The New Grands Projets: Community-Building and Green Infrastructure

The ‘Public Policy and Governance Review Abroad’, or PPGR Abroad, is a new initiative for 2014. Undertaken in collaborative with exchange students from the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto, it will featured policy insights and analyses direct from Berlin and Paris.

Sarah Wilson

Place de la Bastille, the former site of the Bastille prison famously torn down during the French Revolution, is now a vibrant Parisian city square. Along one side is the Opera Bastille, one of former French President Francois Mitterrand’s “Grands Projets”: a series of monuments commissioned to reassert Paris’s cultural and political standing at the end of the 20th century. The controversial projects aimed to make art available and accessible to all.

On the far side of the massive opera house is a no less monumental, popular project: a garden stretching 4.7 km through the twelfth arrondissement. This is the Promenade Plantée, the oldest example of an elevated park in the world – predating New York’s High Line by about 16 years. The railway line was inaugurated in 1993 as a green walkway, linking and forming part of the surrounding parks.

The idea of converting old railway lines into community walkways is not new: the Elroy-Sparta multi-use trail on the abandoned Chicago and North Western Railway railroad bed opened in 1965, and so-called “rail trails” crisscross England, repurposing some of the over 5000 miles of track abandoned in the wake of the sweeping transportation reforms of the 1960s.

The Promenade Plantée and its ilk, however, are distinctly urban. While providing both a literal and figurative escape from the noise of the city, these walkways have also been explicitly built into their urban settings – and so pedestrians, bikers, and adventurers alike discover the city in a corridor of trees, gardens, and wildlife. In a feature story for Travel and Leisure, Karrie Jacobs highlights the way projects like the Promenade, New York’s High Line, and dozens of others across the world transform the way our urban landscapes are experienced:

“Perhaps what’s driving all this action is a new attitude toward cities. We don’t want to flee them anymore; we want to immerse ourselves in them…These new stretches of greenery frame an exploration of the man-made world much as woodland trails frame the forest”.

In the span of just five metres, one can stop and smell the flowers, admire one of Space Invader’s pixelated street pieces, and peek into upscale Parisian neighbourhoods.

Cities around the world are increasingly incorporating green spaces into otherwise paved landscapes as a way of connecting neigbourhoods, encouraging recreational activity, and bringing urbanites closer to nature. The planned Atlanta BeltLine will combine rail, trail, green space, housing, and art circling the downtown core and directly connecting 45 in-town neighbourhoods; Mexico City has already allocated $4.3 million to building an elevated path with the purpose of sending “a message that says the walker has the same dignity as the vehicle”; and Singapore’s proposed Green Corridor cuts through housing developments, highways, and upscale neighbourhoods.

The West Toronto Railpath, a multipurpose linear park for which Phase Two of its development is set to begin this fall, offers a homegrown example of the creative repurposing of abandoned industrial spaces. The Railpath, which will run from the Junction straight into the centre of the city, has been a largely citizen-driven effort – a feature shared with projects in New York, Rotterdam, Chicago, and Mexico City. Urban development initiatives often see communities rally behind a common project, and can provide a venue for creative public-private partnerships. As both risks and benefits are borne locally, regional governments will often solicit opinions and advice from the community on how to design and fund urban walkways. And as voter turnout and public trust in federal, provincial, and local governments hit record lows, the opportunity for citizens to interface with responsive government and to participate in infrastructure development is precious.

Yet while these projects have shown to bring increased tourism and environmental sustainability, numerous concerns remain. Green walkways can substantially increase noise and foot traffic in previously quiet areas, and neighbourhoods surrounding Sydney’s Goods Line have already seen property values skyrocket. Gentrification in areas commonly inhabited by low-income and welfare-dependent families may squeeze out the very people green walkways are meant to benefit. Policy-makers should design green walkways with an eye to local context, considering the socioeconomic and cultural make-up of neighbouring areas.

As the Ontario government looks into developing policies for community hubs, municipalities are encouraged to develop land use planning models that support “sustainable, transit-friendly complete communities”. And as transit continues to be a contentious policy issue in local elections, green walkways provide an innovative solution. These sustainable spaces encourage partnership and cooperation between governments and the citizens they serve, and demonstrate how infrastructure, economic development, and the environment can in fact be complementary goals. Green walkways are encouraging a revolution in city planning and policy, leaving a legacy as enduring as the stone constructions they wind through.

Sarah Wilson is in her second year at the School of Public Policy and Governance and is studying at Paris’s Sciences Po School of International Affairs for the fall semester. Sarah’s policy interests lie in social policy, affordable housing, and systems collaboration. Having just finished her summer co-op placement with the Ontario Public Service at the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, she is interested in comparing how innovation in social policy and service delivery is enabled and challenged in different local and national political contexts. She is also excited about the patisseries and the long walks through Paris.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Alex Ber says:

    I haven’t checked in here for some time since I thought it was getting boring, but the last several posts are good quality so I guess I will add you back to my everyday bloglist. You deserve it friend 🙂

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