From Paris, With Lessons

Frank Sinatra crooned about Paris, smitten because his love was there.

I love Paris, too, but not because my love is lolling about in central Europe.

My husband and I spent a few days in Paris this past October. I was at once enchanted and intrigued with the so-called City of Light, as much for its attention to sustainability as for its art and spirit.

Like travel anywhere, Paris fostered a few comparisons and planted some seeds.

Pint-Sized Cars

First, stand on any busy Parisian street corner and, within five minutes, a little two-person Smart Car will zip by.

Made by Mercedez-Benz, the Smart Car looks like its back half got lopped off. Smart People (i.e., those who are driving Smart Cars) "are open-minded, question the existing and live consciously,” according to the company's pro forma. Owning one suggests the driver has embraced innovation, functionality and joie de vivre. Its drivers are characterized by their attitudes, not their ages, professions or other traditional criteria.

Can we in the Capital region be so described? Maybe not all of us, but the number is growing.

And Smart Cars are popping up here. Stuart Burt of North Lansing owns one, a result of the federal Cash for Clunkers incentive program, which gave him the opportunity to dump his 1990 Chevy truck, worth maybe $500. It was getting 15 miles per a gallon of fuel. The 33-year-old traded for a $15,000 car he says looks like a shoe, a $4,500 rebate and a vehicle averaging 36 miles per gallon.

Burt describes himself as “a techno geek, fashionably inept and way over-educated.”

He enjoys the irony of delivering auto parts in a one-ton truck for his income, but driving the little Smart Car for fun.


Paris doesn’t focus just on four-wheeled transportation, either. Two-wheelers are rentable for one euro a day, or about U.S. $1.60. They’re called Velibs.

You just stop at a kiosk, swipe your credit card and hop on a bike. Ride it to the kiosk nearest your destination and park it. There are hundreds of kiosks across the city, allowing easy drop off. Paris averages 50,000 to 150,000 trips each day.

The Velib system was developed as a joint venture between the city of Paris and an outdoor advertising company, JCDecaux. The ad agency invested $140 million to set up the system and pays $5.5 million to the city per year. The city also gets the rental fees for the bikes. In return, the agency creates 1,628 billboards that it can then rent to users. The firm raked in about $120 million in 2008 from its outdoor displays.

The bicycle transit system not only offers obvious environmental benefits, but it also creates jobs. Velib employs 400 part-time employees who use sustainable principles for maintenance, including washing the bikes and kiosks with rainwater, and replacing the tires with recycled ones.

It’s no wonder the bike system is succeeding. Parisian bicycles and their riders are respected. One highway lane is reserved for them and shared with buses.

Here in the Capital region, bike friendliness is a work in progress. Lansing and East Lansing are talking about increasing bike routes and the new Complete Streets ordinance passed in Lansing may nudge the effort along.

But we’ll likely not catch up with Paris’ transportation sector anytime soon, because it has “The Metro,” a fast and efficient underground subway system. An above-ground rapid transit system is perennially discussed here in the Capital region, and this time, it may get a boost from federal recovery funds.


Meanwhile, there’s the old fashioned method of transport — by foot. Paris is walkable, particularly on sidewalks away from the broad avenues crammed with fast moving vehicles.

Its walks are wide with full tree canopies. Mixed-use buildings with shops on the ground floors and living spaces above come right up to the sidewalk edges, creating a cohesive ambience. Pocket parks, sometimes no bigger than a garage, encourage mingling. They are small oases with a bench or two, providing welcome spots for walkers to chat and recharge.

Lansing is 150 years old—just a baby compared to Paris—and the city is drafting a new master plan now. It will hopefully include more elements that shift the city’s focus from solely on cars to include other options like public transportation and walkability.

Old and New

Paris is very adept at blending its history with the modern world. It joyfully mixes the ancient with the fresh and new. For example, one of the city's newest museums, the Musee du quai Branley, sits surrounded by take-your-breath away, ornate buildings of the 16th Century and earlier. It’s a playful collection of multi-colored boxes floating above a xeriscape of reeds and 10-foot high grasses.

More mixing is obvious at the Louvre, a 16th Century structure graced with a recent but timeless glass pyramid entrance designed by I. M. Pei.

We’ll soon have or own futuristic architectural statement here. Imagine the ultra sleek, low-slung Broad Art Museum being designed by Zaha Hadid of London, playing off Michigan State University’s (MSU) boxy brick modernist halls.

Here at home, we’re still learning to respect the old while embracing the new. We can be excited about East Lansing’s new art museum while at the same time remain concerned about the uncertain future of the Michigan Historical Center, the Downtown Lansing headquarters of the now-sadly defunct Michigan Department of History, Arts and Libraries.

Consider this: France for decades has set aside one percent of its gross national product (GNP) for the arts, although the percentage is being reduced now. Furthermore, Paris has long supported its art community with subsidized housing and studio collectives.

One recipient of the city’s largesse is Judith Levy. She's a Paris artist who was preparing for a show when I encountered her in Montmartre, on Paris' north side, where she’s been working 25 years. She pays 200 euros a month for subsidized space that would cost four times more on the rental market. She teaches in a Paris studio, her salary also underwritten by the city. She helps artists until they are able to support themselves.

Known internationally for her two and three-dimensional work interpreting music on canvas and in clay, Levy says she could not do what she does without the city’s help.

I love Paris for that. While our region has the Center for the Arts that makes grants to help area art groups produce work and create new programs, the center’s funds are on a steady decline. Hopefully when the economy recovers, the arts will catch up.

I will return to Paris. After all, my love and I were only there for three days in October. And there are many more moments of the year.

Gretchen Cochran is frequent contributor to Capital Gains. She did not include the food— particularly the bread and pastries—she consumed in the city that birthed Julia Child’s career. That’s another story. 


Views of Paris and some of its sustainability efforts

(photos 2,3 & 5 courtesy Gretchen Cochran, 1 & 4 stock photography)

Signup for Email Alerts