AP Photo/Michel Euler

Mayor Anne Hidalgo thinks it’s time to tear up the historic map of Paris and start again. This could get tricky.

It’s time to tear up the historic map of Paris and start over. So suggests a new proposal from Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, leaked from a “confidential note” to France’s President and Prime Minister last week. According to the note, Paris needs its internal boundaries redrawn so that its arrondissements—Paris’s equivalent to boroughs, albeit generally far smaller than their U.S. equivalents—are closer to each other in population size.

There’s some sense in the proposal, but it would be a major shake-up nonetheless, not least a psychological one for Parisians. The city’s arrondissement boundaries have changed very little for over 150 years, their spiral layout and numbers being central aspects of how Parisians describe and navigate their city. Rubbing these boundaries out, say critics, would put Paris “at risk of losing its identity.”

These boundaries have barely changed since the mid-1800s. (Rainer Lesniewski/Shutterstock.com)

The case for redrawing the boundaries is strong. When they were first drawn up in 1860, the arrondissements divided a Paris radically different from today. The city core teemed with residents packed tightly together, while the outer areas were either less developed or still un-built. At the time, it made perfect sense to have smaller boroughs in the center and far larger ones on the periphery.

Accordingly, the city drew up the characteristic snail shell spiral map of arrondissements, the first to fourth forming a tight little central loop around which the others coil steadily outwards. For outsiders, this can be a little confusing. For example, you might expect the 16th and 19th arrondissements to be nearer to each other than they are to the 1st, but instead they’re on either side of the city, with the 1st sandwiched in the middle. Still, it’s something most people can get the hang of fairly quickly.

What’s harder to grapple with is just how much Paris has changed since the boundaries were drawn. The historic city core has far fewer inhabitants today, while the newer districts are among the most densely populated in Europe. There are now 15 times more inhabitants in the 15th arrondissement, Paris’ most populous, than there are in the city’s least inhabited, the central 1st. According to Hidalgo, this creates an obstacle “to the equality of treatment of users,” with residents of the smaller arrondissements getting more attention and influence per capita than they should.

But what could the current arrondissements be replaced with? One possibility could be to keep the same layout, but amalgamate some of the smaller central districts into single authorities. This would minimize disruption, but still wouldn’t easily give every district a roughly comparable population. Another possibility is completely redrawing the map, which would create more equally sized districts. It would also, however, create a lot of administrative complications, not least during the changeover, and constitute more of a direct assault on the current geographic understanding of the city.

Any major redraw is likely to be contentious. Parisians use the arrondissement numbers in conversation all the time, as in “I used to live in the 20th” or “I hate what they’re doing to the 13th these days.” Altering these navigational touchstones is going to mess with people’s mental maps.

There’s also a more serious risk—that altering the districts could favor one political party over another. This is an especially sensitive issue given that Hidalgo’s note includes other suggestions to increase the mayor’s power, which makes it hardly surprising that her opposition rival, Nathalie Kosciuszko-Morizet—commonly referred to as NKM—has already said the project smacks of electoral sleight of hand. Hidalgo has promised public consultation on the issue (while NKM wants a referendum), but carving up Paris anew is likely to be an extremely fiddly, hotly contested process.

If you doubt this, try having a go yourself. Le Monde has created a clever map that allows you to join together neighborhoods to create new districts. The idea is to get a geographically continuous arrondissement—one that makes sense and works with traditional neighborhood divisions and also has around 112,000 inhabitants. As you’ll see, it’s far from impossible, but when you factor in decades of political allegiance, practical service provision and the many strata of local identity accrued over 150 years, this is clearly territory in which to tread carefully.

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