Why Are the Streets So Wide in Paris?
If you ask people to imagine a famous city, most of the time they will think of buildings. The Colosseum, the Burj Khalifa, Big Ben, the Sydney Opera House, the White House, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and so on. For Paris, people will think of the Eiffel Tower, but the picture in their mind is likely to be dominated by streets—wide, leafy avenues flanked by elegant apartments. Close your eyes and you can see couples strolling arm in arm along what are surely some of the most beautiful streets in the world.
It was not always so. Paris used to be known for its narrow, grimy streets. Cramped conditions and filthy water encouraged the spread of cholera and typhus. Sewers were inadequate. This was the Paris where Les Misérables of Victor Hugo’s imagination lived.
Hugo set his story in 1832. When he published it in 1862, Paris was undergoing one of the most dramatic urban transformations in history. By the time Hugo died in 1885, Paris was being called the most beautiful city in the world.
What happened? How did Paris change so fast? And what was the point of all those new, wide streets? Was it to attract tourists? Was it to promote public health? Was it to provide gorgeous vistas for Impressionist painters? The question is more important than you might think, because some have detected a sinister design behind the building of these remarkable streets.
We’ll return to that question later. First, let’s trace the story of how Paris was remade. It all began with Napoléon. Not Napoléon Bonaparte but his nephew, Napoléon III, who became emperor of France in 1852.
Napoléon III’s greatest desire was to restore France to its former glories. France had been the most powerful country in Europe, but after a series of defeats by the British and others it languished near the bottom of the ranks of Europe’s great powers. The primary means to making France strong and proud again were economic growth, diplomatic manoeuvring, and successful wars, but Napoléon III also believed that appearances mattered. He was determined that Paris should look like the capital of a first-rate power.
Napoléon III’s model was London. He had lived there for several years and enjoyed its picturesque parks, its elegant, new streets, and its clean air. Paris, by contrast, was cramped, congested, and filthy. So from the start of his time in power, Napoléon set about the renovation of his capital.
Progress was slow. The Paris council did not share their emperor’s ambition and dragged their feet. Frustrated, in 1853 Napoléon III brought in a new man for the job, George-Eugène Haussmann. Over the next sixteen years, Haussmann built the city that people love today. In the process, he became the most hated man in Paris.
The plan involved much more than streets. New parks appeared. Sewers were built. There was a new aqueduct to bring fresh water to the people of Paris. The Louvre palace took on the shape we recognize today. Grand train stations became a feature of the city’s skyline. The shopping district got a facelift. There was a swanky new opera house.
However, the roads were at the heart at Napoléon’s dreams for the capital. The primary rationale was economic: better streets would encourage development on the edge of the city and therefore increase tax revenue. A second reason was to promote health by destroying squalid neighbourhoods—the planned roads often ran right through them. But the beauty of the streets was also part of the plan. Haussmann insisted that trees should line many of them, a decision that brought opposition at the time. He also laid down strict guidelines for the architects who designed the new buildings that lined the streets (hence the uniform heights and all those wrought-iron balconies and mansard roofs).
Altogether, there were more than 80 miles of new streets. Haussmann built for posterity—for us. But the costs at the time were enormous—$87 billion of public money, 27,000 buildings destroyed, and 350,000 people forced to move.
Maybe this was part of the rationale, too. Some have suggested that Haussmann wanted to clean up the city by moving the poor—who couldn’t afford to live in the new apartments built where they used to live—out of the centre of the city. Others have said the reason why the streets were so wide was to prevent Parisians from building barricades across their streets—as they had done in the revolutionary violence of 1789, 1830, 1832, and 1848.
There’s probably some truth to the accusations—the plan made room for military barracks close to some of the historic areas of unrest. However, the primary goals for Napoléon III and Haussmann were to boost the economy, and to make Paris glorious.
In this they surely succeeded. But if you’re ever lucky enough to visit Paris and walk down its exquisite streets, try to remember the people who lost their homes to make our pleasure possible. Haussmann thought their sacrifices were worth it. And he’s the one who is remembered—in 1864, the city decided to name one of the beautiful new streets after him. You can still enjoy it today.