Champs-Elysee in Paris Champs-Elysee in Paris

Paris is a glorious city. From grand boulevards to sidewalk cafés to prim parks, it’s a city to be savored. But that wasn’t always the case.

What we now call Paris was inhabited long before recorded history. Like many cities, it grew without a master plan. That is, until Georges-Eugène Haussmann arrived on the scene in 1852. Haussmann was commissioned by Napoleon III to modernize Paris. And he undertook "the most comprehensive programme of urban redevelopment ever experienced by a major city."

Haussmann was confronted with an overgrown medieval town — small winding streets, wooden buildings, poor water and sewer systems. It was a cauldron for disease. And the narrow streets didn’t make for easy traffic flow ... or troop movement — important when staving off foreign invaders or quelling revolutions.

A map of Paris circa 1864So Haussmann went to work. And not with a gentle hand. If a boulevard or park was needed, buildings were razed. By some estimates, Haussmann transformed fully sixty percent of Parisian dwellings in one way or another.

Haussmann sought to create a functional street network — grand boulevards connecting one part of the city to another. And where they met, Haussmann created equally grand squares: Châtelet — an important crossroads of north-south and east-west traffic, the Place de la République — three football fields long and a football field wide, and the Place de l'Étoile — home of the Arc de Triomphe and point from which emanate twelve beautiful and symmetrically spaced avenues, including the Champs-Élysées.

Sewers were built. The fresh water system was improved. Buildings were limited to a height of twenty meters. Architectural standards were so rigid that dwellings looked all but identical. A uniform urban landscape emerged. In less than twenty years, Haussmannism completely reshaped the city.

What an audacious undertaking! Such radical changes were certain to enflame emotions, even if most people agreed that changes were necessary. Haussmann had his critics. The wide boulevards made for a less intimate environment. Some stretched one-hundred feet from side to side — equal to about nine lanes on today’s freeways.

Many, many people were displaced — mostly the poor, who were forced to move to the city’s outskirts as property values rose. It was the bourgeoisie who benefitted most from the urban makeover.

But Haussmann’s efforts largely achieved their goals. Air and traffic circulation improved. Disease plummeted. Large, open spaces were made available to the people. And infrastructure was put in place to serve a fully industrialized nation.

Place de la Concorde in Paris
Place de la Concorde in Paris

But even more, Haussmann created a city that inspired — an uplifting city; a city with a soul. Paris continues to evolve along with the ambitions of urban planners. But with every walk down a Parisian street, or stroll through a park, Haussmann’s imprint remains on display.

Not every heroic dream of what a city should be bears fruit. Some visionaries are far less grounded in reality than Haussmann or the Chaffey Brothers. Some dreamers go far astray. And that’s where John Lienhard wants to take us next.


N. Evenson. Paris: 1890-1940. From Metropolis: 1890-1940, A. Sucliffe, ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984. pp. 259-288): The quotation above is from pg. 263.

N. Evenson. Paris: A Century of Change. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).

See the Wikipedia articles on Baron Haussmann and on Haussmann’s Renovation of Paris: and Both accessed August 4, 2009.

Images: Courtesy of Creative Commons license provided by users Hjjanisch and Stuck in Customs

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