“We sense that it is to no purpose to regret the old Paris now, the historical and thinking Paris, whose last exhalations we are now witnessing; the artistic and philosophical Paris (…) where there were once groups, neighbours, neighbourhoods, traditions; where expropriations did not constantly trouble old relationships and the most cherished habits, where the artisan, who is now barred from the city centre by a merciless system, used to live next to the financier (…) Our eyes are full of tears, crying for this old Paris, especially when we see the intolerable “hotellerie”, the expensive confusion, the triumphant vulgarity, the terrible materialism that we are to bequeath to our nephews (…)”
This is an extract from one of the articles written by the journalist Jules Ferry in “Les comptes fantastiques d’Haussmann”. He denounces the colossal work to renovate Paris that was undertaken by Baron Haussmann during his 17 years as prefect of the city (1853-1870). The rebuilding of the city continued well after the end of the Second Empire under the direction of Haussmann’s collaborators, as Haussmann himself was dismissed following the severe criticism he received from his contemporaries. This renovation of Paris was probably the most dramatic of all the transformations the city has undergone to date. Paris had hardly changed for almost three centuries. Modernization brought gas lighting, wide avenues, clean water, modern sewage treatment, trees, public parks, fountains, hospitals, to name but a few changes.
After reading this extract one cannot help but reflect on the disadvantages of the phenomenal transformations that Chinese cities have undergone during the last two decades, in particular the capital, Beijing. In terms that remind us of July Ferry, some of the residents who lived in the thousands of hutong that were once the heartbeat of the city, and are now disappearing, lament their displacement from their inner-city neighbourhoods: “Nowadays, people say that high-level cadres live around the second ring road, while paupers live around the sixth ring road (…). It has been calculated that by 2007, approximately 1.5 million Beijing residents had been relocated to suburban areas as a consequence of the rebuilding of the city. Many officials are offering words of warning regarding the destruction of the historic architectural heritage: “The traditional streets and ancient buildings are disappearing under the bulldozer”. Likewise, the NGO Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center is working to raise awareness and help protect the cultural heritage (http://en.bjchp.org).
This zoning of social classes or sociospatial reorganization as a result of urban redevelopment is a common feature in both the case of 19th century Paris and modern Beijing. Insufficient compensation prevents residents from staying in central Beijing. Gated compounds where non-residents are excluded likewise proliferate downtown. In Paris, rising rents also drove workers out of the city. It has been said that Haussmann wanted to place populations that were likely to revolt in areas outside of Paris (the city had a turbulent history of revolts, the last one just a few years before the renovations began). The working classes were forced to move to areas ignored by the renovation work. In Beijing, on the contrary, displaced residents have generally seen their housing quality improved, because they have usually moved into newly-built residences which, although far from the city centre, are modern and comfortable.
Obviously, there is also much dissimilarity in the urbanization of 19th century Paris and that of Beijing. In particular, Beijing’s rate of urbanization was only 20% in 1986. It had an urban population of less than one million at that time. Rural counties that served as its food basket made up the greatest part of the city area. Paris renovation works, on the other hand, were mainly carried out in the heart of the city. The city’s expansion has always been restrained by its enclosures; it has pushed out beyond only six enclosures in eight centuries, all the while maintaining its circular shape.
(The second part of the article will be published next Friday)
Spanish qualified lawyer; PhD in Chinese Law. UrbaChina Research Officer. Has lived in China since 2006.