Paris: What People Want

As an urbanist, writing about Paris is both delectable and daunting. Tempering that is the fact that we visited in June, when the strain to both infrastructure and pricing makes my memories of past trips look more lovable. Still, the timelessness of the City, as shown so compellingly in this 1914 to 2013 series of comparisons, is still delightful and satisfying.

You say the word “Paris” and anyone who’s ever been there immediately has some good memory to share. The grandeur of its urbanism and romance of its streets is without peer. However, the city seems to be bulging at the seams.

Last month’s Financial Times points out that only the wealthiest 1% of the population can afford to live, work, or even play there. With all transportation services nearing their limits and price points in the stratosphere, it seems clear that sprawl repair and suburban retrofits of its unloved outskirts would provide significant returns.

If Paris is what people want, why not make more of it? I don’t mean the current skyscraper proposals, or another Louvre, or all the other irreplaceable institutions, but rather more of the character of the old urbanism and streets. As many have done before me, the first step in enabling great places is to look carefully at the most satisfying local DNA, and enable it elsewhere, by right.

Place des Vosges

Know that feeling when you step into a place that makes you immediately relaxed and happy? Place des Vosges is such a place for me. Intimate and engaged at once, it is a gathering place extraordinaire.

“To work our way toward a shared and living language once again, we must first learn how to discover patterns which are deep, and capable of generating life.” ~Christopher Alexander, from The Timeless Way of Building

Formal allées of trees on all four sides of the 460’ square provide shade and seating.

Formal allées of trees on all four sides of the 460’ square provide shade and seating.

Place des Vosges, built by Henri IV in 1612, became the prototype for European residential squares.

Place des Vosges, built by Henri IV in 1612, became the prototype for European residential squares.

A central monument amid an informal planting of trees provide a central focus.

A monument amid an informal planting of trees provide a central focus.

Five-story streetwalls provide predominately residential, with some first floor restaurants and hotel.

Five-story streetwalls are predominately residential, with some first floor restaurants and hotel.

Identical fountains on the four corners were popular gathering places for all ages.

Identical fountains on the four corners are popular gathering places for all ages.

Grassy lawns round out the satisfying mixture of lingering places.

Grassy lawns round out the satisfying mixture of lingering places.

Rue Rambuteau leads to the north edge of the square, providing an interesting mix of local and international retail.

Rue Rambuteau leads to the north edge of the square, providing an interesting mix of local and international retail.

Western edge of Place des Vosges in afternoon light.

Western edge of Place des Vosges in afternoon light.

The Louvre: Rain or Shine

Going from the general urban of Place des Vosges to the urban core of The Louvre provides a stark contrast. At almost 9 million visitors a year to the museum alone shows a global commitment to France’s cultural holdings.

Rain or shine, the public spaces around the Louvre are filled with people. Is it the enclosure, the architecture, the careful detailing, the exceptional cuisine, or the wealth of art and culture inside the walls?

Rain or shine, the public spaces around the Louvre are filled with people. Is it the enclosure, the architecture, the careful detailing, the exceptional cuisine, or the wealth of art and culture inside the walls?

The Mona Lisa experience is something of an homage. An inexplicable desire to see a painting behind layers of bulletproof glass in the most travelled gallery on earth – in much less detail than the 89 MB version online – will remain as mysterious as her smile.

The Mona Lisa experience is something of an homage. An inexplicable desire to see a painting behind layers of bulletproof glass in the most travelled gallery on earth – in much less detail than the 89 MB version online – will remain as mysterious as her smile.

The respectful mixing of traditional and modern architecture enlivens the public space, drawing people around the clock.

The respectful mixing of traditional and modern architecture enlivens the public space, drawing people around the clock.

Much more than the Mona Lisa that draws people to The Louvre. The scale of the art and culture is without peer. And so is the scale of the urbanism.

Much more than the Mona Lisa that draws people to The Louvre. The scale of the art and culture is without peer. And so is the scale of the urbanism.

Centre Georges Pompidou

The subject of Renzo Piano’s architectural design is a bigger subject than I’m prepared to tackle, but a few observations on how the public spaces are holding up since its opening in 1977. At over 5 million visitors a year, they’re clearly doing something right.

The plaza slopes downward to the entry, making a social statement on the reversal of museums from a pastime of the elite to the realm of the people. However, the design of the plaza seems to have forgotten about the people in the process. With little relief for the beating sun with little seating or shade, it becomes a space to pass through.

The plaza slopes downward to the entry, making a social statement on the reversal of museums from a pastime of the elite to the realm of the people. However, the design of the plaza seems to have forgotten about the people in the process. With little relief from the beating sun with neither seating nor shade, it becomes a space to pass through.

Despite the grand views of Paris from the Pompidou walkways, I couldn’t stop feeling like a hamster in a cage. The beating sun and lack of ventilation further complicated the sensation.

Despite the grand views of Paris from the Pompidou walkways, I couldn’t stop feeling like a hamster in a cage. The hot sun and lack of ventilation further complicated the sensation.

Place de la République

Heralded as a return of an auto-centric roundabout into a place for the people, Place de la République reopened in June with much fanfare. Mayor Bertrand Delanoë clearly likes the grand scale, both for the plaza as well as his proposed skyscrapers.

Paris has pledged to remove 1 million parking spaces by 2030, or 50,000 per year. At this approach to the Place de la République, that promise is in action.

Paris has pledged to remove 1 million parking spaces by 2030, or 50,000 per year. At this approach to the Place de la République, that promise is in action.

Everything in abundance, including pavers.

Everything in abundance, including pavers.

The plaza itself is a pedestrian environment, but it is somewhat challenging to access. The good thing is that one third of Paris streets are limited to 30 km/h (20 mph), so the lack of onstreet parking is somewhat navigable.

The plaza itself is a pedestrian environment, but it is somewhat challenging to access. The good thing is that one third of Paris streets are limited to 30 km/h (20 mph), so the lack of onstreet parking is relatively navigable.

Parks and Bikes

The Paris urban horticulturist and cycling planner never cease to deliver.

Promenade Plantée, a precursor to New York's High Line, opened in 1993.

Promenade Plantée, a precursor to New York’s High Line, opened in 1993.

A restful elevated park on 3 miles of an obsolete railway.

A restful elevated park on 3 miles of an obsolete railway.

Paris has a similar cyclist network approach to Berlin, but without the wide rumblestrips to keep the cyclists in line! However, their bike-sharing is the most comprehensive on earth.

Paris has a similar cyclist network approach to Berlin, but without the wide rumblestrips to keep the cyclists in line! However, their bike-sharing is the most comprehensive on earth.

A curb buffer and spacing keeps cyclists out of the “door zone” as well as away from moving cars.

A curb buffer and spacing keeps cyclists out of the “door zone” as well as away from moving cars.

A more conventional approach to buffered cycling lanes is seen on streets that can afford to go on a diet.

A more conventional approach to buffered cycling lanes is seen on streets that can afford to go on a diet.

Retail

I’d be remiss to talk about Paris without at least a glance at retail. The US has 20 SF of retail per person. That’s massive in comparison to other countries; the next closest are Sweden at 3.3 and the UK at 2.5 SF of retail per person. I’m not sure what the number is for France, but they make every SF count.

This exquisite little chocolate and ice cream shop isn’t even big enough to go inside. This exquisite little chocolate and ice cream shop isn’t even big enough to go inside.

When the urbanism is this good, even the multinationals behave themselves. When the urbanism is this good, even the multinationals behave themselves.

Back to the ‘Burbs

So if we want to take some of Paris’ great lessons and apply them at home or elsewhere, there are a number of resources available, like the Sprawl Repair Manual, TED Talks on Retrofitting Suburbia, Strip Mall v. Boulevard, Sprawl Repair Webinar, and a few more coming up on PlaceMaking@Work. And of course, I’d personally recommend reversing auto-centric laws to replace with walkable land use.

However, more than anything, walkable places require commitment, resources, and time. You might even argue they take passion, vision, and hope.

“Next, several acts of building, each one done to repair and magnify the product of the previous acts, will slowly generate a larger and more complex whole than any single act can generate.” ~Christopher Alexander, from The Timeless Way of Building

Hazel Borys

If PlaceShakers is our soapbox, our Facebook page is where we step down, grab a drink and enjoy a little conversation. Looking for a heads-up on the latest community-building news and perspective from around the web? Click through and “Like” us and we’ll keep you in the loop.

Comments

  1. Let me mention Le Plessis-Robinson, a suburb of Paris where recent developments have created a character similar to Paris. For pictures and description, see

    http://www.planetizen.com/node/57600

    http://preservenet.blogspot.com/2012/07/le-plessis-robinson.html

  2. Al Rutledge while on faculty at the University of Illinois developed a theory that great public places provide opportunities for display and watching behavior. As I look at the pictures I recall this theory, and note how successful these places are at allowing people to display themselves through activities broad as walking, skateboarding, etc. While also providing safe feeling places to watch the people on display. It may seem like a overly simplified design principal, but I have found that successful public places provide ample opportunity for display and viewing.

  3. Great report, Hazel! I have not been in Paris since 1985, so it’s nice to see it again through your visitor’s eyes. The area around the Mona Lisa looked exactly the same back then, a mob scene…

  4. Don’t forget the remarkable story of Paris’s sudden citywide bus lane network: http://www.humantransit.org/2010/07/paris-the-street-is-ours.html

  5. Also, are you sure these numbers are right? “Paris has pledged to remove 1 million parking spaces by 2030, or 50,000 per year”

    I have trouble believing Paris (city proper) has 1m parking spaces.

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Trackbacks

  1. [...] As an urbanist, writing about Paris is both delectable and daunting. Tempering that is the fact that we visited in June, when the strain to both infrastructure and pricing makes my memories of past trips look more lovable. Still, the timelessness of the City, as shown so compellingly in this 1914 to 2013 series of comparisons, is still delightful and satisfying. You say the word “Paris” and anyone who’s ever been there immediately has some good memory to share. The grandeur of its urbanism and romance of its streets is without peer. However, the city seems to be bulging at the seams. Last month’s Financial Times points out that only the wealthiest 1% of the population can afford to live, work, or even play there. With all transportation services nearing their limits and price points in the stratosphere, it seems clear that sprawl repair and suburban retrofits of its unloved outskirts would provide significant returns.  [...]

  2. [...] people would be willing to spend the same on less housing  (size, quality, etc) if it were in a walkable, pleasant environment.  This doesn’t include the savings these folks will see in transportation [...]

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