In Paris, a Very Progressive Agenda Is Going Mainstream

Whatever you think of them, you can’t say the new promises from Paris’s Mayor Anne Hidalgo of lacking ambition. Seeking re-election at the municipal polls in March, Hidalgo unveiled proposals this week that include a referendum on the role of Airbnb, a plan to make the city center “100 percent bicycle,” a new 5,000-strong municipal police force in which at least half the staff are women, and a vow to spend 20 billion euros on converting office buildings into affordable housing.

By international standards these are bold proposals. Other European cities may already be on the road to going further in similar policy areas: Madrid has already banned cars from its inner city, Barcelona has hit Airbnb with a fine of €600,000 for breaking local home-share rule infractions, and Berlin has approved a citywide five-year rent freeze. No other city is as yet going quite as hard as Paris, however, in trying to tackle pollution, congestion, and housing access and affordability simultaneously.

In an unusual Paris election season, however, what might seem ultra-progressive in other cities doesn’t set Hidalgo’s policy package drastically apart from the crowd. While she currently leads in the polls, her primary opponents have not necessarily been Green-skeptic conservatives as such, but other candidates occupying the center-left space who have equally forthright, broadly pro-green choices in their manifestos. As news magazine L’Obs puts it, Paris has “a municipal landscape where all the candidates are striving to green their program.” In that local context, Hidalgo’s plans do not seem especially radical.

If the current mayor is re-elected, some of these program promises may be relatively easy to deliver. A referendum on Airbnb, for example, has been in the cards for some time. The idea, the mayor insists, would not be to block possibilities for genuine home-sharing, but to allow Parisians to decide neighborhood by neighborhood exactly what local regulations they want placed on the sector. Slated to be held before this summer, the vote could still create some problems by introducing a hyper-local checkerboard of differing rules, with strict regulations in some places and a more laissez-faire approach in others, but it’s something that not even Airbnb itself could object to in principle. Other proposals, such as the plan to make inner Paris a bicycle-first city work well because they do not come with a specific timetable attached, and thus suggest a simple continuation of the tough car-removing policies with which Hidalgo has already made a name for herself.

The plan would see more express cycling routes, segregated with raised medians, and lane space allotted to bikes across the city. This space would be largely taken from current space allotted to cars, while a pedestrianization plan will continue to sweep motor vehicles away from major streets. Such changes are indeed within the mayor’s power, though they have been challenged (unsuccessfully) in the past by regional leaders claiming that they are unfair to suburban commuters.

Others, however, will require substantial funding and the mobilization of support. Hidalgo is setting herself the target of  starting construction on 30,000 new homes with rents at least 20 percent lower than market rates by 2026—a plan to be funded by a 50/50 split public-private partnership. Many of these units are due to come from converted office space, which Hidalgo believes is oversupplied and in less urgent demand than housing. And the plan would certainly be popular with the stretched middle class. Employers may nonetheless fear a loss of potential workspace, and “affordable housing” that hinges on market-rate prices can easily become unaffordable when private rents spike.  

What’s striking about Paris’ current politics, however, is not that these measures are being proposed, but that many of Hidalgo’s main opponents are proposing something similar. Benjamin Griveaux, candidate for President Macron’s centrist La République en Marche party, is also proposing to help middle-class renters—by helping landlords to renovate substandard-condition housing that is unrentable. He is likewise pushing for new segregated cycle paths that will ultimately be double the length of Paris’s metro. Popular independent Cédric Villani, a former LREM leading light who has launched his candidacy in opposition to official party candidate  Griveaux, wants to become “Paris’s first true eco-mayor,” cracking down on skyscraper construction on the periphery of the city, pushing for more Airbnb regulation, and introducing such measures as organic-only meals in school cafeterias. The Green Party candidate David Belliard is no less forthright, advocating that Paris follow Berlin’s example and instigate a five-year rent freeze. In a city where these four candidates together are currently polling over 65 percent of the vote share, Hidalgo’s proposals for the 2.2 million residents within her jurisdiction are clearly mainstream.

As you might expect, these candidates are highly critical of Hidalgo’s record. But these criticisms are not aimed at the mayor’s policies so much as the discrepancy between them and her actual record. Griveaux says the mayor is dawdling on her bike plans, with only 50 percent of the goals set in 2015 met. Villani has likewise criticized Hidalgo for failing to deliver yet on her goal of reining in the effect of Airbnb on the rental market, and of cynical links with developers constructing a controversial skyscraper on the Paris periphery. Hidalgo has defended herself around housing issues such as Airbnb’s pressure on rents by pointing out that 100,000 public housing units have been constructed in Paris since 2001, when her socialist party predecessor as mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, assumed power.

Green candidate David Belliard, meanwhile, has questioned Hidalgo’s green credentials, attributing her successes in sustainability to pressure from his own party whichto add a twist — currently holds posts in Hidalgo’s administration as a minor coalition partner in Paris’s municipal assembly. It may be hard to demonstrate that Green Party influence has been the shaping force in the administration’s sustainability goals, but the mayor’s reputation as trusted driver of green change has been somewhat damaged by a chaotic breakdown in the city’s bikeshare system last year.

Among the serious candidates, only Rachida Dati of the Republicans still declares herself against what is possibly Hidalgo’s most controversial policy, the pedestrianization of quays on the Seine’s right bank. Dati is likewise the only major candidate skeptical about the mayor’s pro-bike drive. “I don’t see myself going to work by bike,” she has said. “You’d only have to see the state I’d arrive in.” A reasonable objection to bike commuting, no doubt, but its rarity among candidates suggest that Hidalgo has won arguments over placing sustainable transit at the heart of the municipal program.

Does that mean she will also win the election? In a rather strange election season—a political climate that has changed dramatically in recent years—there is still much up for grabs. When Hidalgo was elected, France also had a socialist Party president. Since then, support for her party has plummeted nationally (much of it shifting to Macron’s LREM), making her highly vulnerable even if she enjoys much local support. In Paris’s two-round process of elimination system, she will still likely prevail as the candidate of the left due to disarray amongst her opponents. (If LREM’s supporters hadn’t been split into two camps due to the rival campaigns of Griveaux and Villani, Macron’s party could likely have won.)

But even if she still doesn’t beat her rivals, what isn’t nearly as vulnerable is an ambitious green agenda, as her sole major opponent on the right, Dati, currently has only minority support. With a slate of candidates backing similar policies to Hidalgo’s, the true victory seems to be for an urban politics that places sustainability at the heart of its policy choices—a position at center-stage that looks set to endure in Paris whatever the result of March’s elections.

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CityLab Daily: An Urban Agenda for the 2020 Candidates

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What We’re Following

Stump the mayors: Tomorrow, three of the five former and current mayors who are running for president will have to answer to a council of their city-leading peers. In Iowa, the U.S. Conference of Mayors will hold a Local America Presidential Forum with former mayors Cory Booker and Julián Castro, current Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and two non-mayoral candidates: billionaire Tom Steyer and Senator Amy Klobuchar.

The conference of mayors will present the White House hopefuls with a city hall-centered policy agenda for 2020 chock-full of specific priorities from housing to infrastructure. But the forum also underscores a more general message: Mayors say they’re more in touch with the priorities their citizens are actually talking about. CityLab’s Sarah Holder has the details on the mayors’ slate of proposals: Mayors to Presidential Hopefuls: Listen to Cities

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CityLab Daily: Dave Grohl Has a Pro-Rock Urban Policy Agenda

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What We’re Following

Smells like teen spirit: Plenty of towns want to be the next big music city. If Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl had to give city leaders policy advice for how to make that happen, it would be this: Look to the kids and make all-ages venues possible.

“There weren’t too many all-ages venues, so we had to make them or find them,” Grohl said of his upbringing outside Washington, D.C., during an interview with The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg. Speaking at CityLab DC, he recalled the live shows he attended growing up as pivotal to his development. Whether it was grunge in Seattle or punk and go-go in D.C., Grohl said a tight-knit community of musicians can inspire young people to try something creative. Read my write-up of Grohl’s interview on CityLab: Don’t Underestimate the Power of Your Local Music Scene

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Dave Grohl Has a Pro-Rock Urban Policy Agenda

Long before the city became known as an Amazon boomtown, Dave Grohl remembers the 1990 Seattle as a place that existed in a “little cultural biodome” of its own. “What did we have? Like, fish and Bill Gates and whatever.”

The Foo Fighters frontman and former Nirvana drummer headlined CityLab DC on Tuesday, talking with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg about how music scenes like the one that emerged in the grunge-era Pacific Northwest can become city-shaping forces. “Those kids were connecting to what was going on in a way that doesn’t happen often,” he said. “It happens just before a musical revolution.”

In those pre-internet days, Seattle was too geographically isolated to lure many national touring bands, forcing fans and musicians alike to go it alone and build their own distinctive indie-rock community. Grohl, who grew up in Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County, was a veteran of Washington, D.C.’s thriving punk scene when he arrived in town. “When I first got there, I hadn’t joined Nirvana yet, but I went to go see them play,” Grohl said. “What I noticed was the identity of the audience. They weren’t like spiked hair and chains and leather jackets. They looked like kids from trailer parks. They had like flannel shirts that they got at the Salvation Army and they wore like Converse Chucks and ripped-up jeans and they just looked like derelicts.”

But thanks in part to the breakout of Nirvana’s 1991 album Nevermind, Seattle suddenly became a brand-name music city; bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains joined a gold rush for grunge acts, and the “Seattle sound” became a cultural phenomenon—and a marketing gimmick. “Designers started selling flannel shirts for $800,” Grohl said, “and it changed.”

The success of Nirvana launched a wide-ranging career for the onetime punk drummer; after the death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain in 1994, Grohl swiftly founded his own band, Foo Fighters, which has so far released nine albums. Grohl also created the 2014 HBO series Sonic Highways, based on the band’s 2014 album of the same name. The show chronicled the musical histories of eight American cities—including New Orleans, Nashville, Chicago, and Los Angeles—that boast influential local music scenes. Among them is Grohl’s own hometown of D.C., whose eclectic musical identity can be credited to visionaries like Ian McKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi, as well as go-go pioneer Chuck Brown.

At CityLab DC, Grohl was a tireless proselytizer for the community-building power of such local scenes. “Wouldn’t you love it if your city was famous for music?” he asked the city leaders in attendance. “A rich and vibrant music scene brings a lot of happiness. It’s like air—it’s important. You need to have that in your life just to remind you that life’s worth living.”

To foster such an atmosphere, Grohl also had a tip for the policymakers in the crowd: Create more all-ages venues. He got his start as a drummer by seeing shows as a teenager in D.C. clubs like the 9:30 Club. “It was a dump, but it was important to generations of people that found inspiration in that crappy little room,” he said. “People deserve to have an opportunity like that—for people to go to experience music, to learn how to play music, to share music with each other and build a community. Now when I talk about Washington, D.C., I’m proud of being from Washington, D.C. When I say I’m a musician from Washington, D.C., people think I’m a badass. And I agree.”

That echoed an idea that Frank Sirius, current leader of D.C.’s Chuck Brown Band, voiced earlier at the conference, where school music programs trained locals to play instruments and fed the city’s homegrown music scene. “I aspired to be like the guys I watched at the block party and clubs,” Sirius told The Atlantic’s Gillian White.

Even in an era of on-demand digital content consumption, Grohl is still a believer in the transformative power of analog musicianship and live performance. “What’s really inspiring is when you see an actual human being on stage with an instrument made of wood and wires, and one microphone,” he said, “and they do something so moving that you fall into, like, a romantic state of loving life, because people do great things.”

He talked about how, on a visit to New Orleans shooting an episode of Sonic Highways, he marveled at how spontaneous second line parades “just happened like wildfires in Los Angeles.” Every city, he insisted, should to find their own ways to let music play that kind of a role in daily life—and “let it walk down the street.”

“There are thousands of musicians in this city right now that could go on to change the course of popular music,” Grohl said. “They just need the opportunity to do it.”

Watch the full interview here:

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