The La Défense business district lies to the west of Paris. And like Paris, and many large European cities, it has witnessed important transformations in recent years. One of the most noteable changes has been the increase in social vulnerability and the weakening of community relations concentrated in some neighbourhoods. So maybe there’s some truth in the line that “If we wish we to rebuild our cities, we must first rebuild our neighbourhoods” (Harvey Milk)
Named after a famous statue, La Défense de Paris, which was commissioned to commemorate the French soldiers who fought in the Franco-Prussian War, today La Défense is Europe’s largest business district. It also symbolises the remarkable fact that Europe, which for much of its modern history was embroiled in warfare, now seems to be one of the most stable regions of the world. That’s the good news. However, the problem is that La Défense is a shadow of its former self due to changes after the covid pandemic. A lot of office space is deserted as employees work from home. Restaurants are quieter, the main pedestrian plazas emptier and some fear it could return to the days of empty concrete spaces and petty crime. Others go as far as to say it has become a social and cultural periphery of Paris. Full of striking offices but where local involvement is problematic.
One explanation for this peripheralization is social inertia and the processes of invasion-succession that constrain social organization. There is inadequate community action and the lack of balance between administration, business, workers, residents and youth leads to a soulless building process where the community does little and institutions impose. Social and cultural fragmentation results.
The intentions behind La Défense were certainly good. There had been public outcries about the building of modern towers in Paris, and so it stopped the construction of skyscrapers in the 1960s. Construction subsequently started at La Défense and it now counts 72 glass and steel buildings, with 200,000 daily workers. But that construction meant the demolition of surrounding neighbourhoods with houses, small factories, farms and even shanty towns to build the business district. Offices sprung up but problems, too, in the 1970s. In the movie Playtime, the actor Jacques Tati plays Monsieur Hulot who tries to find his way through a modern and somehow dehumanized futuristic Paris (a reference to the modern architecture of La Défense). But then came Europe’s biggest shopping centre, Quatre Temps, which was built, and the Grande Arche opened in its centre as a symbol of openness to the world.
Likewise, beyond the skyscrapers where hordes of businesspeople parade every day, La Défense also attracts tourists who come to admire the unique architecture of this place. Organized around the forecourt of La Défense with the Grande Arche which sits majestically at its end in the extension of the axis that connects the Tuileries Garden and the Arc de Triomphe, the Grande Arche district is distinguished by combining all the attributes a business district (offices, hotels, shopping centers and restaurants) with modern works of art, gardens and gigantic fountains. No surprises, therefore, to see La Défense ranked as the fourth most attractive business district (EY Consultancy Firm 2020).
An important challenge is how to turn this huge business district into a neighbourhood with a quality of life. How to tackle the lack of catering offers, the crowded transport at rush hour and the impression of permanent greyness? The same question is being posed by many European cities who ask how such districts can move from the image of ‘work and nothing else’ to offer social, cultural and aesthetic aspects to attract visitors, tourists and civil interaction and closeness. It will require collaboration between local government, professionals and civil society and, most importantly, citizenship. But is this ‘a bridge too far’ at a time when citizenship has become politicized or a commodity that can be bought by the super-rich?