Sarkozy's Big Plans for a Greater Paris

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A computer image of a project for a bigger and greener Paris, in Gennevilliers, by French architect Roland Castro.

The frightful Battle of Paris that many observers expected has been averted — at least for now. In unveiling mammoth plans to modernize and reorganize France's capital and its surrounding suburbs, French President Nicolas Sarkozy set a flexible, all-inclusive tone. That was in stark contrast to his earlier comments (and habitual leadership style), which suggested that the creation of Greater Paris would be done his way or not at all.

But even as he called on various governing authorities, private and public organizations, and ruling conservatives and leftists alike to unite in what he called an "ambitious and difficult" undertaking, Sarkozy left two major questions unanswered, both of which promise to provoke clashes in the future: who will foot the bill, and who will rule over the huge new metropolis? (See pictures of Paris expanding.)

"Our successors will reflect upon the question of governance," Sarkozy told a crowd of dignitaries on April 29, when he presented proposals by 10 of the world's leading architects to create Greater Paris — a gigantic goal he said would fail if warring over its control undermined it from the outset. "Greater Paris is a project that does not belong to any one party, or any one camp. It affects everyone and belongs to everyone."

For now, the political friends and foes who'd already begun jostling for position to define, direct and take over the Paris of the future seem unified in excitement before the formidable project. They'll need to retain that team spirit for the long haul. At stake is the heady objective of turning Paris into a spectacular, environmentally friendly, sustainable city that then merges with its suburbs and beyond to transform the entire region into a giant, integrated economic engine. (See pictures of the French celebrating Bastille Day.)

"Greater Paris is about the capital playing a role in the European and the world economy [and becoming] a sustainable city for the post-Kyoto era," Sarkozy said in a 60-minute speech launching the project. "What I'm proposing is certainly ambitious and difficult. It's about preparing for the future."

If the urbanization proposals Sarkozy unveiled are any indication, that future is going to be really, really big. They call for the demolition of what's been dubbed the "invisible wall" between Paris and its surrounding suburbs — including those that contain the blighted housing projects whose residents ignited the nation-wide rioting of 2005. Under the plan, construction and business development will broaden economic and cultural activity from its current focus on the 1,130 sq. ft. (105 sq m) intra-muros Paris and its population of two million, and extend that to the 12 million-strong inhabitants of the surrounding Ile-de-France region (as a comparison, Greater London has a population of 8.5 million). In so doing, Greater Paris, it is hoped, would further boost the Ile-de-France's 30% share of French GDP with the creation of economic and research clusters producing synergies and new jobs.

As an initial step, Sarkozy has already announced a $47 million project to significantly enhance the Paris region's aging public transport system, which is swamped by 10 million riders every day. In addition to extending existing lines and modernizing rolling stock, the plan calls for the creation of a 90-mile (145-km) automated rail system circling Paris. By connecting the clusters of suburban business centers like La Défense to the residential areas surrounding Paris, the new elevated Métro will allow suburban commuters a direct route to work, instead of their current over-crowded daily slog through Paris. (See pictures of Sarkozy in the U.K.)

At the same time, one section of the railway will bisect the circular line through the city, providing more direct routes to both Paris airports at either end. That ramped up transport system will also prove vital to meeting another major Paris challenge: keeping its title as the world's leading tourist destination by luring visitors to stay in and around the capital.

But that's not all. Proposals by architects such as Briton Richard Rogers, Italian Paola Vigano, and Frenchmen Jean Nouvel and Christian de Portzamparc involve building futuristic skyscrapers with huge hanging gardens; creating vast city-center parks, green spaces, and even a new forest with a million carbon-battling trees near Charles de Gaulle airport; and renovating disused banks of the Seine. The river, meanwhile, is to be developed into a major transport link for goods to and from the Channel port of Le Havre — which, thanks to a new high-speed train track, will itself become a virtual suburb of Paris just a one-hour ride away.

These proposals will not only constitute the biggest alteration of Paris since Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann reconfigured the capital around its broad boulevards nearly 150 years ago, they will also seek to create a vast, socially and economically self-perpetuating metropolis from what is now a patchwork of municipalities and regions. Despite the enormity of that goal, Sarkozy wants to move fast. He's calling for financing offers from an array of public and private actors to be tabled in July. And in October, he will introduce legislation to strip down construction, zoning, and other laws that have traditionally slowed development in the city. Sarkozy also said he wants construction on the transport system to begin by 2012 — just in time for his re-election campaign — and wants much of the work of the Greater Paris plan completed within a decade. (Read: "What's Wrong With a Museum of French History?")

However, with cash-strapped municipal and regional governments in the dark about how much Sarkozy intends to contribute to the effort, most are expected to come in with pretty stingy contribution proposals — something likely to provoke a return of Sarkozy's authoritarian tone. The sparks that fly over money will be nothing, though, compared to the battle those same local leaders will likely put up when they realize they're bound to lose most of their power to a Greater Paris so enormous it will doubtless be administered by a new super-entity — possibly an organ of the state.

See pictures of Paris expanding.

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