Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The new Grand Paris council will unite local officials from city and suburb alike to make joint decisions that affect the region.
After years of debate, protest, skepticism and compromise, the city of Paris finally got its first overarching governing body on January 1, 2016.
Called the Métropole du Grand Paris (the “Metropolis of Greater Paris”), this new institution will bring together officials from all the Paris metropolitan area’s different municipalities to make joint decisions affecting the entire city. Working to fully connect one of Europe’s more notoriously fragmented capitals, the group could help to overcome the divisions that have long seen Paris’ historic core rigidly separated from its suburbs, and its suburbs from each other. It will also, as the French press admits, help the city compete with its better-integrated rival, London.
The idea sounds sensible enough, but since being proposed by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010, it’s faced fierce resistance from existing government bodies. (Even starchitect Jean Nouvel chipped in to criticize the project’s vague goals and muddy decision-making.) This backlash saw the project’s ambitions scaled down, and it has emerged with less power than was initially envisioned. While Grand Paris may yet prove an influential institution, right now it feels as if Parisians have been watching a huge swelling cocoon for years, only to see it open to set free a small, sludge-brown moth.
Still, the situation it hopes to address remains far from ideal. To date, the Paris metro area’s governing structures have been extremely fragmented. In the heart of the conurbation lies the official city of Paris, the metro area’s historic core with just 2.2 million inhabitants. Grouped around it are 15 further départements that constitute the remainder of the metro area, some of which are entirely urban and some of which combine built-up areas with open country.
Overseeing everything is the Île-de-France region, which encompasses all of Paris but also many villages and ex-urban or even rural towns. Across this region, the job of keeping Parisians housed, employed, and mobile is managed efficiently enough—as Richard Florida has noted, a fragmented political structure does not automatically create dysfunction. But with the exception of Brussels, no other major European city is so sliced up by different bodies.
This fragmentation makes the decision-making process slower and tougher. It can also limit change; most articles talking about the promising environmental and transit policies being carried out in “Paris” refer only to the city’s small historic nucleus. And it does little for the city’s image. Paris can look to star rivals such as London, Berlin, Barcelona, and Copenhagen and see city governments that cover most, if not all, of their respective urban areas. Theirs, by contrast, remains a patchwork riven by borders into which prejudices against (and marginalization of) the suburban areas seem to be etched into the very plate from which the city’s image is printed.
While leaving the region’s divisions in place, Grand Paris may still help grease the metro area’s wheels and get things running more harmoniously. Powered by an assembly of 209 councillors, its area of jurisdiction will cover the densest part of the Paris region—an area containing 7 million of its roughly 12.3 million inhabitants, and both its airports. From this month onwards, it will oversee decisions on the environment and economy that affect the whole metro area. In 2017 and 2018 it will take over the same role for housing and urban planning. Within this period it will also acquire the physical headquarters it currently lacks, and a president.
What it will try not to be, however, is a vehicle for party political interests. The body will aim to be bipartisan—and it will need to be, given that the different areas it covers are run by different parties. Over time, the body will take over some tax powers from the municipalities, which could lead it by 2033 to become the main governing body for the whole city. With fully-fledged powers to influence planning and taxation, it could help redistribute resources across an urban region with pronounced peaks and troughs of wealth and poverty.
The key word here is “could.” As yet, the Grand Paris budget is still a feeble €65 million, while its exact status has not been fully hammered out into law. Meanwhile it’s facing some tough opposition from other interested parties who don’t want their wings clipped. As recently as a fortnight ago, the president of the Île-de-France region, Valerie Pécresse, was saying that “there was still time to abandon” the project. Its future growth thus depends on the goodwill of future French presidents, and at present its position remains fragile and tentative.
Still, in bringing all Paris together, the new governing body is a start. The moth may grow bigger wings yet.