Modern NIMBY-ists, especially in Toronto—a city where a four-stop subway extension is considered a generational achievement—should reflect on the fact that urban planning, despite its dismal 20th-century history, doesn’t have to be an unmitigated disaster. Paris, the Western world’s gold standard for urban beauty, is a plannedcity. Dangerous, filthy almost beyond modern comprehension and—most maddeningly for the population—congested to the choking point, Paris was utterly remade between 1848 and 1870. New streets, squares, parks and public buildings were erected, the Louvre expanded and Notre Dame cathedral restored. All it took, as Kirkland’s lively history records, was an absolute monarch determined to make his capital the world’s greatest city regardless of cost, and a civil servant of elastic morality on whom he could count.
The city that emerged from this massive effort, notes Kirkland, an architect and writer, “is so coherent that it is tempting to think that it sprang fully formed from the mind of the Emperor Napoleon III.” But it was a messy, constantly amended affair, kept on track only by the pragmatism shown by the city prefect, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann. And by something the new city’s admirers, especially in America, have often forgotten: restrictions on private property in the interest of preserving shared space. The Place des Vosges, for instance, came complete with perpetual ban on changing the shape of any structure in it, and it was forbidden everywhere to post notices on light poles.
And the renewal was indeed what the author calls a “despotic and socially regressive” business. The origins of contemporary Paris’s affluent inner city and poverty-stricken outer suburbs lie in Haussmann’s brutal destruction of thriving working-class neighbourhoods. But once the builders had destroyed what was in their way, Kirkland argues, they raised a city that not only inspires aesthetic admiration but which still functions like no other: every day, millions use streets, parks, train stations and town halls built 150 years ago. Visitors come to Paris, as they do to other cities, to see its monuments; uniquely, the city itself is one.