Putting modern NIMBYism to shame the city of Paris found itself in civil unrest if not full scale revolution a handful of times between the early 1700s and late 1800s. The city (as it usually is) was brimming with artists, philosophers and people of numerous ethnicities and cultures. Academics, authors, playwrights and anyone else who felt drawn to the leading edge of history and the cultural explosion of a rapidly modernizing urban lifestyle gravitated to the metropolis. Pamphlets and plays that boldly questioned authority captured the imagination of the city's denizens as they gossiped and debated in the cafes, cabarets and beer halls that lined the old medieval streets. The July Revolution of 1830 was fought in these cramped and winding streets as soldiers and civilians face to face, chest to chest, stabbed, shot, and wrestled one another for three solid days in the smokey cobblestone labyrinth. In a decidedly more civilized fashion the revolution of 1848 stewed and boiled in banquet halls, as public displays of political dissent were outlawed under the "July Monarchy" but publications like The Northern Star and La Reforme highlighted the discontent of the poorer working class and middle class alike who saw the king and the aristocratic elite as corrupt, inept, self-serving and out of touch with the needs of the people. What began in banquet halls once again spilled in to the streets, those narrow winding streets, as the last King of France, Louise-Philippe, was overthrown and the Second French Republic formed. Shortly afterwards someone decided it was probably best to make the streets wider....
Enter Baron Haussmann
When Napoleon III replaced the deposed King and assumed leadership over the Republic he quickly turned his attention to those densely packed districts of Paris, where a tradition of civil unrest had flourished. Napoleon III saw an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, or to use more sensitive modern planning language, to create positive sum outcomes for a range of stakeholder groups, by addressing the need for better housing conditions in these urban quarters while also dealing with longstanding tactical challenges that the military had faced in previous urban clashes due to the narrow and often winding streets they were forced to engage on. For this he turned to a rising star in the civil service who as it turned out was also the grandson of a general who had served under Napoleon the 3rd. Fittingly, beginning in the mid 1860s Georges-Eugène Haussmann went to war with Paris' built form.
It is estimated that his bold redesign of the city affected more than half its buildings at the time as grand boulevards, perfect for your average flaneur or regiment of gunmen, opened up and aired out the inner-city. These long boulevards often lined with trees and other flora led to striking views of grand monuments and of course they were host to many cafes, hotel lobbies, merchants, department stores and the now easily recognizable apartment blocks of the city's various arrondissements. The statement of the design went beyond deploying troops and creating social housing though, the remaking of Paris, complete with a modern water and sewage system, bold street lighting and well sculpted park space was a definitive moment in humankind's rapid progression from nomad to farmer to urbanite, as in Paris it was to announce to the world that the march of modernization was in full stride and that this march would require a new kind of city. It was the most fearless and deliberate exercise in creative destruction that the world had seen up to that point, and its affects were lamented by poets, artists and political activists alike, who felt that the very soul of Paris was being gutted. A soul steeped in revolution and nestled deep within the heart of the people who lived deep within the heart of the city. Communities around the world who feel the pressures of gentrification and displacement can probably well relate.
The Haussmannisation of Paris went on to influence the art and science of city building in profound ways. An entire school of urban design called the City Beautiful Movement was a direct outgrowth of Haussmann's Paris, where neoclassical architecture, modern technologies and beautiful green spaces evoked a grand vision of human progress. The 1893 World's Fair in Chicago boldly celebrated the City Beautiful ideals as did various park and street upgrades and architectural improvements to Washington DC as did Daniel Burnham's Central Park in New York, which was entirely man-made save the Precambrian shield that cuts its way through the manicured lawns. The comprehensive planning work of other visionaries like Le Corbusier and Robert Moses (who took a proverbial Meat Cleaver to New York) were also progeny of Haussmann's revolutionary design and even Vancouver, with our beloved Stanley Park, our grand Georgia Street corridor and old Shaughnessy neighbourhood bear the evidence of his influence on the schools of thought that continue to manifest in the built form of modern cities.
So for that, Baron Haussmann and the Haussmannization of Paris makes it to my Top 5 Urban Innovations of all time.
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