Tag Archives: Paris

A conversation about the geometry of nowhere

In response to my last article, Bruce Liedstrand of Community Design Strategies in Paris writes,

I read with interest your essay on The Geometry of Nowhere because I divide my time between Paris and Silicon Valley (the site of your Cupertino Target store example). After re-reading the essay, I am puzzled. I hear your frustration with narrow sidewalks, but I am lost in understanding your concept of “place”.

My experience has been that a “place” is created by spatial enclosure, the use of adjacent buildings to enclose and shape the space into a comfortable “place”.  Paris is strong on spatial enclosure. To me it seems almost as if Paris started as a solid mass and that the boulevards were carved out of the mass by broad blades and the narrower streets (“rues”) by finer blades. Wherever I am in Paris I feel comfortably inside a good place.

Your essay seems to indicate that “place” exists without any enclosure by buildings. That, indeed, it can exist on the outside edge of buildings rather than inside a group of buildings. Is that what you intend?

I am puzzled also by your discussion of the Cupertino Target store, which I have personally visited. (Ed note: What are the odds?) When I look at your illustration of your changes, I don’t see any “place”. What I see new is open spaces outside buildings from which cars have apparently been excluded. Do you intend to say that exclusion of cars is the key to converting undifferentiated open space into a good “place”? What is it about these new open spaces around the store that would make them comfortable for people to linger in?

Perhaps I am reading your essay wrong? Can you please point me in the right direction?

Thanks.

Enclosure creates a room, but it’s not sufficient to create a place. You can see this in Paris, where some of the best places in the city are not enclosed, for example along the Seine, or the Luxembourg garden. And the most enclosed places, like Place Vendôme, are not very interesting.

To get a good understanding of the relative impact of enclosure and open space on place, all we have to do is take a long walk along the axe historique. Start at Place de la Concorde, which was about 50% sidewalk 50% free space when it was created and is not enclosed. All the free space was converted to road and now it is perilous to get across, but still a place. Walk down to Rond-Point de l’Élysée through a wood with substantial open space to walk across. I don’t know if that counts as enclosure, but it’s a good place. Then you have the model of place, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées with its straight-aligned buildings, that is also a place with 50% sidewalk and 50% road. And it is a major road, 10 lanes of traffic, but that doesn’t really interfere with it as a place because there is little reason to cross the road, and it can be done in two steps thanks to traffic islands.

Once you’re up the hill and you go across the monster Place de l’Étoile (horrible place, all cars driving maniacally so that pedestrians have to cross in underground passages), you end up on Avenue de la Grande Armée, which is morphologically identical to the previous avenue except that some of its space is taken by parking lots. That means the ratio of sidewalk to road is much less than 50/50. It’s also much less crowded and much less attractive than the previous avenue, but it still works.

After you get across Porte Maillot to Avenue Charles de Gaulle in Neuilly, then you find the same buildings with the same alignments and the same enclosure as the two previous avenues, except this time the space has been traffic-engineered to hell, combined with speed cameras to dissuade speeding. What space there was on Grande Armée has been cut even further, and the result is a dead street on what is a major business center of the city.

Finally cross the bridge and climb your way up to the Parvis de La Défense, where you will find that the buildings are modern and completely random, but the space is fully open to people and always full of people. (Even on Sundays!) I interviewed the master planner for the northern expansion, and he said the developer of La Défense did not agree to build the 25m wide pedestrian bridge he had designed to connect the site to the main place. After their small “passerelle” failed they backed down and built the full bridge, and it works, always full of people.

So there you have it, the closest thing to a controlled experiment on place and enclosure. Enclosure turns out to be irrelevant.

Have a nice walk.

Do you really find La Defense a pleasant place?  For me, it is utterly placeless – one of the worst locations in Paris?

If you have extra time on a pleasant afternoon, would you really rather spend it sitting in the open space of La Defense than in my neighborhood park?

p1010675_4

La Défense is a business place, and it works at what it is. But compared to Avenue Charles de Gaulle, which is another business place, and which has the same architecture and alignments as the rest of Paris, it is a much better place.

Can you say this is not a good place?

Look at all the people. They’re not locked up in their offices. The neighborhood is set up so you can go straight to your office to the metro using tunnels, but when I was there I always preferred taking a detour on the surface. Take my word for it, people even go there on the weekends to teach their kids how to ride bikes and roller-skate. They don’t care that the buildings aren’t aligned.

What I am asking with my article is how can we reduce and remove sprawl without going through an expensive process of total demolition for which we won’t have the money anymore? We don’t have the choice of your small neighborhood park. A place and a park are very different things anyway. Cities existed for centuries without parks, but never without place. If we reintroduce place in sprawl cities, that means shops that rely on place to survive don’t have to open up in the mall anymore, they can do business anywhere because the entire city is a mall (one of the first things I realized about Paris). Then your city starts to grow around place instead of around roads, and people have a reason to linger.

Yes, for me it is not at all a good place in the photo or in personal experience.  People are dwarfed by the size of the space (in the photo, the space is almost empty) and it is not comfortable.  One can look at the buildings as perhaps interesting objects, depending on one’s taste, but it certainly is not a place I would linger in or return to regularly if I didn’t work there.Let’s accept that we disagree, vigorously, about whether La Defense is a good place.  But what, in your view, makes a good place.  So far I hear you favor an absence of cars and openness?  Is that right?  Is that all, or can you tell me more?

And what would be good about your redesigned Target store?

I didn’t redesign the Target store, I left it there as a necessity of the context, and the people at La Défense aren’t looking at the buildings. They’re a necessary part of the décor, but they’re not the reason people use the place, or any place.La Défense became a success, despite everyone’s intent, because economic conditions forced the developers to break the master plan and allow any random building to be built. Had they not done so it would be exactly like Empire State Plaza in Albany. The difference between the two is not architectural, it is socio-economic.

You do not need to remove cars to make a good place, you only need to remove the exclusivity for cars. What makes a good place is total freedom of movement for everyone, including the freedom to stop and linger. You can’t do that in traffic engineered space because you are confined between very narrow limits. They tell you how fast to go, when to stop, where to turn, it’s a nightmare, but one that we put up with to go fast.

Is an empty space out in the desert a good place because everyone can move freely?  Or are you talking about places within cities?  Is it just traffic engineered spaces that you reject?  Are you advocating a Hans Monderman approach to streets?  Are you rebelling against “confinement”, or is some broader principle involved?

I agree that the Empire State Plaza in Albany is a terrible place.  Are you saying that the only problem with it is that, unlike La Defense, the buildings are not place at random?  What do you mean by saying that the difference is “social-economic”?

Could you please write in one paragraph what you believe are the key factors in creating a good place within a city so I can understand where we might agree or disagree?

Deserts can make a good place, although there is not much desert urbanization. (Desert driving is a lot of fun nevertheless.) Open space alone does not make a place, you also need people there, and the reason that people go through any place is to participate in and generate social and economic networks. This was not done at Empire State Plaza but was done at La Défense.

The issue is at core about freedom. How much freedom of movement do I enjoy, how much freedom to grow and build do I enjoy? In a place you can walk anywhere and build anything anywhere, or just occupy the space to conduct some activity like playing hockey or learning to ride a bike. That creates networks and attracts people. In sprawl the entire space is traffic engineered. To move around you are practically on a conveyor belt, offered only a linear path, delimited speed and a select few choices. You can’t build anything because of the zoning. The choices available to you have been selected by the traffic engineers and the planners, and they only fit  their model of what they want you to do. There is no creativity possible to invent your own journey. A famous game designer once said “a game is a series of interesting choices.” What kind of choices does sprawl offer?

The one place in sprawl where people are given a shred of creativity is the mall, and that’s how people who live in sprawl spend their free time. You can go there and just hang out, inventing an activity from nothing. It’s all the place they have left.

Regional complexity and local community

The housing crisis afflicting Britain has reached such an intolerable level that Prime Minister Gordon Brown is announcing what amounts to a nationalization of planning regulations (report via Planetizen). This comes on the heels of the mayor of Greater London being granted the power to override planning rules of boroughs in order solve the capital’s even more outrageous housing situation, as recently as 2007. The trend towards centralization of the planning process must mean that England is suffering from too much localism. Since the glorious standoff between Robert Moses and the mothers of Greenwhich Village in the 1950’s, the local area has been considered the appropriate scale for urban planning, leading in New York City to a transfer of planning rights to community boards. This transfer has not been without its drawbacks to the city. With the reputation of Robert Moses being slowly rehabilitated the pendulum may be swinging back in the other direction.

The Paris region has struggled with the same issues, having had both its Robert Moses era and now its localism era leading to the same kind of crisis London is struggling with. Legislators and senators have lately been juggling with different schemes to solve the problem of Greater Paris, all of them more or less inspired by the Greater London Authority. (The humiliating loss to London in the bid for the 2012 Olympics having provided the evidence for the superiority of London’s model.) Localism in France is notoriously entrenched, the Ile-de-France region being divided into over 1200 communities, one third of them creating the 10,000,000 people Paris metropolis. Planning a world-class capital with 1200 mayors, all out to protect their local community and identity, has to this day been achieved by layering multiple superimposed regional authorities that have fought each other in turf wars and become a remote abstraction to the citizens they are little accountable to. When finally things achieve complete irrationality, people plead for the state to step in.

What’s unusual about this situation is that it is not the first time it has happened. It is another round in a cycle whose last peak was the post-war housing crisis that lead to the regional plan of Paul Delouvrier under special orders from then-president of France Charles de Gaulle. Going back further in history, the nomination of prefect Georges Eugène Haussmann and his restructuring plan to extend the scale of Paris was preceded by a similar urban humiliation against London. Both times public opinion turned against the regional planners a decade or two into their rule, giving way to another era of localism. In the meantime their projects, the great boulevards and the Regional Express train network, became indispensable to urban life.

Over the summer I was fortunate enough to be on the planning staff of one Delouvrier’s great projects for the Paris region, the New Town of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, today a mature city. The city has since its founding been a microcosm of the regional-local conflict. From that experience I proposed a permanent solution to the cycle, and my inspiration came from fractal geometry.

The problem to be solved is to create a division of the metropolis that is simultaneously local and regional, that allows local communities to grow through their own specific urban processes while making it possible to launch and plan projects at the regional scale. The divisions have to be simple enough internally that people can easily understand how they work, thus forbidding the layering of levels of governance and bureaucracies, the territorial mille-feuilles. The closest object that describes such an organization is the Sierpinski Carpet.

The Sierpinski carpet is an object that has structure at infinite levels of scale and can therefore solve problems that occur at the biggest and smallest scales. In real-world terms, it implies that a regional community has grown around small communities and towns, each with their own separate and contrasting scale. This organization recognizes that cities happen at all scales and harmonizes them into a coherent whole. It is a fractal, perforated city.

The city of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines is a clear attempt, although a failed one, to create such a perforated city. The original territory, on the outskirts of Paris just south of Versailles, was a sleepy exurban territory of one small town and a handful of villages surrounded by large farming estates, when in the late 1960’s the state launched its program of new towns. Because the farming estates were concentrated in the hands of a few large farmers the state considered them easy to acquire and develop. A state-owned developer, EPASQY, was created to develop and commercialize the new town, and a special regime of planning regulations was created around the existing town and villages, preserving the local rules within them. This territorial organization had the following form:

zan

The gray area was the territory controlled by the developer. The white pockets were the town of Trappes and the villages and hamlets of the area. The other significant aspect of this organization, and what eventually caused the hijacking of the New Town project, is the superposition of the communes divisions onto this structure. The commune is the basic element of local governance in France, created during the French revolution and static ever since. While the local mayors of the communes tried in vain to stop the plan, the arrival of suburban migrants from Paris into the new neighborhoods spelled the end of their community. In one fateful year every mayor was swept from office and replaced with more politically-savvy migrants from Paris who proceeded to create a new, suburban community from their office by blocking the plans of the state developer and acquiring the right to determine the programs of all further developments. What was to be a New Town of 500,000, an economic and political balance to Paris as the state designed it, was thus scaled down to what it is today, a suburban city of over 100,000 made up of 7 semi-autonomous and politically antagonistic communities struggling to solve regional problems since the dissolution of the developer.

Because the territory of the local communities extended beyond their urbanized area, the urbanization of this land by migrants from another community, that of metropolitan Paris, caused their community to disappear politically. This problem is the root of the housing crisis in London, Paris and rural England. Communities are not able to grow their territory as they expand, and smaller communities with territories much greater than they need must protect their political existence by restricting the production of new housing that will threaten their political future. If, by some accident, any one of the hundreds of communes of Paris were to remove density restrictions, the result would be the entire housing demand for the region channeled in this one community, creating a population surge followed by a new political paradigm. Mayors therefore naturally block new development, and will fight proposals such as Mr. Gordon Brown’s to overrule their community’s planning regulations. Their very survival as a political community is at stake. Had the New Town planners been able to create new political territories that preserved the local communities in the middle of their plan, both the local communities and the new regional community could have coexisted. Instead they both vanished in favor of artificial suburban communities in the fight over the area’s development.

Anyone traveling around the Paris region will be easily persuaded of the necessity of preserving local communities, some of which have had a distinct existence since before the middle ages. One historic town, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, has the claim of being the birthplace of the French kings. Other communities have not enjoyed political autonomy since Haussmann’s reforms, but continue to exist in fact. The village of Montmartre has enjoyed a special planning code within Paris’ planning system until recent year, as have the outer boroughs. These distinct processes were abolished in this decade’s revision of the planning system and a single planning system now regulates all of Paris in the hopes of simplifying the process. The drawback will be the loss of Paris’ distinct communities.

The solution to the dilemma of Greater Paris and its many communities would be to create a perforated fractal Paris, with distinct communities and their distinct planning processes existing autonomously within it. The most significant of these communities, and the one most people recognize as Paris, is the historic core of boroughs 1-12. This area has developed a tourism-centric economy that requires a planning process focused on strict preservation of the urban fabric, or as other Parisians call it, a museum-city. Beyond that circle begins metropolitan Paris, the space centered around the two ring highways, which faces entirely different challenges and community objectives.

opera st-michel

Historic Paris – beloved by tourists

courbevoie-gare porte-de-saint-denis

Metropolitan Paris – home to millions with different challenges and a different urbanism

montmartre-village

Village of Montmartre, an enclave within Paris

Within the regional city of Paris would exist other historic cities as well as special forms of communities, such as the business city of La Défense whose unconventional urbanism preserves the economic vitality of the region. Alongside major historic towns such as Versailles and St-Denis, the territory of Metropolitan Paris would also be perforated by a constellation of villages and perhaps some entirely artificial and experimental communities.

For the legislators tasked with drawing community boundaries, such a plan will be a nightmare. How are they expected to define thousands of communities, each with their scale, and track their growth over time? The task is impossible. They have imposed the delimitation of communes in a central plan that is every bit a form of zoning as the separation of uses, and just as limiting, because that is the limit of their ability to control communities. A fractal territorial structure of thousands of communities cannot be made by legislative act, it must be an emergent outcome of autonomous communities exchanging parts of their territory until they have achieved an equilibrium that fits all of their current situations. For this the legislators must give up defining the boundaries and instead define a process by which communities are formed and grow out of other communities.

Cities have grown upon a political blueprint that did not adapt with the communities it planned for. This created regional crises that were followed by regional blueprints and then local crises. A dynamic territorial structure would not adopt a regional or local scale but all scales at once, nested within each other. Such a territorial structure would result in institutional simplicity while resolving regional complexities in its emergent dimension. Doing so implies that legislators and governments must give up their power to plan communities, an act they will be reluctant to consider.

Interesting side-note

While New York City’s growth rarely bumped into an existing community, one case was Greenwhich Village, which today continues to be an exception in Manhattan’s otherwise strict urban grid. How strange that it would be the Greenwhich Village community that would stop Robert Moses more than a century after joining the metropolis.

Update

Another story on community conflicts appears on Planetizen, this time about an Amish community being forced by a local municipality to comply with a planning process that will destroy their community. The city demands that the Amish submit engineering plans for their buildings, but traditional buildings are not engineering projects. If they start building from an engineering plan, the form the buildings take will be completely different from their traditional form, and the building culture will die out.