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Industrial areas for a better city: what Paris does with(in) its borders by Federico Savini

This time our Talking Cityzen is Federico Savini. He is concluding his PhD projects at the University of Amsterdam. His research has lead him through several cities, from Milan to Copenhagen, to Paris and Amsterdam. He pushes on civic participation and urban politics with particular focus on large scale redevelopment interventions in peripheral areas and Brownfield.

Savini: Compact, smart, sustainable, innovative and liveable. This is the city of the 21st century. At least the idealized one from practice and research. There is one principle that according to me encompasses all these former concepts: reuse, but it is not something new. After all we have been trying to reuse space in alternative ways since the long wave of urban regeneration of the 90s. Yet, this policy of restructuring of existing inner cities was often accompanied, and still is unfortunately, by a policy of expansion. New neighborhoods emerging out of city borders, beyond what have been called green belts. European metropolises have always showed this tension (differently from American ones), between inner city concentration and (post)suburban expansion. Between suburbs and inner cities there is something more. A belt, crown, of industrial spaces that today lay unused and vacant. In the past, these areas have expressed the rising of a globalized European economy. Today, they become spaces where innovative planning principles can be experimented and turned into reality. They are urban stages for upcoming creative industries, energy efficient buildings and alternative self-promoted usages of space. It is by planning and reflecting in these areas that we could pursue compact city development, a social and functional mix.

Paris Nord Est

Paris Nord-Est is one large scale experiment. It is an area of approximately 2 mln sqm, stretching at the border between the city of Paris, Saint Denis and Aubervillers (commonly known as Plaine Commune in their collective planning body) that became a living lab of experimentation. The major concept leading the project is continuity and interconnection (social and physical) between the rich Paris and the poorer North Easter banlieue, known for the terrible riots of 2005. The project is structured as a cluster of different interventions, developed in different times but in continuity. Each of the areas shows particular features. A strong integration between public transport (a new tramway that connects all the eastern Paris neighborhoods) and the centrality of intermodal transport to connect the Northern banlieue with the center of the metropolis. The project is dominated by experimental architectural concepts, such as the reuse of the long MacDonald warehouse over which a new little neighborhood will be built, but without exaggerating with start-architectural eclectic experiments. Good design and strong municipal directives over social housing (min 30%) and green spaces gives the possibility to accommodate and combine the advantages of density without creating a  barrier towards the outer suburbs. Yet, it is also an experiment of political innovation, to show that planning of course needs good politics but that it can also transform politics. With this project (and others) Paris has been able to re-discuss (yet not to solve completely) the geo-political barriers that have jeopardized metropolitan planning in the last decades. The project was successfully framed into a new rhetoric of inter-municipal cooperation, concretized in specific platforms such as Paris Métropole and it was master-planned bridging supply and demand of built surfaces across municipal borders.


Paris Nord-est

Industrial areas as urban labs

Many other cities are doing what Paris is doing, but in different ways with different models. The major opportunity and challenge of today’s planning (especially after the crisis hit cities’ economies) is to elaborate multiple architectural, political and social models of urban development. These practices need to be framed within broad principles of compact city  form and reuse, density and diversity, smartness and energy efficiency. The translation of these principles into space is possible if a) we think at those spaces as living laboratories instead of areas for economic growth, where society can develop its best capacities of innovation; b) politics attempts to overtake the barriers of un-cooperation between municipalities and look for win-win solutions; c) social and spatial policies are successfully integrated within areas at the interface between wealth and poverty.

Federico is also the editor of a autonomous blog (in Italian), the Social Mirror, where topics of planning, economy and politics are addressed by different authors.

Image source: Bird view of the construction site of Paris Nord Est. Source: brochure ‘Le fabuleux destin du Nord-Est Parisien’ Pavillon de L’Arsenal.