Project for Public Spaces identifies threats to Paris’s reputation as everyone’s favorite city.

Paris has become the world’s top travel destination for one simple reason: It is home to many of the very best places on the planet–places to walk, places to sightsee, places to experience urban charm. Many cities offer world-class museums and architecture. What sets Paris apart are the lively cafés and neighborhood squares, crooked market streets and beautiful boulevards.

But can Paris keep its stature as the world’s favorite city? Project for Public Spaces (PPS), an organization internationally recognized for its pioneering approach to evaluating and improving public spaces, released a report today identifying disturbing trends that could dislodge Paris from its number one position. For thirty years, the New York-based PPS has promoted the importance of public places around the world.

“Paris is still a delightful place to visit,” notes PPS vice-president Kathy Madden, “but we have serious concerns whether it will always remain that way.”

Paris’s legendary charm is now threatened by an onslaught of traffic. Roads along the Seine River now resemble raceways. Cars choke once-celebrated spots such as Place de la Concorde. A number of historically significant boulevards are now little more than giant parking lots.

Not only do roaring cars and trucks dominate the streets and squares, but the city’s famous sidewalks are under siege. People who want to indulge in that most Parisian of pastimes, a leisurely stroll, find themselves competing for space with parked cars, motorcycles, and scooters. Motorcycles and scooters frequently thunder along the sidewalks, striking fear into the hearts of boulevardiers.

To witness a great city such as Paris surrender itself piece by piece to the tyrannical demands of the automobile is tragic. We’ll always have Paris, but for it to retain its stature as the urban ideal to which other cities aspire, things must change. The city needs to take immediate action now to protect the kind of great public places that allow the comfortable enjoyment of life for which Paris is famous.

Another alarming development is the construction of brave new public spaces designed to win architectural prizes rather than meet the needs of the people who actually use them every day. These new places, including Parc de la Villette, Parc Andre Citroen, and the National Library, do not measure up in any way to Paris’s tradition of world-class public spaces like Luxembourg Gardens and the Hotel de Ville. This is not because we have lost the ability to create great places, but because these new public spaces were created to spotlight the reputation of “superstar” designers rather than paying attention to how these places would meet the needs of Paris’s citizens.

Fortunately, key decision makers are beginning to take steps that enhance Paris’s unique character. The current Mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, has turned the city hall plaza into a lively place for Parisians to gather all year round, hosting a variety of seasonal activities and festivals there. This summer also marks the third year in a row he has banned traffic on roads along the Seine River for Paris Plage (“Paris Beach”), a festive round of summertime activities that take over the George Pompidou Expressway for a full month.

The city’s pedestrian zone is now being expanded, and alternatives to the auto are being promoted by giving public transit vehicles preference over cars on some roadways. These steps suggest that Paris’s leaders are beginning to understand that thriving public spaces are the city’s greatest asset. If local officials take more bold actions like these throughout the city, then Paris’s reputation as the world’s most beloved city will remain secure.

Don’t miss the full report on Paris’s best (and worst) places.

Tagged with →