Modern Languages

The Cartographic Capital – Q&A with Kory Olson

This week we’re celebrating the first title in the highly anticipated Studies in Modern and Contemporary France series. We sat down with author Kory Olson to discuss Parisian migration, urban spaces and the Third Republic in his new book The Cartographic Capital.

 Celebrating The Cartographic Capital by Kory Olson as the first title in the Studies in Modern and Contemporary France series.

How did government presentations of Paris and environs change over the course of the Third Republic (1889-1934)? How did governmental policies affect this?

Initially, governments run by bourgeois politicians ignored poorer sectors of Paris and its environs. When Haussmann renovated the city, he simply ploughed through many of the slums that had occupied central districts for centuries to create wide straight boulevards. He completely transformed the Ile de la Cité, one such example, from a jumble of narrow, filthy medieval streets into a space reserved for monuments and government buildings. Of course, this “modernization” forced people who lived there out and pushed them into newly built shanty-towns, many of which were outside the city. So, maps of “Paris” in the late-nineteenth century focused on the city itself and ‘silenced” most everything else; especially sectors that did not benefit the government economically or politically.

However, demographic changes to France meant more people began moving to cities and Paris was no exception. By the turn of the century, development had pushed well beyond the city limits and government had no choice but recognize (and map) these newly-occupied spaces. By the 1920s, bourgeois suburbs and garden communities adjacent to train stations outside Paris began to appear and the politicians looked to acknowledge them. After WWI, unregulated sprawl proliferated so officials realized that they must plan the future of greater Paris region. To do so, they needed mapped representations of more and more territory and legislation in 1919 and 1932 called for those desired cartographic documents. Finally, the rise of the industrial “red” belt in many of these suburbs resulted in more socialist and radical politicians and working-class citizens gained better representation in parliament. This political power will eventually show up on maps and, as suburbs became part of the larger conversation on planning greater Paris, we can see that their improved cartographic representation mirrored their political ascent.

Which factors highlighted the need for the planning for the future of greater Paris?

The greatest factor, in my opinion, is the large influx of newcomers to Paris. As the French left small villages and farms in order to find employment in factories in large cities, including Paris, they pushed development well beyond the capital’s 1840s walled fortifications. With the construction of new, and often unregulated, housing going up, officials knew that they must act and plan not just Paris, but the greater Paris region. In addition, the science of urbanism was created at the start of the twentieth century and urbanists influenced the development of cities in the United States and Great Britain. In conjunction with these individuals, the idea that a city should create a healthy living environment for its residents gained traction and appealed to many politicians, academics, and residents. The Musée Social perhaps did the most of any organization to champion social improvements, particularly improved hygiene for all social demographics. Access to clean water, green parks, and fresh air could only happen if the government intervened.

Finally, politics plays a role too. Individual cities jealously guarded their jurisdictional power and planned primarily for their own benefit. The resulting patchwork of rules and regulations across such a dense urban space meant that adjacent communities often had different planning goals from Paris and/or each other. The creation in 1919, and again in 1932 of an overall planning region meant would provide a uniform, comprehensive, and orderly plan for the growing metropolitan area.

Henri Prost’s Carte générale de l’aménagement de la Région parisienne, 1934

Image provided courtesy of Fonds Proust, Académie d’architecture, Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine/ Archives d’architecture du XXe siècle.

How did technology affect the ways in which Parisians understood their urban spaces in the period between 1889 and 1934?

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed a significant period of technological advancement. The growth of rail and public transportation (subway, trams, buses) and the personal automobile radically changed how people understood and used urban space. One could now live in one neighbourhood and jump on the métropolitain or a tram and get to work across town or head out to the Bois de Boulogne for an afternoon fairly easily. The bourgeois car owner could quit the city and head into the country without worrying about the hassle of train schedules or crowds. As more and more people moved about Paris and the growing suburban ring, new roads were needed. Limited-access autoroutes let drivers avoid crowded side streets and cut across unfamiliar zones quickly. Planners and their maps had to acknowledge and accommodate changes in technology and how people used it. In 1919, for example, Jaussely envisioned the need for multiple airports throughout the various corners of the region plus garden communities, race tracks (for fun-loving car owners), and university campuses. Although most of these predictions do not come true, it is interesting to see what planners thought would be needed in a future, modern city.

Did you come across anything that you found to be particularly interesting or surprising whilst conducting your research?

The most surprising to me was, perhaps, the role (or lack thereof) of geography and cartography in French society in late nineteenth-century France. The French had placed less influence on science compared to their European neighbours. So, when France declared war on Prussia in 1870, many of their own officers, let alone soldiers on the battlefield, could not read a map. The aftermath of the war resulted in a large push to place the sciences of geography and cartography in front of school children. Previously, geographic textbooks contained no maps but mostly lists and required rote memorization. However, thanks to the work of Vidal de la Blache and others, generations of pupils began to see maps on classroom walls and in school book regularly and understand how they represent space. Thanks to this drive, maps discussed in this book gained a much larger readership as the Third Republic progressed.


Kory Olson is Associate Professor of French at Stockton University.

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