Wednesday, 22 May 2013

A True City of Neighborhoods er..Arrondissements

After reading some classic urban planning texts I can't help but continue to ruminate about what makes this city so different, and effective, compared to the younger version of cities I'm used to in North America. 

Some key points first: There is no "downtown" or "Central Business District", the city  is actually 20 mini-districts that spiral outwards from approximately The Louvre. You won't notice walking from one to the other, the borders are sometimes physical barriers (e.g. water), and each one shouldn't be thought of in the same way Canadians' think of the GTA or Greater Vancouver Area, they all collectively make Paris as its known. Each arrondissment (as they are called) takes up some degree of responsibility for its citizens, managing public affairs such as garbage collection, street cleaning, park maintenance, language classes, immigration services, public pools...pretty much everything day-to-day. The larger affairs, like getting accepted through immigration, work permits or legal affairs are dealt with through the larger over-arching 'provincial' municipality, Ile de France. And for arguments sake I'll let you know those small towns surrounding the city border are no more suburban than inside the city: similar densities exist.

What is so different?
Text-book mixed uses in Paris 15th Arrd.
If this sounds similar to Toronto with its many neighborhoods, then why is it that these two cities are so socially and economically different? I do not doubt that there are many dozens of reasons we can whine out about cultural and age differences which no doubt exist, but I argue these are not the main differences. They are pieces of a tool that Europeans have used for hundreds of years out of practical necessity before they even had names: the tools of mixed use planning. Mixed use is something used in (not coincidentally) every single Canadian cities' best 'hoods, it is the complete mixture of residential and commercial spaces, with important places used at night as well as during the day. Mixed use of land covers the entire city of Paris, every street is used for everything, with small construction shops behind closed-up windows, grocers, bars, cafes, fruit stands etc. all below stories of apartments, most not more than 7 stories in height.This is not the entire city, there are areas especially in the 18-20th arrondissements that have overwhelming amounts of high-rise residential apartments, but even these areas have full bottom-space committed to all and any required resources. 

Non-mixed uses like what exists in even the best Canadian neighborhoods, e.g. areas designated specifically for stores, others for industry, others for houses, others for town-houses, for high-rises, creates huge vacuums of space, areas that are unwalkable, uncomfortable or simply unlivable. I think of mid-rise, nice condominiums in Guelph's west end that have been vacant for years after completion: the planners pictures don't match the reality that someone wants to walk to work, school, groceries, and for play (kids=day, adults=night). After the developers' initial payments of installing suburban sidewalks, roads, and piping needs to be replaced, do you think the amount of people living on one suburban street can cover the cost? not even close. It is the people in the sustainable parts of town that need to foot the bill.

Solutions exist, can and are being implemented to help fill this vacuum of space, and to make our cities more economically feasible and enjoyable in general. To do this cities' must be thought of as compartments of areas where humans live, not compartments of numbers that require only one thing at one given time. We are not discreet in our movement, we are continuous, and our construction patterns should be reflective of this. Solutions can be thought of based upon those people in their district seeing how their ideal city would be: not the city in the imagination of a planner who was born, raised, and probably will die in a suburb.

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