Thursday, November 5, 2009

Compact Living in a Parisian Suburb

Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines is a “new town” built on 7,000 hectares of land 20 kilometers west of Paris near Versailles. Having once served as an outdoor playground for the French aristocracy, the land on which the town sits retains a mix of beautiful woodlands and numerous ponds. The town as a whole includes seven different municipalities (communes) which add up in population to 147,000. The population density of the town equals 2,100 individuals per square kilometer which amounts to about 476 square meters per person, or more than twice the same figure for the Paris urbanized area as a whole. The fairly high density “streetcar” era suburb where I live, Shorewood, Wisconsin, has 301 square meters of land surface per resident, a modest amount by American standards (the average for 13 large urbanized areas in U.S. is 700 square meters per person). Saint Quentin on its face looks like a fairly low density, spread out suburb, not that much different from the American experience.

A closer look at the town’s spatial arrangement tells a somewhat different story. Within its boundaries, more than 40 percent of Saint Quentin’s surface area is devoted to woodlands, water, and other kinds of open space. In short, population density for the land in strictly urbanized use is more like 3,500 individuals per square kilometer yielding a per capita surface area of 285 square meters, somewhat less than what I get in my home suburb. Essentially, what Saint Quentin has done is retain much of its landscape in a natural condition and concentrate business and housing development at fairly high densities. This is confirmed in a tour around the town by the presence of significant numbers of three and four story multiunit residential buildings. The downtown pedestrian-only retail mall is also at fairly high density with 2-4 story structures surrounded by taller office buildings. Wherever one is in the town, woods and water are never very far away. The virtues of high density are gained without sacrificing access to green space. Many of the buildings are standard modernist architectural fare but have been designed on a human scale, and a number originated from some of France’s leading architects who have sometimes given their works here an eye-catching if controversial whimsical quality.

Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines is a product of France’s 1960s new town movement, an effort to solve critical social problems that became apparent in the wake of World War II—urban crowding and a housing shortage worsened by rapid population expansion in the Paris region. From the beginning, new towns were a product of central planning. As the story goes, Charles de Gaulle took his head urban planner, Paul Delouvrier, for a helicopter ride over the Paris area in 1961 and told him to bring a bit of order to all that they could see below. This is exactly what happened. A plan for the Paris region established La Défense just outside the city boundaries as the region’s second central business district and five new towns which were to absorb the bulk of the region’s population and employment growth. La Défense, with its high-rise glass office towers and its stark rectangular memorial arch, stands in sharp contrast to the classic beauty and human scale of historical Paris right next door. At the same time the five new towns were being developed, a regional passenger rail system, the RER, was constructed to connect them to the Paris area as a whole. On top of dealing with the effects of rapid population growth, part of the strategy for creating distinct concentrations of population and employment rather than a general spreading was to protect the green spaces in between. In the 1970s and 1980s, Saint Quentin grew rapidly and became a family oriented bastion of the French middle class with numerous young families, many of whom derive their income from employment in the professions or as managers. The town has attracted its share of high-tech employment, including Renault’s technology center.

Today in the U.S. members of the middle class see two distinct possibilities in choosing where to live. Either one can enjoy the rural ideal with its spacious living and close access to the countryside in the suburbs, or one can live according to an urban ideal and take pleasure in the cultural amenities ready at hand in a spatially compact central city. In Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines one appears to be able to satisfy both ideals simultaneously. Residents have access to both urban amenities that come with compact living and beautiful nearby rural open spaces within their “new town” boundaries.

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