Essay on Planning of 19th-Century Paris

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2In 1853 Baron Georges Haussmann was appointed by Napoleon III the planning and transformation of Paris. At the time Paris was still recovering from the days of revolution, not just in 1789, but also more recent ones in 1830 and 1848, and was filled with thieves, escaped convicts and prostitutes who were protected by the authorities by the dark and narrow ‘medieval’ streets. The French writer Voltaire once remarked that “Paris could be made the most beautiful city in the world in 10 years”. Haussmann was not an architect or urban designer but was a success in commerce and politics under Napoleon. However, he had developed an interest in local history, Engineering, and a fascination for roads. By the time Hausmann left in 1870, Paris was the model of European town planning and the spotlight of many capital cities. The scheme itself had main elements that were in some respects successful as Paris was modernized and transformed, however there are also consequences of failures in the scheme that are still shown in the fabric of Paris’ history today.

To create a new modern Paris and for the scheme to be a success, the planning needed to be handled delicately due to the complexity of the city and the current nature of the political climate. The aims and needs of the city and its plan were complex. For example, the effects of trees in a square needed to look picturesque but also there needed to be an understanding on the current importance of the barracks. Haussmann had a difficult task ahead of him and had to make sure the scheme did not fail by embarking on administrative campaign in order to expand the legal boundaries of the city. Parisians were in the beginning unfazed until Haussmann started to quickly disrupt the city life for example when surveying the city with large timber poles to get accurate measurements of Paris. He also did mass demolitions in the city, destroying people’s homes.

The main aims of the modernization of Paris can be categorized into different objectives. The first objective which is considered most important by some historians, was to prevent the Parisians from ‘descending into the streets’ as they have done before. To do this the geography of Paris needed to be changed. Economically, Paris needed to be modernized through increasing commercial and industrial facilities that are in the city but also by reorganizing the highways and routes leading in and out of the city. Finally, Haussmann under the direction of Napoleon III wanted the capital city to be reflective of France as a country and create a city that was filled with light and beautiful but also a city with cleanliness. These objectives were the back drive to the main elements of Hausmann’s plan for 19th-century Paris.

The previous revolutions in Paris outlined three major difficulties for the authorities. In the center of the city there were narrow streets filled with shanty towns where agitators and other criminals could easily work, large bodies of people were unhappy, and they could gather and build their outrage and violence. The narrow streets now filled with angry citizens could be easily blocked by barricades that could not be cleared. Taking down these barricades cost the police a lot of money and took time. This was not helped by the system of unprotected roads that led rapidly from one part of the town to another, meaning authorities were unable to act quickly. The most drastic solution that Haussmann implemented was the destruction of all the slums in the center of the city. This still was not enough to solve the issue, so instead he constructed barracks in such a way that it would give maximum protection to the center of the city and be the center of strategic defense communications. He then created a new highway system that linked the North, South, East and West of Paris together by creating and extending boulevards. After connecting Paris’ roads together, he needed to create more links to the world outside of the city and this was done through improvements on railway services and connections to Paris. After creating the highways connecting the railway and industrial centers, Haussmann opened the suburbs. He connected them to the heart of the city through roads leading to different points throughout Paris. For example, the Etoile in the West with twelve avenues and boulevards from all around Paris that all meet at the Arc de Triomphe.

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Overall, in terms of the remapping of the geography of Paris Haussmann was somewhat successful in his changes as he was able to help the authorities in Paris, create industrial routes which had economic benefits and improve Paris commercially as people were more connected throughout the city. However, where this part of the scheme fails lies within the fact that the revolutionary unrest and crime that Hausmann had thought he had removed from the center of the city simply moved to the outskirts of the city. The root of the problem was never solved. The rearrangement of the city created a divided between the west and the east. Hausmann removed the physical issue but created a bigger problem of moral hostility and psychological unease.

In terms of the people of Paris, Haussmann thought that they lacked any civic sentiment towards their city and that to change. In his plan he wanted to provide Paris with public services that would be proper to a capital city example open spaces, theatres, or churches. Haussmann was successful in this sense as he provided the city with buildings such as the Tribunal de Commerce, extensions to the Louvre, and the Theatre de la Gaite Montparnasse. He helped boost tourism for example through the inclusion of the Hotel du Louvre. He also was responsible for churches, such as the St. Augustin and St. Francois Xavier, as well as more prisons, asylums, and hospitals. One major building that was in the works around the same time and was key to this part of Haussmann’s plan was the Paris Opera by Charles Garnier. The building had its own spotlight in the city of Paris and created another luxury and way of life for the Parisians. It was an inclusion in Haussmann’s plan that would help put Paris on the map. The Paris Opera provided terminus to one of Haussmann’s streets, the Avenue de l’Opera. He also created new residential quarters and workers quarters in the northeast of Paris. These developments fundamentally changed the life of Parisians. The ways it may have not been successful was that once the industrial areas in the northeast became saturated, workers moved to the outskirts of the city leaving the middle class comfortably in the middle. This, tied in with the movement of crime and revolutionary unrest mentioned previously, created what was known as the ‘Red Belt of Paris’. This left Paris in a strong political divide that would carry on till the late 20th century. However, one of the greatest and more successful changed to Paris was the introduction of the sewage systems in Paris. The whole subterrain beneath Paris was designed to be around 600 miles in length and fulfilled its purpose in keeping Paris healthy. This element of the scheme was successful in avoiding pollution and improving public cleanliness.

Haussmann wanted to transform the style of architecture that would later become distinct to Paris and the framework for many other European cities. He often used sudden and wide perspective architecture by placing public buildings boldly in the angles of squares or centralizing them along the wide avenues. This is shown as the St. Augustin church leads round the bend in the Boulevard Malesherbes. Generally, his architectural influence had a large emphasis on geometric harmony. This style is shown in the lime-stone apartment blocks built on the new boulevards that became standardized. The symmetrical and bourgeois buildings were softened by the use of trees. The open wide streets, spaces and trees almost made the hidden courtyards and odd side streets more charming and cultural ‘hidden gems’. Another part of the urban planning of the city was Haussmann’s inclusion of large open spaces such as parks and squares. Much of the inspiration came from the green places and squares in London. Haussmann also wanted to make sure that the almost glamourous open spaces in western of Paris, which were designed for the military, were not too different to the spaces for the lower classes of eastern Paris. This element of the scheme was very successful as it helped to characterize Paris into what we see it as today as well as paying homage to the history and the Second Empire in France which was important to Napoleon III at the time.

In the end, a once medieval city was now a modern powerhouse that had more room to grow. By creating new districts in the city, building new roads, monuments, and public spaces a new grandeur of the city was created. One of the biggest successes of the scheme was not just the improved appearance of the city but also the health of its citizens. The widening of the streets and the production of more housing for people in the city meant that Haussmann had eased the overcrowding within the city and lowered the threat of diseases such as cholera which was previously very prevalent. A cleaner Paris was created through the help of the new sewage system that channeled the wastewater and human excrement away from the city, reducing the pollution that would have made Paris seem more uncivilized. The new buildings that Haussmann designed have proven to be more functional and longstanding than the previous buildings that stood before in Paris and he created a new form of Renaissance architecture that was to be mirrored throughout Europe.

Although on paper and in the long run the plan to modernize 19th-century Paris was successful in different ways as just outlined, at the time and to the Parisians Haussmann’s scheme had a negative impact. Haussmann had offended ministers by ‘rebelling’ and arguing with policies and legislations in place as well as exceeding the planned budget. The tone of the new design of Paris was potentially out of touch with the unrest that had driven the recent revolutions; it seemed to most Parisians that the way the project was handled - destruction and devastation in many poor areas - and the lavish, ‘flashy’ new Paris was not in line with the new wave of freedom that they had been fighting for (‘Paris Reborn: Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City’, 2013). Not only emotionally for the people of Paris was this shown but also physically through the class restructuring outlined previously. Overall, the planning had many successes that transformed Paris into a lot of the city that is known to the world today. The Parisian modernization was emulated by nearly every major European capital city and brought with it a new characterization of Paris and Europe.


  1. Chapman, Brian. ‘Baron Haussmann and the Planning of Paris’. The Town Planning Review, vol. 24, no. 3, 1953, pp. 177-192.
  2. Gandy, Matthew. ‘The Paris Sewers and the Rationalization of Urban Space’. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol. 24, no. 1, 1999, pp. 23-44.
  3. Jordan, David P. (2004). ‘Haussmann and Haussmannisation: The Legacy for Paris’. The French Historical Studies, 27(1), pp. 87-113.
  4. Pinkney, D. H. (1957). ‘Money and Politics in the Rebuilding of Paris, 1860-1870’. The Journal of Economic History. Cambridge University Press, 17(1), pp. 45-61. doi: 10.1017S0022050700059866.
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