Revolutionary Initiatives: Origins of Paris’ Underground Systems

The Sewers of Paris are filled with great history and purpose. Today they are considered the standard among nations all over the world.  Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia Creative Commons.
Modern photograph of the sewers of Paris.
Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Only feet below the busy streets of the City of Light is a parallel entity of itself extending the culture and history-rich megalopolis through an intricate labyrinth of sewers, canals, conduits and crypts. The subterranean city has origins as influential and significant as the documented events of Paris’ yesteryear. While some features, including the museum of the catacombs and the widely acclaimed sewer system, advocate much publicized excitement and curiosity, the purpose and origins of Paris’ subterranean city is more times overlooked and forgotten, than appreciated by the fast-paced citizens and tourists scurrying on the streets above. Despite its lack of recognition, the functionality and purpose of the underground maze of tunnels is an essential means of life for the Parisians above.

Haunting Paris for decades was an age-old cycle that can easily be visualized by examining an economics supply and demand graph. For each feature of the subterranean city, change was the course that followed devastation and reform. Simply, to illustrate through a relevant example, as the demand for water increased, which it did on several occasions, the supply decreased. Each hardship that the city faced called for a sort of mending, and for our sake, many of these changes included in the interests of this blog resulted in either a move to the underground or a remodeling of the already existent underground.

Thermes-de-Cluny, one of the bath houses, is the only remaining artifact relating to the existance of the ancient Gallo-Roman aqueducts. This system provided clean water to Parisians for drinking, recreation, and various other social purposes.
Thermes-de-Cluny, one of the bath houses, is the only remaining artifact relating to the existance of the ancient Gallo-Roman aqueducts. This system provided clean water to Parisians for drinking, recreation, and various other social purposes.
Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia’s Creative Commons.

The beneficial uses and resources that amounted from the underground were vastly known as early as the 9th century by Gallo-Romans who had faced the taunting cycle above. Lutetia, as Paris was once called, initially gathered its water from a variety of standard sources including “rainwater, wells, and streams” (“Paris, A Roman City”). The earliest Parisians outgrew these simple means of gathering water, and quickly demanded more water though the supply was devastatingly limited. Water became the source of recreation and social functions. The construction of the below-the-surface aqueducts was a critical turning point for the city, and the first documented underground initiatives to grace the city. These tunnels brought clean, sufficient amounts of water from the outskirts of the city into the heart of a flourishing utopia of baths and fountains that had erupted all over the city. Not only did this tunnel provide more water than the initial means could ever give, but it also led to some of the most fundamental needs addressed in today’s water influx systems – providing cool, clean water for a variety of uses (“Paris, A Roman City).

The Aqueduct: A Chanel Set Directly in the Ground
The Aqueduct: A Chanel Set Directly in the Ground

Today the waterways of Paris are often said to be the most famous in the entire world, but this is perhaps because through the ages obtaining water and providing drainage was considered an “absolute nightmare,” cultivating disease and filth in its mud puddles (Grandy 25). The solution of getting water, as proposed by the early Romans, was quickly outgrown. As the city advanced and its population continued to grow, the city again faced the sequel of depletion and demand. Getting water was vital for the livelihood of the people, but the treatment of waste water became an equally disturbing concern. While the mass drainage systems have roots in the era of monarch Philippe August, who installed drainage gutters when he initiated his street pavement movement, the sewers were primarily orchestrated by Baron Georges-Eugene Haussman between 1852-1870. This followed visions of various rulers including Napoleon Bonaparte who,  years earlier desired to “do something really great and useful for Paris” (Horne 182-183). Bonaparte, facing another state of disarray after the French Revolution of 1789, ordered that a canal, over a hundred kilometers long, be built to bring fresh water into the city from River Ourq (Grandy 24).  Baron Haussman later brought this waterway underground in addition to his sewer systems that included innovative ways of pumping, cleansing, and recycling water and waste.

As the city grew, the population increased, and water became a means of recreation and socialization, water levels again faced depletion. Any of these milestones, setbacks, or problems became the catalyst for change. The worlds’ largest system of underground conduits is found in Paris, as history foreshadowed,  and is continuously improving and advancing the city that so heavily relies on the resources and systems that manifested from below. Today, the underground of Paris serves a plethora of purposes, some that were predicted by the earliest uses and others that  are as revolutionary as the initiatives that formed the “City of Darkness.” Though grave ignorance surrounds history as a whole, it’s the forgotten Atlantis of Paris that composes the vital veins and organs of the living, thriving Paris.

To discover more about the earliest initiatives, above and below ground to modernize Paris, check out “Paris, a Roman City.”

To read more about the expanding culture and features of Paris underground city: “The Parisian Underground: Beyond the Catacombs” and “The Cataphiles: Dwellers of the Parisian Underground”

– Molly Zwiebel

Grandy, Matthew. “The Paris Sewers and the Rationalization of Urban Space.”
Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers ns 24.1 (1999):
23-44. JSTOR. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

Horne, Alistair. Seven Ages of Paris. New York: Vintage, 2004. Print.

“Paris, a Roman City.” Paris, a Roman City. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2013.

Pimpaud, Alban-Brice, Marc-Olivier Agnes, and Alban Barre. “The Aqueduct: A
Chanel Set Directly in The Ground.” Paris, a Roman City. N.p., n.d. Web. 2
Dec. 2013.

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