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Controversy in Paris Makes Regionalism Newsworthy

If you live in a city or suburb, chances are your regional government has tried to get your attention. Did you notice? Many of the issues your regional government is grappling with are actually important to you: the quality of the air you breathe, the quality of public transportation, the availability of green open space, and more.

As important as these issues are, I can almost guarantee that planners from your region have had to work extra hard to convince the press -- not to mention the citizens that live and work there -- to pay attention. The problem is, regional planning is about as exciting to the public as televised bowling and the press don’t seem to find the topic as newsworthy as it should be.

And then there is Paris. In one year, approximately a hundred articles and editorials on Grand Paris, a new regional effort, were printed in the city’s main paper, Le Monde. Grand Paris has also been covered by UK newspapers, such as the Telegraph and The Guardian, and by US newspapers, such as The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. In my interviews with Parisian architects, economists, and sociologists, they tell me that it’s not only the press that is paying attention. Ordinary citizens on the streets and cafes are talking about Grand Paris and Paris as a region.

So what happened?

Turns out, President Sarkozy created a political and media frenzy this past year when he announced his intention to design a new Paris that incorporates the suburbs. Looking at his effort from a socio-economic perspective, Sarkozy should be lauded for his effort to reconnect the isolated suburbs to the economic heart of Paris. The 2005 riots by African immigrants in some of these suburbs gave the world a real peek into some of the inequities found here.

His push has been to look past local political boundaries and acknowledge the new Paris that is emerging -- one that is both larger in geography and socio-economically more diverse. In 2007, the metropolitan area produced more than a quarter of France’s GDP, with a Gross Metropolitan Product of $731.3 billion.

Yet, his national government cites that Paris is underdeveloped in important sectors, and that the region’s economic growth has been slowing over the past two decades. Sarkozy also saw this as an opportunity to redefine the region in a post-Kyoto era, where sustainable development is no longer an afterthought.

Sarkozy retained 10 architectural teams with heavy hitters, such as Richard Rodgers, and asked them to “think big” on how to physically redefine the Paris region. In response, they offered lofty ideas for new economic centers, new high density housing hubs, and even a Paris covered with green roofs. For a moment, one could even argue that these teams breathed a new life of possibility for Paris. 

But politics is local—even when the French President is involved. 

As it turns out, Paris already has a plan for their region; one that was formally approved by the local jurisdictions and leaders and is now simply waiting for sign off by Sarkozy’s government. This plan addresses many of the issues Sarkozy argues that the region lacks, such as the need to address the 20 years of underinvestment in public infrastructure.

It also turns out that Grand Paris flies directly in the face of the regional coalition building effort under way. An important number of leaders that comprise the region’s 1,231 jurisdictions are already forging a common agenda on cross cutting issues such as transportation and economic development. These are just two of the several missteps that have made the idea turn sour.

So what seems to have started as a visionary act to physically remake the region has turned into a story on jurisdictional entanglements and hurt egos -- and the press ate it up. Interestingly, this controversy and all the press it generated has actually been an important win for regionalism in the end.