How a Paris Suburb Went from Impoverished City to Green Powerhouse
In the last few months, I've written a lot about how Paris has been going green. But now, I'm turning my attention to a much-lesser known French urban center: Montreuil, a suburb of Paris. Fifteen years ago, Montreuil was known as a dangerous area, marred by social tension and poverty. Today, it's setting an awesome example of how cities can redevelop themselves into dense urban centers, where life is good and green. Here's how it's done.The Background
Sitting on the eastern edge of Paris, Montreuil was dominantly agricultural until it became an industrial center in the 19th century. Between 1950 and 1970, as its population neared 100,000, Montreuil saw the construction of "grands ensembles" - clusters of high-rise, social housing units.
While Montreuil is a suburb of Paris, it's also very much a city in its own right. According to the French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE) and to Wikpedia, its population was 102,000 in 2008, while the City spreads over just 8.92 square kilometers (5.5 miles). That gives Montreuil a population density of 11,455 inhabitants per kilometer, on par with Beijing.
Montreuil suffered from social unrest through much of the 1980s and 1990s, and was one of the poorer areas in the Paris region. This was especially the case for the Haut-de-Montreuil neighborhood: poorly served by public transport and cut off from the rest of the city by a highway, the area suffered high crime rates and was poorly maintained.
Now, as profiled in the French architecture and urbanism magazine Ecologik, the City is setting a remarkable example of good, green urbanism, and not just in its well-to-do areas. Here's how.
In 2008, the Montreuillois elected Dominique Voynet as Mayor. A founding member of the French Green Party, Voynet launched a program to remedy what she calls Montreuil's "social and territorial apartheid" through urban renewal and ecological development. She developed the City's first Plan local d'urbanisme (PLU); Montreuil had been the only French city with more than 100,000 inhabitants that didn't have one.
In an interview with Egologik, Voynet explained her idea. Called Hauts-de-Montreuil, the project focuses on the disadvantaged Haut-de-Montreuil area, and involves building a 200 hectare (494 acres) "eco-neighborhood" that will cover nearly 25% of the City's surface. It will reconnect Montreuil's diverse areas and urbanize, or re-urbanize areas that have been abandoned for the past decades, deemed "no man's lands" by Voynet.
Helping the project along is the extension of Paris' tramway line to traverse Montreuil. Another metro line (the 11) will be extended to reach the City as well. Both projects are slated for completion in 2016, will bring better infrastructure to Montreuil, and will be a major economic boon.
Building on Tradition and Knocking Down Walls
Although today it's mostly pavement, the City is looking to build on its agricultural past. More family and community gardens, more verdant streets. And the redevelopment of a most interesting neighborhood: Murs à pêches (peach walls), is a 40 hectare maze of nine foot high walls, once used to grow peaches.
According to Ecologik, these walls are mostly abandoned and falling apart, and Voynet wants to turn the area into a shared agricultural zone. The plan isn't without opponents, however. A group called Murs à pêches has rallied to protect what it calls one of the more beautiful parts of the Paris region.
Green Buildings and Equal Housing
The project will also set requirements for new buildings, regulating energy, heat and water use. It will move away from its past of high-rise social housing towers and endorse a policy of mixed housing, where residents of varying social strata interact and form new communities.
But whatever the fate of the peach walls, it's clear the Montreuil is making major strides towards becoming a well-designed urban center. With good infrastructure, well-connected neighborhoods, public transport and healthy, comfortable living options for residents, the suburb may well rival big brother Paris in the not-too-distant future.
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