Unfortunately, Paris’s thoughtful small touches are often negated by large-scale transgressions: vehicular traffic that dominates major neighborhoods; name-brand designers who seek international recognition; and the exploitation of the city’s image to compete as an international tourist destination, commercial hub, and cultural center. These trends put Paris in danger of becoming a homogeneous, “global” city similar to other cities seeking international prominence. New York, Barcelona, and London, along with Paris (as well as other “global” cities), are all competing at this larger scale, risking the slow but steady erosion of their local character as a result.

We hope that Paris corrects its large-scale transgressions and turns to its diverse neighborhoods for direction.

When places are designed using the typical top-down, project-driven process, bland similarity is one of the unfortunate consequences. The alternative approach begins at the neighborhood scale by involving local residents in the decision-making process and programming public spaces in a way that fosters local entrepreneurship (with a market or vending program, for instance). Such a community-driven design process frees a city from the homogenizing effect of plans imposed from above, allowing it to grow organically, place by place, neighborhood by neighborhood. We hope that Paris corrects its large-scale transgressions and turns to its diverse neighborhoods for direction. We think that this is the only way forward if Paris is to remain truly dynamic and vital in the world arena.

Fortunately, key decision makers seem to have acknowledged, and responded to, the need to change direction. The current Mayor of Paris has instituted some very progressive activities on the “front porch” of city hall, and has closed traffic on the roads along the Seine for the summer event “Paris Plage.” The bus system has been greatly improved, with new maps at bus shelters that identify special destinations along the route. Preference is given to public transit on some roadways; space has been reclaimed for pedestrians in certain areas; and the city council is now considering a proposal to ban SUVs. These steps suggest that City Hall understands that public spaces are first and foremost for sociable, human use. If decision-makers apply this understanding consistently and well, beginning at the smallest scale, it will build cumulatively to a better city.

Paris Plage: An extraordinary example of what Paris could become.

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