Cities: Vision and finance are the keys to fixing our infrastructure

As we thought about how BuiltWorlds might play a constructive role in fostering a dialogue around how to address the world’s current infrastructure crisis at our Cities Conference (and beyond), we decided it would make sense to look to our past for clues about how to move forward.

So it was fortuitous that the first stop on BuiltWorlds’ first international Roadtrip this summer was a city that had undergone massive infrastructure changes in the past — Paris, France.

It wasn’t always the City of Light

Paris’ broad boulevards, public parks and squares, and walks along the Seine have long been the envy of the world. But this is not how the city always was.

Into the mid 19th century, Paris was a very different place. Inadequate systems for water and sewers, narrow and unlit streets, and a lack of public access to fresh air and nature made the city dirty, dangerous, unhealthy, and unpleasant. Paris was a city badly in need of a new system of infrastructure.

Under the leadership of Napoleon III and Georges-Eugene Haussmann, a vision for a modern city with working sanitation, gas lighting, better mobility, safer and healthier buildings, and increased public access to air, light, and nature began to take shape. While it is true that Napoleon III held decidedly undemocratic power, he did not simply decree and then fund the reconstruction of Paris.

Concurrent with the rebuilding of Paris was the establishment of a series of corporations and financial entities which helped fund the work. The Credit Foncier laid the groundwork for modern mortgage banking, while the Caisse Nationale de Travaux Public — loosely translated to the National Fund for Public Work — was formed to aid in financing projects.

The Credit Mobilier, a newly formed investment bank, provided financing for the construction of Paris’ boulevards in exchange for development rights along the boulevards. And the rollout of gas lighting across Paris was accomplished with establishment of the Paris Company for Gas Lighting and Heat, which was given a 50-year concession of gas in the city.

The Paris that the world knows and loves today was the product of a vast enterprise of public and private partnerships guided by a common set of principles around what should then constitute a fully modern city.

Tying it all together

In thinking about Paris, BuiltWorlds wanted to resurrect these clues from past city-scale projects to help frame our discussion for our Cities Conference.

This is why we have invited Brad Hunt, vice president of research for the esteemed Newberry Library to kick off our discussion. Although BuiltWorlds is emphatically about the future, as our examination of the story of the making of modern Paris illustrates, we believe our past — whether it’s a project from decades ago or one completed last month — holds critical insights about our most viable paths forward.

We similarly think it is critical to provide better insights into the steps that are actually working in cities around the world today in order to arrive at a clearer consensus around what we should be aiming for in our 21st century cities.

As Peter Ellis pointed out in his article last week, progress will be made in many discreet projects. However, if we all understand the broader objectives, it will be much easier to scope those projects.

As was the case in Paris, a financial ecosystem that can enable the vision to be achieved is critical, and so the afternoon of our Cities Conference will be spent gaining a better understanding of what that financial system will look like.

When we leave at the end of the day, we can hope to come away with a clearer understanding of our vision for our 21st century cities and also of the people and organizations coming into place to get us to that vision.