Paul Lesieur is PhD candidate at Gustave Eiffel University ACP laboratory. His thesis is on the management of public roads in Paris by the Préfecture de la Seine, from the mid-nineteenth century, with the appointment of Haussmann and the start of major works, to the early twentieth century and the arrival of the motor car. During this period, the challenge of ensuring good traffic flow went hand-in-hand with that of hygiene as one of the main concerns in the management of public roads, and this had a direct impact on the materiality of urban space, justifying changes to the road surface.
What is your thesis about? What are the main scientific goals?
My thesis is on the management of public roads in Paris by the Préfecture de la Seine, from the mid-nineteenth century, with the appointment of Haussmann and the start of major works, to the early twentieth century and the arrival of the motor car, but using an original approach. Rather than studying streets and avenues as a medium of daily life whose uses must be regulated, I see them as an infrastructure that is worn down by traffic and that must be constantly cared for to ensure its longevity. In this way, I adopt the point of view of the engineers of the Parisian technical services, whose number and role increased in the 19th and 20th centuries. During this period, the challenge of ensuring good traffic flow went hand-in-hand with that of hygiene as one of the main concerns in the management of public roads, and this had a direct impact on the materiality of urban space, justifying changes to the road surface
My aim is therefore to report on all the conditions necessary for the proper conservation of this infrastructure. Maintenance appears to be primarily a financial problem. However, it also requires an entire organisation to monitor the condition of the road, prevent wear and tear and repair any damage. This mobilises several hundred workers on a daily basis on the Parisian roads. Finally, maintenance requires a regular supply of materials to compensate for wear and tear, as well as reprocessing of worn materials. These exchanges make up a veritable metabolism, essential for keeping the network in good condition.
The scientific goals of this research project are threefold. For the history of transport, it aims to show the importance of studying the development of infrastructure, which necessarily runs parallel to that of mobility, but which sometimes comes into conflict with it. It is also an original approach to the history of technology, focusing on the routine nature of maintenance rather than on major inventions and constructions. This work offers a more concrete look at how societies relate to technology. Finally, this project highlights a new way of approaching urban history, by questioning what makes up its materiality and ensures its durability. It reminds us that the quest for urban resilience is not just a preoccupation of the 21st century.
What corpus of archives are you drawing on and what methods are you using?
In the mid-nineteenth century, the development of technical services was essential to the implementation of the major Haussmann projects. They were brought together under the Works Departement, which gained in staff and resources and centralised decisions on the management of technical networks. These departments included the Public Highways Department. This department was made up of the offices of the chief engineer, and territorial sections that divided the Paris territory into different zones (Figure 1). Each of the sections operated almost independently of the others, being responsible for road maintenance and the coordination of all works affecting the public space.
Fig. 1- Map of the territorial sections of the engineer and the district of the Paris drivers, 1893
I am therefore primarily interested in the archives of the technical departments responsible for managing public roads. My corpus of sources brings together the archives of the offices of the Direction des Travaux, the Service de la Voie Publique, and the engineers of each of the sections. To understand how the department operated on a regular basis, I cross-referenced instructions from the directorate with reports drawn up by the territorial sections. The engineer’s reports provide an overview of the prefect’s requests and the technical departments’ responses, giving an idea of the latter’s decision-making powers.
I have paid particular attention to the specifications, notes and registers relating to cobblestone deposits, which allow me to quantify the volumes of materials required for the maintenance of Parisian roads. Finally, by cross-referencing my corpus with the budgets of the City of Paris, it is possible to take account of the way in which funding is voted and allocated. On this point, the deliberations of bodies such as the City Council and the Conseil National des Ponts et Chaussées show that these choices are also of interest to the State, which contributes to the financing of the maintenance of Parisian public roads.
How does your work contribute to the history of Greater Paris and to urban history in general?
The Works Department is an institution that is well known to contemporary historians. It is mentioned on numerous occasions to highlight its growing importance. However, few recent studies have focused specifically on its workings, apart from the recent work of Chiara Santini. Nevertheless, the Department of Public Works played a prominent role in the government of the capital in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At a time when the needs of the city’s inhabitants were increasingly being met by technological solutions, leading to the deployment of urban networks, both underground and above ground, the technical services were given a say in prefectoral decisions (to such an extent that Adolphe Alphand, its director, was sometimes referred to as the city’s real mayor in the early days of the Third Republic). What’s more, as most of its engineers were recruited from the civil engineering corps, they occupied a unique position between the city and the State. As the capital grew and expanded, they became recognised experts in the management of road networks in general.
By delving into the inner workings of the Préfecture de la Seine, this research firstly highlights the heterogeneity of what contemporaries call the Administration. Behind this term, lie various departments, whose relationships cannot be reduced to simple subordination. The director called on the enlightened advice of his engineers, who did not hesitate to contradict him. Although they carry out the work, they are also involved in political debates.
I would also like to emphasise the need to take maintenance conditions into account when studying urban infrastructures. This is far from being reduced to a line item in the city’s budget. Maintenance involves a large number of workers, from engineers to temporary labourers. In addition, the problem of maintenance justifies, or even imposes, a large number of changes to urban space. For example, the first criterion in choosing a road surface, which has a very strong symbolic value in Paris, is usually the lowest cost of maintenance. However, this does not necessarily mean using more resistant materials. The decision has to take into account transport costs and the availability of resources.
What is your contribution to Archival City?
Within Archival City, I’m working on the Greater Paris Directory project. This involves extracting all the data contained in administrative directories. This document, intended for citizens and administrators, presents the departments and staff that make up the Préfecture de la Seine. Paris enjoys a special status. Until 1975, the capital was administered not by an elected mayor but by a prefect appointed by the national government. His remit covered the whole of the Seine department, including Paris and its inner suburbs. The quasi-annual publication of this document therefore allows regular monitoring of the organisation of Greater Paris.
At the start of my thesis, in order to gain a better understanding of the structure of the Public Highways Department and its place within the Department of Public Works, I systematically went through the administrative directories, focusing on these two departments. This work helped me considerably to find my way around the archive catalogues. The resulting database is a tremendous help in understanding the internal correspondence of the technical departments. It has enabled me to appreciate the value of this source for researchers interested in the administration of metropolitan areas.
Could you tell us about the data paper you are currently finalising?
The database I have created for my initial research (Figure 2) will soon be freely accessible. The data paper, which describes it, sets out how the directory is presented, the data that has been extracted and different ways of putting it to good use. This is only a small part of what the directory contains, but the data may already be of interest to any researcher working on the development or use of public space. In fact, the remit of public highway engineers is not limited to maintaining the road network. They are involved in all aspects of urban space.
Fig. 2- Screenshot of the database for the year 1885
The orange lines represent departments and the green lines agents. The top left-hand corner shows the source of the information and the year.
Above all, as previously stated, Archival City’s Greater Paris sub-project will shortly be putting the data needed to reconstruct the whole of the Préfecture de la Seine in open access. In these circumstances, the data paper I am currently writing acts as an introduction. It shows how the future database can be applied to a specific subject, the administration of public roads.
 Chiara Santini, Adolphe Alphand et la construction du paysage de Paris, Paris, Hermann, 2020.