Paris Reborn

We fool ourselves into thinking that the problems of the today’s cities are isolated to the present era. In Paris Reborn, Stephane Kirkland examines the wholesale rebuilding of Paris during the French Second Empire (1852-1870) when the political, economic, and social forces aligned to allow Napoleon III to implement an unprecedented vision for urban modernization. This enormous project would have been impossible without Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the prefect of the Seine.

What struck me was how many of the issues facing Paris over a century and a half ago are still relevant in our contemporary debates about urban places.

Demand for Affordable Housing

Kirkland highlights several attempts to provide housing for the workers and poor of Paris. Napoleon III drew inspiration from the work of Henry Roberts. Following his election as president he commissioned a project called Cité Napoléon. Some of these structures are still standing.

Years later the emperor commissioned architects to design and build examples of modest housing for the masses at the 1867 Universal Exposition.  However, production of these homes never reached the scale needed to begin to meet the demands.

Privatized Utilities

I had assumed that privately run utility systems were a recent phenomenon, but I was wrong.

In addition to the vast above-grade streets Haussmann built, he was also responsible for a wholesale rebuilding of the city’s utility systems. His engineers constructed systems to supply gas, dispose of sewage, and provide clean water. Notably, Napoleon III chartered a company who would become synonymous with privatization: the Compagnie Générale des Eaux – known today as VeoliaParis became its second client when the city entered into a 50-year agreement in 1860.

Scandalous Cost Overruns

In the twilight months of Second Empire France, the issue that finally caused Haussmann to resign was not the anger of people who were displaced by the construction of new streets nor was it the political recoil from territories annexed into the city (and no longer exempt from Parisian taxes). Instead, the enormous cost of the work program brought down his administration.

The cost figures are mind boggling nearly 150 years later. Haussmann’s use of creative financing and the empire’s general lack of transparency obscured the true costs from the general public and many within the government. Remarkably, the grands travaux were completed without raising tax rates; however under the Haussmann era, Parisian debt grew tenfold, from 100 million to 1.1 billion francs.

Kirkland has done a great service for those of us who are neither historians or Francophones. As an author he seamlessly weaves together narratives of Napoleon III, Haussmann, and the events unfolding throughout Europe at the time. I found myself constantly searching maps to locate the streets, squares, parks, and buildings referenced in this this book. When I eventually visit Paris, I will make sure I bring a dog-eared copy of this book.