What Australian cities can learn from Paris

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Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

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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.

 

32 comments

  • The density of the Paris urban area (not just the city but also surrounding suburbs) is almost ten times more than that of the Melbourne metropolitan area. That makes it far more easier to have efficient and viable public transport options. If it was upto me, I'd get rid of all public transport outside a 15km radius of the city. If you want to live past that, that's fine - you will just need to drive. If you can't afford to then move somewhere where you can live within your means. We are never going to have good public transport if train lines go out to 40 or 50kms from the city. It is just not efficient or financially viable and is not done in virtually any other country in the world. Get over it Australia - sprawling suburbs and McMansions are very overrated.

    Commenter
    Cimbom
    Location
    Real World
    Date and time
    November 14, 2012, 8:48AM
    • Mmm not sure where you got those stats. The metropolitan area population of Paris is 20 million whereas Melbourne is just over 4 million so I think that is 5 times more not 10.

      Commenter
      Nerida
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      November 14, 2012, 12:30PM
    • It's all fine and well for you to say, but even if people wanted cars, there isn't enough parking.
      One reason why inner city areas are clogged up is because of the way this city was planned, or basically improvised.
      Most of the incoming roads from the inner west side of Sydney are old fashioned, impractical and councils are reluctant to get rid of the dilapidated shopfronts that are hardly being used. If the entire layout of suburbs like Newtown, Camperdown, Petersham and the like were changed, you would see how public transport would work. But no, the retainment of such eyesore shopping centres is what keeps Sydney clogged up.
      Taking a bus from Dulwich Hill (technically less than 9 km from the city) to George Street takes about thirty to forty minutes during peak hour. Ridiculous.
      But yes, let's keep on retaining these horrible two story shopfronts, relics of the slums, for heritage purposes...

      Commenter
      AM
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      November 14, 2012, 12:57PM
    • Are you familiar with the concept of population density? It refers to the amount of people living in a particular geographic area per square kilometre (or square mile). It is quite distinct from the total population.

      Commenter
      Cimbom
      Location
      Real World
      Date and time
      November 14, 2012, 1:15PM
  • Paris would have to be one of my all time favourite cities and the reasons are it is everything Brisbane and other capital cities in Australia are not, it is flat as a tack and a wonderful city to walk around and explore. What cars I saw in the city were usually small and economical and SUVs were a rarity. Businesses from butchers to bakers were works of art and wonderful just to window shop. I never encountered a rude Parisian which surprised me as I had heard such horror stories. The only thing that annoyed me from time to time were funnily enough the tourists. Now, to try an emulate a Parisian feel here in Brisbane, well good luck with that. Australians do not think like Parisians, their geographic landscape is entirely different and I'm sure attributes to our love of cars (Brisbane is hardly a flat city and probably why we will never fully grasp the BrisCycle scheme). Public transport in this country is embarrassingly expensive and inefficient no matter what is said to the contrary, we do not compare. Our commuter rail system is non-existent when it comes to outer suburbs, unless you live right next to the one line that goes past North Lakes. So as much as I would love to see the elements and sensibilities behind a Parisian landscape here in our fair city, I know it will never happen.

    Commenter
    smithers
    Location
    Brisbane
    Date and time
    November 14, 2012, 9:09AM
    • The key really is public transport. In Brunswick, an older suburb of Melbourne, there are two tram lines nearby, a train, and several bus lines, meaning I could sell my car (ten years ago), and now walk and cycle much more. We shop quite frequently, going to local shops on foot or bike, or tram to Victoria Market. The household has saved thousands of dollars in the last decade, and weight and general health are better. With increasing traffic and near gridlock, even crossing the city is only marginally longer by public transport, and is much cheaper and less stressful, than by car. I go to Werribee by train to play music with a mate, riding to the station, train, then another 1 k ride. Too easy. We hire a car once every six weeks or so to go the country.

      There;'s a mindset change too. Why not take longer to do something, eg shopping, using your own body, rather than rely on a frantic, stressful trip by machine? Why the rush to use the car? The internet will always be waiting for you back home, it's not going away...

      Commenter
      djc
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      November 14, 2012, 9:22AM
      • Totally agree... But you haven't mentioned what makes the inner suburbs of Paris work, density. While inner suburbs in Melbourne continue to be low density we can't achieve the Paris ideal.

        Commenter
        renzo
        Date and time
        November 14, 2012, 9:27AM
        • Well, you know I think we have a Melbourne ideal, a flat city with (in older areas such as Brunswick) quite a lot of public transport. You don't need higher density, just provide ALL suburbs with more alternatives, like the older ones were given before the rise of the car. Opinions differ widely on how close public transport should be; one tram is 300 metres, the other one (and the train) i km away, the bus 600 metres. I don't think any of those options are too far from home.

          And Paris, charming as it is, has its problems. There is a big divide between the older centre (with severe height restrictions on buildings), and the vast stretches of high rise where millions of others live. And there aren't many backyards to be seen, either for McMansions or 'normal' sized houses.

          And is Brisbane so difficult to live in? I only know it as a visitor, but the bus and train service seemed efficient and friendly. But it may be very different as a resident

          Maybe people are just living too fast, wanting to do too much, trying to cram too much in...

          Commenter
          djc
          Date and time
          November 14, 2012, 10:03AM
        • Djc, that is just not possible. It is prohibitively expensive to keep building suburbs further and further out and expecting the infrastructure to magically catch up. Just like everything in life, you need to make a choice - do you want to live in a big house with a similarly big commute (in a car) or are you happy to live somewhere smaller but with much better infrastructure? Unless you're a millionaire, you can't have both.

          In my opinion, time is finite and cannot be replaced. For this reason, I value my time above most other things. I choose to live close to work (and other amenities) so that I have more time to spend with my husband and more time to do things that are important to me. Waiting in traffic jams is not one of them.

          So many people feel pressured to live in houses in the middle of nowhere because that's what everyone else is doing. The more people that reject this idea, the better off our cities will be.

          Commenter
          Cimbom
          Location
          Real World
          Date and time
          November 14, 2012, 10:39AM
      • Paris is my favourite city in the world and we can certainly learn a lot from it BUT integration of suburbs and CBD is not one of those things. Paris's bland, grey, high-rise dominated "banlieues" (suburbs) are conceptual opposites of its beautiful urban center, and notorious for their social isolation and economic inequality which has resulted in heavy-handed policing and occasional outbreaks of violence, and are in fact one of Europe's worst examples of urban design cohesion.

        Several good points in this article, but the author needs to take off the rose coloured glasses. Having lived in both cities, I can confidently state that there are just as many things Paris can learn from Melbourne. We laugh about it here, but there is a reason Melbourne rates highly in all liveability indices (as does Paris, although usually quite a bit lower).

        Commenter
        Lantern
        Location
        Richmond
        Date and time
        November 14, 2012, 9:43AM

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