urban motorways, the périphérique will one day be considered a relic from a past era. The same is true for the Ring de Charleroi (Belgium) with its piles, one-way system, entrances, exits and interchanges. These infrastructures are intended to save time for drivers, yet, they add time for those who live underneath the pillars by forcing them to take long detours. The A57 in Toulon is very useful for inhabitants living in the hills who can now whizz down to the city-centre. It is, however, less useful for those whose windows look onto the motorway, which cuts off part of their access.
The problem of the ring road is the same as for any urban motorway. In Seoul, Detroit and Hamburg ring roads have been demolished, so why not in Paris? We could replace it with a wide urban boulevard lined with homes and shops. We could make it a real city.
Do the demarcation lines created by the different forms of transport (particularly trams) and the future Grand Paris Express network reinforce the isolation felt by those living in Ile de France away from the centre of Paris?
I think the tramway does. Regardless of the distance from Notre Dame, it creates the feeling of being in the city and being respected as urban (it’s very practical for pushchairs, wheelchairs and passengers with shopping).
As for the GPE, I find it more difficult to say. “Express” generally means that the transport will whizz through and dissect local areas. When improving transport we often first and foremost think of saving time. Yet, in fact, what we are saving is space. Urban motorways allow us to live 40km rather than 10km from our place of work. With the GPE it wouldn’t be surprising to see rural Hurepoix become more urban and the start of “countryside traffic jams”. The example of the line covering the Saclay plateau springs to mind. The more urban parts will, on the contrary, help bring the municipalities around Paris closer – a step that I think is necessary.
I’m sometimes amused by what people say about the suburbs, for example “Jean-Louis has lived in Gennevilliers for 25 years and he’s never been to Paris”. Why is it so important? Is it necessary to go to Paris regularly if you already live in Greater Paris? The T1 tram, without doubt the mode of transport in Ile de France that does most to organise and structure the city, doesn’t run within the ring road.
When I see joggers on Paris’ Promenade Plantée walkway, I ask myself whether it is worse to be enclosed within the ring road or “isolated” and excluded beyond it?
During your walks you sometimes refer to the street furniture you encounter, that rare bench “that two could lie on” in the Hauts de Seine or those street lights outside the shopping centre at Bobigny. Does the different street furniture you discovered seem adapted to its environment and users?
Yes, Baptiste and I found that most of the spaces were all “dolled up”, particularly in terms of the street furniture. Overall, we had the impression that the “city had arrived”. Not only because of the benches, but also the lamps, bins etc. that show respect for pedestrians. They had obviously won out against the giant roadside lights and steel security barriers. It was amusing to see the differences between the street furniture in each municipality, the way in which it imitated or diverged from designs in Paris city centre.
To finish, let’s talk about the psychological dimension to this project. It is about a new way of “living together” to dismantle the division between Paris and the suburbs, so that everyone feels “Parisian”. Does this involve revolutionising mentalities on both sides of the ring road?
The Paris-Suburbs opposition is rather absurd and doesn’t help anyone. Parisians often have an inner desire for the suburbs and vice versa. It is an idea above all created by researchers – the subject seems to fascinate people and there are a multitude of studies about the “banlieue”. However, after 6 days of walking I don’t feel like I have made any major “discoveries”, rather that I was unaware of certain things before this experience. From the very first kilometers, my prejudices started to disappear and I was finally able to appreciate the area at its true value – a European capital with 10 million inhabitants.
In reality, there isn’t Paris on one hand and the suburbs on the other that need to be reconciled. It’s above all a question of shaking up our ideas to escape this binary vision. The city has been functioning as one for decades.