GREAT PUBLIC SPACES
The real marvel of Luxembourg Gardens is the extensive variety of ways you can use the park and how these uses complement (or triangulate with) other activities. Kids can take a pony ride, ride a carousel, see a puppet show, or cavort in the playground while adults can converse, observe, drink coffee, or play chess.
We think it is one of the three best parks in the world and if asked to choose the best, we would probably rank it number one. We are enthralled by its seeming ability to self-manage. Each management activity is done independently. Police/security is separate from the garden department, which is separate from the concession department. And the special exhibits seem to be done by a separate group as well. Put it all together, and a magnificent whole emerges that is unparalleled. Every time you visit you come away in awe of some new activity or feature.
An honest indicator of a great space is when you can take a truly unbelievable photograph. This happens to us almost every time we are in Luxembourg Gardens, in every season. On one of our last visits, on a warm day in late May, it was bare feet. Seeing people take off their shoes wonderfully demonstrated the level of comfort they felt using the park.
Despite all its charm, Luxembourg Gardens also embodies the Paris of contrasts. While the “inner park” is spectacular, two sides of the “outer park” are fast roadways, almost like racetracks where the park user–lulled into a peaceful calm–is bombarded by aggressive vehicles upon leaving the park. The traffic dulls secondary uses along the adjacent roadways –- a shame because the right activities in the outer park could effectively integrate the inner park with the buildings that overlook it.
The Jardin des Tuileries is in many ways a sister park to Luxembourg Gardens. It has many of the same qualities: major focal points, activities for children, and cafés for everyone.
Unlike Luxembourg Gardens, the Jardin des Tuileries is located between two major tourist destinations (The Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe), and functions mostly as a park for people to stroll through. As they pass from one place to another they also stop to partake in some of the many offerings along the way. The sailboat pond is a big attraction right on the main path that slows the steady flow of “flâneurs.” Nearby are smaller pools of water, sculptures, small cafes, a carousel and plenty of seating. Further from the main flow are large areas that occasionally host events. These areas seem to be perfect settings for fashion shows and other very Parisian activities.
We caution that as a public space, the park should adhere to a public viewing or participation standard for its events. New York’s Bryant Park is on our “Hall of Shame” because it allows exclusive, invitation-only events to take over the entire center of the park. On our recent trips to the Jardin des Tuileries, a large tent structure along the north side of the park has become a setting for similar events. This large area could easily provide a venue for large public exhibitions, events, and playing fields which are sorely lacking in the rest of Paris.
The only drawback to the Jardin des Tuileries is its isolation from nearby places. Once you are there, it is wonderful, but getting there is often a real challenge. Three of the main obstacles are the Place de la Concorde, Quai des Tuileries, and the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. The Jardin itself is a world class treasure, but its connections to the rest of the area are deficient.
Palais Royal is a refuge from the surrounding city, a place for those seeking calm and peacefulness. Some of our best images of children and seniors relaxing in comfort are from this place. One of our favorite pictures depicts a septuagenarian couple hugging with his hand on her knee. The way we see it, this is the highest form of praise for a public space.
This park, actually a giant courtyard, exemplifies the concept of the inner park and the outer park, which emphasizes the importance of edge uses (or the “outer park”) to the success of a park or square. Palais Royal is surrounded by an arcade filled with small stores and restaurants. There are no major streets around it; the next ring of streets beyond the arcade are small and comfortable to walk along.
Its variety of amenities, while seemingly limited, creates a setting ripe for improvisation. For example, many children use the northern part of the park, but amazingly the only thing for them to play with is a sand box. Yet the kids improvise and make their experience much richer than one could ever imagine.
On the southern edge of the park sits a large sculpture area comprised of 280 closely-placed black and white columns of varying height. Although it takes up too much space, it nevertheless has great appeal to those who venture there. Children in particular seem to delight in experimenting with the variety of uses for the different columns.
Place des Vosges is another enclosed park surrounded by magnificent rows of arcaded Georgian buildings. It is one of the most comfortable open spaces anywhere. As you approach the park, it remains out of view. Upon seeing it, the park fulfills your every expectation. It is an uncomplicated design, which we think is its best asset. A simple fountain anchors each quadrant; seating is spaced evenly; two simple sandboxes are provided for children; and some trees provide shade. It doesn’t seem like much, but it is incredibly well-used.
Though it is a formal park, it allows informal use. You can be truly surprised when on a very hot June day, you enter the park to find the grass full of people spread out in relaxation and comfort. Most cities don’t want people on their grass, or sometimes even in their parks–not Paris.
Other Great Parks
We will review other parks that deserve to be on this list in the near future. Any thoughts would be welcome. They include:
- Parc Monceau
- Parc des Buttes-Chaumont
- Bois de Vincennes
- Bois de Boulogne
BETTER THAN AVERAGE PARKS
The Seine Riverfront (below the roads)
The areas below the roads that run along the Seine are spotty, but some good places do stand out. From Notre Dame to Jardins des Plantes, there is a marvelous example of a riverfront park. It could be enhanced, but only modestly, with additional activity, exhibits, small festivals, and boat-related uses. It is a favorite hangout for couples and should retain its calm, which draws many people who come to contemplate the flowing water.
Jardin des Plantes
This 74 acre botanical garden is also home to a zoo and a natural history museum. The botanical garden itself is not outstanding, but the neighboring institutions provide a sort of critical mass that generates more use than the garden would on its own. Together, these attractions form a major destination that brings significant benefits to the surrounding neighborhood.
Parc de Bercy
Early in March 2004, we spent a good part of a Sunday afternoon in one of Paris’s newest parks, Parc de Bercy, a quite contemporary park in a fairly isolated part of Paris. We were impressed by the large number of people using the park, something we did not find at Parc Citroen or Parc de la Villette. But while the overall use of the park was quite heavy, when we observed the activity more closely we found many reasons for concern. In well-used parks such as the Jardin des Tuileries, sections of the grid work well because they are open and anchored by active attractions, such as playgrounds or water features. By contrast, the grid in the center of Bercy is separated into “rooms” which receive only modest use. Consequently, the rooms divide the park into sections rather than link it together. If the rooms were more open, and traversed by paths featuring focal points and activities, the entire park would hold together far more effectively and receive even more use.
HALL OF SHAME
Parc de la Villette is only a design. It is not intended for natural, comfortable human interaction: Each activity is sequestered in its own space with little opportunity to triangulate. How did this happen? Is it the designer’s naïveté or a simple lack of interest in making places people can use? Is it not the responsibility of the park designer to plan for the user… to create that wonderful setting where people can gather naturally and be comfortable? As William H. Whyte wrote: “It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.”
This park exemplifies what happens when places are designed with aloofness and “neat, clean, and empty” becomes the design statement. A number of times in both winter and summer, we have compared use in four parks — Citröen, Luxembourg Gardens, Tuileries, and La Villette — all on the same day. We were struck by the enormous difference in use. Luxembourg Gardens and the Tuileries were full, even bursting with activity, while La Villette and Citröen were empty or barely used. What is also interesting is that many people told us to see the great new parks of Paris… La Villette and Citröen. They were all designers. No one not trained in design has ever told us that we should see them.
We are heartbroken when we see Parc André Citröen. It is located on a crucial waterfront site, yet it completely fails the surrounding residential neighborhood. We visited the park in different seasons to see how it is used, tallying five visits in total. On each occasion, we found it so indifferent to users’ needs that we disliked spending any amount of time there.
The one feature that generates any sustained activity–an array of fountains spurting from a flat, paved surface–has a sign warning children not to play there. The sign is a fitting embodiment of the park’s overriding message: “Look, but don’t touch.”
The entire periphery of the park is a series of fussy little design vignettes that fail to accommodate people’s normal uses, such as sitting in groups, touching water, or even just watching other people. Various theme gardens, follies, and grade-separated paths restrict the user experience to one monotonous act–looking at objects.
It is very troubling to measure any part of Parc André Citröen against similar parks. The entrances, playgrounds, seating, and activity areas are complete failures compared to Paris’s better parks. Two of its features have some potential — the major water feature and the lawn — but currently they lack even the most basic supporting amenities, such as seating or picnic tables.
We never suggest that a park be torn up and redone, but we make an exception for this one. We are sure that this park is enormously expensive to maintain. In the long-run, replacing its fussiness in favor of simpler, usable spaces would be a cost-effective way to turn Parc André Citröen into the urban oasis it ought to be.
Erosion of Small Neighborhood Spaces
The small park spaces that are so vital to each neighborhood are in many ways the most valuable, because local residents use them on a daily basis. But many of these spaces are changing, piece by piece, for the worse. At Place Maubert, for instance, one of its three benches was removed to make way for a shortcut between two adjacent roadways (see before and after, right).
This seemingly little decision–to move a bit of traffic from Quai de la Tournelle, along the Seine, to Boulevard Saint Germain–is a subtle erosion of micro-communities, restricting people’s freedom to gather where they wish at this key location. It represents a pattern that Paris cannot sustain in the long term if it wishes to preserve its fabled neighborhoods.