GREAT PUBLIC SPACES
This street is a place where tourists and residents converge. It’s not long, but is packed with wonderful uses. The produce stands and flower stalls, along with the cafés, stores, and restaurants, make this agglomeration of activity as intense as any we have seen outside of the bazaars and souks of the Middle East and Asia. There’s always a lot of passion on display as the street merchants, performers, and even pedestrians compete aggressively for attention.
We once witnessed a small elderly woman with two canes tottering carefully down this wonderful street. Her face was full of determination. It was clearly not easy, but she was comfortable in her surroundings nonetheless. Most streets aren’t good for the elderly, but Rue Montorgueil was good for this woman. Without the constant threat of vehicles to deter her, she felt at ease venturing onto this public thoroughfare by herself. Few other urban streets provide the elderly with such security.
But Rue Montorgueil is a lot more than just a pedestrian street. Over time, it has accreted uses that complement each other, forming an urban ecosystem of commerce, social gatherings, and street performances.
Rue Mouffetard is the gold standard for commercial streets. Its central purpose is not the movement of traffic, but to serve as a neighborhood marketplace. There are no cars during the active parts of the day, and its merchants have elevated street displays to an art form. But the true thrill is watching people as they engage in the ritual of shopping for their daily needs. Look closely and you’ll see how many of the customers stay loyal to their familiar vendors, yet also engage in frequent chance encounters. It is a world unto itself, street theater at its best.
Rue des Rosiers has been the main artery of Paris’s Jewish quarter since the Middle Ages. Shops housed in 17th century buildings promote themselves in Yiddish and Hebrew, and you’ll find excellent kosher foods and specialty items behind their windows. The sense of history and tradition is palpable, but there is also a tension between the area’s cultural heritage and the encroachment of trendy commercial ventures.
One end of the street is now home to chic boutiques like those that have sprouted up all over Le Marais (the larger historic district where Rue des Rosiers is located). But the area has survived far worse threats in the past, and there is every reason to believe it will remain a vital ethnic enclave. The area’s longtime Ashkenazi residents, refugees from 19th century pogroms in Eastern Europe, now share the street with Sephardic Jews, more recent immigrants from North Africa. This population shift is an encouraging reminder of how places like Rue des Rosiers help new arrivals adjust to the city, and vice versa.
This short, narrow street is actually the “main drag” on the Ile Saint-Louis, the smaller of the two islands at the center of Paris. There are so many tiny attractions vying for your interest that, small as the street may be, you cannot absorb it all in one visit. It is reminiscent of Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, nearby our office in New York City. It may seem to some that tourists dominate, but in reality there are layers of users that flow through the street quite independently of each other. Each group of users contributes to the activity of the street, enhancing the others’ experience.
Despite its assets, the street is almost overwhelmed by parked vehicles. They seem very out of place on this pedestrian island. And when cars try to drive down this small path and impose their ill-fitted presence, they distract from the peaceful, almost spiritual street experience.
The Viaduc des Arts is a series of 45 working studios for craft artists located between the arches of a restored 19th century viaduct running alongside Avenue Daumesnil. With restaurants and outdoor cafés to complement the artists’ workshops, it has a strong appeal to visitors and tourists. The old rail bed on top of the viaduct has been replaced by the Promenade Plantée, a 2.5 mile greenway that extends from Place de la Bastille almost to the Bois de Vincennes on the eastern edge of the city. Much to our surprise, the walk along the Promenade, which is situated at the equivalent of a building’s third floor, was quite pleasant, offering a spectacular view of the city’s rooftops and a quiet stroll unimpeded by vehicular intersections.
The beauty of each bridge that crosses the Seine is inspiring. Each one has its own unique character, and some are among the world’s best. Whether you are walking over them or passing under them on a cruise of the river, you cannot fail to be impressed by the stunning quality of their designs. All together, they add up to yet another major monument; some are monuments in their own right.
Without these bridges the spine of Paris would be a giant void, and neighborhoods would be isolated from each other. Their success highlights the need to transform the highways along the Seine. The bridges are the great connector; the roads are the great divider.
HALL OF SHAME
Boulevards and Major Intersections
We always thought that a boulevard was a wide, tree-lined street where strolling was a primary activity. Not so! All over Paris these formerly grand avenues have become heavily congested thoroughfares crammed with parked cars. They are a nightmare to walk along, and crossing is a serious adventure. The fear etched in the faces of seniors as they traverse major intersections is profoundly disturbing. In fact, if you were to spend most of your time on the boulevards, you would think Paris’s streets had become parking lots and its sidewalks the domain of motorcycles and scooters. This is a creeping cancer that has profoundly diminished the city’s street life.
This is one of the most disappointing destinations in Paris. The Arc de Triomphe is spectacular, but the traffic circle around it, L’Etoile, is spectacularly bad: a vast asphalt expanse filled with speeding cars entering and exiting as quickly as possible. Getting across this expanse at street level is out of the question, and the idea of going underground simply to visit an island the size of a postage-stamp surrounded by hectic traffic is not much more appetizing.
Almost every boulevard that emanates from this location is dominated by vehicles, and excessive parking adds to the devastation caused by high-volume traffic. Only Avenue Victor Hugo and Avenue Foch have any interest as places to walk or stroll. As you get further away from the point of origin, each boulevard gradually improves.
The space for vehicles in the circle around L’Arc de Triomphe could be halved–it would actually reduce drivers’ confusion. If this highly recognizable monument could be transformed into a space that belonged to pedestrians as much as cars, it would set a huge precedent for similar spaces in Paris and other cities.
Place de la Concorde is the worst of all public spaces in Paris because it exists solely to move traffic. This square, the biggest in Paris, is 21 acres large. Calling it the Place de la Concorde (“Square of Peace”) is the height of irony. Its history of slaughter, (over 1100 people were beheaded there and another 133 trampled to death), is recalled by the racing traffic that constantly threatens to run over the substantial flow of pedestrians traveling between the Tuileries and the Champs Elysées. Hopes of walking comfortably from the Louvre, through the Tuileries, to the Champs Elysées are immediately dashed upon encountering this asphalt wasteland.
Nowhere can you find so vast an expanse of vehicle-dominated space that is less necessary than Place de la Concorde. The vehicular space could be reduced by 80% and there would still be a smooth flow of traffic. Instead of an enormous void, this could be the central point in all of Paris — a historic destination, a gateway/transition space, and a great event center. From its vantage point there are fabulous vistas of many noteworthy monuments. More than any other single space in Paris, Place de la Concorde could be transformed from a spectacular failure into a sublime, transcendent urban space.
Approaching Place de la Madeleine, one is so overwhelmed by traffic that the district’s positive assets, including a wonderful flower market, are all shunted into the background.
Once you get to the steps of La Madeleine, a monumental church constructed in the style of a Greek temple, you can behold the sea of traffic coming toward you from Place de la Concorde and up Rue Royale. If vehicular space was decreased by a quarter and the sidewalks were widened into a boulevard like the Passage de Gracia in Barcelona, the whole experience would be dramatically altered. Combine these changes with similar improvements to the streets emanating outward from Madeleine and the suggestions for Place de la Concorde mentioned above, and you’d completely transform the whole district into a walkable, attractive destination. One suggestion: A pedestrian–oriented connection between Place de l’Opéra and Madeleine could become a much-used link between two of the most recognizable monuments in Paris.
If you try to walk along either side of the Seine, you quickly realize how the wide roads that run parallel to the river detract from what should be the city’s chief asset. The Seine could be the setting for the ultimate promenade or boulevard, an actively programmed pedestrian paradise that provides access to the many destinations located near the river. Some of the city’s main attractions, including the Louvre, Notre Dame, and the Musée d’Orsay, would be well-served by a more walkable riverfront. But the way things stand now, only the city’s bridges provide comfortable, direct pedestrian access to the river. Why? Because most of the space along the river itself has been ceded to the automobile.
The roads have become highways within the city: Streetlights phased for high-speed traffic encourage aggressive driving, and vehicles move at too high a speed even for passengers to take in the scenery.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Streetlights could be phased to reduce speed; more pedestrian crosswalks could be added; the number of moving lanes could be reduced to create a better “boulevard effect.”
Most cities now realize the error of bringing highways into the central city, and Paris seems to be coming around too. Each of the last two summers, the city has staged a short, wonderful experiment along the Seine called Paris Plage (Paris Beach). This incredibly innovative program closes off one section of road to create a miniature beach environment by the banks of the river, complete with sand, beach chairs, umbrellas, and games. The same section is also closed on Sundays the rest of the year, but without the intense programming.
These steps are just a small taste of what is really necessary. Taking permanent measures to reclaim the riverfront for pedestrians and transit should be the next bold move for a city that thrives on such gestures to retain its position as the best in the world.