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Paris, where I live, is a mess at the moment. The roads are being torn down and renovated ahead of next summer’s Olympics. Schools, airports and museums have been disrupted by bomb threats, as Europe’s largest Muslim and Jewish city lives in fear of importing the conflict from Gaza. And we have just entered the annual five-month sunless period.
But here’s something few Parisians will admit: the city is approaching a new zenith of glorious quality of life. This is part of the trans-Western urban renaissance, which is overcoming the brief setback of the pandemic. (Commercial real estate is another matter.) Paris even has a plan for solving the modern problem of urban success: how not to become a fortress for the rich.
Anyone who hasn’t been here lately might have a hard time appreciating the transformation. On the one hand, the economy is booming. Regional unemployment is 6.7 percent, its lowest level in 15 years. Paris is becoming even more of a luxury city, the home of Louis Vuitton (fittingly, the latest Olympic sponsor), with a few select fountains spouting sparkling water. But the boom is widespread. Even in mainland France’s poorest department, Seine-Saint-Denis, just north of Paris, most jobs are now hard to fill. This partly explains why last June’s riots in the suburbs failed.
Across the region, this is a rare moment in history when employers are struggling to recruit artists and butchers are becoming overpriced superstars. I was offered a job in retail via automated text message; my 15 year old son was illegally offered a job as a security guard.
Paris is becoming a bilingual business city, almost like Copenhagen. On a side street near my office, a new sign above a drab entrance proclaims, in English: “Paris School of Technology & Business.” Similar outfits appeared all over the city. Meanwhile, Parisian investment banks are multiplying with post-Brexit London refugees. Valérie Pécresse, president of the Paris region, boasts: “For the first time, the region is number one in Europe, ahead of London, for new foreign investments. . . The Paris region is the world’s leading region for R&D investments.
Paris is also becoming more pleasant to live in – if you don’t drive. The expulsion of many cars has created spaces for cyclists and café terraces, but especially for pedestrians: 65 percent of trips are now made on foot. Many streets around schools have become pedestrianized. The right bank of the Seine has gone from highway to the best urban promenade in the world. All this made the Parisian air less foul.
The Olympics will ultimately improve the city. Organizing the games is like organizing a wedding in the family home. The preparations are stressful; anything broken or obsolete needs to be repaired. The event itself is also stressful. The Paris Games could be destroyed by terrorism, strikes or both. But once the guests leave, you have a renovated house – complete with swimming pool, given that the city is doing its best to make the Seine river clean for swimming for the first time since 1923.
The biggest transformation will concern transport. Several of the 68 new metro stations being built in the suburbs – Europe’s largest transport project – will open during the Olympics.
The right bank of the Seine has gone from highway to the best urban promenade in the world
There is a downside to creating a wonderful city: it becomes so desirable that almost everyone is excluded. Parisian apartment prices have almost quadrupled since 2000. The city risks becoming a dreamscape for the rich, like the Netflix series Emilie in Paris.
To avoid this, Paris is taking inspiration from Vienna, where more than 60 percent of residents live in social housing. Nearly a quarter of Paris’s housing inside the ring road is now social housing, up from 13 percent in 2001. City hall aims to reach 30 percent by 2035, plus an additional 10 percent of “affordable” housing. ”, or a fifth below market prices. Some other successful European social democratic cities are making similar efforts: a third of Zurich’s housing is planned to be non-profit by 2050.
Paris, unlike some cities that could be cited, is also building numerous housing units, including thousands above and around each new metro station. Then there is the Olympic Village, several blocks of spacious buildings on the riverside in Seine-Saint-Denis. They will be surrounded by trees and plants, in accordance with the new Parisian ideology of “revegetation“. After the Olympics, the buildings will become social and market-rate housing, offices, shops and cafes. Visiting the village one recent morning, I was blown away. I left imbued with that most un-Parisian feeling: optimism.
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