Paris is my favorite city. I’ve been there countless times; traveled there on the weekends when living in Lyon or Aix-en-Provence, taken every visiting American friend there, even shared it with strangers. It inspires me more than any other place on Earth.
One of the most amazing features of Paris is its desire to celebrate the past, but never stop looking forward. In a city like Seattle that doesn’t have ancient history, I think we need to be more daring and allow changes in height and character that will increase density, but also pride and interest.
In Paris, I love the layers of history and the juxtaposition of bustling boulevards with ancient, winding alleys. When I studied urbanism in France, there was a fleeting moment when I thought Baron Haussmann was the most important figure in history. But you don’t have to wander far in Paris before you realize that the transformation of the city is continuous. Haussmann made glaringly significant changes in the mid-1800s, but those elements are only part of the living history that makes Paris such an incredible place.
While Edward Glaeser advocates for increasing density in specific areas near the city, such as the development at La Defense, I advocate for increasing density thoughtfully and with intrigue, throughout the city. The Mayor of Paris recently engaged in a campaign of design and economic development called ‘Reinventer Paris’ (Reinventing Paris). The challenge encouraged architects and designers to propose creative buildings on specific sites in the city. These projects are intended to change the way that residents and visitors interact with the city. It’s the government stepping in to say, “We like to be known for our history and our innovation, so we’re willing to take some risks.”
I am trained as an Urban Planner, but find the restrictions inherent in planning to be quite maddening. I love the idea of allowing developers to take their best shot at proposing what they deem to be the highest and best use for a site, but requiring tradeoffs to get to that point. Perhaps the development offers a historical element, exceptional energy savings, or a new material. It has to prove that it’s worth the increased height, density, or change in use, and it must engage with the rest of the city. I understand the danger of allowing this, and the complications with citizen engagement and legal precedents, but our cities have the ability to endure much longer than we do, so we need to keep looking forward.
Are Parisians happy leaving the legacy of La Defense or is the integrated development of the Centre Georges Pompidou a more intriguing option? Pompidou is a beloved icon in the city, while La Defense feels like another city altogether.
What about a development that offers the highest cross laminated timber construction in the world, within the city? By releasing restrictions and allowing creativity to flow, we have the potential to change the built environment in a way that inspires, rather than stifles. I think it’s time for Seattle to encourage innovation in our built environment and continue to draw people from around the world for who we are and how we understand and push the limits of the changes occurring around us.