On the waterfront in New York and Paris, an interplay of politics and housing

by Yonah Freemark, Doctoral Candidate
Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Large urban development projects offer cities the opportunity to remake key neighborhoods, replacing defunct or underutilized zones with new buildings and activities. Many scholars point to the economic forces that encourage certain types of programs that support global competitiveness and attract investment (Storper, 2016; Swyngedouw et al., 2002); others emphasize that the political-institutional environment, which has decentralized land-use powers but not control over the economy, makes cities focus on tax generation and economic growth (Brenner, 2004; Peterson, 1981). Given these limitations, much of the literature dismisses the ability of cities to engage in urbanism that achieves redistributive outcomes.

The Roosevelt Island aerial tram connects the socially mixed island with the center of Midtown Manhattan. Photo by Yonah Freemark.

The Roosevelt Island aerial tram connects the socially mixed island with the center of Midtown Manhattan. Photo by Yonah Freemark.

In my comparative research, however, I argue that these economic and political constraints, while important, are only part of the story. City governments retain a relatively large range of potential interventions when it comes to development plans. And the choices officials make about major projects—who they are designed to house, what jobs they are designed to attract, how they are integrated into surrounding communities—offer insight into what they prioritize. In particular, the ideological perspectives of public actors help explain whether cities become increasingly oriented toward the wealthy, or are designed to increase social equity. These approaches change over time to reflect different goals.

Consider the programming of two sets of large development projects in New York and Paris, offset by almost 50 years.

In the early 1970s, both cities commenced construction on enormous waterfront projects. New York’s Roosevelt Island, undertaken by the state Urban Development Corporation, was to include 5,000 housing units on a site in the middle of the East River, just across from the city’s Midtown central business district (Freemark, 2011). Paris’ Front-de-Seine, undertaken by the French national government, would include 3,179 units on that city’s river, just a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower.

Those similarities aside, the two projects articulated very different views about who new urban developments should be designed for. At Roosevelt Island, 55 percent of units would be dedicated to moderate- or low-income families and an additional 20 percent for middle-income families; planners produced renderings of the future project showing such quotidian programs as community rooms, a supermarket, and small-scale, storefront retail (Freemark, 2013; Margolies, 1969). 

At Front-de-Seine, on the other hand, 80 percent of units would be reserved for households able to afford market-rate rents—who would then be able to have easy access to the luxury shopping mall being constructed next door. Noted critic Michel Ragon in 1976, “Paris is becoming a bourgeois city… you only have to examine the buildings at the edge of the Seine… the majority of people who live in those buildings work for embassies, large multinationals” (Pradinaud, 1976).

Half a century later, the two cities have exchanged their outlook on how development should work.

New York City's High Line, in the foreground, and Hudson Yards, under construction in this photo, are symbols of the city's recent focus on the wealthy. Photo by Yonah Freemark.

New York City's High Line, in the foreground, and Hudson Yards, under construction in this photo, are symbols of the city's recent focus on the wealthy. Photo by Yonah Freemark.

New York’s most prominent development project—Hudson Yards, above the tracks west of Penn Station—is a “gilded city” with only 10 percent of its on-site residences reserved for low-income families and its retail spaces stocked with such brands as Neiman Marcus, Cartier, and Tiffany (Davidson, 2019; Kimmelman, 2019). On the other hand, at Paris’ huge Rive Gauche project, which is steadily filling in the blocks surrounding the national library, themselves above the tracks leading to Austerlitz Station, half of all units are reserved for publicly subsidized social housing (Freemark, 2019).

How can we explain why Parisian development transformed from prioritizing the wealthy to supporting people with a wide range of incomes, whereas New York development moved in the opposite direction? Both cities experienced land-use decentralization, with power over planning transferred from higher-level governments (the state in New York and the national government in Paris) to the cities. And both were subject to the same globalized forces of financialization and deindustrialization that have increased the importance of major cities (Sassen, 1991). 

What has differentiated the course of the two cities is an increasing political interest in growth in New York, on the one hand, and social equity in Paris, on the other. Roosevelt Island’s principal planner, Edward Logue, argued that new low- and middle-income housing was “the single most important element” of urban renewal projects (quoted in Freemark, 2011: 362). For New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg 40 years later, Hudson Yards was “the single most important economic project that this city has undertaken in decades” (Bagli, 2008).

Front-de-Seine is a series of glass-and-steel towers meant to target the city's elite in the 1970s. Photo by Yonah Freemark.

Front-de-Seine is a series of glass-and-steel towers meant to target the city's elite in the 1970s. Photo by Yonah Freemark.

In 1970s Paris, planners working for a national government argued that developments needed to be orchestrated around “the necessity of maintaining in France a pole of attractivity for the headquarters of major multinational companies” (APUR, 1970: 6). Yet by the 2000s, city officials promoted major reductions in the Rive Gauche project’s office space, filling the gap with more low-income housing, schools, and parks (Freemark, 2019).

Political transitions in both cities are key to explaining these shifts. Planning in New York, for a time master-minded by liberal-Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller and state development czar Logue, was increasingly devolved to the city. Billionaire Mayor Bloomberg claimed it would be a “godsend” to increase the number of wealthy people in the city (Colvin, 2013)—and the projects built during his administration suggest he was altogether serious about making that happen. If Hudson Yards is one example of that trend, so is the “Billionaire’s Row” of super-tall, super-luxurious towers that have sprouted along Manhattan’s 57th Street (Greenspan, 2017; Peçanha, 2019).

Planning in Paris, on the other hand, transitioned from a right-wing national government to a left-wing city council that has focused on increasing the city’s social-housing share. Paris Rive Gauche is just one among several new projects that devote visible—and otherwise very marketable—urban space to a mix of incomes weighted toward lower-wealth families (Freemark, 2019).

If these cases teach us anything, it is that the ideological perspectives of city government leaders are not only rhetorically interesting, but also influential in directing the direction of development. Voters’ political decisions about who to place in charge play an essential role in determining whether our cities become more equitable—or more focused on the needs of the wealthy.

You can read more about Yonah Freemark. You can also connect with him on Twitter at @yfreemark.


Atelier parisien de l’urbanisme (APUR) (1970). Paris Projet 2. Paris.

Charles V. Bagli (2008). “West Side Redevelopment Plans in Disarray.The New York Times. April 14.

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Jill Colvin (2013). “Mayor Bloomberg Wants City to Have Every Billionaire.” New York Observer. September 20.

Justin Davidson (2019). “I Have a Feeling We’re Not in New York Anymore. Hudson Yards is a billionaire’s fantasy city and you never have to leave—provided you can pay for it.” New York. February 18.

Yonah Freemark (2011). “Roosevelt Island: Exception to a City in Crisis.” Journal of Urban History 37(3). 355-383. DOI: 10.1177/0096144211400378

Yonah Freemark (2013). The entrepreneurial state : New York's Urban Development Corporation, an experiment to take charge of affordable housing production, 1968-1975. Master’s thesis at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

 Yonah Freemark (2019). “Metropolis on the Water: Varieties of development logics along the Seine.” Projections. In production.

Elizabeth Greenspan (2017). “Zoning New York’s Supertalls.” Architect. January 12.

Michael Kimmelman (2019). “Hudson Yards is Manhattan’s Biggest, Newest, Slickest Gated Community. Is This the Neighborhood New York Deserves?” The New York Times. March 14. 

John S. Margolies (1969). “New Town for New York City.” Architectural Forum. October. 40-45.

Sergio Peçanha (2019). “How New York’s Skyline Is Changing to Give the Wealthy a Better View.The New York Times. June 14.

Paul Peterson (1981). City Limits. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bernard Pradinaud (1976). “Dossier immobilier.” Antenne 2. November 13. Available on the site of the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel. Translation by Yonah Freemark.

Saskia Sassen (1991). The Global City—New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Michael Stoper (2016). “The Neo-liberal City as Idea and Reality.” Territory, Politics, Governance 4(2). 241-263. DOI: 10.1080/21622671.2016.1158662.

 Erik Swyngedouw, Frank Moulaert, and Arantxa Rodriguez (2002). “Neoliberal Urbanization in Europe: Large-Scale Urban Development Projects and the New Urban Policy.” Antipode 34(3). 542-577. DOI: 10.1111/1467-8330.00254.