Paris is known as the city of lovers for good reason. People display affection for each other when they feel comfortable in their surroundings, and we always see a lot of romantic affection in Paris. The city has an aura about it that relaxes people, draws them out, allows them to express themselves, and ultimately lets them become who they really are. Why? It may be because there are fewer public constraints imposed on people, and as a result they become more open. For example, in many parks Parisians have no qualms about taking their shoes off, a small but not trivial sign of how they feel relaxed, comfortable, and at peace in their spaces.

The most important indicator of a successful, livable city is the comfort of children, women, and seniors. During our last few visits to Paris we specifically looked at how women used the city’s public spaces. Our research has shown that good public spaces always draw a high proportion of women, because women are more selective about the spaces they use. They choose to be in places where they are comfortable, and they avoid spaces where they are not. We found that Paris excels in the number of places where women are predominant. As we went from public space to public space, we saw women exhibit confidence, security, and–in a few unforgettable examples–extreme conviction.

The key to comfortable public spaces is the presence of a range of amenities that support human use. In Paris, the most prominent amenity is the movable chair, which is present in nearly every park and of course in every café. Movable chairs allow people to choose where and with whom they want to sit, giving them a sense of freedom. People feel more at ease in places that give them such choices, and they will choose to use those places again and again.

Paris is also the city of cafés, which are an amenity unto themselves. You’ll find cafés of all kinds in all places–parks, wide boulevards, or tiny pathways. They provide something that is fundamental to Parisian culture–the opportunity to sit outside and watch the passing scene. And Parisians do it all year around. The café embodies the Parisian attitude toward comfort in public space, as well as the sophisticated management strategies that make comfort possible. A particular café in the Jardin de Tuileries illustrates this concept perfectly. The cafe is designed to be comfortable during cold weather, and it expands in the warmer months to accommodate well over 200 people outdoors. A garden, sculpture, and pond provide the backdrop for the café ensemble.

Another indicator of livability is the abundance of “triangulation,” a term we use to describe the way layered, complementary uses create a convergence of activity in public spaces. Paris’s Luxembourg Gardens provides the foremost example of triangulation in practice. The range of activities is so broad that people can easily spend an entire day there–at least. Movable seating “triangulates” with a central pool and small sailboats to create a very full experience in one area of the park. In another area, the combination of a puppet theatre, carousel, café, bocce court, and basketball court around a children’s play area makes a very exciting destination for all ages.

Bocce, which the French call “boules” or “petanque,” provides a spectacle for bystanders, as do the tennis and chess players. There are quiet pleasures such as sunbathing, admiring the espalier apple and pear garden, reading and eating. Indeed, there is something for every age and background. A high level of security personnel (the gardens are located on the grounds of the French Senate), and a high fence with gates that close at dark, keep it a safe and well-maintained haven within a densely populated area.

The triangulation integral to the best public spaces in Paris has resulted in a richness of experience that people have come to expect both as residents and as visitors. And without this richness, Paris would definitely not be the city of lovers.

Paris: The Comfortable City was last modified: March 6th, 2012 by Project for Public Spaces
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