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C’est la vie: Paris shows the world how to live

There’s a resonance here. Almost a hundred years ago, in 1925, Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin for Paris showed how massive, cruciform tower blocks on gridded motorway-style streets could replace the intricate medieval patterning of inner Paris. Fortunately Plan Voisin was never realised in Paris, yet it became the 20th century’s favoured city-growth paradigm. In Australia, it still is.

But Hidalgo’s contemporary la ville du quart d’heure offers an equal-and-opposite model for the next century. Corbusier’s 1925 vision centred on the belief that “a city made for speed is made for success”. This has taxed the planet, and in fact, us, almost to extinction. Can Hidalgo’s 2020 quarter-hour paradigm undo the damage?

People cool down in the fountains of the Trocadero gardens in Paris on July 25 last year, when the temperature hit 42.6 degrees, a record for the French capital.

People cool down in the fountains of the Trocadero gardens in Paris on July 25 last year, when the temperature hit 42.6 degrees, a record for the French capital. Credit:AP

Last summer, July 2019, central Paris reached 42C. This was unheard of. Hidalgo was already working to create a post-car city – controversially converting the Georges Pompidou highway along the Seine into a park (which everyone now loves), running a separated bike lane along the Champs Elysees, pledging to ban diesel cars by 2025, trialling a driverless electric shuttle and doubling the length of the bike lane network to 1400 kilometres.

That shift, begun before Hidalgo became mayor in 2014, was partly climate-driven and partly an attempt to reduce the 3000 who die every year in Paris from air pollution. Already, a new French law passed in 2015 required all new roofs in commercial zones to be either green space or photovoltaic, or both, thus increasing insulation and reducing the urban heat island effect. But Paris, whose 2.2 million inhabitants average 210 persons a hectare, is Europe’s densest city. More had to be done.

Since 2016 Hidalgo has chaired the C40 group of cities (of which Sydney and Melbourne are members) that exhorts cities to lead the world in climate action. The scorching summer of 2019 only energised her campaign.

Car ownership is down and in the last year, cycling has increased by 54 per cent. But it’s not just about clean air, climate and survival, pressing as those are.

Legendary Swiss-French architect Charles Le Corbusier.

Legendary Swiss-French architect Charles Le Corbusier.

Modernity got it wrong. City life is not only, or even mainly, about efficiency and speed. Sydney may still be building motorways but Paris has seen that even (or perhaps especially) in the big smoke, life also demands dignity, engagement and a degree of tranquillity. The new direction is dubbed, in French, hyper-proximity. But really, it’s a kind of radical localism.

Paris is not alone. Almost five years ago, Barcelona’s (female) mayor Ada Colau instituted the first of that city’s car-taming superilles, or superblocks. Encircling the old city is the vast area known as the Eixample. There, in 1859, Catalan engineer Ildefons Cerda attempted social betterment by replacing astonishingly dense slums (four times the density of modern Paris) with 900-odd chamfered-corner city blocks designed to foster air and traffic flow. In 2016, Colau collected nine of these blocks into a pedestrian zone. Cars are allowed around the periphery but within the superilla, kids can play, people cycle, skate, chat and have coffee.

Paris’s Hidalgo, advised by Sorbonne professor Carlos Moreno, wants to take this further, and “reinvent the idea of urban proximity”. Urban humans, they postulate, need six things. Dwelling in dignity, working in proper conditions, provisioning, wellbeing, education and leisure. All this – schools, work, exercise, picnic grounds, cafes, cinemas, drycleaners, lawyers’ offices and parks – should be within just over a kilometre of chez moi.

And that implies an extraordinarily fine-grain mash-up of uses. It’s the direct inverse of modernist planning, where a high-rise, big-footprint work centre (or CBD) centres a puddle of residential sprawl, from which everyone commutes daily at high speed. Modernism strove to separate uses, increase speed and coarsen texture. Question for us: can this be reversed?

Placa de Tetuan, a major square located in the Eixample district of Barcelona, Spain.

Placa de Tetuan, a major square located in the Eixample district of Barcelona, Spain.Credit:Benjamin Grant

Hidalgo promises a bike lane on every street, separated bikeways across every bridge, urban forests, increased pedestrianisation and the erasure of 60,000 car spaces. Will that do it?

Consider Sydney. Although much smaller and less dense than central Paris, inner Sydney is similarly fit for localism. Glebe or Surry Hills residents can walk everywhere and seldom be forced from the hood. Ditto inner Melbourne – Brunswick or Carlton. This fact is one of the driving forces of gentrification.

Less so the burbs. As long as poor people work for rich people, localism implies intermingling not just uses, but classes. Your cleaners and office workers need to live within a half-hour’s walk or tram-ride of your tycoons, fat cats and magnates. Is this plausible?

Because the answer pivots not on speed or efficiency but on aligning poor’s people’s necessity with rich people’s desire, measurables like infrastructure and tax incentives are less important here than the immeasurables that make places surprising, chic or beautiful.

Rather than swamping the western suburbs with towers, therefore, we could do worse than rolling out big leafy squares with mature trees, surrounded by pedestrian streets, cycle-paths, tramways and eight-storeyed, green-roofed, multi-use apartment buildings, Parisian style.

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