Greetings from Paris. Actually, by the time you read this, I will probably be on a train to Germany. Here are a few thoughts from the city that Walter Benjamin called “the capital of the 19th century”.
The day I arrived in Paris, negotiators were finalising and approving the new climate accords. They’re good – certainly much better than anyone would have hoped after the shambolic end to the Copenhagen talks in 2009. While the climate accord relies upon countries to submit and implement their own action plans – no binding commitments are required – they are universal and will provide a framework for ramping up action over time.
While the deal is not binding, the in-principle agreement to keep global warming “well below” 1.5 degrees Celsius is likely to have a significant effect on investors’ expectations. If it works, and we’d better hope it does, investments in the fossil fuel economy ranging from coal mines to motorways will lose their value. This is therefore a good moment to reassess government support for those investments. Unfortunately, the New Zealand government doesn’t seem to be doing that. Its approach can be summed up by a Texan aphorism: all hat, no cattle.
Paris itself is fascinating. The buildings are largely 5-7 storey apartment blocks, facing the street and built close together. But the city and the dwellings within it don’t feel claustrophobic.
The apartments I’ve seen the inside of are not large – perhaps 50-60 square metres – but they feel deceptively spacious. High ceilings play a role, but good organisation is probably more important. Vertical space is used very efficiently – most walls have shelves reaching most of the way to the ceiling.
Out on the street, the buildings provide visual interest through variations on a common pattern. They are all similar sizes, but buildings’ facades and ornamentation differ in thousands of little ways. One common feature is a six-inch-deep wrought-iron grate outside windows – not much use for barbecuing, but perfect for a small garden. And, of course, there is no separation between residential and commercial uses, so every street has shops on the ground floor.
For all the boulevard-broadening work done by Baron Haussman, Paris remains a city of narrow, twisty streets. The city does not have anything even vaguely approximating a street grid. Travelling from point A to point B means figuring out how to navigate any number of intersections, all at odd angles to each other.
This can be confusing but also visually stimulating. Because the streets curve and conclude so frequently, Paris is rife with terminated vistas. Wherever you are walking, there is always a view immediately in front of you.
I’ve been getting around Paris partly on their public Vélib’ bikes. Wherever you are in Paris, you’re usually just around the block from the next bikeshare station. It’s also cheap and easy to access for visitors – I bought a one-week pass for 8 euros. What makes the system work, I think, is that land uses are so mixed up within Paris. There aren’t really any exclusively residential or commercial districts, which means that people are taking bikes in all directions, all the time.
There are, however, topographical exceptions to this rule. We’re staying near the Sacre-Coeur Basilica, which is slightly elevated relative to the rest of the city. But although the hill is modest by Auckland standards, it’s still enough to ensure a persistent deficit of bikes in the neighbourhood.
The other interesting thing, from a cycling perspective, is seeing how bikes fit into the city’s very narrow streets. There are a few places – e.g. along some boulevards, or the ship canal on the north side of the city – where there’s enough space for fully separated bike-lanes. But in most places you must cycle on the street. Interestingly, there are contraflow cycle markings on many narrow one-way streets. This feels pretty safe due to very low traffic speeds.
I have no idea how or why it’s possible to run buses in this city. Low traffic speeds and narrow roads would seem to conspire against them. They battle on, but they’re certainly nowhere near as popular as the Paris Metro, which dates back a century and is still being expanded. The Metro serves 1.5 billion journeys a year. If you have to move a lot of people in a city where land is in high demand, best to do it underground.