Friday, November 20, 2015

Thinking about Paris

This will be relatively brief post.  In part because I need to practice brevity.  And in part because I’ve chosen a topic on which I could get into trouble if I ramble overly long.

I’ve only seen Paris once.  My wife had a life-long dream of visiting the City of Lights.  So, for our fifth anniversary, we broke away from a bargain vacation in London, took the Chunnel, and spent three days in a fine hotel in the heart of Paris, across from the Tuileries and not far from the Louvre.

They were a fine three days.  Having different interests, my wife and I spent much of our time in different pursuits.  I visited the Rodin Museum and the sarcophagus of Napoleon while she wandered shops, in particular the Parisian perfumeries.

But we met up under the Eiffel Tower at the exact time of our wedding five years earlier (ignoring the time zone difference), took a cab to the Arc de Triomphe, and ambled down the Champs-Elysees, stopping for beverages at a sidewalk café.  It was a great way to commemorate an anniversary.  And then we returned to our rented flat in London.

It’s likely that we’ll never again visit Paris, but those three days remain bright in our memories.  Bright enough that the recent terrorist attacks had a particularly sharp impact on us.

One can look at the Parisian attacks from several different urbanist perspectives.

The first is distress that people enjoying the fruits of urban life in one of the great cities of the world can have their lives ended or irremediably changed in a matter of minutes.

I fear that many will respond to the events in Paris by withdrawing into their suburban castles and lifting the drawbridges.  But that would be the wrong response.  Cities are our source of commerce, culture, and education.  Our civilization would regress without them.  When cities hit bumps, our job is to fix the bumps, not to turn our backs.

As Richard Florida notes in CityLab, there is strong correlation between the absence of vibrant cities and the instability of nations from which terror can flow.  Florida is careful to note that correlation isn’t causation, but it seems likely that strengthening the cities of unstable countries would simultaneously brace up the troubled nations and weaken the roots of terrorism.

Next is discomfort that the source of these particular attacks was the urban neighborhood of Molenbeek-St. Jean in Brussels.  Also in CityLab, Feargus O’Sullivan writes about what has gone wrong in the neighborhood, which is modestly attractive but permeated by despair.  Something has gone wrong in a culture when jobseekers in Molenbeek must use non-Molenbeek addresses when submitting resumes.

The roots of Molenbeek as described by O’Sullivan may be unique to Brussels, but similar pockets of despair and hopelessness are found in many cities.  However, they needn’t be.  Tools like inclusionary housing, walkable settings, and strong transit can make a difference.  We know how to implement those actions.  It’s up to us to make the necessary commitments.

Last is hope that comes from big city mayors, unlike many governors, continuing to welcome refugees, many of whom are fleeing violence even worse than seen in Paris.  Again in CityLab, Kriston Capps writes of the mayors who understand the renewed vitality that immigrants can bring to communities, while also sympathizing with the plights that forced them to become refugees.

Security measures on immigration remain appropriate, but warm welcomes should be waiting beyond the security checkpoints.  Mayors get that, which should make us optimistic about the future of cities.

The political and social conditions that underlay the Paris terrorism can’t be solved solely with urban solutions, but good urbanism can play a role.  A big role.

In my next post, I’ll look at the coming retail extravaganza that is the Christmas season and what it tells us about the flaws of suburban parking.  For many, the meaning of Black Friday have moved from the 1929 stock market crash to the post-Thanksgiving shopping crush and onward to an ominous message about our times.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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