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Are you sure you want Parisian-style urbanism?

This might seem like a fairly benign tweet by Clive Doucet, a former Ottawa City Councillor. I mean, Paris is wonderful. It is livable, walkable, and my favorite city in the world after Toronto. But as I have argued many times before on the blog, there is a tendency to look at Paris’ uniform mid-rise buildings and then incorrectly try and translate it over to a North American (or other) context with opinions that we should simply cap building heights. Because if only we were to do that, then we would be left with our own version of beautiful Paris.

This is false. And you should immediately call bullshit on anyone who suggests this might be the case. It ignores most of what Napoleon III and Haussmann did to Paris in the 19th century, and instead just cherry picks height so that it can be exported back home to oppose tall buildings. If we really and truly want Paris, then it is important to be reminded that, among many other things, the Paris we all love today is the result of:

  • The annexation of eleven surrounding communities (in order to form the city’s current boundaries)
  • Mass urban renewal, involving the displacement of some 350,000 people (according to some estimates at the time)
  • Nearly two decades of large-scale disruptive construction
  • The demolition of hundreds of old dilapidated buildings (some of which may have even been in a Heritage Conservation District — bad planning joke)
  • The cutting through of nearly 80 kilometers of new avenues all across the city
  • The building of high-density courtyard buildings and blocks

As you might suspect, Parisians at the time were upset with this kind of large-scale change. The now famous Impressionist painters lamented the new monotony of Paris’ regular mid-rise blocks. Where had the unique and quirky Paris of past gone? It was, of course, being systematically erased in the name of modernization and urban renewal, which by the way, included a new and important water and sanitation network. What Napoleon III and Haussmann did was transform Paris from a crumbling medieval city into a modern metropolis.

I am not suggesting that any of this is bad and shouldn’t have happened. Today, Paris is deeply loved the world over. But what I am suggesting is that if we truly want to create our own version of Paris, then we are going to need to be realistic with ourselves on what it is going to take to get there. It will require nothing short of massive change.

If we want Paris and Paris-like densities (despite what Clive posits in his tweet, Paris is not the densest city in the world), we are going to need to be fully prepared to rip up and rethink our entire approach to zoning. Taller buildings are partially (largely?) a result of our cultural obsession with single-family houses. We restrict supply, codify low-densities, and then wonder why the remaining areas need to be so tall. We then grasp at out-of-context examples in order to justify our own selfish interests.

If Paris is really what we want, then we must be prepared for everything that comes along with its pretty mid-rise buildings. Are you ready?

Photo by Nil Castellví on Unsplash

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