Drains of Paris … and tales from underground

Paris – a city of civilisation, food and wine,  the Folies Bergère, Arc de Triomphe, Musée du Louvre and Mona Lisa, the Avenue des ChampsÉlysées, not to mention the bridges of Paris down by the Seine – a wealth of cultural experiences in an urban landscape.

A lot of interesting urban geography is subterranean however. How about the Parisian drainage system?

Revisiting Paris recently I was reminded of the engineering ingenuity of the city’s drainage system, and especially its street cleansing system. This is a tried-and-tested cleverly simple approach to keeping footpaths and streets clean—where water is manually turned on from various kerb-side valves to flow along the gutters. My attention is always drawn to the pieces of rolled carpet which are strategically placed to direct the water one way or the other, mostly downslope into the foul water/rainwater grates and drains and ultimately into the sewers where it flows for treatment before entering the Seine.


Early in the morning men in bright green overalls with long-handled brushes sweep the water and street rubbish into the gutters where it’s washed downslope into drain grids.   It is described in a very good blog as ‘another manifestation of the enlightened engineering, design, and vision that make Paris civilized.’ When each street section or block has been flushed and swept clear the valves are shut until next day, and so it proceeds section by section until clear.

The clever thing about the Parisian drainage system is that it was part of the enlightened modernistion of the city’s infrastructure in the mid-nineteenth century by Baron Georges-Eugene Hausssmann. He is most famous for clearing much of the medieval clutter of streets in Paris and replacing them with grand boulevards and innovative architecture (during which, coincidentally, thousands of poor citizens were displaced causing huge social upheaval which no doubt found expression in uprisings in 1870).  But he also paid attention to upgrading and improving the city’s drainage, especially building a network of efficient sewers under the supervision of a far-sighted engineeer called Eugene Belgrand. In spite of those sunny paintings of the Seine in early nineteenth century, it was a fairly smelly stinking waterway, like most large city rivers at the time, including the Liffey. Belgrand built new and commodious sewers underneath the newly planned streets and footpaths. The underground tunnels were designed not only to carry off the waste of the city but also as conduits for piping the city’s water supply and later for gas and electricty. By 1860 these new sewers had become a tourist attraction so much so that they were equipped with boats and mechanized carts for the tourists. Today, you can take the Paris Sewer Tour which lets you explore part of the sewers of the city.  You can enjoy the bowels of Paris at Musée Égouts – though it is probably inadvisable to bring a packed lunch.

Most urban water supplies are a costly resource, which has been expensively filtered and treated for human consumption – as we know too well in Ireland where a lot of it is lost through leakage as well. However most of a city’s water is not used for human consumption at all – it is used for washing things, for street cleaning, for fire-fighting, watering plants and parks, for industrial and commercial uses where treated water is unnecessary. Paris is unique in having separately piped waters installed by Eugene Belgrand through its underground drains: first there is drinking water for domestic uses – and the water from Parisian taps is sweet water unlike some Irish water smelling of disinfectant when it comes out of the pipes. Then there is the water for street cleaning and washing, which is untreated and carried in separate pipes attached to the roofs of the sewers and released into the gutters each night for street cleaning.  Mobile power washers also use this untreated water for hosing down the footpaths and street surfaces.

It is interesting to reflect on this subterranean expression of urban landscape order – and the degree to which the towns and cities of Ireland, for example, have an invisible network supporting their surface buildings  – an infrastructure of drains, pipes and cables which like the arteries in the body help the urban areas function as economic and material entities.  Up to the middle of the nineteenth century in most Irish towns and cities, water was supplied either by local wells and handpumps, or streams and canals.  Indeed Dublin’s urban landscape, like other cities, has dozens of small rivers and streams which are now invisible, having been built over and culverted as the city developed and expanded.[1]  Refuse was dumped in streets and surrounding perimeter ditches for collection by scavengers (ie people who collected the rubbish in carts).  Most Irish towns held livestock markets and fairs in their streets which meant that streets and gutters were engulfed in animal dung and urine. In Clonmel for example: ‘Pig fairs were held on the Mall and the pigs were noted for their habit of rooting up the street surface, much to the annoyance of some inhabitants.’[2]  In many towns and cities animals were slaughtered in public in the street or the shambles with resultant effluent/offal washing off the streets and drains into nearby streams. Consequently water was frequently polluted and dangerous to drink.  Beer brewed in small local breweries was the safest way to drink!  For this reason, no doubt, Maynooth College in the nineteenth century had its own brewery and students were allowed a pint of beer with their dinner.


At the same time that Haussmann was busy with the streets and sewers of Paris, a more universal discourse of municipal improvement, as well as anxieties about health and sanitary conditions, not to mention rising [Victorian] sensitivities about public taste and morality, were spreading throughout Ireland and England.  All of this led to a gradual legislative and engineering improvement in urban infrastructure – installation of drainage and culverting, paving and cobbling of streets, drainage of waste water from roof gutters and streets, and ‘foul water’ from the households and water closets of the well-to-do. As wells became polluted, water was piped from nearby lakes or streams.

In this way, draining water off the hard surfaces of cities and towns, and piping water into their buildings has always been a challenge to human  ingenuity. Drainage in rural areas is important in a different way – in rainy moist Ireland it was designed to direct water off the earth’s surface to enhance its use for agriculture. The past several hundred years has been a long story of inserting drainage networks in the rural landscape connecting field drains with minor streams and rivers. On days of heavy rain in Mayo you can hear the landscape respond, the sounds of running water flowing through field drains and rivers: another but different reflecion of humanity’s ingenuity in controlling its watery environment.

Patrick Duffy


[1] see The Rivers of Dublin by Clair L Sweeney (Dublin Corporation 1991).

[2] Sean O’Donnell, Clonmel 1840-1900: anatomy of an Irish town (Dublin, 1998), p. 78. The problem of animal manure which was a public nuisance in all country towns was exacerbated in Clonmel by Bianconi’s horses in the 1820s and 30s.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: