Reinventing Paris

May 09, 2022 09:14
Photo: Reuters

When I first met Jean-Louis Missika, then-Deputy Mayor of Paris in charge of architecture and urban planning, in 2014, he welcomed me with an urgent question: How can we fast-track urban innovation? Years later, his answers are becoming apparent.

Missika’s office was in the Hôtel de Ville, the grand and iconic government building that had been the site of many a popular uprising. In fact, the current edifice is a re-creation of a version that was burned to the ground during the Paris Commune revolt of 1871. The Hôtel de Ville epitomizes the tension between institutional grandeur and revolutionary spirit that lies at the heart of the French capital.

Missika was well aware of this tension – and he refused to pick a side. Given his background, this should perhaps not be surprising. Born to an Algerian-Jewish family, Missika was a former professor at Sciences Po Paris, the city’s elite grand école of political science. He was also a former adviser to Xavier Niel, an entrepreneur with a penchant for disruptive innovation, reflected in projects like the Station F startup incubator and École 42, a teacherless (!) computer-programming academy.

When he took his post as deputy mayor, Missika’s propensity for straddling the line between institutions and their opponents was still apparent. “Paris is no longer innovating in architecture and urban planning,” he told me during our meeting, eyes ablaze, amid the Hôtel de Ville’s aged, blackened woodwork. “We’re losing ground to London. Our developers are too conservative; they keep coming up with antiquated models. We have to do something! Il faut agir !”

Missika then described his proposed initiative. The city was about to alienate several hundred million euros worth of real estate, he explained. But instead of selling it off to developers, who would have free rein over how to use it, Missika planned to launch an open call for ideas and project proposals, to be submitted online by professionals and ordinary citizens alike. The most innovative projects would be selected and implemented at more than 20 sites.

The project was called Réinventer Paris – an apt title, not only because it sought to reinvent the city, but also because it amounted to a reinvention of the planning process. And the timing could not have been better: then-newly elected Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who was responsible for Missika’s appointment, had pledged to intensify the city’s fight against climate change. So, the first open call, launched a few months after our meeting, incorporated environmental imperatives – such as the promotion of co-housing, circularity, and urban agriculture – into its proposal guidelines.

I initially served on one of the juries – the one that selected a project called Mille Arbres, by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto. It would be a multi-purpose building – with room for housing, offices, and cultural centers – as well as a bridge across the Boulevard Périphérique, the road that forms a ring around Paris. And it would include space for more than a thousand (mille) trees.

The cantilevered, vegetation-covered structure would be a stunning architectural feat, and the plan, publicized widely, elicited global acclaim. But design is one thing; implementation is something else. To this day, the project remains stalled, impeded by petitions and the paralyzing French bureaucracy.

Other proposals from the Réinventer Paris initiative were blocked by the national government’s Conseil d’État. Citizens’ associations erected barriers as well, viewing the project as a clever marketing ploy intended to obscure the extensive and irreversible privatization of public lands. They also criticized Missika himself for having too much personal control over the process.

Yet, at long last, Réinventer Paris is beginning to bear fruit. Several projects selected five years ago are now under construction. Perhaps my favorite is Morland Mixité Capitale, which will transform the hulking Préfecture de Paris into a mixed-use complex that soars skyward. It will boast offices and residences, a hotel and fitness center, courtyards filled with greenery and spaces for urban agriculture, and a rooftop bar and restaurant enveloped by a panoramic light sculpture by Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson.

Moreover, Réinventer Paris has inspired a wave of other urban-planning programs. By the time the second round was launched, it was complemented by Réinventer la Seine (seeking new uses for lots along the course of the river), Réinventer les dessous de Paris (aimed at converting car tunnels and underground spaces), and Inventons la Métropole (covering the wider metropolitan region).

Missika’s concept has now reached the international stage. C40 Cities, a global network of mayors devoted to climate action in which Hidalgo is involved, has launched Reinventing Cities, perhaps the largest international competition in urban planning and innovation ever organized, now in its third round.

Already, Reinventing Cities has selected dozens of projects to support, from Auckland to Cape Town and Dubai to Vancouver. Among them is a rooftop vineyard and public walkway next to the headquarters of the Prada Foundation in Milan, submitted by my design and innovation firm.

I don’t know if Missika would have predicted when we first met at the Hôtel de Ville that Réinventer Paris would have such a profound global impact. I think the momentum it has gained is a sign of the times. The internet has facilitated unprecedented interaction among designers and citizens, enabling innovative ideas to emerge and spread faster than ever before. The interplay between the virtual and physical worlds that underlies the success of Missika’s approach may be the true key to fast-tracking urban innovation. Cities around the world: Il faut agir !

Copyright: Project Syndicate
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Director of the Senseable City Lab at MIT and founder of the design firm Carlo Ratti Associati