PARIS – Paris is a magical city for tourists, with its iconic Eiffel Tower, charming architecture and mouthwatering cuisine.
But for nearly 12 million people in the sprawling metro area, it’s simply home, and slumping suburban communities fringing the historic city center aren’t always an easy place to thrive.
Northeast of the city, a group of political and business leaders have realized one potential solution is to rev up a huge engine already present in their community: Charles de Gaulle Airport, which handles more than 60 million passengers per year.
Sixteen miles outside of Paris, France’s welcome mat for the world has long been accused of eating up farmland with terminals and tarmac and kick-starting commerce for the capital with little thought for the poorer counties and towns that lie in its shadow.
Atlanta faces an almost identical challenge, according to Jon Tuley, a planner at the Atlanta Regional Commission who has been coordinating efforts to create an alliance of agencies focused on development around Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Mr. Tuley was part of an Atlanta delegation to the fourth Sustainable Airport Area seminar in Paris Oct. 24-25. Launched through a partnership between Charles de Gaulle and Hartsfield-Jackson, the seminar helped airport leaders, urban planners and economic developers hash out issues related to inclusive economic development.
Officials from Aeroports de Paris admitted that Charles de Gaulle hasn’t always seen itself as responsible for boosting its surrounding area, known as Greater Roissy. Some said the national government previously treated the airport as an “aircraft carrier” – a sprawling utilitarian behemoth only good for takeoffs and landings.
But since the privatization of the Paris airports in 2005, that mindset has been changing, and major economic development projects have followed as a more centralized planning process has emerged.
One example is Aéroville, a massive, gleaming mall with more than 200 stores and planes roaring overhead, opened in October to serve the residents of Greater Roissy and the 120,000 people who work in the area. Crowds on a recent afternoon showed that demand is there, at least while the venue is still shiny.
Having long preached the dynamism of the airport area, Aeroports de Paris will move its headquarters to a new building there next year, joining Air France and other key companies at Roissypole. The growing business district includes hotels and office buildings adjacent to a rail and bus hub at Charles de Gaulle’s Terminal 3.
Job growth is occurring faster in Greater Roissy than in the rest of France, and not only thanks to aviation, said Didier Hamon, general secretary of Aeroports de Paris. The airport’s connectivity is helping “reindustrialize” France’s sagging economy by fostering e-commerce and tourism and by smoothing the way for French products like food and pharmaceuticals to be exported.
“All of this can be of benefit locally if we take the opportunity to hook up local development to global development,” Mr. Hamon said.
United by Global Competitiveness
Seine-et-Marne, a largely rural French department (a government division similar to a county) at the airport’s back door, woke up to this reality slowly.
“The airport was turned toward Paris,” and elected leaders missed its economic potential, said Bernard Corneille, general counselor of Seine-et-Marne.
“We could hear it, but we couldn’t see it exactly,” he said during a panel of French government officials at the seminar.
Now, Seine-et-Marne hopes to use its bucolic setting as a selling point for visitors, letting “the economy and environment live side by side,” Mr. Corneille said.
Such experiences show that while the benefits of airports are evident to jet-setters, officials have to make sure they don’t create “symbolic cities” that fail to resonate with poorer citizens living nearby, said Michel Montaldo, executive council member of Val d’Oise, a department north of Paris also bordering the airport area.
Flowery talk about collaboration often runs aground on the realities of competing priorities, economic imbalances and election cycles.
Paris tackled the problem through creation of Hubstart Paris Region. The umbrella organization brings together 30 organizations including chambers of commerce, elected officials, transit leaders, city planning agencies, companies and the airports group itself.
Vincent Gollain is part of the glue that holds it all together. While serving as chief economic development officer for the Paris Regional Development Agency, he’s also a coordinator at Hubstart.
He said leaders’ views diverge on how to spend resources and handle investment leads, but they could all agree on one thing: the Paris region must fend off challenges from airport areas in Frankfurt, Germany; Amsterdam and recently, Dubai.
“That was the uniting factor, that we have to compete globally,” Mr. Gollain told Global Atlanta.
The challenge was to think like investors, he said. They don’t take account of the differences in local areas until they choose a broader region in the first place. Hubstart helped make the case that boosting the region would lift all boats.
“A brand is nothing in itself, but a brand is a capability to work together,” he said.
Toward a Greater Paris
Another agent for both collaboration and contention has been the Grand Paris Express, a proposed set of metro lines extending public transit in Paris suburbs.
It’s part of the Grand Paris – “Greater Paris” – plan introduced by former President Nicolas Sarkozy to break down administrative barriers between downtown Paris and its suburbs, creating a unified urban authority that would greatly increase the city’s population and land area.
The $30 billion Grand Paris Express automated metro project, which issued its first €5.3 billion ($7 billion) of funding in July, consists of more than 200 kilometers (124 miles) of rail in a ring with a few spurs jutting off to airports. The idea is to connect suburbs better to each other and cut commuter traffic through central Paris.
Though it’s not slated for completion until 2030, it has already been a catalyst for conversation among airport-area elected officials, said Gerard Segura, the mayor of Aulnay-sous-Bois and vice president of the Seine-Saint-Denis department’s general council.
“Grand Paris metro played an important role because of the fact that two lines are passing through this territory, and elected officials agree on the goals of development,” he told Global Atlanta through a translator. “(Governments) are thinking more and more in terms of larger scale and not only in their immediate territories.”
He praised Hubstart but said at the seminar that there is more work to be done to reform outdated governance structures. France’s departments were set up in the aftermath of the 1789 French revolution and are seen by some as hindering progress by adding layers of bureaucracy and competition. He urged officials to look for more common ground and abandon “selfish” approaches to development.
These discussions are bound to happen as the geographic gap between airports and cities closes, said Augustin de Romanet, president and CEO of Aeroports de Paris, who opened the seminar. People have always gathered near transportation hubs, starting with harbors to railways to motorways. Now, the “trend is for cities and airports to come together,” he said.
The question for all airport areas is whether this will bring confluence or collision.
Editor’s note: Trevor Williams traveled to Paris to report on the Sustainable Airport Area seminar, which emerged out of a partnership between the Paris and Atlanta airports. This is the first of a series of stories from the event.