The Paris petite ceinture is a railway ringing Paris, built between 1852 and 1869. It was once well used, before falling in state of abandonment. The last commercial train  has been seen in the early 1990, since then questions on how the corridor should be re-use have recurringly arised

2001: The return of the Parisian tramway.

The early 1990, mark the renaissance of the tramway in Europe, and especially in France (5), and quickly enough , many advocates promote the idea of reusing the petite Ceinture to the benefit of such a transportation mode in Paris.

There is effectively a market for this. The parallel transit lines (bus PC on the adjacent Boulevards, called Boulevard des Marechaux, as well as the circular subway line 6. A 1995 study suggests that the line could attract 17,000 passenger per hour for this line once transformed as a surface subway (equivalent to the S-bahn) running at 30km/h…In the meantime an alternative option under study (1) is to upgrade the adjacent bus route into a tramway line with a much lower average speed, 20km/h, and per consequent a lower expected ridership 7,700 to 9,100 passenger per hour, but the later option also provides better connection with the existing subway network, as well as better local service.

The 1995-2006 city council under the right wing mayor JEan Tiberi was leaning toward this latest option, which had the advantage to not introduce new nuisance in a corridor which has became almost a natural reserve , but preferred to delay any hard decisions…so that the reintroduction of the Parisian tramway will be a contentious point of the 2001 municipal election.

The challenger and then long time councilor Betrand Delanoë, and its team had a very clear and  articulated position on the tramway, as expressed by its then Transport commissioner, Denis Baupin (Green party):
“ it marks a symbolic stop to a politic favoring the car, […], beside it, its main asset is the requalification of the urban space (5)(2)

Delanoë is elected in 2001 and the work on the tramway will commence almost immediatly, to get inaugurated in 2006:


Delanoë will be reelected for a second mayoral mandate in 2007, but the question of the use of the petite ceinture has been left open: if not a tram, what use?

2012: The cycling highway idea

Delanoë, is then not seeking a third mandate, and endorse his first Adjoint, Anne Hidalgo. Hidalgo main contender is Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (nicknamed NKM) coming from the conservative party. The time when the introduction of a bike infrastructure  in the city was contentious is already a distant memory in 2012, and the cursor has moved on what kind of cycling infrastructure is the best? NKM proposes to reuse the Petite ceinture platform to implement a supercyle highway ringing Paris.

The idea will be quickly shut down by her main opposants: (3)

It has a geometry disadvantage of not being at grade (either tunnel or viaduct), and offering very few connections with the existing street network, but the main arguments against it are philosophical in nature:

  •  It creates usage conflict: a cycling highway with bike riding at 20-25km/h is judged not compatible with other use such as purposeless wandering or flanerie
  • It goes against the specify of the place, which exhale an unique unkempt atmosphere, slow speed local has grown to appreciate: “timeless”, “uniquely silent”, “mysterious and magic” are common thematic associated with the Petite Ceinture.
  • At the end, if one wants to really make the choice of active transportation, this needs to be done at the expense of other transportation mode.

Anne Hidalgo has been elected, and staged progress on the petite ceinture are occurring with the above in mind but with an important constraint: The transportation corridor (still property of the SNCF), need to keep its conversion potential to its former glory, whether the need arises in the future. A design reflecting this constraint supposes to provide a constant reminder to the user of the space of its original usage and potential future one:

It is what is achieved below, with a space accessible to people of all age and ability (4):

(1)it was in fact 2 competitive studies, the Petite ceinture option promoted by the french national railway network (SNCF), owner of the infrastructure, and the Boulevard des Marechaux option, promoted by the Parisian transit operator, RATP.

(2) Face aux lobbies, le tram trace sa voie. Petite ceinture ou Maréchaux, Paris retrouvera le tramway au XXIe siècle, Liberation, April 17th, 1996

(3) Petite ceinture : faire le tour de Paris à vélo et autres fantasmes, rue89, September 25th, 2013

(4) credit for all below pictures to Architecture Urbanisme FR

(5) See our post Transit as part of the urban fabric, October 23, 2012.


When it comes to service delivery, the TransLink narrative goes like this:

    Delivered transit service hours have fallen behind the population growth since 2010 reaching levels last in 2008. That is leading to more crowding, more pass-ups and a worsening of the overall transit experience [1][18].

The graph presented to support this thesis is usually a truncated version of the below one:


A problem with this narrative using the total service hours delivered by the TransLink subsidiaries and contractors is that it magnifies the 2010 peak, by including service provided for the Olympic Games. A second issue is that it includes the technical services which could vary greatly without affecting the transit supply. Below is an example of such differences [2]:

route Revenue hour service Total hour service difference in %
All 3,841,860 4,950,000 29%
555 13,500 21,400 60%
96B 42,900 62,400 44%


Revenue service or service supply means service dedicated to move transit passengers (passenger can use the provided service).
Total service is the revenue service + technical service (deadhead run, layover…).
That is matching the APTA definitions. Translink’s reports tend to easily interchange the both terms.

The relatively important difference between the total service and the effective revenue service had already been noticed as an optimization avenue by the 2012 TransLink commissioner’s review [17]. The more fundamental issue is that the service/hour provided is not representative of the Transit supply:

  • The replacement of a 40 foot bus by a 60 foot bus wouldn’t increase the service hours per capita, but it could address overcrowding.
  • Faster bus routes infer less hours of service but are improving the service offer.
  • The replacement of a bus route by a rail one, offering much faster and higher capacity vehicles, can both address crowding while improving the offer, while resulting in a decrease in total service hours.

Seat.Kilometres Supply

The metric; which needs to be understood as (seat+standee).km in the transit world; is a much better way to evaluate the transit supply, and for this reason is widely used in the passenger transportation industry.

As an example: 1 hour of coach service on the express route 555 using the Hwy 1 HOV lane can provide ~3600 when one hour of C23 Shuttle bus in Vancouver’s Yaletown, provides only ~320 Differences in average speed and vehicle capacity drastically affect the offered service which is reflected by the metric:


The effect of the introduction of the Canada line service in late 2009 is clear. Though service hours may have stayed stable since 2011, the supply has slightly increased thanks to a greater use of articulated buses. The advent of routes 96B and 555, having higher speed than average, also provides more at constant service hours. Is this enough to keep pace with the population growth?


The point is moot. If a downtrend can be observed since 2011, we are nowhere near the 2008 level. The introduction of rapid transit lines tends to exhibit a positive long term trend.

Canadian and International Comparisons

To provide a larger perspective, the Vancouver transit supply is compared to other Canadian metropolitan areas, using numbers as provided by the Transportation Association of Canada [4]. The Vancouver numbers have been normalized to correlate with those provided by the association [5] . Vancouver tends to exhibit favorable trends when compared to its Canadian peers:


Vancouver pales when compared to Megalopolises such as Paris, London or Hong Kong [6], but its Transit supply is much greater than in Portland and comparable to the ones of European metropolises of population size closer to Metro Vancouver, such as Lille or Lyon [7]. Nevertheless, this comes with one caveat: both Lille and Lyon are fed by an important suburban train network which has not been accounted for in the following figure:


The above international comparison is assuming 4 standees per m2 to estimate the vehicle capacity [9]:

system bus LRT Metro RER/MTR/Skytrain
Vancouver 76 386
Hong Kong 105 146 [10] 200 [10]
London [11] 79 252[12] 728 509
Paris [11] 83 230 586 1772
Portland 76 166 [13]

The Occupancy rate
Is the Transit supply good enough or not?

The occupancy rate [14] can be a good proxy to assess the relevance of the supply: the higher the occupancy rate is, the more likely crowding issues will arise. On the other hand, a low occupancy rate could suggest an excess of capacity.

Crowding experienced locally with a low occupancy rate could suggest that the transit supply deployment is not optimal, but some other issues could arise: A directional demand unbalance makes crowding difficult to address without deploying excess capacity on the underused direction.


Possibly a transit world specific: even the busiest systems don’t achieve an occupancy rate greater than 30%. In that light, the TransLink system appears to be a heavily used one.

It is worthwhile to note that TransLink estimates the average transit trip length at ~8km [15] when TfL estimates the average bus trip length at 3.5km and the Underground trip length at 8km [16]. Similarly the average bus or tram trip length is 3.3km and the subway trip length 5km in Paris. The reliability of trip length data could be an issue but a consequence of longer trips in Vancouver is that TransLink needs to provide more per trip than London or Paris.

(*) This article has been first published in the December 2014 newsletter from Transport Action BC.

[1] Mayors’ council on regional transportation Regional Transportation Investments: a Vision for Metro Vancouver – June 12,2014

[2] Difference between the GTFS data (revenue hr) and the Translink 2013 Annual report (Total service hr). see more in this post

[3] Supply is computed on the first Friday following Labour Day (usually one of the busiest Transit days of the year) of each year from GTFS schedule and fleet deployment observations. The vehicles’ capacity used are the maximum as displayed on the concerned vehicles. see more in this post

[4] Transportation Association of Canada. Urban Transportation Indicators, Fourth Survey. Ottawa :2010

[5] Numbers otherwise differ, possibly due to different assumptions, such as on the vehicles’ capacity. The urban areas, used by the association [4], don’t match either the area covered by the transport agencies, so numbers are subject to caution.

[6] Numbers for Paris come from the Observatoire de la mobilité en Ile-de-France, London numbers from TfL [16] and Hong-Kong numbers from the 2013 MTR Annual report.

[7] Number for Portland, including population, comes from the APTA, and includes the scheduled services provided by Trimet, C-Tran, SMART and Portland city.

[8] Numbers from the Certu (“Annuaire statistique Transports Collectifs Urbains”, 2014) with bus capacity normalized at 83.

[9] Agencies could have different standards (e.g. 6 persons per sqm in Hong Kong). The vehicle capacity is per bus or consist (train) unless otherwise specified. When different vehicle types are used, a vehicle weighted average is used.

[10] The capacity is per car. Hong Kong Tram capacity is 125, and Hong Kong Airport train capacity is 120 per car.

[11] Vehicle Capacity number from Report on mobility an transport #1 – Institut D’aménagement et d’urbanisme- November 2014”.

[12] Weighted average of a DLR train capacity (280) and a Tramlink train (200).

[13] The capacity is per vehicle, the Portland streetcar capacity is 200.

[14] Also called Load factor.

[15] Translink: 2014 Business Plan, Operating and Capital – Budget. New Westminster 2014.

[16] Transport for London. Travel in London: report 7. London 2014.

[17] Shirocca consulting Translink Efficiency review. 2012,

[18] A narrative largely echoed by Lower Mainland translink advocates as illustrated here.

Je suis Charlie

January 9, 2015

In reaction to the January 7th terrorist attack on CharlieHebdo in Paris, Transit electronic signs displayed their support

transit sign in a British train, Paris' velib (with a screen displaying a CharlieHebdo cartoon involving a bike), bus a Lyon Tram, a French commuter train, and a tram stop in Grenoble

Other less urban mode was also using their screen to pay tribute to the victims:

Nice airport

motorway and train station in Thionville

A parisian bus stop

November 19, 2012

There is little piece of urban furniture we interact more than with a bus stop pole, and still this element of the urban fabric is too often neglected (his brother the bus shelter has usually better fortune). Below an essay on the Parisian bus stop pole:

It is in 1922 that Paris and the Seine department agreed to have bus stop installed on the streets. At this time, some are part of lampposts, they will be mounted on independent pole, what is now the general practice, at the time of the replacement of the gas lampposts by electrical ones:

A Parisian bus stop circa 1930, Place St Michel – Side circles present the route number while the sidewalk face present the route followed by the bus (The street face present the bus stop name) side credit photo (1)

Save for the RATP color scheme of the time, up to the 1970, the bus stop shape didn’t changed, becoming a clear Parisian identifier:

Left picture: Bus stop from side adopted a bicolor scheme after 1930- Sophie Litvak model by Georges Dambier for Elle 1952. Right picture: Place St Michel in 1967- Jean Claude Brialy (left), and Serge Gainsbourg (right)

The side circles, will be replaced by a trapezoidal shape somewhat in the 70s. In addition to make a cleaner volumetric form with no protuberance, It provides a distinct shape to the bus stop, easy to discriminate from the road signs, which are mainly circles, triangles and squares.

The definitive and unmistakable trapezoidal Parisian bus stop shape makes it easy to discriminate among the forest of street signs, more noticeably the road signs (circles, triangle and square). Here The Louvre museum stop in 1983 - credit photo left (4)

Today, the same bus stop (slightly relocated at the time of the renovation of the Louvre in 1983-89), has kept the same form. Modern technology able to provide real time information is integrated into it. The color scheme, green jade, is the one used by the RATP since 91.

Nowadays, the same bus stop, carry all the last technology, including the real time information (those bus stop, manufactured by Moviken/Cromateam, are powered by solar panel) but the shape has not changed- credit photo (3)

The Parisian bus stop has many qualities, well epitomized in the picture below:

bus stop at the Louvre. Visible enough, but neither visually or physically obstructive – credit photo (2)

Thought not all bus stop provide real time information, the 11,000 RATP bus stops are now outfitted with 20,000 QR/flash code [5]

Usually, a Parisian bus stop is not lacking of information -clarity of it may be-. In any case, they all come outfitted with QR code - credit photo left (4) right (5)

Lately, the City of Paris, wanting to go one step forward had launched an idea competition about “smart urban furniture”. One of the winner is the ibus stop:

The ibus stop, by Seolane Innovation, preserves the historic shape of the Parisian bus stop, which prove to be versatile enough to allow integration of new technologies

The Parisian bus stop is so versatile, it is used as a flower pot, by some urban gardener activist.


[2] Richard Cruttwell

[3] flik ruser tobiwei



In a complex urban environment, each square will tend to be specialized toward a function rather another one: Square are not in competition but compliment each other. Hereafter is an essay on the geography of the Parisian squares:

Le Louvre (Cour Napoleon)

This place is not a people place, it doesn’t mean to be. This square is the heart of the French DNA. a 1000 years mille-feuille of History in the making. The headquarter of the old regime, transformed into a monument to the culture, is supposed to represent what French are or at least think they are, and it does quite well:

Cour napoleon, where the Louvre’ s Pyramid sits – credit (11)

Place de l’Étoile

Like for the Louvre, this place is designed to have you overwhelmed by the “grandeur” of the State. The Arc de triomphe built by Napoleon is a monument crowning 500 year of planning of the Royal axis, originating from the Louvre. The hill where it sit on has been leveled, giving it a concave slope, enhancing the overwhelming presence of the Arc, sitting in the middle of a 240 meter diameter round place:

Place de l’Étoile is a very large traffic circle. Going to the middle is usually done thru underpass – credit (2)

Étoile-Concorde: Champs-Elysées

En route from The Louvre (old regime) to the Arc (new regime), it happens to be the Concorde, where the last french king, Louis the XVI has been guillotined. Where French celebrates is on The Champs-Elysées, between the Concorde and Étoile, a vast public space able to contain one million people, with huge plazas, Etoile and the Concorde providing very comfortable overflow, and entry/exit point.

The Champs-Elysées on New year Eve (here 2006) looking toward The Concorde – credit (5)

The size and topography of the Champs-Elysées help people to appreciate the size of the crowd. The celebration like above suppose to close the 10 lanes of traffic the avenue is normally supporting: A celebration on the Champs-Elysées means not “business as usual”.



Demonstrating is also part of the french DNA, and demonstrating supposes to walk, from one point to another:
Those points are usually République-Bastille-Nation, in that order!

Demonstration at Republique – credit (3)

Place de la République one of the largest Parisian square is 283x119m is well suited to accommodate large crowds. Beside it, it is not a necessarily inviting place. It is currently under renovation: respecting its history, its current use as a place to vent social message, while making it a more inviting space, especially outside demonstration time, was one of the challenge the contestant had to address. A water mirror, is part of the answer:

A water Mirror, as seen in Bordeaux, can “activate” large esplanade, while still leave it clear of encumbrance when needed – credit (1)

Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville
It is a “people place” per design, and the PPS editors like it [7], but this 155x82meter square is not a self-sufficient one, where people will intuitively go. they will go there only knowing the square is hosting some events, usually sponsored by the City:

Paris- Hôtel-de-Ville is a place for programing; ice rink in winter, beach volley in summer, all sort of fair in between – credit (4)

Place des Vosges

A plaza in word, a park in theory, this almost perfect square, is a hit with many urbanistas for good reasons.. like Rome’s Piazza Navona, reaching Place des Vosges requires journeying along minor, often hidden streets. Then away of the crowd and noise of the surrounding city, you find an intimate, secluded, and still comfortable place. The square dimension, 127×140 meters,as well as the building lining help it, contribute to it. It is surrounded by a street allowing a light amount of traffic contributing to a safety feeling at any time any season.

Paris Place des Vosges, the oldest suqare of the city is requiring some effort to be found

Place Dauphine dating of the same era work a bit differently- may be too small and carry an oppressive feeling. Place Vendôme, has been designed along the Place des Vosges model (same size), but again it is a colder place. In Paris, Palais Royal, offers almost a similar setting

Place George Pompidou

Better known as Place Beaubourg, or simply the Piazza, it has been created ex-nihilo by architect Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers and opened in 1977. In despite of its relatively novelty and use of modern architecture in a city full of heritage building, this square works very well at the difference of many other one created in the same period. Due to this, it makes it a very interesting case study:

It is facing a Modern art museum known as Beaubourg built at the same time by the same architects. Like Sienna’s Piazza del Campo, the 170x65m square has a slight declivity along its narrow edge, which allow people to appropriate the space like it was a beach: it is not uncommon to see people sitting on the pavement, facing the museum, which happen to have corridors and stairs on its outside facades, offering continuous movement of people to watch from the square.
Like Place des Vosges, this square is not obvious to find, and offers some respite, step away, of the capharnaum, the Halles can be:

Paris Place George Pompidou, is a successful square created ex nihilo

At the difference of Place Des Vosges, this square is fully pedestrian, and is surrounded by cafes and other shops.

Fontaine des Innocents

Place Joachim du Bellay is a name very few locals know, but no Parisian ignores its fountain:
When they need to meet, Fontaine(fountain) des Innocents is the natural rendezvous.

It is easy to understand why: It is strategically located [10]

  • It is at the cross road of the main Parisian arteries.
  • Today, it sits midway between the Parisian subway hub (Châtelet ) and the Regional Express Rail network hub (Les Halles)

However, it is not directly on the way, rather on a “corner” of the intersection, so that the traffic doesn’t pass here. but, more important:

  • the square’s size, 53x80m, is big enough to accommodate a substantiate activity making a good hangout, but small enough to be able to recognize a person in it (see the notion of social field of vision in [9])
  • and the square design is perfectly appropriate:

Fontaine des Innocents IS the meeting point in Paris – credit (6)

This square is also surrounded by Cafes.


Paris’s Place Stravinsky, a “secondary” but still lovely place – credit (11)

This geography is far to be exhaustive, Paris has many other squares, of various size, various features, some more interesting than other… what we have presented are what we see as the “staple” squares of Paris, and we can see some features emerging, noticeably regarding the size of the square:

  • Different square size are needed in a big city, to accomodate the different function
  • And still, the square where people feel comfortable to stay, will tend to be in the 120x120meter

This size could be not purely arbitrary, and could have to do with our field of vision- we tend to not recognize people beyond this distance and from smaller distance, we tend to be able to describe people facial characteristic – the ~100 meter range lie in between [9].

[1] flickr user hisgett

[2] flickr user ar56

[3] flickr user tofz4u

[4] flickr user babicka2

[5] Franck prevel via Le Monde

[6] Projet Les Halles

[7] PPS page: Paris’Hotel de Ville (City Hall)

[8] See for example: Squaring public space with human needs, Lisa Rochon, Globe and mail, Nov 25, 2011. Curiously enough Vancouver bloggers like Lewis n Villegas and Stephen Rees, will use this square to illustrate Vancouver specific problematic. For the record, architect Ricardo Boffil had a project to built a place inspired by Place des Vosges at Paris The Halles: Parisian didn’t like the idea, and their mayor, then Jacques Chirac, basically “chased” the architect…

[9] Cities for people, Jan Gehl, 2010

[10] Paris, les Halles :introduction to its anatomy


It is the center of Paris and was the site of the largest known wholesale market of its time. Since the market has moved away in 1969, the site, having received an underground shopping mall and a subway station seeing close to 1 million passengers a day, has become arguably the biggest urban conundrum of Paris. We gonna study it a bit- This first post layout some general context (at a level allowing me to classified my notes on the topic, so a bit heavier than necessary on the level of historic detail)

The geographic context

The very center of Paris

Paris with its successive city walls. Les Halles are where the Montmartre road (blue line) meets the Paris "great cross" (red lines, the fine lines are the historic route, the thick ones have been layout circa 1850)

The centre of Paris is at the center of the “great cross”:

  • Historically, it was defined by rue St Honoré for the west branch, and rue St Denis (doubled by rus St Martin) for the North Branch.
  • Mostly to resolve traffic issue, This cross will be doubled by the rue de Rivoli (West branch), and Boulevard de Sébastopol (north branch) [8].
  • In 1900 the cross will be doubled by the subway: line 1 for the East West axis, while the line 4 will roughly follow the North-South axis – they are respectively the first and second most used subway lines of the network.
  • In 1977, the opening of the first lines, A and B, of the regional express subway (RER) will also follow this cross…

The Montmartre road is coming from of the Montmartre hill following the terrain topography. A historically important road, but not necessarily for commercial reason, at the difference of the great cross roads: the meeting of Montmartre road with the great cross defines Les Halles – historically a triangular shape (between W and NW roads), as most of the medevial square sitting at the crossing of roads, used to be. It is important to note that the Halles has developed exclusively in the NW quadrant of the “active” great cross, basically almost never impeding the traffic on it. It was not the case of Montmartre street, since outside the market activities blocking the street, it was also the site of various celebration, and the pillory was here too:

Left: Execution of Aymerigot Marcel, from Froissart's Chronical, Vol.IV, part 1, 1470 - Right: A "celebration" at the Halles by Philibert Louis Debucourt - It was to celebrate the birth of the French heir on January 21, 1782. The tower seen in the middle is the pillory

A short history

Detail of the Halles district and market across the age, 1300, 1600, 1790 and 1830 - red line refer to the W and N branches of the historic great cross (rue St Honore and St Denis), and the blue line to the Montmartre road- credit (16)

Thought a market was officially existing since Louis VI the fat, circa 1117 – which in fact was instituating a function already occurring on a necropolis site [5]– Les Halles history starts in 1183, when the King Philippe II Augustus decided to move a trade-fair on the site called the Champeaux. A history version suggests it was a Jew ghetto – Philippe II Augustus will have expelled them and seized their goods and houses in 1182 [2]-then build two covered market in 1183. They are thought to have been massive enough-100metres long and 10 height, with a vaulted ceiling, all in stones [5]– to have impressed their contemporaries: they will be called “Hala” (halles in french, the English term “hall” is poor translation, and we will keep the french term) and it is the beginning of the story.

Left: Halles Champeaux (circa 1183) - right: Halla interior

At first the market food trading is marginal. The market will start to flourish then will decline in the 14th and 15th centuries and the halles will fall in ruins. A Francis I reformation ordinance in 1543 will try to correct that. New halles will be erected to extend and replace the old ones circa 1551, that along market organization changes. The emergence of new trading usage (shop…) will make the market focusing increasingly on food trading. Soon enough it will be known as the largest market in Occident.

Halle a la saline

Halle a la saline – circa 1784

Lot of things will change around, except 2 landmarks which today are still structuring the site- St Eustache Church and the Innocents Fountain-marked with a “red target” on all the maps to help the reader to contextualize the site:

Les halles neighborhood, The halles today site and original site. St Eustache church and the Innocents Fountain landmarks highligted

St Eustache Church

It is a relatively unassuming Gothic style church, with an unfinished and at odd neoclassic frontage [9] – the kind of you can expect in many french cities. Its recognized best profile-highlighting its gothics features slighlty enhanced by some renaissance style details- is seen from its South East side, basically from the Innocents fountain.
It is the obvious landmark of the neighborhood. Most of the photographs and paintings of the district include it whenever possible: When you see St Eustache, you know where you are.

St Eustache church (in front the "Prouvaires" market): 24 barracks built between 1813-1818- circa 1850 (Photo Marville)

The Innocents fountain

Easy to find. On the way, more exactly on the historic Montmartre road axis- between the Halles and the “great cross” intersection- and dominating the middle of an unencumbered and well defined ~80mx60m square: a size big enough to accommodate a substantiate activity making a good hangout, but small enough to be able to recognize a person in it (see the notion of social field of vision in [7]): this unassuming structure is a landmark: it is “THE” meeting spot of the Halles.

Notice the today square’s name, place Joachim du Bellay, is virtually unknown, overwhelmed it is by the “Innocents” fountain name everyone know.

St Innocent fountain, and market. Notice the umbrellas in the forefront, they will play an important role in the Halles history- Photo Marville circa 1855

A bit of historic background for the Innocents fountain

Innocents cemetery during the Middle ages

The fountain- thought have been existing since 1274 [5][10]– has been a bit peripatetic. Originally this site was a cemetery, the St Innocents cemetery, and the fountain was sitting at the NE corner of it. A cenotaph was sitting in the middle of the cemetery.


The cemetery- an “overflowing” mass grave-the level was 2meters above natural level [5]– surrounded by an ossuary, has been closed circa 1785 under hygienist concern of the time and pressure of the neighborhood complaining about its “mephitic” odours [6] (the cemetery has been transferred into the catacombs) . The fountain has then replaced the cenotaph. Though merchants was conducting business in the cemetery before its closure, it became the regular market we see in the photo above in 1789-as planned by a 1750s plan.

Project of conversion of the "Innocents" cemetery in a new market dated 1747 or 1767 (notice North is downward)

before be surrounded by shelter for merchant, circa 1811-1813 [2], the Innocent market will receive 400 red parasols in 1800 [5], an anecdote which will eventually have a huge influence on the future of the site. The Innocents market will last up to 1858 when it will be relocated in the Halles Baltard, and give room partially to a park, an opportunity to relocate the fountain for the last time so far.

"Innocents" market by Thomas Naudet circa 1800: 400 parasol had been installed to shelter the merchants (credit wikigallery)

Some other building of interests

The Halle au Blé

The Halle au blé with the Médicis Column as it looks today from the Halles (credit wikipedia)

In its today form, this building could have eventually been a landmark in a provincial city, but in the Parisian landscape, it looks like another official Parisian building… Its circular and repetitive from makes it a poor orientation helper. The lately added main entrance on its west side, make the building turning its back to the Halles site.

A bit of history

It was a building to trade grain and flour. It has been built by Nicolas Le Camus de Mézières between 1763 and 1767, and was part of a larger neighborhood development following a circus layout. This building has been considerably altered in its history to the point it bears little relationship with its original design:

  • Jacques-Guillaume Legrand and Jacques Molinos added a wooden framed dome in 1782, it will be destroyed by a fire in 1802
  • François-Joseph_Bélanger will rebuilt the dome with an iron frame and copper surfacing in 1806-1811
  • After another fire in 1854, the building will be closed in 1873, and radically transformed by Henri Blondel in 1885, to give its today appearance, and to host a commodity trade market.
  • Nowadays, it is used by the Paris Chamber of commerce

Original Halle au blé, as designed by Le Camus de Mézières (top). it will receive a wooden roof by Jacques Molinos and Legrand (middle) and will get a dramatic transformation by Blondel giving its today appearance(bottom)

The surrounding buildings have followed a similar track.

rue de Viarmes, circa 1885, left (photo Godefroy)- and now, right (credit wikipedia)

The Médicis column

It is the column seen next to the Halle au blé building. Commissioned by Catherine de’ Medici in 1574, it predates the building itself, but has always stand still there a bit at odd. Blondel was planning to demolish it in the context of its renovation work: Jean Charles Alphand, to whose Paris owns most of its most celebrated parks, will have intervened against such a fate.

The Halle au Draps

We mention this building because it was probably the traditional shape of the non food related Halles, and it relates to what have once been one of the most important and flagship trade activities of the medieval halles of Paris: drapery.
The illustrated Halles, a 50x400foot building, has been built by Legrand and Molinos in 1786, it will lost its vaulted, wooden framed roof in a fire in 1855. following that, the then almost moribund drapery market, will be transferred to the Halle au ble. The building will be demolished in 1868. The advent of the department stores surrounding the halles, like Le Bon Marché, Samaritaine, the BHV or the Grands magasins du Louvre, will make them the place of choice to buy drapery

The "halle aux draps" by Nicolle Victor Jean (circa 1830)- Probably a very traditional shape for the non-food "mortar" built Halle, it has been demolished in 1868

The market in 1850’s

The Halles, for the food related market, are largely very medieval in their typology, and the last addition like the Prouvaires market built by Jean-Jacques-Marie Huvé between 1813-1818 (see photo above) or the halles for the fish and butter market, built in 1822 by Hubert Rohault de Fleury, don’t revisit this style, thought they are almost contemporary of the Covent garden market in London.

In former time and in addition to Les Halles, Parisian houses in commercial districts had an open ground floor, where market activities was held. this form used to be called “Piliers” (from the building foundation pillars)-they form a 4meters wide gallery on the east side, and a 2meters wide one elsewhere [5], but in fact the market was sprawling in all the surrounding area. The Giuseppe Canella’s canvas below illustrates it:

"les halles" circa 1830 and the Tonnellerie's "Piliers" - notice the roof shape of the covered market

the market is the largest known central market of its time and live mostly at night: people, including 7162 counted sellers, start to come around 11pm, to serve an estimated 40,000+ customers, and are supposed by bylaw to have freed the street by 9am or 10am (in winter).
The market roughly occupies 3.6 hectares -2.2hectares for flower, fruit and vegetable only- partitioned as following:

  • 1 hectares of Halles (covered market)
  • 0.6 hectares on open space
  • 2 hectares on public street

Traffic is a huge issue- there are counted 4,000 carts occupying an additional 2 hectares. handcart, basket storage, and livestock occupy an additional 0.5 hectares (number above from [11], [12] provides similar numbers, 5.5 hectares for the whole market).

The area is a fertile ground for endemic prostitution and other activities associated with more or less shady nightlife [15]. The retail market is functioning all the day, making the area active 24hr a day.
Adding to the picture the smell of the rotten food (odours have always been a strong marker of the site [15]), it doesn’t necessarily make a desirable place to live, and in fact the neighborhood, “unhealthy, badly built and crowded, is of a repulsive appearance” [14]: It is the “worst” slump of Paris where the living population density level has been reported at up to 100,000 people/km2 [1][15]. Diseases are widespread and the neighborood will be a nest of the 1832 cholera pandemic [13]

Thought there were many men, for packing work- called fort des halles– many of the merchants were women, and the market was associated with a high level of gossiping and obscene language by the moral bourgeoisie of the time [13]. Eventually due to the market sprawl and ensuing disorganization, the government had little control on its activities, market stall allocation, tax collection..etc…. The government will try to get better control on it… It will be the object of another post:

In this Marville photo (circa 1855), all the structuring edifices mentioned in this post are appearing. but what is the focus of the photo is the Halles Baltard: it will deserves a post of its own

[1]The autumn of Central Paris, Anthony Sutcliffe, mc Gill Quueens Univeristy Press, 1970

[2] Mémoires de la Société de l’histoire de Paris et de l’Île-de-France, Volume 3, Paris, 1876

[3]it was kind of an European tradition when the government was in need of money. We refers to the June 24, 1182 expelling ordinance. It was called la “Juiverie des Champeaux”. This version doesn’t appear- neither is dismissed- in the recent literature (like [5]), but up to recently the literature was frequently referring to [2] to support this version.

[4] Paris, ses organes, ses fonctions et sa vie dans la seconde moitie du XIXe siecle, Paris, 1874 (as translated in [13])

[5] Les halles de Paris et leur quartier (1137-1969), Anne Lombard Jourdan, 2010

[6] Histoire physique, civile et morale de Paris, Vol.6, Jacques Antoine Dulaure, 1837

[7] Cities for people, Jan Gehl, 2010

[8] The Rue de Rivoli (street) has been opened in different stage between 1806 and 1835, for the Western part, and the last section completed in 1855 [1].

[9] It used to be chapel, St Agnès, built in the 13th century. The construction of the current church began in 1532, the work not being finally completed until 1637. Jean Hardouin-Mansart de Jouy has started to had a new neoclassic style frontage in 1754. The work will be continued but not finished by Pierre-Louis Moreau-Desproux up to 1772.

[10] The original fountain with only 3 exposed faces- has been redone in its current style by Jean Goujon (sculptor) and Pierre Lescot (design)- 1546-1549. The fourth face has been added by Auguste pajou in 1788, when the fountain has been relocated in the middle of the place.

[11] La politique Nouvelle, Juin, Juillet Aout 1851, Paris

[12] Revue générale de l’architecture et des travaux publics: Volume 8, edited by César Daly, 1849, Paris

[13] Urban Renovation, Moral Regeneration: Domesticating the Halles in Second-Empire Paris, Victoria E. Thompson, French Historical Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1, 1997.

[14] “Question du déplacement de Paris,” Lanquetin, Prefecture de la Seine, Commission de Halles, April 1840 (as cited by [13].

[15] Les Halles: images d’un quartier, Jean-Louis Robert,Martine Tabeaud, 2004


An Avenue in Neuilly

January 3, 2012

It is Charles de Gaulle avenue, one of the busiest European highway [16], carrying no less than 150,000 vehicles/day, which Neuilly wants to put it into a tunnel. fair enough!… but not that simple. First, the cost- a fantastic €1 billion for a less than 1.5km tunnel. Secondly, 8 to 10 years of construction. Thirdly and probably more important, arises the question of what should look the Avenue…2 different visions: On the surface…one presents an avenue with a large median while another prefers an avenue with contre allées:

A green Mall- as envisioned by Vasconi-Natale (left) or a central avenue with shared contre allee (right)

On what could be probably considered as mere cosmetics by many, the France’s Head of state, Nicolas Sarkozy carries all his weight into a battle, engaged by franc tireur Jean Christophe Fromantin, involving the Mayor of Paris and having as soldiers no less than architects like Castro, Foster or Pei….Why that?

  • Because behind an apparently benign Boulevard configuration, what is at stake is 2 fundamentally different visions of the city.

But…first a bit of context:

The geographic context

Neuilly sur Seine, tucked on the west side of Paris, between the Champs-Élysées and la Défense, and bordering the magnificent Bois de Boulogne parisian park, is the most affluent Parisian suburb.
Its Avenue Charles de Gaulle, linking Paris to La Defénse, in the Champs Élysées alignment, is part of the Royal axis, envisioned by André Le Notre in 1640.

The Avenue Charles de Gaulle in the context of the historical axis (royal way): it is the axis's westend section between La Defénse et Porte Maillot

An avenue of superlative

Nowadays this 70 meters wide avenue carries a staggering amount of traffic, ~150,000 vehicles/day [1]. That is only the tip of the iceberg: 80% of the trips occur in fact below the surface, where run one of the world busiest subway line and one of the world most busiest train line [2].

Today, Not only the avenue, but also its origin, the Porte Maillot, marking the limit between Neuilly and Paris, are a far cry to the standard their “world class” location commends:

The Charles de Gaulle avenue is treated as a freeway. On its 70 meters wide, one can count up to 20 lanes of cars (including parking)!

Avenue Charles de Gaulle is also part of the national road network (where it is then called RN13) and is considered as a strategic axis, under direct state supervision.

The political context.

Nicolas Sarkozy was mayor of Neuilly, a right-wing stronghold, before winning the presidential election in 2007, and was then carrying the burying project of the RN13 road. At the 2008 city election, he was endorsing his protege David Martinon to be his successor for Neuilly…It should have been a formality matter, but a franc tireur, Jean Christophe Fromantin came into the way, and will be elected Mayor of Neuilly (60,000 inhabitants) at the great displeasure of the Sarkozy’s clan. To mitigate the damage, Jean Sarkozy, the President’s son will be candidate, and be elected as expected, as a district councillor for a Neuilly ward. He will be vested instantaneously as the wip of his party, which incidentally control the district council (1.5 millions of people), and will be also president of the District’s Transport commission.

The Paris Regional area, like Paris is under control of the left (PS): Jean Paul Huchon is president of the Paris regional council (which oversight 12 millions people) while better known Bertrand Delanoë is mayor of the influential Paris city (2 millions inhabitant).

All of the above political actors have an opinion on the tunnelling under the Avenue Charles de Gaulle. We shouldn’t forget the still powerful prefect of Paris, Daniel Canepa, appointed by the president, and in charge to represent the interests of the “state”.
The least opinionated is may be the The president of the region whose doesn’t want to pay for it:

  • The cost of tunneling 1.5km of road, €1 billion, can also buy 8km of Express subway tunnel, and that is more inline with the regional priority.

The 2 different options

The pastoral vision

Up to 2007, it was no much discussion on what to do with the avenue, and the credo up to then could have been tunnel=park…So the general idea was that “traffic” is bad and needs to be put into the tunnel. As much as possible tunnel accesses need to be provided to this effect: That is known as the Complete burying of the avenue. The project was very Neuilly centric, and it was no consideration of the avenue context in the “Étoile-La Défense” axis. Thought that the City of Neuilly will have commissioned 2 different architecture studies, Bressac-Huet and vasconi-Natale, their work was just to be considered as informal contribution for a 2006 debate. The ‘official’ study was focusing on the tunnel not taking into account the urban environment [24]. The renderings of the project as of 2006, reflect it:

the avenue with traffic put in tunnel...allow for a large grassed median...lot of green: that is pretty much it. no bike no bus, no sidewalk coffee, not much life

The large grassed median avenue is modeled on the Avenue de Breteuil in Paris, an avenue commending some of the highest real estate price in the city. Thought it is pretty, it is also dull and lifeless.

Avenue de Breteuil, Paris: a large grassed median, ideal for its posh residential neighborhood, but also a pretty lifeless avenue


The tunnel exits right at the door of Paris, at Porte Maillot. traffic estimated at 200,000 vehicles

The social and economic justification of this project is basically null [18], nevertheless this pastoral vision is the one supported by the Sarkozy family.

The “global” vision

“the complete burying is a reductionist approach, taking account only the neighbors comfort”…said the Neuilly’s mayor, Jean Christophe Fromantin [25], whose think that ““kill all the traffic” is destructing value[5]. In 2008, it will expose an alternative project, then called axe13 [19], based on 2 main principles:

  • Charles de Gaulle Avenue, between Paris and La Défense, deserves an ambitious project in surface
  • It is the the surface project which is defining the quality of the urbanism project and justifying, or not, a tunnel (and not necessarily the traffic level)

Fromantin will have got the discrete and benevolent involvement of some pretty famous firms and architects before exposing the idea to public: The project is based on a less ambitious tunneling reduced to regional transit traffic only [17]-that is known as the partial burying of the avenue: Gone are the tunnel portals in the middle of the avenue, but also a much more urban avenue is proposed, which found its inspiration more in La rambla of Barcelona than the Avenue de Breteuil of Paris:

  • Tranquility of the neighbors is not the main objective anymore, the main one is to create an attractive urban space.

The project features central circulation on 6 lanes, including 2 bus lanes. Traditional contre-allee are treated as space-shared and feature numerous kiosks

Below are some configuration of the 70 meters wide avenue

The different Profiles of Charles de Gaulle avenue (profile of the Grande Armée avenue connecting to Charles de Gaulle at Porte Maillot is given for reference)

But what will buy the support of Paris [23], beyond the sweet taste of supporting a project creating the ire of the Sarkozy’s clan [20][21], is the integration of the project in a relatively “global” context:

Pont de Neuilly, links Charles de Gaulle avenue with La Défense or rather its huge intestines... the huge pedestrian mall at La Défense is virtually not accessible by foot!

Pont de Neuilly

In the early stage, the highlight of the project was at the western end of the Avenue, Pont de Neuilly, a bridge over the Seine river. Renewing with a Middle age tradition, Fromantin is envisioning to transform it into a living bridge on the model of the Hadi Teherani bridge project in Hamburg. It has been no lack of leading architect contributions, among them some from Pei or Piano : none of them catch-up with the Fromantin idea…none of them have been convincing enough so far either…

At Pont de Neuilly, Fromantin envisions a living bridge as inspired by the Teherani project in Hamburg

I. M. Pei contribution for Pont de Neuilly. The streetcar is treated as amusement park attraction: No doubt that Pei is american

But in fact, with the project maturing , Porte Maillot, connecting the avenue on the eastern edge, is affirming itself as the project’s gravity center.

The emergence of Porte Maillot

Porte Maillot: A "No man's land" marking the limit between Paris and Neuilly. Charles de Gaulle Avenue starts here (right picture is taken from it)- credit photo for right (27)

Porte Maillot has long been neglicted, not to say that its potential has been ignored by architect like Le Corbusier [11]. It is technically on Paris territory, so it can looks curious to see the Neuilly’s mayor proposing the redesign of something not under its jurisdiction, but he probably didn’t do it without involving Paris city-hall.

At the difference of the pastoral vision, in the global vision, the traffic is not feeding into Paris anymore: it is directed directly to the Boulevard Périphérique, a ring road expressway surrounding Paris – so the tunnel is not designed to be a faster way to enter into Paris: people going to Paris-Porte Maillot- still have to stay on the surface. The absence of portal unleashes the urban potential of Porte Maillot:

  • In such instance, it is expected that the residual surface traffic to be an healthy 30,000 to 40,000 vehicles/day, when 85,000 to 150,000 could travel into tunnel depending on the toll options.

In the "global" vision, the tunnel exit disappears, to darn seamlessly Neuilly to Paris, thru Porte Maillot. Current rendering (illustration from Bernard Lamy) are nothing much more than that some "towers in the park" and must be understood as testing ground

Economics for a Billion tunnel

That is certainly a Gordian knot. Clearly traditional metrics can’t justify such a project.
Thought,numerous part of the project is geared toward land lift, real estate appreciation an development are eventually estimated to generate not much more than €300 millions. Toll is another source of financing:

  • without toll traffic is expected to be 150,000 vehicles into the tunnel.
  • with a €2 toll, traffic is reduced to 85,000 vehicles into the tunnel…other vehicles finding alternative ways (a priori the study doesn’t expect a report on public transit) [6]…Toll revenue is estimated at €35 millions/year, not even close enough to cover the debt service.

Some other rationals are needed to justify it:


It is not the least of the strength of the Fromantin’s approach to have replaced this project in a global world context: Paris has to compete with London, New York, Tokyo, Shanghai…and like it or not, the Neuilly’s Avenue Charles de Gaulle sits on an emblematic axis defining Paris…and its image is not that good…

  • Victim of its success, a “Mummification” of the historic Paris at the eastern end…
  • and at the western end « this is La Défense, the office-city that nobody really likes but that has one undeniable virtue… »[12]:

La Defense, the historic axis in a Paris, as seen by Rem Koolhass (12)

Rem Koolhass, scheme captures pretty well what is the essence of the Paris metropolis. and one of it is that La Défense, long considered to be an eyeshore having nothing to do with Paris needs to be reappropirated as part and defining feature of the city, pretty much like “The city“-obviously full part of London- is.

When come branding, one can think of the Olympic games or World’s fairs to put a city on the world stage: A whole new dimension where €1 billion to define a city image is not necessarily considered as extravagant!

Some general observations.

The level of political intrigue is very high, the level of general public involvement pretty low and secret deals are the norm. It is not that the public is disinterested by urban affairs, it is, but it is just how the things have always worked in Paris:

Urban affairs have been for long a domain for enlightened dictatorship preferring confrontation to compromise…Rare Departures of it, like has been done at the Halles, have usually translated in disasters: As theorized by Haussmann, Paris is a city of Nomads and immigrantswhy ask for their opinions?…Paris belongs to France…[26] – and the most celebrated Parisian modern architecture piece, Pompidou centre by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, and Louvres Pyramid by I.M. Pei have suffered not a single input of the Paris public- architecture without compromise….But the intricacies of the french political system and public interest in urban affairs is such, that “enlightened dictatorship” in urban matter can’t exercise without a certain level of support [13] which request a ‘dictator’ with an urban vision showing breath and ambition.

The Design of a Boulevard is certainly a serious matter in Paris, but in the context of the Neuilly Avenue Charles de Gaulle, we can see it has triggered a more fundamental discussion:

  • The place and level of traffic in the city, but overall more importantly a question on the desired environment, a”pastoral” vision versus an assumed “urban” (Is all that green that good?).

It is also the tale of 2 methods:

  • Act fast versus act right

Thought, it has failed to place Jean Sarkozy at the head of the very rich and powerful EPAD- the organization controlling la Défense development- in 2009, the Sarkozy family controls all the key level of power enabling the pursuing of their vision in an diligent manner. But, because Fromantin was able to offer a strong and powerful counter-proposition, involving a dream team of architects, gathering an incredible among of support crossing a wide political spectrum (from the right wing to the Communist party on the left… and incidentally inflicting an humiliating defeat to another Sarkozy protege in a 2011 district election [15]), the Sarkozy clan has been stopped in its tracks. Now, looking clearly overwhelmed by the dimension of a project they were initially ridiculing [20][21], the Sarkozy’s seem to use all of their influence to drag it down…all for the wrong reasons:

A social note

There is little questioning in France, on excessive activities centralization and almost obscene wealth concentration [14], eventually forcing people to live far away of their work place and putting incredible stress on the transportation system. Indeed, to relieve an “overcrowded” transportation system feeding La Défense, they intend to build more of them, defacto reinforcing a vicious circle: an area becoming increasingly attractive…but eventually at the expense of many other parts in Paris…and tremendous cost of negative “branding” like the 2005 riot, and ways to address the root cause of it, don’t seem too much on the decision maker’s radar.

It is also curious to see that the very “provincial”, if not outright primitive, Sarkozy’s approach has been able to go without questioning for so long. That is certainly due to the fact that Neuilly sits outside the Historic Paris core and as much as careful attention is given to any thing occurring into the city historic limits, as less as there is concerns on what happens other side of the Boulevard Péripherique, which acts as a barrier between the historic core and its metropolitan region, as efficiently as the citywall it has replaced. General attention has started to be given to this project once people have understood it was defining Paris.

Unless otherwise noticed, pictures credit to [4] and [19].

[1] It makes the third busiest road of France, the 2 others one being freeway A1 and A6: Not even the Port Mann bridge in Vancouver area carry close to this amount of traffic. The Champs-Élysées itself carries ~85,000 vehicles/day.

[2] Metro line 1, and RER line A (a regional express train line). the extension of the RER line E is also scheduled.

[3] Jean Sarkozy will be also “recommended” as to be directing the “La Defense” administration which is the most important European Business district. This has created a public outrage, and plan has not been pursued.

[4] Debat public sur le projet de denivellation et de couverture de la RN13, 22 février au 30 mai 2006

[5] Le projet qui sème la zizanie, Constanty Hélène, l’Express, January 20, 2009

[6] axe majeur, third public meeting minutes, Feb 7, 2011.

[7] 4 teams have focused on different thematics. Focusing on business development (Deloitte-Foster), people (Fidal-Gautrand), social interaction (Francis Lefebvre-Castro) and cultural development (PricewaterhouseCoopers-Ferrier)

[8] Les projets d’aménagement de surface, Contribution to the 2006 public debate, Ville de Neuilly

[10] Paris, an architectural history, Anthony Sutcliffe, Yale University Press 1993

[11] This area got tested with the high rise idea in the 30’s: the section between the Arc de Triomphe and la defense was supposed to be developed as the Triumphal way, and a parisian properties developer, leonard Rosenthal, privately organised a consultation for the study of the architectural treatment of Porte Maillot (to be then called ‘Place de la Victoire’), which saw lot of emphasis on High rises. The government itself will have organised late 1931 another consultation which has resulted in more conservative submissions but will have not followed suite on it. The French urbanists society will recommend la Defense, rather Porte Maillot, to experiment new architecture urban form [10]…and here we are!

[12] S,M,L,XL, Rem Koolhaas, New York, Monacelli Press, 1995.

[13] Even Haussmann, failing to understand that the support of the Emperor was not sufficient, will fall on growing opposition of Paris

[14] A rare dissident opinion: À propos d’un investissement urbain à Neuilly…, François Meunier, October 14, 2009, telos. Another one is offered in [18]

[15] Jean Christophe Fromanin, gaining 70% of the vote has defeated Marie-Cécile Ménard in a 2011 district election. the later was occupying the district seat of Nicolas Sarkozy for his district seat.

[16] Les Hauts-de-Seine jugent “inacceptable” le plan d’aménagement de M. Huchon, Béatrice Jérôme, le Monde, June 28, 2007.

[17] Originally, Fromantin was advocating for 2×2 lanes tunnel with no intermediate access, and a 2×3 surface lanes boulevard, when the Sarkozy family was advocating for a 2×3 lanes tunnel with intermediate access complimented by 2×2 surfaces side lanes… To date the State administration says that the traffic prediction support a 2×3 lanes tunnel, but agree against the intermediate access.

[18] Quel bilan socio-économique pour le tunnel sous Neuilly ?, Frédéric Heran and DARBERA Richard Darbeda, Transports, no438, 2006.

[19] The initiative will be renamed “axe majeur” in the years 2008.

[20] Enfouissement de la N 13 : Sarkozy s’impatiente, Le Parisien, July 6, 2009.

[21] Jean Sarkozy: “Les études de Mr Fromantin masquent un manque d’initiative”, Kévin Deniau, L’express, July 7, 2009

[22] Neuilly taille la route vers le Grand Paris, V. Sibylle, Liberation, April 24, 2009

[23] Enfouissement de la RN13 à Neuilly: la mairie de Paris approuve le projet, AFP news via Le Point, Dec 16, 2010.

[24] Vasconi-natale will have brought some suggestion for Pont de neuilly and Porte Maillot, marking the ends of the Avenue. that was going beyond the study scope, but was already opening the idea of a treatment of the aveneu in a “Global” context

[25] Le maire de Neuilly tente une percée, Bertrand Greco, le Journal du Dimanche, June 1 , 2009

[26] Transforming Paris: the life and labors of Baron Haussmann, David P. Jordan, Free Press, 1995.

[27] blog of Brigitte Kuster, Paris XVII Arrondissement’s mayor

When it is time to discuss of what makes a “Grand Boulevard”, it is interesting to get the view of the impressionists, contemporaries of the Parisian Haussmann period, which is traditionally attached to the notion of Boulevard.

Ludovic Piette (a french Painter) was writing to Camille Pissarro [1]:

    I have always loved the immense streets of Paris, shimmering in the sun, the crowds of all colours, those beautiful linear and aerial perspectives, those eccentric fashions, etc. But how to do it? To install oneself in the middle of the street is impossible in Paris.

Pissarro, was lucky enough to have a room with view on the Boulevard Montmartre, allowing him to epitomize the qualities of the “Grand boulevard”:

Boulevard Montmartre by Camille Pissarro (1897)

This 35 meters wide boulevard opened in 1763, pre-date the Hausmann’s work in Paris, but carries most of the features usually attributed to the typical Haussmannian boulevard. It pertains to the orthodox Parisian definition of the Grand Boulevards [5]:

  • The boulevards are linear and offer an open perspective (like the one opened by Haussmann), changing direction only at major intersections
  • Notice the intense level of traffic and how the lamppost are sitting in the carriage way, to not use the pedestrian realm
  • …and how wide is the pedestrian space

Usually sidewalks use around half of a typical Parisian boulevard width, This has not varied since the French second empire (1852-1870). Below is a compared cross section of Boulevard Montmartre in Paris and Broadway Street (at Cambie) in Vancouver [2].

proposed 36 meters wide Montmartre Boulevard, Paris, cross section (top), compared to Broadway Street (30 meters wide) at cambie, Vancouver BC (bottom). Notice how Broadway should have no more than the equivalent of 4 lanes of traffic to fit the Parisian boulevard model. It has up to 7 lanes!

Quality of the Urban furnitures is important and got noticed (many of them has been designed by Gabriel Jean Antoine Davioud):

From a balcony on boulevard Haussmann. Gustave caillebotte (1880)

…But one of the main feature of the Parisian boulevards, is the buzz/energy surrounding them: the gentle crowd, the trees, the play of light, is why people will like to mingle here (last picture in the post also gives a strong incentive to do so!)

Boulevard des capucines Monet (1874)

The above and ample sidewalks provide a fertile ground for the development of coffee patio, in adition of the Boulevard theatres.

Evening on a Parisian boulevard. Georges Stein (1870-1955)

Building form

The formal avenue de l’Opéra opened in time for the Universal exposition of 1878, is an exception. It is bereft of trees (and the sidewalk could have been reduced accordingly) on the insistence of the Opera’s architect, Charles Garnier, this to preserve the perspective onto its masterpiece [6]. The move has been appreciated enough to keep this avenue bereft of trees up to today [11]. Another architect request- to have the street free of urban furniture- has been lost in time…

Avenue de l'opera, Pissarro (1898)

In the Pissarro and others impressionists paintings, ornamental and architectural details of the buildings lining the boulevards are basically absent.

Haussmann designed the Avenue of the Opéra, but it has been built after his 1870’s “resignation”, (associated to the fall of the Napoleon III regime), this between 1876 and 1878. When Haussmann was providing architectural template to the properties developers, the new regime, pressed by the deadline of the 1878’s exposition, had been far less stringent in their building request:

  • They have divided the area in 55 lots, sold in 1876, to almost as many different landowners, required to build in a 2 years time frame to the maximum height authorized by the by-laws, and that all principal horizontal lines in each block should coincide, which ensured that all the windows would be at the same level. Balconies were obligatory [7]. Other pre-existing regulation ensured the aesthetic unity of the avenue.

That is what Pissarro expresses in his canvas, where the militaristic rigor of the buildings is gently counter balanced by the chimneys disorder on their roofs, and colorful shopkeeper awnings at their feet.


The traffic on the Grand Boulevards (boulevard des Italiens, des Capucines et Montmartre) is qualified of “intensive” by the Paris Prefecture in 1904, while the one on the 30 meters wide Boulevard Haussmann, (depicted by Raffaelli below), is qualified of “active” by the same source [3][9]. This, in addition to the facts that it is in the immediate vicinity of the most used -by far- railway station of the time- Gare Saint Lazare[10], and nearby department stores, are the reasons why we see a street much more dominated by pedestrian activities.

Boulevard Haussmann, Raffaelli

Obviously, public transit is the source of numerous complaints (which the subway, to be open in time for the Universal exposition of 1900, is promised to resolve! [8])

Boulevards des italiens, Pissarro (1897)

Most of the carriages seen in this picture and others are fiacres, (carriage for hire which has been replaced by taxis), and “omnibuses” (which has been replaced by buses). Private carriage was a rarity so street parking was not a problem. In those days (1891), it was counted 45,085 vehicles of all sorts in Paris but number was growing much faster than the population and was reaching 65,543 in 1906 (automobile accouting for a mere 4,077) …The Prefecture of Paris was numbering fiacres at 15,775 (today, there is roughly the same number of taxi!) and 2,572 tramways and “omnibus” [3], the equivalent of bus, already carrying in the vicinity of 220 millions passenger circa 1865 [7]…The 3 horses omnibuses seen in the Pissarro painting are the largest of the days (2.45m by 8 meter long including horses: they are considered “monsters” by the witnesses of the days [3][4]. Capacity number are, of course, irrelevant.

The other Boulevards

The impressionists like Degas, Monet, Gauguin, Renoir…, dedicated numerous painting to the Grands Boulevards in the immediate vicinity of gare Saint Lazare (all the canvas presented so far has been drawn in a 10-15mn walk from gare Saint Lazare, which itself has also been the attention of Monet among other). This railway station was also the termini of train from the Vexin français -area around Pontoise– where most of the French impressionists have elected residence at one moment of their life, and this fact can explain why this little area of Paris got far most attention than others…

Nowadays, the probably most photographied avenue is the Champs Elysees. in the XIX, it is pretty much out of reach to most of the people. Even the fiacres are rare, and traffic seems dominated by the much more exclusive landau transportation mode. Notice how the horses manures are speedily removed in the Jean Béraud‘s canvas below:

Champs Elysees - La modiste, Jean beraud (1900)

The Parisian lower class can be found around the Boulevards exterieurs (around 40 to 45 meters wide). Boulevard Clichy is one of them. Edgar Degas lived and died there but this boulevard didn’t inspired him, at the difference of Paul Signac, Vincent van Gogh and Pierre Bonnard, which we choose, for its naturalist qualities, to illustrate this boulevard:

Boulevard Clichy, Pierre Bonnard (circa 1900)

The Boulevard exterieurs, marked the limit of Paris before its amalgamation with neighbor suburbs in 1860 at the initative of Haussmann, and have been opened in 1864. They eventually were synonym of life condition that the Haussmann contemporaries were trying to escape (Signac, Vuillard will paint the Boulevard exterieurs under snow, which, by its rarity, in some sort represent an escape of the usual condition).

The large boulevard median was not to separate traffic directions, The 2 ways seen in the painting was existing on both side of the Wall of the Farmers general which has been destroyed in 1860: A canvas of Pissarro better illustrates that fact (the street on side of the median will be converted to one way traffic much later)

Boulevard des Batignolles, Pissarro (1878)

The circulation on the Boulevards exterieurs was considered as active in 1904. As the canvas represents, the type of circulation is much more different than the one seen on the Grand Boulevards, and if there is nowadays no more cabs in Paris than it was fiacres more than a century ago, those are now more evenly spread on the whole Paris area, making them looking rarer.

Life outside the Boulevards

We couldn’t close this chapter, without mentioning what was the life condition outside the Boulevards in the Haussmann century. Charles marville‘s photographies illustrate what Paris was looking before Haussmann:

rue Tirechape - Charles marville (1858-1878). This street is not existing anymore

[1] Mon cher Pissarro – Lettres de Ludovic Piette à Camille Pissarro, Ludovic Piette, Paris 1985

[2] Broadway Street, Vancouver: cross section from beyond the B line, City of Vancouver 1999. Notice it is not the worst configuration found but the existing one…the proposed introduction of a LRT makes things worse with proposed sidewalk as narrow as 2.70m in the 1999 study. Currently Boulevard Montmartre, Paris, has been one way since 1951 but is considered to be reversed back two ways, and it is this configuration which is presented here. You will notice the bus getting out of its lane to avoid a cyclist – that is per design: Bus+bike lanes is the modus operandi in France, wholly supported by the Green councilors of Paris, at the very much difference of Adriane Carr in Vancouver (her position on the topic being summarized here)

[3] Etudes sur les transformations de Paris et autres écrits sur l’urbanisme, Eugène Hénard, 1903-1909. as reedited by éd. L’Équerre, 1982.

[4] The longest carriage is 20 meters, it is used for beam transportation by carpenter: it s then considered as an exceptional convoy[3]

[5] There are several Boulevard denominations in Paris, the grand boulevards being the ones built in replacement of Louis XIII city’s wall, according to the 1676 Pierre Bullet’s plan under the Louis XIV reign)

[6] The perspective has also been obtained by the leveling of an hill, the buttes des Moulins, which will have provided a convenient pretext to a slum cleansing operation in the whole Opera area.

[7] The autumn of Central Paris: the defeat of town planning 1850-1970, Anthony Sutcliffe, MacGill-Queens’university press, 1971

[8] It didn’t, and remarkably enough, Louis Dausset, on budget Committee was stating as soon as 1909

    “When we built the Metropolitan and encouraged the development of trams, we gave our citizens and visitors a taste for moving around…So underground transport does nothing to reduce surface movement in Paris; on the contrary, it multiply it” ([7] citing C.M. report no 128, 1909).

Among Haussmann’s achievement was also the reorganization of the Public transit services, with the creation of the Compagnie Generale d’Omnibus created at the occasion of the universal exposition of 1855, this on a model not much different of the one used by Seoul, Korea.

[9] To give some substance on the level of Traffic, around 10,750 horses drawing vehicle/day has been counted on the Boulevard des Italiens in 1840 ([7] citing L’œuvre du baron Haussmann, Louis Reau, 1954)

[10] the Compagnie de l’Ouest very quickly developed suburban services from gare Saint Lazare. In 1869, It was by far the busiest railway station of Paris, handling 13,254,000 a year-more than 80% of them being commuters. The other 6 Paris termini together handled no more than 21,417,000 ([7] citing La gare du Nord, René Clozier, (a priori a PhD thesis of 1940))

[10] In his book, “L’assassinat de Paris” (1977), Louis Chevalier mentions that trees has been removed of Avenue de l’Opéra in 1955. Archive photography doesn’t confirm that. What is more probably is that the sidewalk has been reduced in 1955.

A viaduct in Paris

December 8, 2011

This post is not about the viaduc des arts and its promenade plantée which has been the object of a previous post. While Vancouver is thinking that destroying its viaduct structures is forward thinking, and some even suggest that this tabula rasa thinking is at the root of good urbanism…Paris is building more viaducts…

The Parisian Viaduct:

Avenue pierre mendes France, in Paris: It is a viaduct! 40 meters wide and streescape structure similar to Pacific Boulevard at Davie (Vancouver BC)... (credit photo, wikipedia)

The “Avenue Pierre Mendès France” viaduct, built between 1995 and 2001 (general conception by Paul Andreu) is one of the most recent addition to the Paris grid, in the new “rive gauche” district. You will notice, that well proven urban concepts have been applied, be in the building form lining the viaduct, the rectitude of the street, or the streescape…One will eventually find the result to be more convincing that on Pacific Boulevard (Vancouver) of similar width, and that is eventually the reason why you see people in the median which has its own name:

  • promenade Jules-Isaac

Which says enough of the objective filled by this avenue. Notice also how only one lane of general traffic per direction is offered, and how the bike lane is implemented in the median (in my opinion the best solution).

Under the viaduct

No painted blue sky here! railtrack and their platform (under construction) doesn't prevent to neglect the experience under the viaduct. credit photo (1).

In this case, the required right of way has necessarily constrained the piles disposition, but it is in fact a general Parisian style piles disposition we find in most, if not all of the city metro viaducts which allow an exploitation of the underneath space in both direction (you can see, how advantageous it can be under Vancouver’s Cambie bridge South side)

Beside the viaduct (or almost)

It is the jardin Abbe Pierre, opened in 2009, which is supposed to filter StormWater before letting them running directly into the Seine river.

the Abbe Pierre garden is below the "street" level credit photo (2)

Elevated view point on park and garden has been a common feature of the “jardin à la française“, but the relatively new sunken garden trend offers some attractive features:

  • It provides a sense of intimacy, by “removing” you of the rest of the city
  • It tends to be away of the street noise propagation pathes

In the case of the abbé Pierre garden, the artificial elevation of the street provides a pretext for the sunken garden…It is a nature garden, designed to filter storm water, and feature a swamp, as well as an insectarium to support the eco-system.

The example also apply a rule of thumb.

  • If a space under a structure is not usable, close it to the public!

The Vancouver viaducts

Thought the idea to treat the viaduct as a street is not new, and find some ground at the edge of the Dunsmuir and Georgia viaduct, as well as Granville Bridge: Paris could have still one thing or two to teach to Vancouver, especially when come to talk about viaducts on a bigger scale…

Lot of proposal have found inspiration in the promenade plantée (or the New York High Line) including the winning entry 71, in the recent Vancouver viaduct competition, but curiously enough, the unfortunate entry 109 was one of the only one, to consider the viaduct streetwise [3]:

In those Dunsmuir viaduct views, the viaduct is treated as a "street/promenade" stitched with premises, and still open enough to provide vantage points (the skytrain track provides also some challenge, but which can be addressed relatively well



[3] entry 7titled “make it a street” mentioned the idea but more by raising the rest of the grid to the viaduct level

Chronicle of Paris

November 19, 2010

A Future of High-rises and aerial subways are the news of the day for Parisian.


Paris is one of the densest city in the world and is still basically largely free of high rises in its city boundaries. Most of the density is achieved by what North american could call “low rise” and “human scale” architecture.

Paris is a city which has introduced an urban code as soon as 1607, and put then a limit at 16m height on building facade in 1667. The height limit didn’t have varied that much since [2].

nevertheless, in the 60’s and early 70’s, among other unfortunate urban experiences, some high rises have been introduced with little success, In 1977, the Urban code will close this period by coming back on the traditional height definition.

Nowadays, as basically since 1783, the height limit of a building is mostly defined by the width of the street it relates to, typically a building facade can’t be higher than the width of the street + the equivalent of one or 2 storeys.

Over the year, some addition has been provided like the permitted building envelop, mostly defining the shape of the roof, overall building height limit per neighborhood, as well as, yes, some viewcones in order to protect major Parisian perspectives.

map of absolute height limit for building in Paris, on average 30m, building height must be below this limit and another one mostly function of the street width. As well some additional restriction apply in "view cone" zone, represented in dashed violet.

The roof line picture below illustrates eventually the result of the Parisian urban code and its evolution over the centuries.

A typical view of Paris skyline credit photo (1)

Under its current mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, Paris has been the city of numerous romantically “bucolic” initiative like the public bike sharing system, Velib, the reintroduction of the streecar, and the closing of an urban freeway on the Seine river bank during summer time, to transform it into a beach (Paris Plage).

…But Paris suffers of a chronicle disease: it is inexorably loosing population, and eventually its current building form, while achieving high density, does it also at the expense of, green space, privacy…all sort of think people tend to value more nowadays than before, and the question for the urbanist has been to address this apriori antagonist issues: how to provide an high density, but still high quality urban environment for Parisians?

When the Streetcar lead to the High rises…

In Paris, like in other place before, the solution is viewed to be lying by building higher to free more space.

In a Parisian historic decision, the city council has adopted on Thursday 17th, some amendments to his urban code, allowing building up to… 180m, and more generally 50m [4]. Albeit in some well specified areas like former industrial yard (typically area similar to the marine gateway one).

It is not without irony, that we can witness the Parisian streetcar leading to highrise neighborhood putting a dent in the widespread north american belief that there is a correlation between building form and transit form, namely streetcars as promoting low to mid rise development [7]

Vision for a new neighborhood for Paris, on a former industrial yard, irrigated by its streetcar

More interesting, from a Vancouver viewpoint, is to see the argument floated during the debate surrounding the “reintroduction” of high rises into Paris.

On the pro side [3]

  • Better answer to the housing and work office demand
  • Create a urban marker, ianswering to the challenge raised by the urban landscape
  • And on the cons side, apparently little talk about the social virtues of “human scale” building, but mostly some rational argument [4]:

  • High rise consume more power than low rise (due to elevator, water pressurization…), and mostly construction
  • and the High density…to the subway…

    Not only Paris is welcoming high-rises on its territory, but under the umbrella of the French government, the region is looking at a massive extension plan for its regional subway network, and teams of architects and urbanist have been tasked to provide a proposal. They could have crisscrossed the region with streetcar, but they have choose to extend the subway (mass transit) network.

    A rapid transit map, as drawn by a group of architect and urbanist carrying a reflexion on the future of Paris

    The Plan above is the fruit of a collaborative work between several architecture and urbanist cabinet.

    and when a journalist asks to the the involved architects, the key question [5]:

    • does the subways line should be underground or aerial?
    Aerial, aerial as much as possible!

    Aerial, the subway should be…because as express the arhitect Duthilleul, with Jean Nouvel team:

    “When the aerial subway cross the Seine river, we have a flash of emotion”

    …and this flash of Emotion is what they want to provide to the rider.

    In the assessment on the appropriate grade and form of transportation system, the culture couldn’t be so dramatically different of the one we can see in Vancouver [6].

    The Parisian architects take in consideration the transit rider experience… when the North american will see transit mostly by its exterior impact, and eventually under this view, a streetcar will eventually be the more appealing form of it.

    Why such a cultural difference?

    …because may be in Paris, the architects and urbanists use public transit.

    [1] Julia Bueno

    [2] Urban code of Paris (in french)

    [3] Paris : des immeubles de grande hauteur dans le 13e (french), Le Moniteur, November 17th, 2010

    [4] Feu vert à Paris pour des tours et des immeubles de grande hauteurAFP, November 17th, 2010

    [5] Le Grand Paris sauvé par les architectes? Sibylle Vincendon, Liberation, November 18th, 2010

    [6] Opinion mostly based on the reading of the Frances Bula blog

    [7] At least, it is the opinion of some individual and group in Vancouver, usually opposed to the rapid transit plan in the Vancouver area, like the BARSTA (Business and resident for sustainable transportation alternatives) as expressed in several correspondences sent to the Metro Vancouver mayors and councils

    [8] see building envelop diagram ( download the pdf of the figures) from the Paris Urban code to download as a pdf