On Resilient Settlement

Tools and strategies for transition

Does Paris need tall buildings to be “modern?”

A report from a fact-finding delegation of the Council for European Urbanism (including this author) evaluates three new projects with tall buildings in the central city, and concludes the City is damaging centuries of heritage for short-term gain — without even achieving the stipulated goals.


Link to report: http://www.sustasis.net/CEU-Paris.html

Big changes are coming to Paris: the first three of many tall-building projects are now in planning for the center of the city.  But whether these changes will be for the better is the subject of vigorous current debate.  

Indeed, there are some who question the definition of “better.”  Do we mean more prosperous?  More exciting and more innovative? Creating more jobs?  Or perhaps, creating fewer jobs that will endure?  

Here we will use the most common-sense standards for what a “good city” is: a city whose residents find it beautiful, a city that scores well on sustainability criteria (social, economic and environmental),  a city that does not hinder economic growth, but does not sell its long-term heritage assets for short-term growth either.  By those standards Paris is already a very good city, indeed a great city.  In any other field of inquiry, its successes would be held up as models for the future.

Paris is certainly widely admired. It is the most-visited city in the world, welcoming approximately 28 million tourists per year (a major engine of its economy).i The dense Haussmannian blocks and excellent public transit of central Paris make it a model for so-called smart growth advocates in the United States and worldwide.  Therefore, we must approach changes to this exemplary city with caution.

Under a new law enacted by the City Council in July of 2008, however, for the first time since 1977, builders can erect tall buildings (for these purposes, above 37 meters, or 120 feet, about 11 stories) in Paris, within the ring road called the Boulevard Périphérique.ii The first three of at least six planned projects, and possibly many more, are now moving forward.  What will be the impact of these projects on the city and its skyline?  Will they meet the goals stated by their promoters?  Will they cause serious damage to the historic character and status of the city, as alleged by critics? 

This report is the result of an investigation that seeks to help Parisians and other concerned parties to answer these questions for themselves, by presenting and assessing accurate information (or as accurate as we are able to find) on the first three projects.  We ask what are the specific claims of the promoters; what is the available evidence for or against validating the claims; and what other issues may be significant enough to require consideration as a matter of urban policy. The investigators include international planners and scholars in urban morphology.  (See Investigation Team.)

We make this assessment as a matter of public interest and active democratic debate. These projects are not economic products exchanged in private, but major transformations of one of the world’s greatest urban treasuries.  Certainly the citizens of Paris, and indeed others with an interest in both our global urban heritage and our common urban future, have every right – and even responsibility – to examine and debate these issues with the utmost care.  Given the much-commented upon egregious urban failures of the recent past, a precautionary approach – at the very least – is warranted. 


In 1977, under then-mayor Jacques Chirac, with support and urging from president Valéry Giscard D’Estaing, buildings within the center of Paris above 31 meters and on the periphery above 37 meters (about 120 feet, or 11 to 12 stories) were banned.  The ban came in response to overwhelming negative public reaction to the Tour Maine-Montparnasse, a strikingly out-of-place 58-story building in the center of the city.   Public opposition to such gratte-ciels or skyscrapers continues, with numerous surveys showing a majority of citizens opposed.  One 2008 study by CSA/Le Parisien showed that 55% of Parisians, and 64% of the country as a whole, are opposed to tall buildings within the central city.iii 

But in 2008, Paris’ mayor Bertrand Delanoë and the Paris City Council, citing a housing shortage and the need for economic development within the city, removed the height ban.  Mayor Delanoë’s Socialist party had just emerged victorious from an election after which the Socialists no longer needed the votes of the Green Party, long an opponent of towers.iv The move was controversial:  one Green Party councilor said the tall buildings were “the town planning equivalent of the SUV: flashy machines that devour energy.”v  Acknowledging the City’s highly-public commitment to environmentalism, Deputy Mayor Anne Hidalgo and others have been flaunting the sustainability claims of these new projects.  Architects and developers have also joined in the chorus of support for towers, arguing that the city must, in effect, “get with the future” and recognize the need for economic development – or else Paris will become a “museum city,” like Venice.

Support for tall buildings has also come from French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose “Grand Paris 2030” initiative seeks to develop “a new global plan for the Paris metropolitan region”vi  Ten teams, each led by a big-name “starchitect” known for tall buildings (e.g. Jean Nouvel and Richard Rogers), participated in working groups suggesting revisions for the Paris region.. vii  President Sarkozy says his architects have insisted on tall buildings.

Mr. Sarkozy’s initiative itself was greeted with controversy –  Mayor Delanoë, for example, expressed disapproval of the national government’s meddling in local planning.  But the agenda was not in question by Delanoë – indeed, he was only resentful of the fact that Sarkozy “is trying to claim for himself an urban dynamic begun long ago by the local governments.”viii   As shown by the action of the City Council under his leadership, Delanoë certainly did not question the need for central new projects with tall buildings as part of the city’s economic development.

Deputy Mayor Hidalgo herself, writing in her blog, stressed the need for the city to remain “one of the world’s first capitals in tourism business, trade fairs and exhibitions.”  The government of the City of Paris has at the heart of its priorities, she said, “economic development, employment and innovation. In the context of increased European and global competition, this ambition must now be translated in concrete by reinforcing its economic attractiveness.”ix  In other words, we have to accept tall buildings, and get on with them.

But there are many assumptions packed into that assertion: whether these projects are the only, or the most appropriate, means of achieving the City’s goals of economic development, employment and innovation;  whether there are suitable alternatives, which have not been examined; whether any short-term economic benefits will result in much greater damage over time to the long-term economic value of a common heritage asset; whether the majority of Parisians have a right to have their concerns taken seriously by their government; and whether, in the current economic climate, there are troubling linkages between excessive real estate speculation and a failure of government accountability.  

From a professional perspective, there is also the question whether the design philosophy exhibited in these projects – a “Modernist” one based on artistic novelty and rejection of traditional solutions from the past – is truly the only legitimate option “of our time,” or indeed, is even consistent with the new realities of resource depletion, financial disorder, and other unsustainable practices. 

These assumptions, we suggest, must be examined carefully, for the sake of all Parisians, now and in the future. Moreover, since Paris represents one of the world’s greatest heritage assets, the outcome of these debates is of worldwide concern. This report is intended as one step in that wider assessment.

Goals of the Projects

The comments on the record by Deputy Mayor Hidalgo, Mayor Delanoë, and other project boosters, clarify a number of central goals and assumptions about all of the projects, including the three under review in this report.  We therefore state these goals here as the premises for the evaluation that follows:

1. New tall buildings (and their associated urban projects) are needed within the Boulevard Périphérique to boost the economic competitiveness of Paris.
2. New tall buildings  (and their associated urban projects) are needed to alleviate the shortage of housing, including affordable housing, within the center of Paris.
3. The new tall buildings proposed  (and their associated urban projects) will set an important new benchmark of urban and building sustainability.

Not stated explicitly, but following from these three aspirations and related comments, are three implicit claimsabout the developments, which we will also evaluate:

4. The schemes will not degrade the quality of life of Parisians.
5. The schemes will not jeopardize the city’s heritage status, or the economic benefits of tourism.
6. The schemes will add to, and not detract from, the quality of urban fabric with in the City – judged from the perspective of human quality of life.

The Evaluation Team

The assessment was undertaken in cooperation with SOS Paris, a citizen architectural preservation “watchdog” group founded in 1973 to oppose President Georges Pompidou’s plan to build highways along the banks of the Seine, and it began with a call from an American member of SOS Paris.  While recognizing the need for sustainable economic development, SOS Paris continues to play an active role in public-interest review and, where appropriate, to challenge projects that are not in the public interest.  It has opposed plans for towers. SOS Paris served as hosts for the evaluation team.

The evaluation team was a delegation from the Council for European Urbanism, a Stockholm-based non-governmental organization of professionals and activists that is “dedicated to the well being of present and future generations through the advancement of humane cities, towns, villages and countryside in Europe.”  The CEU does stress the need for economic competitiveness as one criterion, along with avoiding “waste of land and cultural resources,” “loss of respect for local and regional resources,” “social exclusion and isolation,” and “urban sprawl.”x  The group’s “Oslo Declaration on Climate Change and Urban Design” affirms “the lessons of history and the need to learn from the successes and failures of the past and present.” The group recognizes the need for “a new evidence-based approach to the planning of our cities and towns, taking its cue from induction and observation of what has worked in the best human settlements of the past.”xi

The CEU recognizes the need for economic development and sustainable new approaches to urban design.  At the same time, it recognizes the enormous value in existing patterns and resources, and the disastrous mistakes that have been made in the recent past of urban planning and architecture – sufficient to warrant a very careful assessment of what are often seductively marketed new projects. 

The fact-finding delegation makes the following conclusions:

1. On the basis of the three projects reviewed, we find claims that new tall building projects within the central city of Paris are necessary to achieve adequate numbers of housing units are unsupported.  We find no evidence that such projects will add a greater number of housing units than might be achieved with traditional low-rise Parisian buildings.  In fact, one of the projects adds no housing whatsoever.  Nor do the projects improve the balance of housing to jobs, and indeed, they may make the imbalance greater.

2. On the basis of the three projects reviewed, we find claims that new tall building projects will increase the economic development of the city to be modestly supported, based upon the City’s own assumptions about economic growth, but counter-balanced by likely greater long-term damage to the economic attractiveness of the city.  We find further that, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and more recent sovereign debt crisis, the City’s assumptions behind these developments are fundamentally in question, and should be re-examined.

3. On the basis of the projects reviewed, we find that claims that new tall building projects will “promote sustainability” of the city as a whole are unsupported. The buildings themselves utilize experimental approaches to sustainability that rely on weak post-occupancy evaluation research – where it exists at all.  The evidence for sustainability on the urban scale is equally problematic.

4. We find further that new tall buildings within the Boulevard Périphérique beltway will create a significant visible alteration to the skyline of Paris, which will detract from, rather than enhance, visual harmony.  We find significant evidence to suggest that they may measurably impact the economic value of the city’s heritage tourism industry. 

5. New tall buildings within the Boulevard Périphérique beltway may in any event be in violation of Article 6 of the Venice Charter, the international convention that is intended to conserve monuments such as the historic center of Paris:

ARTICLE 6. The conservation of a monument implies preserving a setting which is not out of scale. Wherever the traditional setting exists, it must be kept. No new construction, demolition or modification which would alter the relations of mass and color must be allowed.

We recommend that this matter be referred to conservation bodies such as the World Monuments Fund, ICOMOS, and UNESCO for review and possible reclassification. 

6. We find further that all three of the proposed developments under review follow a “CIAM Modernist” model of urban structure that is in marked contrast to the fine-grained, human-scaled structure of the central city.   We find the justification for this abrupt change – that the new urban structure is more “authentic” in a “modern age of sustainability” – to be without merit.  Indeed, there is real evidence that it is extravagant, from a resource point of view, and poorly adapted to long-term human need. To be sure, artist-designers, and their connoisseurs, are gratified by its creation.

7.  We find further that the City of Paris could achieve its announced objectives without building towers and, in addition, that the sites it has chosen for these three tower projects can be far better utilized.

8.   In conclusion, we recommend that a major review be commissioned of these proposed developments, assessing all the scientific evidence for their likely success or failure in greater detail, and the likely social, economic and environmental consequences thereof.  On the basis of this review, the developments should be modified immediately to comply with such impartial findings.



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This entry was posted on March 21, 2012 by .
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