Paris or London?

The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership recently announced its "Paris to Pittsburgh" program to encourage Downtown restaurant and store owners to make their spaces more urbane, and the streets more lively. Take a look at the program website, and the Post-Gazette's coverage.
One of the goals of the Paris to Pittsburgh program is to make store and restaurant fronts more transparent, with large window or garage door-like openings that will allow patrons to move freely between the indoor and outdoor spaces.

"This is a way to activate [the sidewalks] and to create more dynamic space for people to use," said Mike Edwards, the partnership's president and chief executive officer.

But did the PDP pick the wrong European city?

The current issue of The Economist has an interesting feature that compares the recent past and futures of Paris and London. Paris is full of charm and nostalgia. It's a glorious monument to French history and culture. London, however, is the city of the present, and it appears to be the city of the global future.

[O]fficials at London's City Hall bristle at the idea that the two cities can be compared. “We don't think of ourselves as in competition with Paris,” sniffs John Ross, Mr Livingstone's economic adviser. “We've won that contest. We measure ourselves against New York.”

Yet as recently as 1992, when the Maastricht treaty to launch the euro was signed, bankers in London were fretting about losing out to the financial centres within the future euro zone, notably Paris and Frankfurt. Back then, the pre-eminence of the British capital was far from assured. At the time, Jack Lang was the cool, polo-necked French Socialist culture minister, rejuvenating Paris with glass and steel, while his British equivalent was in charge of something stuffily called the “Department for National Heritage”. London's streets were gridlocked, its riverside was drab, its food inedible and coffee undrinkable.

What went right for the city?

A number of things. First, Big Bang, the deregulation of the financial-services sector in 1986, propelled foreign investment into the City of London (though the markets were rocky in some subsequent years). The Labour government elected in 1997 kept the city attractive with stable economic management and with corporate and income taxes that were low, at least by French standards—though these are set to rise for
non-domiciled residents. And it cared about the image of the capital, too. The Labour government not only spent freely on the arts, but also abandoned its resistance to using private sponsorship to build new galleries and museums. In doing so, it helped to shrug off a British indifference towards the look of London. Daring modern architecture proclaimed that this was a true world city.

Perhaps most important, the city has adopted a guiding creed that belongs neither to the political left nor the right: openness to change. “London has flourished not because it has sorted out its transport, or its city management, but because it opened its borders,” argues Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics. These days, there is nothing particularly British about London, bar its tolerance of chaos. It has embraced globalisation to become an international city, while Paris has remained unapologetically French.

The story goes on to note that London's dynamism comes with costs. The cost of living is extraordinarily high; planning for growth has been haphazard at best; its dependence on financial services means that the local economy is prone to wild swings; there are gross inequities in access to public services; crime and poverty are serious problems in some areas.

Still, as the Pittsburgh region reaches for a global identity, should it be looking to Paris? One critic quoted by The Economist notes, “Paris doesn't take risks, it lacks audacity,” he says. “How can you create a desire to innovate when the ambient culture is oriented towards preservation?”


3 Responses to "Paris or London?"

Jefferson Provost said... 3/19/2008 10:28 AM

“How can you create a desire to innovate when the ambient culture is oriented towards preservation?”

How indeed?

Anonymous said... 3/19/2008 11:34 AM

All very interesting. But isn't this "Paris to Pittsburgh" thing just about sidewalk life? In that respect Paris is a good model, as far as I know (I haven't been there myself, but it seems to be known for sidewalk cafes and lively storefronts).

Mike Madison said... 3/19/2008 11:38 AM

If it's just about sidewalk life, then I think that it's mostly a waste of money.

Having been to both London and Paris recently, my view is that London's streetscape is pretty lively in its own right.

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