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What Australian cities can learn from Paris

Alecia Simmonds
Published: November 14, 2012 - 7:42AM

It is a deeply upsetting historical fact that Australia was almost invaded by the French.

When Matthew Flinders came to chart the continent he was sailing neck-a-neck against Nicolas Baudin, a little known French explorer. It was like The America’s Cup but with scurvy and the lash.

Flinders won, which only added insult to the injuries of colonisation. Instead of becoming a nation of Amelies, Australia inherited the world’s worst cuisine, worst urban planning, worst teeth and worst skin tone. Someone did a poo in the Anglo Saxon gene pool. And no cricket, Victorian fiction or Earl Grey tea could make it better.

In the 90s Paul Keating encouraged us to fight back against the terrors of English food. Hummus and focaccia were embraced with WILD JOY. We never saw shepherd’s pie again.

Now the enlightened among our leaders are turning their minds to urban planning; seeking to avoid the violent blow that destiny dealt us. If Flinders prevented Baudin from bringing Haussmanian architecture and serpentine boulevards to our shores, why not give the French another chance now?

Can we retrospectively make our cities look less like frightful London and more like charming Paris?

And so with feverish anticipation I recently attended a lecture in Sydney’s town hall by Monsieur Pierre Mansat, the Deputy Mayor of Paris. His lack of resemblance to Romain Duris was gravely disappointing. But his comments on urban planning were quite illuminating.

Mansat claimed that Paris shares a similar problem to Australian cities: how to integrate the outer suburbs into the inner city. Metropolises have a tendency to fragment, he said, to pull apart. The task of government is to create civic cohesion.

Public transport is an obvious place to start. In Paris the council has committed to a 25 billion dollar ring-road railway project to break down the division between inner and outer Paris. There are 300 metro stations on 16 lines, 4 high speed train lines (TGV) and 26,000 public bicycles. Not only does this make it possible for people living in the city to quickly access enterprise zones outside the city, it also means that the city is quieter, more ecologically friendly and more beautiful. There is simply no need to have a car. With the TGV you can cut across the country in three hours and with a bicycle you can traverse Paris in 40 minutes. Even better, you don’t have to wear a helmet. Bliss.

Now let’s compare this briefly to the OMNISHAMBLES of public transport in the antipodes. The Baillieu Government in Victoria has just announced cuts to school bus subsidies, in some outer-Melbourne suburb school kids don’t even have bus services to cut, and billions continue to be poured into building more polluted roads.

If Melbourne is bad then Sydney looks like a slasher film. Trains are infrequent, sparse and ludicrously expensive. Trams and cycleways are being sidelined in favour of constructing more congested highways. The infinitely imbecilic state government’s 10 billion West Connex development should surely be classified as a Crime Against Humanity. And where oh where is our metro, our public bicycle system and our high-speed train connecting the metropolitan cities?

The problem with a lack of decent public transport is that it exacerbates social fragmentation. White ghettos with splendid harbour views fortify themselves against the poor and the carless.

And it’s not just public transport. Where the French try to prevent ghettoization through enforcing a 20% public housing quota per council, Australia lost 30,000 public housing properties between 1996-2006. This was an 8% drop in public housing while the population rose by 13%. The poor are often forcibly evicted. The result is nothing less than economic apartheid.

There are other aspects of urban design that we could copy from the French. Wouldn’t it be magnifique if every suburb had its own cheap vegetable market, if vacant lots were converted into community gardens and town centres were virtually car-free?

This doesn’t mean crashing into economic depression or becoming a population of fire-twirling ferals. According to Monsieur Mansat, Greater Paris (or Ile de France) is the leading economic region in Europe. French TGV lines last year recorded 1 billion dollars profit. And no-one gave up their cashmere coats for tie-dyed fishermen’s pants.

In some ways, Australians must accept our fate. That portion of our population who have suffered the slings and arrows of Anglo genetic inheritance can do nothing. We will always look like potatoes.

But we can do something about the great Australian emptiness. The suburban blandscape. The tyranny of the car.  Let’s take a leaf out of French books on urban renewal and seek some inspiration from how they achieve social change: a touch of public anger, a dash of revolt and some regicidal overthrow of corrupt political elites.


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